The Connection of Light and Sound: Exploring Kaki King’s Visual Approach to Guitar

by Ashley Murphy

Photos by Joshua Kamnetz

Kaki King

The audience members with floor seats at Long Center on Saturday, September 16 strain their necks and whisper worried asides to their neighbors about whether their seats will provide them with an adequate view of the guitar. After all, it’s front and center – an inviting, isolated spectacle – the first to the stage.

The overhead light fades to black just in time for a fluorescent light to demand attention, outlining the neck and body. Composer and guitarist Kaki King appears only after the guitar’s flashy introduction, serving as an instrument to merely assist in the show its about to put on.

“The guitar is at the forefront: where it should be,” King said of its role in the performance. “The guitar is in charge of what it wants me to do, and it leads the way, so I created a show where the guitar is the main character and I am the laboratory assistant to that.”

The multi-media show The Neck is A Bridge to the Body consists of geometric shapes and landscape footage passing over King’s signature Ovation Adamas guitar, customized to serve as a projection screen; a blank slate shaped by its projected art.

King’s hand drags along the body of the guitar, seemingly to relinquish control to the guitar’s guidance as much as to create a sound effect. As vibrant animations make their way across the guitar, sound assumes its versatile role; sometimes following, sometimes leading the visuals.

“It’s all about the connection of light and sound,” King said. Though the guitar has been King’s staple for the entirety of her career, the visual aspect is a more recent addition to King’s shows. “Combining the two has been a huge challenge, but I know it can be difficult to focus on just a guitar for the length of a show. I get that. As far as the visual element, light is so different from sound so I’m kind of flipping things and saying ‘I’m going to give you more information to add to this and make you figure it out.’”

Kaki King

Kaki King’s 2015 tour, which brought her to Empire Control Room, also bridged light and sound. Photo by Joshua Kamnetz

Despite admitting the challenge of holding an audience’s attention with just a guitar, King never underestimated the power of music, with and especially, without words.

“Songwriters are so talented,” King said. “But for me, music is – instead of ‘here’s a story’ or ‘let me say this thing that’s going to make you feel this way,’ I’m going to play this series of notes and make you decide what that makes you feel.”

Though words can tell you what to think about, King argues that music’s strength lies in its ability to evoke feeling. She describes what implementing a feeling is to her.

“Instead of ‘here’s a sad song,’ here’s sadness.”

King has been expelling emotion through riffs and peculiarly plucked melodies for 14 years and eight studio albums. Along with her solo track record, King’s desire to continuously play has led her into many creative and collaborative projects. She occasionally performs with New York-based string-quartet, ETHEL and has performed a classical piece commissioned by composer David Lang at Carnegie Hall.

“I’ve been doing this for so long,” King said. “But I feel like I’m just starting. There’s always new projects that I find and that’s exciting.”

Kaki King

Kaki King at Empire Control Room, photo by Joshua Kamnetz

King’s ninth album, recorded live at Berklee College of Music and set to release on September 22, promises more collaboration with selected songs from King’s discography reimagined with the Porta Girevole Orchestra. Composed of both students and faculty, the orchestra added strings and woodwinds and assisted King in writing arrangements specifically for the album.

“Working with someone can be a lot more freeing in a way,” King said. “You get to play music with someone and then it’s gone. It’s not necessarily attached to your name forever, and when you’re both working toward a common goal, it can be a lot less ambiguous and less work.”

However, King finds a liberating nature in both the pressure and cathartic aspect of writing alone.

“There’s more satisfaction in owning something you are fully responsible for,” King said. “Writing can be deliberate but often, it’s just playing. Your fingers itch to play,” King said. “I can be playing all day for hours and hours and usually it’s not that, but what’s left the next day that I keep.”

Throughout her music career, King said she knew all she had to do was keep playing.

“The 6-string guitar is my absolute truth. For me, guitar is infinitely interesting,” King said. “I know that I’ll never master it and I’ll always be challenged. If I’m writing or just playing, instead of trying to make it do what I want, I let it lead me.”