The culturally conscious Jewish Community Center of San Francisco hosted a medley of exciting events on Friday evening, ranging from a middle school dance to one of the most spectacular visual displays of the year. The headliner of this latter event was not a person, really, but a custom-made Ovation Adamas guitar that glinted white and perched serenely against a dark backdrop, primed for takeoff.
Legendary fingerstyle instrumentalist Kaki King partnered with the professional digital display junkies at Glowing Pictures to deliver the ultimate cross-media art performance, fondly dubbed The Neck is a Bridge to the Body.
She walked out clad in all white, down to her sunglasses and even the hair on her head. There was to be no microphone and no intermission, so it was assumed that she would have nothing to say — never had an assumption been so poorly made.
Snakes of bright green lights danced across the surface of the guitar against strumming ambiance. The sounds were a soundtrack to the projected spinning pulsar in revolt, looming over Kaki King.
Stage, performer, and instrument melded into one solid canvas to host an eclectic array of postmodern images. Stringy, melting Oobleck dripped down the wall as King engaged in her signature wah-wah feedback distortion, scratching up the guitar face for a jazzy percussive effect. When she delved into a funky hollow guitar beat, she emitted a style reminiscent of early Blue Man Group.
Fans were treated to an old favorite from King’s debut Everybody Loves You (2002). “Carmine St.” carried a “Rhapsody in Blue”-like composition style accentuated by flashing city images that panned across the canvas. The song introduced one of the most ingenious short films we had seen in a long while.
The show ended as galactically as it had started — with an ode to an asteroid. The crowd swallowed this unreleased melodic piece in silence, allowing the night’s spectacles to morph into memory.
For more from the woman behind the magic, here’s our exclusive interview with Kaki King.
When you started to get serious about guitar, what was the learning process like? Were you self-taught? Was it a bumpy road?
I was so young when I started to play that it just became part of my identity from a very early age. I was lucky to gain enough information so that I could teach myself when the time was right in my early teens.
What is your favorite guitar to play?
Until We Felt Red (2006) feels like a dramatic departure in style (from previous albums) toward something more rock-centered. The albums following (including your most recent one) seemed to change even more. Who or what pulled you in this direction?
At the time I just didn’t feel like I had another solo guitar album in me. It was time to try new things. I worked with John McEntire as a producer because I felt that the kind of music he had been making and producing could be a nice bridge into something new but still in my comfort zone.
Being a high profile instrumental artist is a unique thing to be in a lyric-heavy world. Do you find that instrumental music speaks to you more than lyrical music does? Why do you gravitate toward the instrumental genre?
I think I always have [gravitated towards instrumental music]. The first piece I wrote was in fifth grade and it was called “Landscapes.” I think it had five chords and no words. I remember my art teacher told me she liked it which was great because I was always getting in trouble in art class. Music, sans lyrics, becomes the language of emotion. That’s why silly sappy lyrics sound so beautiful in the right musical setting. I’m much more interested in telling an emotional story rather than a lyrical one.
With the postcard project in Santa Cruz, the guitar art show, and the like, you add a strong visual element to your performance. How does the visual affect or contribute to your artistic expression? Is it just another medium alongside the sonic element or does it do something else?
I assume you’re referring to my new project, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body. I’m using the guitar as a projection surface as well as a huge screen directly behind me. The show has a loose narrative around music and creation, development of increasingly complex ideas, and eventually becomes a story of the guitar itself. At times I am controlling the visuals with what I’m playing, sometimes I’m providing the live soundtrack to a short mini-movie, and sometimes the live video artist and I are improvising to each other’s ideas.
What was your favorite movie to contribute music to and why?
I did a film called How I Got Lost that my friend Joe Leonard directed. It was a beautiful movie that I did the whole score for.
What are you looking forward to most in your upcoming tour?
I think The Neck is groundbreaking in its use of audio and visual technology, and I also think the music and visuals are really beautiful. I’m looking forward to sharing it with people who will really get something out of it.
You came to the Bay Area at an undoubtedly heated time, when Ferguson protesters are in full swing. Thoughts? Care to get political?
Fuck racist cops, fuck the war on drugs, fuck the war on poor people, fuck the 1%. Get out in the streets and shut it down but remember to call and email the office of every last official who represents you, from your local community board on up. Tell them that they will not have your vote unless they take action or make statements towards bringing indictments against the cops who murdered Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Also, tell them that we absolutely need to demilitarize the police. Also, fuck the police, fuck the for-profit prison system, and fuck patriarchy.
And finally, in your best textual representation… when a tree falls in a forest, what sound does it make?
Article by Jade Theriault
Photos by Jimena Cuenca