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Kaki King's Thing

0103 - Kaki King

World domination is a pretty good gig, when you’ve got both the chops to pull it off, and the axes for the chops.

Distinguished Alumni Award: Kaki King '98 Composer and musician Kaki King is considered one of the world’s greatest living guitarists, known both for her technical mastery and for her constant quest to push the boundaries of the instrument. Hailed by Rolling Stone as “a genre unto herself,” Kaki has released 10 albums and toured extensively… – Westminster Schools Wildcat Wire, June 2021

Sometimes A Great Notion

On a typical day, in almost any media channel you can think of, Kaki King is noted for being one of the major forces and innovators in the art of the guitar.

I like the precision of saying “the art of” the guitar because when you start paying attention to her, the first thing you find out is that her use of the guitar ranges hugely – not just across musical “styles” and soundscape, but from theater to sculpture to video…

That is, one can enter Kaki’s world of artistry through many different doors. Once you’re in, you get to stay for more than you expected.

Back in April, before the Wildcat Wire brought us an after graduation update above, we (Wildcat Magazine) tried to reach her ourselves in the most unlikely way: a cold-call via email. Incredibly, we got a reply, accepting our invitation to talk with her and even about Westminster in some way.

However, given the combined weight of her family life, celebrity, performing, and needing alone time to create, the moment she spent sending it may very well have been the only moment for us that she was going to have.

We decided to keep thinking about her and to talk about her, no less.

Here’s the problem, though. So much has been said about Kaki already, that having a new take on her is pretty difficult.

We’re going to take a shot at it, anyway.

Wild Style

In art, it’s always the case that someone might make something we don’t even know what to call.

It may be some extreme variant or something that has broken so many “rules” that we think the thing has actually “broken out” of any category. But we still think we know what the category is that the thing has escaped! Because of that, we feel gripped by how the thing is “stretching our minds”.

As important as that difference might be, there is an intense, alternative kind of change to be had as well. In this one, we get exposed to something completely foreign, presented to us, for some purpose we understand but we had never imagined it would be dealt with this way. It adds to our mind, instead of just stretching it.

We might go to some other land or culture for the first time and discover that various things we don't initially recognize are “music”, or at least that some things are routinely used “musically”, that we never had imagined might be.

But, because it is already normal there, we don’t question whether the usage is correct, or whether it is mature, or whether it is being well executed.

Then, perhaps, the realization kicks in. “Maybe it IS done that way there just because it CAN be done that way.”

Many of us have heard and seen, or even played, a lot of different kinds of guitars. But when we “went to” Kaki’s work, the first thing that really took hold of us is that a guitar in Kaki’s hands is more like a living growing thing than an instrument. Not just alive, but a creature evolving at speed, responding to what she both provokes it to do and allows it to do. It’s an instrument, but it’s instrumental to a lot of things. And whatever it is, it’s changing her, too.

With Kaki, the point is that starting out thinking just about guitars – or indeed any category -- might be missing the point.

Out of the Box

The point is, she’s growing something.

Then, that turns into her changing us.

We can start hearing Kaki King without starting in terms of guitar. Remember: she’s a composer.

The mind of the composer is, “If I CAN make this sound, then what should I DO with it?”

If Kaki uses something for sound, the player is not just telling the object what to do. The object is telling the player what to try, and the player is telling the object to keep talking.

Result: both posing questions, both responding, and both changing, in one way or another. They are developing each other.

Not surprisingly, in the run of things, the effects might be unpredictable. The effects might also start to repeat. The repetition may seem to add “shape” or “structure” to what’s going on -- something to aim for. But, it may be neither necessary nor a goal. It may not be intentional.

Rather, it’s just possible; another discovery. It’s a choice, it's freedom, like the “free” in Free Jazz.

The Shape of Things to Come

Someone wise said long ago, “you can never step into the same river twice”...

The water doesn’t stay put; it’s running, and its shape keeps changing.

Yet, we understand that there are steady dynamics that shape the water, that make it do things. We get that, maybe not at first, but eventually.

Likewise, in the arts, regardless of what kind of art, function beats form. Because, in the arts, people are making stuff.

And maybe not at first, but eventually, something does intentionally repeat: technique. Then we understand that technique is, like the dynamics of shifting water, a vehicle of change.

Being a virtuoso just winds up making that more obvious, not less.

By the time most people get to Kaki, whatever she’s doing, she’s already at or headed for that level.

Most of the time, something like a guitar is involved, so it seems kind of familiar; but we might notice right away that things are somehow different.

Kaki prefers guitar; but Kaki invents technique.

So far, that’s working out pretty well for her.

It’s working out for everybody.

Guitars just get her started.

Inner Space

In the famous science fiction work Dr. Who, the great and infamous object called The Tardis is a structure that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Kaki spent some of her COVID lockdown time creating a recorded multi-media piece named “Teek” In making Teek, a camera moves steadily in a room, literally wrapping its view around a great array of things within a circle. The circle is a touring path, ending up where it started, revealing all that is contained by its framing—including Kaki, sitting on the floor with a guitar in her lap, making it sing the soundtrack. That circle and framing is a structure. But its “containment” really exists only as much as we let it. Why? Well, we control the back/pause/forward buttons of the recording. So each round trip pass offers the opportunity to be different from the prior one.

But it’s more than that. The things “within” the circle are objects or lighting or shapes that cause your viewer’s mind to dive in and out of different distances and times and thoughts. Each go around, the experience depends on what we pay attention to, and why we do. Not only is that the way we can experience it; it is just as much the experience Kaki had in making it.

In touring this concentrated single environment that Kaki created, it sometimes feels like an inventory, sometimes like a lab, sometimes like a dream. We accept, without question, that we’re seeing only what she wanted us to be able to see. Yet we still feel like there is way more in there that we could get to know, because she keeps it available there.

We feel like we can’t see all of it without looking again and again. Each time, we get more than before. The place and the space gets bigger and bigger inside.

Being willing explorers, we become part of what she cares about.

Oh, and the sound. What about the sound for this piece?

Try it yourself:

The Next Best Thing

We wanted to talk to Kaki about a lot of things.

Our nosiness includes whether she still plays drums and when; and was her art-life a whole parallel universe of its own during high school? Plus, going to college in New York can be more like making New York itself a college. What about that? Did that happen to her after Westminster?

We’d also been talking before to artists who have been navigating the space between what they were like before parenting and how their children affect their art now. (Wildcat Mag Issue #2) Which brings up the modern world question: when you’re as important and “out there” as Kaki in a field that is as much entertainment as invention, what happens to privacy?

It’s complicated. She already projects so much of herself through her work, and it wasn’t clear that we are entitled to more than that. But she didn’t feel that way.

On Kaki’s own website, in 2018, she published the amazing piece “Bruises”, about her young daughter’s life-threatening emergency. In Bruises, we see her dive deeply into artmaking, with another artist, a different artist, as a way of “living through” this part of her life.

And it is not primarily music; in fact, it isn’t music at all:

Nonetheless, fused with her sensitivity, Kaki’s collaboration here models one of the most important things we can hope to gain from creativity itself – namely, the power to determine the quality of life that we recognize as our own.

But What About The Guitar

Yeah, what about the guitar?

While we were trying to make our own thinking and writing good enough to re-approach her, Kaki’s reputation preceded her again, through a New York Times article on change in the world of guitar.

The article definitely calls out the truth that artists influence each other, but in that regard, also that Kaki’s influence is possibly beyond normal measurement so far.

(We say so far? Well, Charlie “Bird” Parker invented Bebop specifically intending for it to be too difficult for most musicians to play. There was no predicting its survival. But over time, it spread anyway and became a dominant genre.)

Anyway, it’s a New York Times article. You can trust that it’s pretty good.

And it’s pretty explicit about placing Kaki among the company of living geniuses.

But oddly, it still seems to be selling her short.

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