Ken Gay 

The Futurist

The Futurist
click to enlarge Ken Gay in downtown Nashville.

Eric England

Ken Gay in downtown Nashville.

On projects ranging from world-traveling concert tour backdrops containing hundreds of thousands of tiny digitally synchronized LED bulbs, to what he calls “the visual DNA of Madonna,” to Cee Lo Green and Drake’s Saturday Night Live sets, Ken Gay has made a career devising ahead-of-the-curve designs using technology that, in some cases, was designed and manufactured specifically for him. Even so, he says, “It’s not about the gadget.”

Emphatically chopping the air as he metes out the final three words, he says, “To me, technology means breaking ... traditional ... thinking.” In other words, if it doesn’t feel new, it isn’t new, no matter how fancy the device. When the entire field at Lucas Oil Stadium, 50-yard line and all, appeared to get sucked into the earth under Madonna’s feet during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show — now that felt new. But even though it was the largest projection-mapped animation ever shown on live television, its designer will tell you it was the impact on the audience that mattered, not the racks and racks of equipment he choreographed to make it happen.

Tattooed on the inside of his left forearm is an ambigram, meaning it reads the same whether it’s upside-down or right-side-up. Before it was the name of his independent live entertainment firm, he says, the phrase “see the music” came to him as he was waking from a dream. “I promise, I was not on drugs,” he laughs. That pursuit of synesthetic art has driven him since he got his start as cameraman-producer-editor for his high school AV club in Texas, all the way up to designing live shows for acts ranging from Dolly Parton to Bassnectar. He’s taken on the roles of lighting designer, visual artist, performance coach, technologist, stage director — sometimes all at once.

He is currrently working on an interface that controls environments using biometric feedback — for instance, altering lights or visual streams depending on changes in heart rate.

“We’ve gone from hand gestures to heartbeats,” he says.

Among See the Music’s many other projects: the live show for the upcoming Paramore world tour and the fruits of a challenge he issued last year. At the end of his keynote speech at Techville — a yearly event held by the Nashville Technology Council — he said he needed the local tech community’s help realizing a goal: “to create an augmented reality experience in the live entertainment setting” via smartphone that recognizes and adjusts to where a user is in the arena and delivers a location-aware complement to the live show. Some traditional thinking got broken that morning, and he says “this call to innovation will be seen on a large scale in 2014” ­— adding that five or six other ideas have bubbled up from the talks his challenge inspired. And keeping busy suits his restless nature just fine.

“I work on crazy-ass shit constantly,” he says with a grin.


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The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
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The Busker: Mike Slusser
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The Commissioner: Many-Bears Grinder

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