Spotlight #2 ‘Clever’ Keith Burden

Between 2013 and 2019, I was involved in a series of ambitious European-funded creative projects centred around the visualisation of sound, and specifically the visualisation of classical music. During this time, I was fortunate enough to work with many very talented people, a number of whom I continue to work with on new projects today and whom I count as close friends and creative allies. If you know this blog even a little bit, you may already be familiar with the likes of Jordan Buckner, Tom Beg, Ethan Shilling and Emily Clarkson, all of them veterans of this extraordinary cycle of collaborations.

One name you won’t know is Keith Burden, but I’d like to change that. Keith Burden is a consultant in audio-visual technologies for performance spaces and the wizardry of project mapping, and the unsung hero of my various excursions into synesthetic concert experiences and the live synchronisation of animated imagery.

Happiest left to his own devices behind the scenes, usually dressed in stage-blacks and hunkered down behind a bank of hotly-humming computers, Keith is not one for blowing his own trumpet, so in this edition of ‘Spotlight’, I’ve taken it upon myself to strike up the horn section on his behalf.

Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France – December 19th, 2013 / If you very peer very closely at this image, you’ll see Keith Burden seated behind the table in the ‘cock-pit’, surrounded by computers, controllers and lengths of cable. Tom Beg and I are conferring in the background. We’re at the back of the stage hidden behind a huge screen, onto which we will soon project La Création du monde in live-synchronisation with the Orchestre de Picardie. Not sure what the shopping trolley is for.

His face illuminated by one of his three monitors, Keith continues his scrupulous pre-performance checks to ensure a glitch-free projection.

Phil: Hello Keith. Thanks for doing this. I know this isn’t your thing, being in the limelight and all that, but you do this transformative, rather magical job for people and for places, and I wanted to drag you – kicking and screaming if necessary – out from behind your kit. We met back in 2013 for the first of the sound visualisation projects, working with Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet, La Création du monde (1923) to produce an animation to accompany a jazz-themed concert headed up by Chris Brubeck. I knew you first as ‘Clever Keith’, a guy with some seriously heavy-duty flight-cases, a vanful of cables, computer monitors and some very expensive, very powerful projectors. You were a bit like an agent in a Mission Impossible film, only in a fleece, and with bits of gaffer tape stuck to your trousers. How would you describe your role in our various creative collaborations?

Clever Keith: I see my main role as a form of conduit to get your plethora of artists’ work integrated with the live artists’ performance.*

*Keith is being characteristically modest here. Keith is much more like the black sleeve that encases hundreds of other smaller wires in some heavy-duty, utterly essential cable! Keith’s jobs include conceptualising the response to the space in regards to the logistical relationship between the hardware, the image, the audience, the musicians and the existing infrastructure – and then adapting everything at very short notice when the performance space is actually nothing like he was told it was going to be! There’s the install of the kit, all the time spent familiarising himself with the music and the visuals, there’s the checking and re-checking and checking again, and last but far from least, there’s the adrenalised act of live-synching the visuals and music itself in-performance, which can be like landing a passenger plane on a very windy day.

A selection of the various different concert venues across Europe to which Keith and I travelled during our adventures together in light and sound, all of which presented their different challenges in terms of projection and synching visuals with the nuances of the different orchestras.

Phil: When I was at school, I did one of those ‘career-picker’ exercises; I think I got ‘Florist’ when I inputed all my existing interests and career aspirations! I don’t remember seeing ‘projection-mapper’ or ‘live-synchroniser’ or ‘projector-wrangler’ being on the list. How did you get into this line of work in the first place?

Keith: A whole series of happy accidents after school, including my interest in photography, allowed me to develop a fairly unique set of skills. I was fortunate enough to be trained by three companies, Linn Products, Naim Audio and Quad Electro Acoustics, which provided, not only the foundation of my audio work, but also the signal chain for the visual and control element. Specialist 2 channel Hi-Fi turned into Home Cinema, which then became Custom Installation, which led onto interactive projection mapping.*

*Projection mapping, similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, is a projection technique used to turn objects, often irregularly shaped, into a display surface for video projection. These objects may be complex industrial landscapes, such as buildings, small indoor objects or theatrical stages. By using specialized software, a two- or three-dimensional object is spatially mapped on the virtual program which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on. The software can interact with a projector to fit any desired image onto the surface of that object. This technique is used by artists and advertisers alike who can add extra dimensions, optical illusions, and notions of movement onto previously static objects. The video is commonly combined with, or triggered by, audio to create an audio-visual narrative. In recent years this technique has also been widely used in the context of cultural heritage as it has proved to be an excellent edutainment tool thanks to the combined use of a digital dramaturgy. (Thank you Wikipedia).

So begins the process of blending the images of two separate projectors to produce a single seamless rear-projected image on the big screen at the Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France, December 19th, 2013. The checkerboard image is used to ensure the two projected images are aligned perfectly. I suspect Keith sees this checkerboard in his dreams..

Phil: Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve done, the unusual ones, the spectacular ones, the most expensive ones, the strangest ones….

Keith: One of my favourites is the Painted Room in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. Less than 2 hours to install and calibrate a seven projector system onto the walls, ceilings, and on this occasion, also the floor, to illuminate the performers. With one technical rehearsal the previous month, we were able to use the projections to illuminate the appropriate elements of the Painted Hall that tied in with that part of the performance.

I would say some of the most enjoyable works are where we are able to project discretely, where the audience get to experience the projections without being aware of all the technical elements. St Johns & St Elizabeth’s Hospice Light Up a Life Christmas projections have allowed us to project within the courtyard area of the hospital. In Turner’s old art studio, we were able to transform the space into a Tuscan landscape that subtlety changed to an evening under the stars, as the scenes changed throughout the evening. Leeds Castle fireworks was a fantastic canvas that allowed us to choreograph the visuals to the music and the fireworks for one of the finest fireworks displays in the country.

Most live events have challenges, but when you are sharing the stage with other performers, and in addition you have moving platforms with flames and lasers firing from them, it makes the set up not so straight forward! At Glastonbury we provided the visuals for The Egg when they headlined the Arcadia Stage.

The Arcadia Stage, Glastonbury

Some buildings lend themselves to projections and other have been painted white to allow us to project onto them We projected onto the Turner Contemporary in Margate, back in 2012 for the Olympic Poetry projections with Lemn Sissay. The clean lines of this building made it great visual experience. By comparison, a small disused unit in London was painted white, along with all its fixtures and fittings, converting the space into a “Doodle Bar”, not only for the benefits of the projection mapping and interactive projections, but for the people attending the event to doodle on any surface they wanted.

Phil: One of the things you do is make ordinary spaces into magical ones through light, colour, illusion and sound. Is that the element of the work you enjoy?

Keith: Being able to create these magical spaces, allowing structure to breathe and move in ways people do not normally see, is massively rewarding. We are so lucky to work in many architecturally beautiful spaces, but many events are in marquees, function rooms and sports halls. Rugby Portobello Trust use a basketball court/sports hall, with our operating position being located in the gym adjacent to the room.

The transformed space at the Rugby Portobello Trust.

Park Village Studios is a photographic studio with a 3-sided curved white walls and we operate from a walkway overlooking the area. On one visit to this venue we turned this studio into a Cotton Club for a wedding. Some of the projects I have most enjoyed, similar to the sound visualisation projects with you, is where I’ve been involved with the creative process from an early stage. The workshops we’ve done with Snape Maltings, Suffolk, have been massively rewarding, working with children and young adults with varying levels of ability, as well as with schools like The Charles Dickens School, based in Thanet, where all their work was finally presented to friends and relatives as projections. I’ve likewise helped with mapping projects for The Guildhall School students, including beneath Tower Bridge and the beautiful Waddesden Manor

Right up to the lockdown, I’ve been working on a couple of live music projects that both use the visuals to compliment the music. With the Blues Chronicles, we are showing 20 short films introducing artists prior to the band performing them, and at the Jazz café I am responsible for the bespoke visuals behind Stompy’s Playground, who have assembled an outstanding 5 piece string ensemble to lovingly recreate the themes and compositions from classic Studio Ghibli films.

Phil: Talk us through the process: you turn up at a venue, you’ve got an empty stage, a massive screen, a couple of hours before rehearsal and cases of kit…

Keith: The process follows a similar pattern at each venue. After managing to get all the equipment onto site it is the connectivity of the system I initially focus on. All the power and signal cables are run between all the equipment, with the appropriate control cables. Once this has been completed, we can fire up the system and check each component is working and they are talking correctly to each other. However many times I do this, there is always a moment when you see all the equipment powered up and running correctly and you can relax, take a deep breath and get ready for the calibration.

With the work on your projects, we have been working mostly in theatres, who have been sympathetic to the projections. With the house lights turned down, the calibration of the control and projectors starts, usually with the projections, ensuring we’re hitting the correct surfaces with the correct projectors, then stitching them together to complete the final product. The control element is refined from this point onwards and put through its paces during rehearsals. Unfortunately, the nature of rehearsals means there is a lot of starts and stops, which is not always helpful for the visual element, but allows us to push the system to the limit. The doors then generally open, and the next time we see the visuals is when the orchestra start the piece.

Phil: How nerve-wracking was it, live-synching visuals to classical music in front of audiences of hundreds of people? 

Keith: Sometimes the nervousness starts before we reach the venue! Once we have the final material, and it has been played successfully on our machines, then initial nerves subside. Usually I have been provided with the music prior to the event, so I can rehearse and familiarise myself with both the music and the visuals. That said, the sound of the different orchestras and venues, along with the different conducting styles, did create totally different landscapes to work within.

Phil: What does it feel like when the synch between the sound and image is perfect?

Keith: It’s like covering your body with honey, then allowing the bees to lick it off over the next few hours.*

*For the record, Keith is also a bee-keeper. If you were thinking this is just a rather colourful turn of phrase… it may not be.

Phil: What does it feel like when it doesn’t go to plan mid-performance, and how do you get it back on track?

Keith: At first I was afraid, I was petrified – kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong, and I grew strong and I learned how to get along…*

*For the record, Keith can also be very silly.

Phil: What were your favourite events you worked on as part of these European projects?

Keith: The first event is always exciting, as it usually when a lot of talk and convoluted explanations are realised by all those involved – the visual artists see their visual projected for the first time, the orchestra see the visuals for the first time. Working with you and your team, then Milhaud in 2013 has great memories, along with the bonus of Mr Brubeck’s performance alongside ours. It’s hard to choose a favourite event from the projects, each venue offered its own challenges to a greater or lesser extent, but at all these venues we were always made welcome and I think the orchestra staff and their crews really helped make these events very special. The most enjoyable element was being exposed to Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet – prior to these projects I was unfamiliar with them both.

Phil: For me, one of the great pleasures of working on these projects was sitting in during the rehearsals and getting to know the musicians and their music. How about you?

Keith: I totally agree. Although we became very familiar with the La Création du monde and Romeo and Juliet, so we get to hear these performed by the orchestras, but then we get the additional bonus of the pieces of music that are being performed alongside, such as Strauss’s Don Quixote, Verdi’s Requiem – and we mustn’t forget The Snowman in Zilina*

*We were out in Zilinia in December to screen La creation du monde. We were on a double-bill of live-synch performances that included the Christmas classic, The Snowman. There is so much more Keith could tell you about this trip, not least because we drove there from the UK, but what happens on tour, stays on tour, right?

Phil: In light of Covid 19, how do you see the future of your industry? Any big ideas?

Keith: I think in the near future interactive projections and immersive installations may be an area that could be worth investigating. With all the hardware safely away from the virus, it may make it a more practical solution for many users.

Phil: It’s high-time we had another adventure in light and sound! What are we going to do next?

Keith: I think we better get the egg and toffee hammer out!*

*I’m not going to explain this reference either, which has nothing to do with a) projection-mapping or b) bee-keeping, but in someway associates with the culminative effect of two people sitting in a car together for hours on end on their way to-and-from Slovakia.

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