Imogen Heap wants to change the world. The music world, forever.
Steaming forward with a plan as grand in scope as it is staggering in its simplicity, she’s probably going to do it too.
Right now however, she’s sitting spotlit and starkly alone on a stage attempting to solve a show-stopping, entirely derailing technical issue, and fifteen minutes in the audience are beginning to wince.
Skip backwards 24 hours before we started squirming in our seats at her show ‘My Musical Love Life: Stories of Song & Tech’, and Heap was in rude form at the similarly Sage-mounted Thinking Digital Arts panel discussion ‘Performing Creative Innovation’.
Chaired by North East based artist, curator and researcher Dominic Smith, Heap sat alongside artistic, research and curatorial luminaries Ghislaine Boddington, Yuri Suzuki, Alex McLean and Di Mainstone – showcasing body responsive technologies, sound visualisation, coding-based music creation and hybrid musical instruments respectively – covered digitally-enabled performance, wearable and new technologies and the impact of disruptive and new technologies on artistic production ecosystems, cultural consumption and shared innovation.
a propulsive desire to play a cold MacBook as expressively as she could a grand piano
Amidst this heady, brilliant panel Heap enthralled with an expose of her seven years in the making Mi.Mu gloves. Stemming from a childhood perplexed as to why she couldn’t just grab sound from the air and move it around to create music, Heap developed the astonishing gloves which do exactly that and much, much more.
With that childhood niggle curated over the years into a propulsive desire to play a cold MacBook as expressively as she could a grand piano, Heap worked with a team of scientists, engineers and artists to develop the gloves (and kinky associated software Glover) and translate her unique, deliberate movements and gestures into the sound produced, allowing her to compose and perform music with computers in an intuitive, near shamanic way.
Laced through with the latest developments in high-precision sensor technology, the gloves are completely wireless – allowing absolute freedom of movement – and animated with a series of lights and vibration motors exciting skin and eyeball alike to keep the artist on-track, enable them to record their voice on a loop, bring in samples, play ghost ‘instruments’. And that’s just the start. Fully-customisable and entirely unique to the needs of the creatives donning them, the dam will doubtless break once the devices are openly available to all.
a unique show that truly blurred the dividing line between artists and audiences
Perched precariously between deliciously deep-nerd tech and a Kickstarter campaign to propel the gloves from Heath Robinson-esque niche device to mass production-ready wearable product, artists are already lining up to nab their own set. Notably, they’ve already made a grandstanding appearance at the end of singer Ariana Grande’s arms, dropping thousands of jaws during her massive 2015 Honeymoon tour.
It’s on this invigorating precipice then that we join Heap one night later, alone on that stage for a unique show that truly blurred the dividing line between artists and audiences, a part-performance, part-talk and all-fascinating insight into her bleeding-edge creative process that was, essentially, a public invitation to a pre-tour production and planning session.
Shuffling up to the piano then to kick off the night with the ‘Moment I Said It’, the gloves failed to work, and what could have sent any other artist off in a fit of pique became a truly transformative moment as Heap sat in the moment and worked through the issue right in front of us.
With tens of spotlights and hundreds of audience eyes alike beating down on the back of her neck, Heap welcomed – and asked us to welcome – a bijou crew of personable technicians and fellow creatives who sussed out the software while she remained effortlessly charming and disarming, turning a bug into a feature and making a 40-minute technical hiccup that would have floored a lesser woman the cornerstone of an invigorating, fascinating and very funny evening.
a night bursting with creative energy and ambition
Pulling together a range of projects enabling her next world tour, Heap shared her pioneering vision for a sustainable future music industry ecosystem that takes advantage of Blockchain technology, the decentralized digital ledger at the heart of cryptocurrency bitcoin. This vision foresees not only a means by which anyone can pull any and all data about a song (every instrument, where it was recorded, tempo and anything else imaginable) but also an associated universal ‘Creative Passport’ which would see creative industry types of all stripes being recognised – and paid promptly – for their work.
Nearly two decades in the business and running the gauntlet from solo artist through short-lived electronic duo Frou Frou and back again, the classically-trained East Londoner wasn’t short of a few killer tunes to draw upon either, blazing through ‘Just for Now’, ‘Tiny Human’, ‘Breathe In’, ‘Let Go’ and ‘Hide and Seek’ across the course of the night.
movements both grand and micro can create before your eyes and ears a new musical work
Going solo for the most part (aside from a one-off track backed by a local string quartet) Heap gradually revealed the astonishing range and versatility of the Mi.Mu gloves across a night bursting with creative energy and ambition, a blistering, invigorating vision and a show full of endearing hiccups and mind-blowing highlights that became – thanks to the astonishing tech and Heap’s scintillating personality – an incredibly entertaining, educational and inspirational evening.
Sometimes, a magician reveals exactly how their trick works and in doing so seemingly spoils any magic there may have been. Other times, the reveal invigorates and deepens the trick itself, revealing far more than mere shenanigans but instead a deeper, more enlightening truth. Penn and Teller built a career out of this, and, in the case of Heap, understanding the gloves and how movements both grand and micro can create before your eyes and ears a new musical work, the peek behind the curtain revealed nothing more than an infinite corridor of curtains and the exciting creative potential beyond.
Leigh Venus at Sage Gateshead, 17 May 2017
Originally published in Narc Magazine
Photos: Micha Theiner