Apr 23, 2012
Imogen Heap is a genius.
A mad, crazy genius, but a genius nonetheless.
I knew this already of course, but the full magnitude of her mad, crazy genius-ness didn’t really hit me until last night, watching the live Facebook webcast of her new song – “Me The Machine” (aka #heapsong6).
And it made quite difficult watching, if I’m honest.
Because this was Immi as we hadn’t seen her before – un-prepared, un-happy and perhaps even a little out of control. As the fascinating, scary “making-of” movie that opened the webcast vividly described, this was a project with “thousands” of things that could go wrong – and they all depended at the last moment on Imogen’s slightest gesture.
And things did go wrong – as Imogen herself admitted afterwards. And it was obvious that she was unhappy about it. The performance didn’t go as she wanted it to – but how could it be ? She wanted it to be perfect.
Well, it wasn’t perfect – but it was stunning, spine-tingling, and extraordinary, all the same.
I’ll describe the performance as it seemed to me in a moment, but first I’ll quickly summarise the circumstances, to give you a little context of the craziness:
- Over the last two years, Imogen has been developing “The Gloves” – a new musical instrument that transform her movement and gestures into music
- She also composed the soundtrack to a film, “Love The Earth“, which was premiered live at the Royal Albert Hall last year. All the footage was crowd-sourced from her fan-base
- She has also been writing her new album, one song at a time, and involving her fans at every stage of the process. Song five took place during a 6-week trip to China; the sixth of these was to be “The Glove Song”, and last night, Earth Day, was chosen for the premiere
- Not only would she be performing the new song in it’s entirety using The Gloves without a backing track, but she’d also be wearing clothes that respond to the sound of her voice
- In a huge dome constructed in her back garden, and broadcast live on the internet
- The film of “Love The Earth” would also be shown, with a newly recorded and mixed soundtrack – also completed only in the last few weeks
- And the whole thing would be powered entirely off-grid, by a fascinating blend of green technologies…
- …including both solar power and 50 people on bicycles, who would get to hear her performance at the same time on headphones – because they were part of that same performance
- And as if all that weren’t enough, only days before the event, Imogen hadn’t had enough time to finish writing the lyrics
I told you it was crazy !
But she did it – it all happened, just as she said it would. And even though almost everyone interviewed in the making-of film said at some point or another words to the effect that “we may have made a mistake”, that’s not how it came across on film.
The vast majority of the performance was literally spellbinding.
As it begins, Imogen stands, arms outstretched, gathering (I think !) sound samples of the 50 power-generating cyclists around her from the microphones mounted in the wrists her Gloves.
Slowly she begins to move and sway, and as she does the whispering textures of the cycle samples begin to move with her, swirling around the stereo soundfield in response to her 21st-century conducting. She sculpts the sound with her hands, filtering and shaping it, crafting a gentle pulse that will run throughout the whole song.
Somewhere within this delicate texture she begins to sing, the sound of her voice blending seamlessly into the cycle-sample textures around her – and the singing is simultaneously refracted, reflected and bounced back on itself as she twists and turns her left (gloved) hand to control it.
Everything floats for a moment, suddenly she sweeps her arm around and a synthesized chord sequence swirls gradually into view – deep, brooding and complex, and controlled by the movements of her hands. Over this she sings the first few lines of the song – “A break in the algorithm, a break in the clouds…”
Around her the cyclists pedal steadily, including at least one person under the age of ten. The melody winds its way through the song, Imogen simultaneously playing the synth line, processing it by opening and closing her fist, and triggering delicate bell-like chimes with her other hand – and then she clenches her fists and she’s playing drums, air-drumming the beat, looping it and adding to it – all controlled by gestures to subtle for us to see. Just as suddenly everything freeze-frames, judders and stutters – and then relaxes back into the second verse.
The next section is where some of the rough edges begin to show, perhaps – Imogen later explains that she completely forgot the words, which is hardly surprising, given that she’d only finished them in the early hours of that same morning, after days in a row without sleep ! Hardly surprising too, given that the new “instrument” she is playing the song with is still being invented. She’s scarcely had time to learn how it works, let alone how to play it, perform and sing – all at the same time.
No-one has ever heard this song before, so we can’t know for sure if the heart-felt cry at the center of the song – “I can’t do everything” – was improvised or not, but for a moment it sums up the performance up perfectly.
But what might have spelled disaster in a performance that relied on a pre-recorded backing track, in fact succeeds here in comprehensively proving the entire concept of The Gloves themselves. Immi is able to “jam it” – to improvise for a moment, take a step back and allow the sounds to speak for themselves while she collects herself – and then against the odds pull everything back together brilliantly for the close of the song, as her arms stretch out again and her voice drifts hauntingly away into the shifting, swirling cyclist-textures again.
Imogen may not have felt ready for her performance (she said she was “terrified”) and it may not have gone quite as she had hoped, but the end result was truly mesmerising, and proves that very soon in the future she will be able to do everything she wants – musically, on stage, at least – if she chooses to.
The applause was rapturous, the response from her fans in the Facebook chat-room even more so – most people seemed not to have realised that anything went awry until she mentioned it – and echoed the sentiments of the replies Imogen got from her fans on Twitter when she tweeted earlier in the week that she was worried the event might be a disaster:
@MimAbbyMason: “Remember humanness and beautiful imperfection is more poignant and moving than perfection”
Sunday’s performance proved that – beyond a shadow of a doubt – in every way.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that this was a real song, performed on this new instrument, not just some looped-up improvisation. Imogen is successfully dancing her way along the bleeding knife-edge of music technology in the 21st century, and I for one can’t wait to see what this mad, crazy, honest and brave genius does with it next.
To watch the whole live event yourself on the Facebook live event page, including the fascinating “Making-of” video – click here.
[Update - Imogen took plenty of time after the show to give full credit to the large team of people involved in developing The Gloves and performance. Kelly, her engineer, posted a great photo of the whole team celebrating afterwards - you can see it here.]