“It’s the sustain! It’s never done that before!” Imogen Heap breaks out of a captivating performance of a song written just three weeks ago for a piece of tech she’s had to wait two-and-a-half years to get her hands on.
Covering Heap’s hands, arms and back are a series of wires. Two LEDs blink on the back of her hands. She adjusts a setting on her computer and composes herself in the centre of the stage, eager to continue the performance. Despite the minor hitch, the Wired 2012 audience are still captivated by the award-winning musician — if anything, the error only makes her passion for the new technology all the more obvious.
Heap told Wired 2012 that before she got her hands on her “magical gloves”, she would make music with an array of instruments and virtual instruments, along with Albeton music software: “Basically, inside this software I can play virtual instruments and loop things, add layers and textures that I spend hours working on in my basement. But I wanted to bring those sounds on stage with me. I strapped keyboards onto me, had microphones attached to my wrists so that I can mic up wine glasses or guitars or whatever I wanted to record. The problem was, how could I do this on the move.
“A lot of what I do, like adding a huge reverb to an instrument, is done by pressing a button on a keyboard — which isn’t very exciting. You can’t even see what i’m doing,” Heap said, picking up a synth and pressing said button. “I could be checking my email for all you know. Fifty percent of the show gets hidden. I wondered how to make it fluid on the stage without these buttons — I wanted to make a gesture like this [she throws her arm out in a wide arc] to add the reverb so you could see and hear the sound, which is much more interesting than turning a pot around.”
Heap encountered a technology that would inspire her own musical mittens when she visited the MIT Media Lab two-and-a-half years ago. There she met Elly Jessop, whose gesture gloves left an impression on Heap: “What she’d done was simple, or rather the idea was simple,” says Heap. “[Elly] sang a note and moved her hand — a gesture that let her control the grain of the note. She could change vibrato or select a harmony with movement. When I saw this combination of music and movement intuitively combined, I wanted to get involved.”
The device that Heap is wearing on the Wired 2012 stage has taken her and a team from the University of West England several years to develop. As well as the tools that she’s wearing, there’s an Xbox Kinect at the back of the stage that translates Heap’s position into different effects and layers. “It’s like the floor is like my playground, so I can walk into different sections to control the sound — I can step into a choir of ‘mes’.” Heap steps into a section of the stage and sings a note, which is instantly harmonised by an invisible choir.
“So it’s not just a controller, it’s really an instrument,” she explains. “The way we program the gestures is the same as playing an instrument in 3D space. As I walk around the stage you can see that I’m walking into a different set of effects. My proximity to the audience is also part of the performance — so when I’m further away from the audience the sound is a lot bigger, but when I get closer to the audience it becomes more intimate.”
Having demoed the incredible technology, Heap then began her performance — an incredible mix of song and movement. Despite the occasional glitch, it was an incredible spectacle. Should you have the chance of seeing Heap with her new technology, you’re in for a treat.