The gloves are on for Imogen Heap

Imogen Heap - International musician, Grammy award-winning music engineer and unofficial holder of the fastest word per minute speaking count on the planet met Chris Fitzsimmons to talk about her two latest technology projects, The Listening Chair and The Gloves.

Music production doesn’t normally find itself on the pages of InAVate, but when I was offered the opportunity to meet Imogen Heap to talk about a couple of exciting projects relating to the use of gesture recognition, interactivity and audiovisual technologies it was hard to refuse.

I caught up with her in the members’ lounge of the Royal Festival Hall in London, where she somewhat shame-facedly confessed that she had a Grammy Award for best engineered album for her third record Ellipse. Why is she shame faced?

“I’ve never really though of myself as an engineer, so I was a bit shocked to get my Grammy for sound engineering. I feel slightly embarrassed about it because if anyone asks me technical questions about compression ratios, microphone patterns, plug-ins, names of gear etc, and I often reply, ‘I don’t really know, I just put the same microphone on everything, twiddle some knobs on my Avalon 737 until it ends up sounding OK, then play some more with it in the computer. It's all rather spontaneous and messy.”

And yet this creative dynamo, whose brain and conversation leap around like a crazed concert pianist, is responsible for a pair of engineering projects which demonstrate her ability make ideas a reality and succeed in bringing her and her audience closer than most artists will ever achieve.

The first of these is known as The Listening Chair, which was conceived to source ideas for a track on her latest and (still unreleased album). It was intended to find out if there was a song out there that people felt was still yet to be written and toured various locations to gather input from the public. 

“The idea was for this record was that it would get me out of the studio, so each song is project based. Each has a theme or an event or a collaboration, or a different country that I’m going to. So instead of having to say no as I'm making my record I find a way to connect these opportunities to a song. This approach has taken me trekking in the Himalayas, spending six weeks in Hangzhou, China and helped to bring a neglected Georgian walled garden back to life in the village where I live.

“I find that the more people I get involved, the more I think differently and the more ideas that come across, the more different angles present themselves. Often it can be just something so tiny that everyone else things is so insignificant that completely changes the direction of the song. So opening up the floodgates has generated much more insight.”

The resulting song, inspired by 100's of people sharing their thoughts from the Listening Chair, sparked Imogen to write about the phases of life as different age groups were focused on similar topics. It's written a cappella with the intention that it can be added to over time, one minute representing 7 years of life. 

But what about the chair itself? The idea is pretty simple: People sit in the chair and tell Imogen what song they feel hasn't yet been written, not just by her but in general. 

“I wanted the sitter to have an immersive experience. To almost be cocooned, to enable them to switch off for a brief moment from the distractions around us. I feel myself that when I’m trying to blog, or listen to music or watch video there’s always stuff going on around me. I wanted to create a calm space where people could think and drift. So they wouldn’t feel inhibited or embarrassed.”

Lacking the time or money to build something from scratch Imogen bought the nearest thing to what she wanted – a black and white egg chair – from eBay. A call to friend and technical wizard Moritz Waldemeyer for advice lead to him agreeing to project manage The Listening Chair.

“He spoke to Middlesex University and got the Students involved there as well. My brief to Moritz was that I wanted a touch screen interface, a video camera, speakers with volume control and a microphone embedded in it. The tech details of the gear we used came through a few discussions with Graeme (Harrison, Biamp’s VP of marketing), and we arrived at a Samsung tablet as the interface, a Beyerdynamic microphone to record and then they built a base underneath to hide all the processing.”

The equipment hidden in the base includes a Biamp AudiaFLEX which does all the audio processing and amplification. The chair also uses Tannoy loudspeakers to play back music to the listener.

“It’s very comfortable, and you can sit in it and listen to the five tracks off the album that have already been recorded, or watch some videos as well as record your message. I pop up on the screen and talk you through that process and the whole thing takes about five or ten minutes. The user interface software was written by Justyn Butler and designed by Andy Carne and myself.”

On its travels the chair has been to Sydney Opera House, Southbank Centre London, Aldebrugh Music and the TED Global event in Edinburgh conference centre, before returning to London to the Royal Albert Hall, where the song called “The Listening Chair” was performed as part of Eric Whitacre’s Prom.

The second project, known as The Gloves, was born out of Heap’s desire to break down barriers between herself, her gear and her audience. “There are some incredible artists out there like Tim Exile and Beardyman, who are huge inspirations to me. Kings of performance in song and improvisation with their music and tech. I wanted to become fluid like them and I wanted to be free to move about on stage while doing it. 

"The dream is to be able to somehow shape sound directly from what's coming out my head. Now with the gloves, I'm beginning to be able to do this now by having so much more power, literally in my hands to move sound around, combined with my position on the stage floor, so that the music changes depending on where I am on the stage, how fast I move and what shapes I pull etc.

"So much of the performance in electronic music is unseen. The disappointment in seeing a concert for an artist I love but they just look like they're doing their emails on stage. I use a lot of gear on stage and often the audience are left scratching their heads as it's not clear what I'm doing outside of playing acoustic instruments or singing. Cameras don't really cut it either as often the action that you're doing, doesn't connect with the sound you're making or effecting. 

“Over the years I've tried to solve the problem of needing to be stuck at 'base station' when looping, effecting, playing virtual instruments etc but never quite being fully satisfied with the set up with the lack of time to develop a truly bespoke set up and used off the shelf gear. It's about wanting to get out of the smoke screen and be able to express through gesture what I’m doing so that intuitively the audience would understand. So instead of, when I want to record my voice, me walking over to whatever a keyboard and pressing a note 'clicking in record', I wanted to be able to capture that with gestures. Cutting out the 'middle men' of gear. 

“I’d accumulated more and more gear trying become less and less tethered to one place. In the end I ended up with this ridiculously expensive touring rig because there’s so much gear to have enough power and versatility on stage, having different setups here and there.

“The pointer towards a pair of gloves was when I started taping lapel microphones to my wrists, connected to wireless packs, so that whenever I’m playing wine glasses, mbira etc or drums even, it picks it up without the need for me to be in one place or have multiple microphones dotted about.

“The second pointer was during a visit to the MIT Media Lab after seeing Ellie Jessop's VAMP. In one gesture of pinching her fingers together to 'capture a grain of her voice while singing, that was it, I knew what I had to do. 
I got back home and called up Tom Mitchell who I'd worked with before for a performance with my monome. Now we are a team of 6 creative technical wizards, software programmers, music fiends, scientists and academics.

"The devices themselves contain a variety of motion sensors designed to allow Imogen to capture every movement and gesture and translate it into changes to the music. On top of that the system uses a Kinect sensor to map Imogen’s position on stage and make even more changes to the kind of electronic instrument she’s playing or the intensity of the music.

“One of the special things here using the Kinect for instance is I can create a musical relationship with the audience in setting musical parameters, mapped to my proximity with the audience. Perhaps the music becomes more intimate sounding when I'm closer or more intense when farther away,” she adds.

“There is huge load of work we are now doing on our software user interface. The link between myself and the music program I'm using which is mainly Ableton for now.

“It feels as though the gloves need to have a life outside of me and perhaps outside of music too, especially in connecting them to live visuals on stage. There’s been a bit of a shift now in the focus of our team as I've been trying to carry it all this time but things are getting behind as I return focus to my album. We are looking for another member to the team, a full time project manager to help us progress and get the gloves to the next level.”

Heap concludes: “I’m not hyper techie myself but I’m aware of what technology is out there and what it can do for me. I always thought making things like The Gloves and The Listening Chair were for other people to do but they are now as much a part of my everyday as music making. I've so lucky to be working with such fantastically talented people in so many different fields now. These are exciting times! 

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