Photo courtesy of University of the West of England
When it comes to a live show, UK pop artist Imogen Heap doesn't know how to think small. Each performance is an experiment in seamless shaping of live sound backed by dozens of tech teams. While Heap's music in and of itself has earned her a Grammy Award and legions of followers over her decade plus-long career, in recent years she has also become more of a living technological spectacle—or, an ever-evolving live music robot.
Her most famous invention, "The Gloves," allow Heap to record, loop, and filter sound in tens of thousands different combinations on the spot, creating entire tracks through the flick of a finger or the clench of a fist. Aided by positional and acceleration sensor elements and microphones, The Gloves spurred intense media interest in 2011, and made for a stunning TED video (below) in which Heap gestured her way into a fully-realized, impromptu vocal track.
The Gloves on TEDxBristol 2011
Now reflecting on a career obsessively bound with technology, Heap realizes how much such spectacles can wreak havoc on the planet. And it's with her uncanny drive (and admittedly spendthrift ways) that she plans to confront the issue. On Earth Day (Sunday, April 22nd), Heap will host a live event stocked with unprecedented audio-visual theatrics. At once a concert, a track recording, and a film screening, the extravaganza and a live video shoot will take place in Heap's own backgarden, and will be fueled in part by a few alternative energy sources—bio diesel, solar power, and bicycles.
Around 25 cyclists—composed of friends, family, and members of The Gloves' ample tech team—will consistently pedal throughout the concert, charging batteries that convert into about 2.5 kilowatts of power. There will also be 10 solar panels fueling solar generators during the daytime, which will produce about 1 kilowatt of energy—according to a member of her Heap’s tech team. Barring mishap, it should cleanly power the event lighting, though, she'll have a team of energy experts—and, okay, a backup generator—to come to the rescue if need be.
"I wanted to do this to spark the conversation and to keep it going, and to teach myself about alternative, clean sources of energy," Heap tells us. "And I thought powering it off the grid with bicycles would be fun."
Photo by Ellen Rogers
But the bike power—which is simply an existing method used on a grand scale—is just one component of an ambitious evening budgeting in "not over $100,000, but not far from it," as Imogen cautiously put it. Under a geodesic dome behind her Essex home, the event will play host to Heap's crowd-sourced, originally scored nature film Love the Earth. Then, there's the main attraction—the live concert recording of a track, Heap-style.
The Gloves will essentially play music producer and 3D projector throughout the concert. Armed with a new, gesture-mapping interface, Heap will compose a pre-rehearsed track through The Gloves, and, here's a highlight: Kinect technology will make it appear as if visuals are growing from her hands.
The event will be filmed and livestreamed, and the recorded track will be used, as is, on her ongoing album Heapsongs. The performance will be silent so as to optimize recording (and to keep her neighbors happy), so headphones will be provided. Then naturally, there are the art installations and laser torches. The list goes on.
"It's terrifying," says Heap, who is directing the entire lot. "It's just strange designing a shoot for something that doesn't yet exist, knowing very clearly what I want to convey… I'm definitely multitasking."
What drives Heap is the future of alternative energy, but moreover, she hopes to improve upon The Gloves as an agent of visual sound-sculpting.
Setting up the dome at Heap’s Essex home.
"What I want is for the audience to be able to physically see the sound," she says. "While I wear The Gloves I'm intuitively choosing effects and changing the sound in a way that makes sense. So if I move my arm out, my sound gets bigger, or if I move it up you expect the piece to move into higher notes… there are things that are just inherent in The Gloves that you can't use with a piano, or cello. I don't want it to be a second rate keyboard."
For Heap (a seasoned cellist and pianist, by the way), all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Earth Day isn't just a one-off gimmick. For an illustrious career spanning almost four solo albums, collaborations with the likes of Bon Jovi, Britney Spears, and Deadmau5, and track appearances on SNL and CSI, gimmicks aren't necessary. Rather, the technology is deeply personal, and part of Heap's identity as an artist(/robot).
"I'm doing it right now, as I speak, in order to express myself," she said. "I'm moving my hands. I use a lot of gestures, and I just love the idea that the body becomes an instrument…. when I've got The Gloves on, everything makes sense."
The visual live sculpting of the Earth Day show also extends to the bicycles; the audience will see the event lights waning and increasing in strength, depending on how fast the cyclists are pedaling. It's rather Viking-esque, and failure (God forbid) can only result in an artful setback. Or at worst, a light-induced seizure.
Overall, the Earth Day event sounds like the perfect mind-blowing debut for Heap's latest innovations, not to mention the premiere of new movie and new song. That it's for a good cause won't weigh heavily on the entertainment factor that Heap is renowned for, but you can certainly watch the spectacular livestream on Earth Day with a sense of moral superiority.
Watch Imogen Heap perform live via Facebook this Sunday, April 22nd at 7:30 PM BST.