Vivid Sydney Daily Report #5: Imogen Heap, lights installations

Image for Vivid Sydney Daily Report #5: Imogen Heap, lights installations

For day five of Vivid Sydney, Jim Poe caught electronic songstress Imogen Heap's dusk song recital, one of the select few shows chosen to be streamed live via Vivid's YouTube channel. Meanwhile, inthemix took a video tour of Vivid's impressive array of Circular Quay light installations.

Imogen HeapJim Poe

UK singer/songwriter and “digital diva” Imogen Heap was invited to perform an informal sunset recital for Vivid in the North Foyer of the Opera House. Heap is known for incorporating a spectrum of organic and digital sounds into her performances via a high-tech setup, including a pair of custom-made gloves wired to let her control the music with Wii-like gestures. But here she’s limited to a baby grand piano and it’s all about the songs – specifically six songs from her latest project, Heapsongs, which she created with input from fans around the world, who sent her “song seeds” in the form of words, images and recorded sounds.

At first, the session is hit or miss. It’s too cold in the foyer. The bar right behind us is disappointingly closed, but for some reason the bartender stands there for the entire show anyway. And strangely, given Heap’s trademark technophilia, there are glitches in the matrix. She’s meant to perform the songs accompanied by their video clips on three monitors behind her; it’s as cumbersome as it sounds – she has to synch with a click track in her headset, and simply starts over when she messes up a couple of times. The video feed is straight from her laptop; between songs we see her fiddling with her software onscreen.

Heap talks a lot, explaining each song, and explaining it some more. It’s more like a TED talk than a show (no stretch as Heap is a TED veteran). Her piano interpretations of these intricate digital constructions have a bizarre once-removed feeling; she describes how she sampled a classroom full of kids; we see the kids in the video, but hear only her. As she admits, we’re experiencing the songs “as they were never meant to be heard.”

But I’m soon taken in. Heap’s spacey rambling, which reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s, is funny and charming, at times highly emotional. Her stories about her creative processes are pretty cool; she based one song on a fan’s recording of an unborn child’s heartbeat; another was a sonic collaboration with the citizens of Hangzhou, China.

In the end, the unplugged vibe actually works. Heap treats the piano like another machine, and there’s something interesting about imagining about all of these sounds and contributors (Bollywood singers, birds, Slinkys) while Heap paints aural pictures to interpret them. The songs themselves are heartfelt, sometimes twee, filled with fantastic lyrical imagery that could be from Tolkien or Miyazaki. People transform into trees. Machines feel emotion. A crumbling wall speaks.

Heap’s boundless desire to share her music and herself with fans and ordinary people, coupled with her ingenious ways of going about it, are ultimately infectious. She concludes by inviting us to participate in her latest collaborative experiment. The Listening Chair, unveiled at the Opera House this week, is an egg-shaped retro-futuristic lounge chair outfitted with recording devices to gather information from whomever sits in it about what songs they think are missing from the world. It’s an idea as weird and wonderful as its creator.

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