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article imageReview: Body of work – The very exceptional Ms Imogen Heap

By Paul Wallis     Jan 23, 2021 in Entertainment
London - For someone with the truly murderous levels of cynicism I have about the music sector, Ms Imogen Heap is a welcome revelation. She’s musically penetrant, truly loved by her fans, and… An actual innovator..???
Here’s an indicator - Ms Heap belongs to that exceptionally rare species, the English singer/songwriter. That rather innocent-looking description occasionally means almost unbearably brilliant, a level Heap reaches with rather unnerving regularity.
I’m embarrassed to say I first became aware of her through her Mi Mu musical gloves, a fascinating instrumental adaption of digital tech to performance art. This was about 10 years ago. The idea was so good, and the sound quality so good, that I retained a memory of a very intense, rather shy-ish person with a deep level of technical skill and passion.
Nothing like seeing something so good/excellent and vaguely remembering it years later. I tripped over a reference to the gloves, remembered it, and backtracked to find Ms. Heap. Of course, nothing’s quite so straightforward. Having found her, I then found myself immersed in a virtual sea of ideas, ambient sound, incidentals, and similar intriguing things.
This is real innovation. The theory of the gloves ropes in a lot of technologies. It also includes some obvious complexities and the need to package all the tech to make the gloves functional. The sheer amount of work involved in this dalliance with just about every known form of audio tech is truly astonishing.
I’ll spare you the encyclopedia of technical issues. Suffice to say you have to get all this stuff functional, turn it into a workable system, and then use any number of instruments while being actually coherent in an arrangement. This is a conceptual workload many musicians would find terrifying.
She made it happen. That alone sets her apart. These gloves could be one of the greatest things to ever happen to performance art. I’m looking forward to when the indies get hold of it and evolve them into what they can so obviously become.
Researching Ms Heap
So far so good, I thought. An indescribable person doing indescribable things; ideal for a DJ article, I thought. Little did I know. The first thing I did, of course, was research this random collection of information, trying to get a picture of who this woman is.
The Wikipedia page shows a lot of awards, a baffling array of musical projects, and a commendable almost total lack of information about anything personal. To put it another way – This is a true artistic professional, managing things well across an extraordinary bandwidth of ideas, as well as “things”. Try finding that combination of elements anywhere. It’s rarer than an honest politician.
Her website includes a CV which could also be a form of Encyclopedia Britannica when eventually decoded. It’s cryptic, to say the least. One of the entries on the CV is “Mother”, which should be a clue.
Her audience are called “heapsters”. About time that execrable word “hipsters” got its long-overdue comeuppance, particularly in musical terms.
At this point I’m wondering how could anyone be so well-adapted to have so little information about themselves online after 20 years making music? Apparently so. Good to see.
She’s worked with Taylor Swift, won an Ivor Novello Award, (top gong for songwriting) music for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Grammy Awards, and far more. She is, in effect, for industry consumption at least, the Great Artistic Image nobody quite understands at all in any form, and it suits her. This level of depth makes her pretty immune to the usual superficialities.
Praise for her work is everywhere. The New York Times did a piece about her Happy Song, a kid’s song, which has pure competence all over every aspect of production. This is the standard kids’ music needs. No crap, clarity, and fun. The Happy Song, by the way, is a good example of modern precision recording. It should be the standard.
Meanwhile the turgid description of her genre of work is “electronic dance music”. How far off target can you get? That far. People may or may not know what they’re listening to, and that staggeringly superficial definition is proof.
Actual avant garde? Believe it or not, yes.
“Avant garde” is an expression which has become horribly debased over the last few decades. It can refer to someone using an Etsy-like collection of flats in an arrangement, or something else from the 1950s. It can refer to a ridiculous collection of artefacts calling itself avant garde, the epitome of non-avant anything. What it usually never means is anything actually new, practical or interesting beyond the gimmick level.
“Avant garde” means innovation. It’s a pure Boho thing. It specifically means something which hasn’t been done before. That’s what Heap has done with her glove, and a somewhat vast range of other musical initiatives. She collects sounds from her audience, for example. How apt can you get? That apt. Quite endearingly, Heap does all of these things quite naturally, thank god and anything else which loves music.
Who is Imogen Heap? Your guess.
Heap produces tornadoes of a level of sensitivity and artistic alertness at depths few could enter without using a hyperbaric chamber. It seems actually risky when you’re watching her. I don’t believe that any of the usual banal “market imagery” for artists could ever identify her, let alone describe her personal presence at any given moment.
However, real artistry involves risks on emotional and other personal levels. Heap’s version of exploration of things is on a par with both actual explorers and sci-fi. This takes guts and a degree of determination which would scare a block of carbon steel.
Forget psychoanalysis or “personal identity metrics” when trying to figure out Heap; they couldn’t possibly work anyway. She’s been recording since she was 13, and I’d say her artistic reflexes are well-tuned, pun intended, to the environment. It’s hard to be this musically effective in a brutally pedantic, simplistic artistic and business environment which makes LEGO look like the Louvre. You simply can’t do it without that inner capacity.
Now look and listen
As a writer, I’m well aware words should say so much and no more.
I’ll say this –
I can’t respect at all the tiresome, lifeless PR exercise modern music seems to insist on being. I greatly respect Heap’s level of commitment and extraordinary achievements in so many fields.
This is what real creativity can do when given the skills and a person prepared to do it. Well done, Ms Heap.
Now listen. This is her YouTube channel. Expect to be on it for a few years, particularly if you’re an actual audiophile.
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