Live and Plugged in

Soooooo, guess what I did this weekend? Was it, sit in my room, trying to decode the elaborate and existential sub-plots of music videos? For once, no. Instead I actually left the house and went all the way to the Royal Albert Hall to watch IMOGEN HEAP perform the concert she has always wanted to give since she was a little girl. And let me tell you, it was good.

Appearing on stage below the vast mushroom-bedizened ceiling and circular rows of baroque columns, Heap was visibly (and audibly) excited about this particular gig. She muttered comments to herself – via us and her Britney mic – about what a lovely evening she was having and how pleasant her green tea was, sort of like a cross between a school music teacher and an artist driven mad by working in solitude. As was said of Emily Dickinson, so too is Heap somewhat of a ‘half-cracked poetess.’

She gave a large and incredibly formal space the air of a school lesson, of which we were all part. This is not strange for an artist considered the herald of the digital musical generation, breaking down the usual barriers between musician and fan. The construction of her last album, Ellipse, was broadcast across her Youtube Channel and Twitter. She invited fans to propose ideas and give opinions, which, to the delight of onlookers, she incorporated into the album. At the 2010 Grammy Awards she famously wore her ‘Twitter Dress’, which broadcast a live feed from the social networking site around the elliptical collar (ellipses being a theme with her at present).

Just as Heap (in her mad music teacher guise) would do periodically to the choir-like audience, so too was the structure of the evening divided. The first half was an orchestral affair, conducted by Heap, to the visuals of a series of nature films she commissioned with her collaborator on the Love The Earth film project, social entrepreneur Thomas Ermacora. After a revelation in Tanzania (anyone else hearing Gap Yah’s chundering in the distance??) that the Earth is beautiful, she felt compelled to base a music/film project on it, characteristically inviting the general public to get involved.

The second half was a more standard pop music show. Although, of course, there was the blurring of the live and recorded elements that have made Heap such an interesting artist – both when live and recorded (see what I did there?). The audience became a choir during the melodic whisperings of Just For Now, and her closing piece, of the OC fame, Hide and Seek. An on stage choir was employed for a somewhat festive rendition of the entirely vocal track Earth and a small band for the rest of the two-hour long set.

My gig pictures are always SUPER LAME. This one is courtesy of WILD WEBMINK

Flitting around the capacious stage between synthetic trees and translucent grand piano, (and sometimes rocking out), heap could not help but inspire you to laugh, sing along, or gaze in rapt wonder. In a sparkly black dress, she resembled something like a flapper-girl-bat-witch, a combination that is fairly symptomatic of her effortlessly symbiotic blend of vocal, pop, classical and electronica-tinged musical approach. But what I enjoyed most was the honesty. When she mixed vocal percussion and wine glasses on stage she interrupted the sound on the basis that, ‘Sorry, I can do much better than that!’ resulting in laugher, applause and a beautiful version of First Train Home.

It is not often that the lines between a great spectacle and a great conversation flow so well, so inclusively and uniquely. But Heap managed this with the excitable ease of, well, a great artist. She clearly loves what she does, always inventing new ways to do it, constantly finding wonder in the sound of birds outside her studio or the beat of her feet as she runs through a corridor. This, if anything, was not merely a grandiose gig, but a lesson in how the ever-increasing inclusion of the digital age can be used not to broaden and flatten the qualities of our three-dimensional world, but to enjoy it and play with it even more. And then to share it – preferably on twitter!

In the awesomely informative and easy to understand philosophical/life/art/guide book, How to be an Explorer of the World, Keri Smith states that, ‘the Indo-European root of the word “art” is “to arrange” or “fit together” (join). In this light, art can be pared down to its most simplistic form. We begin by collecting, then playing with the materials or objects, organizing them in a variety of ways, making new combinations, trying things, then observing the arrangements we have made.’

Heap is one of the artists who I believe does exactly this. And keeps doing it. But it is never concealed. In fact, the reverse is true; we are invited to join in the game. This is what makes her such a unique artist in the face of the cold, all-encompassing mechanisms of technology – she is still playing with the initial combinations. Who knows what she'll come up with next.

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