the end of Everything In-Between - The Story Of Ellipse (2011), the DVD-V that
narrates "the making of" her fine, acclaimed third album, Ellipse
(2009), Imogen Heap solemnly promises that she won't make another album as energy-sapping
and as time-consuming as Ellipse, ever again. And that's exactly what happened.
seen inside that framework, her choice about the matter - by the way, she had
already spoken along these lines in the course of several interviews which appeared
at about the same time the album was released - didn't sound illogical. In
fact, before recording her new album she had built her new studio - something
which also entailed the complete renovation of the country home where the new
studio was to be located. Then, recording and mixing sessions proved to be
quite complex and exhausting - let's not forget that Imogen Heap produces and
engineers her own sessions, with fine results, as proven by the Grammy© she won
in the prestigious Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category.
here an outsider could say that you only build your new studio once, so... But
things are not so simple.
readers know, in the last few years a new way of thinking has spread in the
music world - here the first name that comes to my mind is Bob Lefsetz, the US
lawyer who occupies himself with problems regarding the sphere of entertainment
- according to which "spending three years silently working on a new album
- meanwhile your audience will forget you" - is suicidal; it's much better
"to release a new track every three months, while at the same time
conducting an intimate dialogue with your fans, who have to be involved as part
of the process".
it comes to this, Imogen Heap has nothing to learn, given the fact that she
started a very active blog more than ten years ago, initiating a dialogue with
her fans, who have been involved for a long time in her process of
decision-making when it comes to her music and her albums.
I have to admit that as soon as I heard about her decision to release a new
track every three months I reached for salts. The reasons behind that decision
were obvious: not to be "home alone" for such a long time, renouncing
the world and its many fruitful opportunities. But such a decision incorporates
a quite precise meaning at a time when an artist's income increasingly comes
from sources that can be defined as being "external" to music, though
of course they are ultimately based on it.
so, when Imogen Heap announced her intention to release a new track every three
months starting with March, 2011 I turned off my computer and started waiting
for the release of her new physical album, sure to come. What happened? I
started feeling like the park bench in her video, with the fallen leaves, the sun,
and the snow to signal the passing of time.
you, my "wait and hear" attitude was not based on a lack of
appreciation when it comes to her work. In a nutshell, it's just that my way of
dealing with music is of the "old fashioned" kind. And the very idea
of spending my time sitting at my computer downloading a new track, or watching
a vBlog, or voting on this or that part of somebody's work - for two years! -
is not my idea of what "listening to music" means.
was at this point that a devil who knows me quite well asked me this question:
"So you would not have liked to listen to Tim Bogert recording his bass
solo on Shotgun in real time, uh?". Well... But we both know that this is
just a by-product of the Internet cornucopia when it comes to the past. And
this ain't reality.
was announced that Imogen Heap's new album, Sparks, was to appear at the end of
2013. Then I started receiving messages that all began "We're sorry to
inform you that...".
now I'm in a quite strange situation: I have to review a new album featuring
old material, the most recent thing here having already been available for...
two years, I think. But I see that the album went to #1 in the Billboard chart
called Top Electronic Albums (whatever it means). It goes without saying that
Sparks is available in different versions, the one in my possession being the
"Spartan" edition: just one CD.
brief summary of Imogen Heap's recent activities would exhaust me and my
readers (she's somebody who works hard: personal trainer, jogging, boxing...
and this is just the appetizer). Let's see... A new track every three months, a
new video for each track, travels to China and India, a contract with Intel to
make a Jogging App, a crowd-funding campaign to get the money to record the new
album, meetings, soundtracks, a Kickstarter campaign to build a new controller
in the guise of gloves (Mi.Mu gloves), and so on (recently, she announced her
pregnancy, the child being due in November).
sidetrack for a moment. Friends from California told me something I knew
nothing about: that quite a few avant-garde musicians have little sympathy for
Imogen Heap, since they find it annoying that she presents some aspects of her
work as "groundbreaking", especially when it comes to her use of
"looping" and "harmonizing" in real time, without even a
single mention of those who came before her. The same being true of those new
gloves acting as controllers - here I was told about Laetitia Sonami and her
"Lady's Glove". (I had thought about the research Dutch lab STEIM,
especially The Hands, the pioneering MIDI controller by Michel Waisvisz.)
Having a look around I saw that Imogen Heap mentioned Elena (Elly) Jessop from
MIT media lab and her controller called "the VAMP glove". In a way,
this reminds me of the indignation addressed in the direction of Robert Fripp
when he called his system "Frippertronics", making it appear - so it
was said at the time - that he had invented something already used by countless
musicians, from Terry Riley to Mauricio Kagel (or vice versa).
to the album. It goes without saying that the last thing one could expect is
coherence - something which becomes even more apparent when Sparks is listened
to side-by-side with Ellipse (a comparison I made for a different reason: my
amplifier and loudspeakers are the same I had at the time Ellipse came out, but
now I have a new CD player; so I decided to give the two albums a "level
playing field"). Ellipse was the fruit of a compositional work that saw
the piano acting as the "generating machine", vocals obviously being
the main character. Featured musicians, and the elaborate "sound
design" by Imogen Heap herself, completed a picture whose meaning wouldn't
be too different when looked at on sheet music. Sparks immediately shows its
composite nature. Funny to notice how different the "whole" appears:
while Ellipse presents a stereo field that's quite "tall" and
convergent towards the center, with a very clear sound hierarchy, Sparks offers
a panorama that's "squashed" but spreading towards the sides, with
different elements placed in an ever-changing relationship (maybe somebody will
recall the change - "from "tall and centered" to "low and
spreading to the sides" - occurring in two Joni Mitchell albums such as
Wild Things Run Fast and Dog Eat Dog).
have a look at those tracks.
Know Where To Find Me. Opening track, it's a fine ballad featuring the piano
that's bound to remind the listener of Imogen Heap's previous album. There's a
fine "B" section, and a fine bridge. A "choral" vocal
performance. There's a nice long section at the end that fades out, with an
Annie Lennox aroma.
features a mid-tempo rhythm figure. There's an inventive combination
synth-voice, with a fine timbral mix. Fine melodic development for many voices,
a fine bridge, and an appropriate-sounding string intermezzo.
Listening Chair is an ever-changing "chronology" with many themes and
tons of vocals.
Song sounds quite "Bollywood": rhythms, a melodic figure that sounds
happy and communicative. There's a "sampled" prayer, vocals, and
was co-composed with deadmou5. Rhythm, backing by piano, a
"light-sounding" melody, choruses. Not bad at all, but it goes
has opening vocals, piano backing, assertive rhythm, and a nice melodic
opening, the whole reminding me quite a bit of Eurythmics. Fine bridge, and a
quite active bass part.
Space presents a "spoken" narration which is bound to remind one of
Laurie Anderson. Effects, a fine ambience, mutable, in a way, symphonic.
Without Fear is another "Bollywood" moment which I didn't like.
Co-composed with duo Vishal-Shekhar. Male vocals, percussion. From my
"western" point of view, it sounds ugly.
The Machine is a song that strangely features something in a
Beatles/psychedelic vein in ¾ in a "futuristic"-sounding track
- the story reminded me of a side of the movie Her - with a fine melodic
development. There's an inventive bridge, also when it comes to the featured
Time is "almost dance". Very nasal-sounding bass, catchy chorus. Nice
bridge. There's a "suspended" moment for strings, then the track
accelerates. (It's the track linked to Intel and to the Jogging App.)
To Sakteng features "celestial" voices, male vocals, piano, the whole
sounding a lot like "film music", a bit ho-hum.
Beast is said to be the oldest track featured on the album. Hypnotic, not too
interesting, co-composed with Bobby Ray Simmons, it features strings.
She Knows features "sampled" voices and "counting", also a
"Chinese rock group". Again, not too interesting to me.
Seeds is rich with "binaural" effects - here headphone listening is
almost mandatory. Fine melodic development. Ambient noises, effects acting as a
backdrop to the story. Again, a pinch of Annie Lennox. Very fine bridge. (Let's
not forget that Imogen Heap is one of the few left who still cultivates this
side of composing.)
will have the last word, of course. For this writer Ellipse is still the best
starting point for those who have never listened to Imogen Heap. Sparks is not
a "lesser" album, but a very different beast. Here things have become
complicated, and I think they will get even more so in the future. Up to now,
our judgments have been related, one way or another, to the realm of
aesthetics, with the "subjective" sphere acting as a
"divide". But increasingly things such as "reactive music"
or "generative music" point us in the general direction of a
"highly sophisticated videogame music", a field where judgment
pertains not to the "aesthetical" but to the "functional",
even more so when it comes to a jogging app. Interesting times.
© Beppe Colli 2014
| Sept. 28, 2014