London based recording artist Imogen Heap blurs the boundaries between pure art form and creative entrepreneurship. Writing and producing 4 solo albums, one as Frou Frou (with Guy Sigsworth), and collaborating with Jeff Beck, Mika and Josh Groban amongst others, Heap has penned tracks for movies, TV shows and produced the score for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, winning the ‘Outstanding Music in a Play’ Drama Desk Award.
It’s 5 minutes in and Imogen is being introduced, fashionably late. It’s not a talk, it’s an “event”. The final event. A “finalevent” or “finale”, if you will.
She’s so damn cool. Props and shoutouts are being given to the organizers.
“It’s not so easy making money from music these days.”
She relates open source culture and music: the way in which you put effort into something you love and want to share with others but also is a little hard to make a living from.
“I’m a musician by trade, but 10 years ago, my life changed.
I had tons of stuff onstage and there was tons of things I had accumulated and was taking along with me”… sounding like burnout on music creation, to a degree.
She received an invitation from a friend who was a scientist at Goddard Space Center, and had a great time visiting. This same friend then then similarly invited her to the MIT Media Lab. There she met up in person, and first discovered a pair of gloves that had gloves that could capture sounds and then turned around and synthesized a sine wave from it.
“I thought oh my god! You can make music with gloves!”
Heap asked about doing getting a copy and working on the technology together, but the researcher was busy with an opera. So, Heap went to Tom Mitchell in England, got a pair of gloves, and a 10k pound grant. This was used to develop a neural network for posture recognition.
Then she tried to make a song with the gloves. So they had to make the hardware and software so they can make an entire song with their gloves. And not just a capella, but drums, bass, tinkly bits, and all that. She added a Kinect to the process to introduce another playspace for musical expression on the stage.
Heap is taking us through a review of the different virtual instruments and music gear all built together on the screen.
She wanted to advance the glove technology to a place where she could perform without a team of scientists and coders standing behind her. The result is Glover.
There’s a song she really wants to perform: “Me The Machine”, but doesn’t think she can right at this moment with the setup she has.
Now she’s trying to turn the music gloves into a commercial venture. The rationale being, after she with Edie (who showed her the music gloves), she went online to look for them - and no one was selling them. She had to assemble a team and work on building them.
After doing some more research, apparently others have had this idea. Laetitia Sonami has been doing this music gloves thing since the 80’s - it’s definitely worth checking out.
There’s a live demo with the gloves. The system recognizes gestures with amusing names - rocker horns, jelly fish, the rock (a fist). The gestures convert to the ability to record or playback samples, loop them, crossfade them, reverse them, and even to change the instrumentation. It’s also aware of her location on stage, and converts that location to an amount of delay. Close to the center, there’s none. At her keyboard, there’s about a second before the reverberation.
She’s preparing to perform a song called Breathing, from back when she performed in the band Frou Frou 15 years ago.
She discusses the history of the work on the gloves.
Slight brag about big names and other musicians signing up to work with Glover in their shows notably, Ariana Grande.
Another smaller musician, Chris, is a young man playing guitar in a rock band, but has cerebral palsy which makes it difficult for him to work. He went through the Drake Music Foundation and wanted to perform a glove duet.
The glove are completely programmable to recognize any postures - fist, one finger point, two finger point, rocker horns, open palm, et cetera. There’s also the ability to recognize broader arm movements - up down, left right, swings vs. points. These are defined against an orientation on-stage, so that there’s a mapping between physical space and digital sample.
Also there’s physical feedback - vibration in the gloves in addition to lights on the gloves - red for recording, green otherwise, purple to indicate an instrument, blue to indicate vocals. All of these are customizable: everything in Glover can be configured to any virtual sound device.
The performance of “Breathing” is starting. She’s starting the loop with some ambient vocals and drumming the air drums to make a real drum loop. It’s running a little out of sync due to wifi interference that she warned us about.
She’s giving the audience a cheeky chiding.
The rest of the performance is stellar, the audience is silent, many people are sitting with phones out recording. I’ve never seen anything like this before. She’s a one woman band.
A close observation yields notice of her careful positioning of her hand. The link between music and movement is visible and even palpable.
The song finished, and the applause has died down. She’s pulling out notecards… “I’m not so good at writing speeches, but it’s really nice to be in the moment, and we’re so often not in the moment.” This is a woman who lives her music.
2 years ago, she hit a point of frustration. She was having a rough time raising her daughter, Scout. No one told her it was going to be hard! She felt thoroughly unprepared for the experience. She’s the kind of person who bought the diapers the day after the birth.
She had bills to pay and had to keep working, so she enlisted the services of a breast pump. It turns out that the breast pump had a really nice tempo, which inspired her to make a song! Which she’s now going to perform for us!
A bit of a rant about making music for a living - it’s such a pain in the ass chasing ads and working with publishers. Was excited about the way in which blockchain could help change the way in which music could be distributed. She set up a non-profit music and tech hub, [Mycelia][mycelia] and is really proud of what they’ve built.
Here’s a song she wrote for Scout. She gives us a performance of “Tiny Human”.
Back to the topic at hand: Mycelia is trying to be a place to to share information.
She wants to share more data than just what’s available on the digital music providers like Spotify, iTunes and the like. Information like the songs’ Inspiration, Studio Credits, Official Lyrics, and Instrumentation.
She pitched the music industry to provide and restructure this information and to make the friction between making music and distributing music less painful. However, it was falling on deaf ears since industry companies often profit handsomely off of this friction.
When that didn’t work, she then tried to champion ethical technical guidelines. This also failed.
So now her strategy has shifted: Imogen is looking at grassroots efforts and outreach through speaking at conferences. If you want something done right, do it yourself.
Mycelia shows how royalties are split through a nice modern web interface.
She’s engaging in direct outreach to musicians, now to try to change the industry.
She calls out that much of the technological innovation in the music market is focused on the end consumer and making the experience more seamless for them, rather than for the music creators, the independent musicians. Imogen is eagerly excited for the blockchain, and believes pay-per-play is the future.
Another performance: the music video for “The Happy Song”. We’re getting a sneak peek, it’s not out yet. It’s a song that’s designed to make babies happy
Imogen is trying to make the music world a easier to navigate. “Two songs are uploaded every second. Every second. We need a way to navigate that, helping AI or [search] to allow people to find the music they want.”
Mycelia is unveiling The Creative Passport. It’s going to be going into beta soon. It’s a (possibly blockchain-backed) one-stop shop for musicians to aggregate, gate, and maintain digital ownership of their data and data about their works.
It’s fueled in part by a partnership with Musicbrainz. Musicbrainz will offer musicians a pre-generated / fan-created data set, but passport holders will need to verify that before displaying it on their passport. This benefits both musicbrainz and also musicians who use this.
This is supposed to be a home, a healthy home for music to be made.
There are invidivdial privacy controls on the data that’s in your creative passport. A little slider that flicks from Public (green) to Private (red). A goal is to give musicians full control of their privacy.
We’re going to be getting one last song: “Hide and Seek”, her most famous song. This performance will be a mashup of a couple of different versions of the song.
There’s a shouted request from an audience member to display the Glover music control panel for the performance. After some technical difficulties, the sound technician obliges.
She’s got a flight to catch, but we’re going to get one last song, after a brief intermission to get over a cough she got from a sound person backstage, Petra.
A final shoutout: If you’d like to get involved, Mycelia could use some help - it is an open source project. Not everyone might be able to get a chance to help, but everyone is welcome to lend a hand.
She’s actually performing Hide and Seek now. It’s impossible to do it justice with words.
She’s getting a standing ovation, and with that, her talk, and Strangeloop 2019, are over.
This event originally occurred at Strangeloop 2019.