Eyes Can Hear

After her performance at TEDGlobal and the release of her first new album in three years, Imogen Heap is looking at music in a whole new light.

Photograph courtesy of RCA Records, a unit of BMG Music

A classically trained musician with a rebellious spirit, Imogen Heap first taught herself electronic composition when she was exiled from the classroom by her boarding school music teacher. Ever since, she’s sought solace in a multitude of instruments to create her rich sound, accompanied by honest and intelligible lyrics. Heap, who was once half of the now-defunct ethereal pop duo Frou Frou, just released her third solo album, Ellipse.

When we listen to music, we do more than just hear it. Scientists like Oliver Sacks say that people have musical hallucinations and that even when stroke victims lose the power of speech, they never lose rhythm or the ability to be emotionally moved by music. Do you ever hear about your music affecting people or being used by people in ways you never intended?

All the time. I don’t feel a song is mine until it’s out of my studio and has a life of its own. The song with the most legs from my previous album (Speak for Yourself) is a song called “Hide and Seek.” It’s an a cappella piece. It’s been covered by choral groups, marching bands, and kazoo quartets. [It has been] synced to a popular TV teen drama, [made] a top song choice at funerals, and was most recently sampled by hip-hop artist Jason Derulo for his current single “Whatcha Say.”

Do you ever visualize your music in terms of shapes and colors or emotions?

When a song begins to form in my head, or if I’ve managed to pry it out of there, it does generally have a shape — just the broad strokes in terms of dynamic; where it’s going to pull and push. That’s its body. The other half is [finding] its heart. Does it get you? Does it actually make you feel anything after all the clever stuff? I’ve always been fascinated by people who, on an extreme level, experience this with color synesthesia. I’d love to work with someone who really does experience music in color and create a live show around it.

Do you “see” or hear a song before you actually create it?

On the odd occasion, it is all very clear to me. As with “Hide and Seek” (and more recently with my song “Little Bird”): It was always going to be an a cappella about a particular subject matter. I could hear its sound quite clearly from the beginning. Usually though, there is the initial Aha! moment that is probably the most fun, exciting, and reassuring part of the writing process.

Does your inspiration for creating music come from things you see, from emotional encounters, from memories, or from more than one place?

Many places. From one particular moment in time to the historical thread within a chapter of my life. From something that just happened to me, to an experience I just couldn’t write about for lack of emotional and temporal distance, to something I’ve read that sparked a trigger in me. A memory or a small voice that has something to say about whatever I’ve read. Right now, as I answer this question, I have a song brewing, but this feeling is so new to me I don’t know where and how to put it into words. It’s fantastic; it’s bigger than me. It’s ripening. It’s overwhelming. I’m catching fragments of it and just playing endless hours of piano and staring into space.

Lately, you’ve been very active about involving and collaborating with your fans (through Twitter or your Web site) in the production of your songs. Why is this important to you?

I like the company! I think it’s that simple. The reaction and tweets back make me feel good. Making an album (solo or not) can be very draining. The support of people who love your music cannot be measured when it comes to getting you back into that studio and getting on with the darned thing! Those who have been waiting for and will eventually experience the album are the final piece of this journey for me. It’s been two years and three months in the making. It strangely doesn’t exist for me until it’s in the hands and ears of others.

You’ve just released a new album (Ellipse), and it comes more than 10 years after your first release with Frou Frou. Do you think your purpose as a musician has changed since 1998?

My purpose was and has always been to do what feels right at the time, from music to love to living. I feel like now, after four albums, I want something different. I’ll be touring this album for two years. After that, I’m not sure. I want to collaborate more. Write film music. Travel.

Learn. Tour less. Love more. I want to meet people and find ways to contribute more to the problems we all face, but I’m not sure how to do that yet musically without being a “pop star with a cause.” I’m excited to see where it takes me.

Imogen Heap is a musician. Her latest album is Ellipse. She performed at TEDGlobal.

Eyes Can Hear

Visualizing Imogen Heap’s song “First Train Home."

Click to enlarge

Making sound visible is a hobby of mine. After years pursuing real-time sound visualization, I became intrigued by the idea of eliminating time and allowing listeners to take in an entire song as a single visual impression. The result reveals an unseen beauty.

This particular piece was created by systematically restructuring pixels chosen from the image of Imogen Heap’s new Ellipse album cover. Color and symmetry were added to the image. As the song played, pixels were located via waveform, manipulated based on amplitude, and then placed on the canvas using a frequency-based algorithm.

There is a pretty unique aesthetic to different songs rendered with the same algorithm. I enjoy the notion of someone buying a song because they like the way it looks, or because it looks like a song they know they like. With the right system in hand, would members of the deaf community be interested in creating visualization-based musical performances? What would the music sound like? I also wonder if it is time to update the Closed Captioning system to include visual impressions of the music and sound effects that normally go by unseen in a movie or television show.

Jared Ficklin is a principal designer at frog design. Jared creates Flash animations of all types, including sound visualizations.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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