Imogen Heap and the art of creative failure

Imogen HeapSinger Imogen Heap’s gig at the Roundhouse last Sunday night should be a lesson to us all in creative exploration of a digital world. It taught me two things: how to explore technology creatively, and how to fail with dignity.

The gig marked the culmination of Reverb – a four-day festival of electronic, experimental music that Heap curated, with a heavy dose of technology on the side.

I went on a whim – discovered and booked tickets in bed that morning via Yplan (how millennial of me). My decision was fuelled mainly by nostalgia; her album Hide and Seek was the soundtrack to my first year in London, but also out of a big fat geeky desire to experience Heap’s digital labour of love: her Mi.Mu gloves.

The gloves have been designed so that Heap can manipulate sound using hand gestures, changing the direction of a sound or sculpting it in mid air.

This is her demonstrating the gloves at a Wired event in 2012:

Heap is known for embracing tech in her shows and music. It would be more accurate to describe her work as art – just a singer-songwriter she certainly is not. She often explores ideas for her music as one might for an art project. For instance, the first song on her new album Sparks began with Heap logging onto Soundcloud for an hour and asking her fans to send in any sound they wanted. The resultant track features everything from a dishwasher door opening to an unborn baby’s heartbeat.

At the start of the gig Heap did say that not everything she wanted to do on stage would work – admitting she’d been trying to get the gloves to work for so long that she forfeited the soundcheck. Sadly, the performance was weighted to that end as we sat through multiple technology meltdowns. A tad awks in the beginning, but ultimately we didn’t care. The audience were unfazed by Heap’s false starts, the long silences between tracks whilst she clicked various keypads and turned her gloves on and off, the jarring feedback during Xizi She Knows, and the fact we were all asked to turn our phones onto airplane mode to bolster the wifi.

Heap apologised a lot, but carried on regardless with unfaltering charm and wit. She admitted that after three years of development, she thought her team would be a lot further on with the gloves than they actually are, but is clearly determined to get them right. An example to any one of us creatives working through a laborious process to just make something work.

She may have left the stage exhausted (at seven months pregnant) and a teeny bit cheerless, but her creative integrity was firmly intact. Next time you’re in the middle of a pitch and your technology putters out, refusing to resurrect even a glimmer a life, you could do worse than channeling Heap.

Rachel Bull, editor of Brand Republic and The Wall @RachelBwrites

Image by The Roundhouse

  • Rosie Milton

    She’s a fantastic artist – so great to watch

  • Dave

    Imogen Heap is my musical hero. She is a fearless pioneer in pushing the relationship between music and technology to the bleeding edge of it’s limitations. But it’s more than that, really. She is an incredible musician first and foremost, but unlike all the others who possess incredible musical talent, she is an explorer of the new and the next. I honestly don’t know how she’s survived in an industry that does all it can to play it safe, and is so slow to change. It’s not just about the music itself. It’s the new models she keeps coming up with – using technology to give her fans unprecedented access to her and her music.

    This is not creative failure. This is creative genius evolving.

  • Nick

    Although, at first, I was heavily disappointed that I didn’t get the performance I expected from her, I did have some moments where I enjoyed what I saw and heard. Although she never got through it, there were some magical moments in her performance of “Neglected Space” , once she finally got the tech situated, “Entanglement” was a highlight, and she did one of the best live renditions of “Hide and Seek” I have ever heard. I’ll just say that although the concert wasn’t a success, Immi needn’t worry. She’s had countless successful gigs and shows. She is highly known by her fans and admirers as one amazing live performer. Like Dave said, it’s creative genius evolving. It’s okay to fail at something. It’s what you do after that is what is important.

  • RachelBull

    That’s exactly my point, Nick, and thanks very much for your comment. I think so often in this world we are conditioned into thinking failure at anything is not an option, but ultimately failure – and not fearing failure – is the essence of creativity. I agree with you about her rendition of Hide and Seek too – incredible.

  • deeplypersonalrobotthings

    I’m a big fan of Imogen Heap. I love the fact that she takes chances… that’s what great artists do. The rub is, most people know Imogen as a musician, and were paying for hear her songs… not take part in an experiment. If the glove don’t play, put it away. Then sit down at a keyboard and get personal with the audience. They will love you even more. Otherwise… give them their money back.