In the saturated movie-influenced experience of daily life, it is always the same soundtrack I return to. (You know you do it too: you’re walking and you can imagine yourself like a salmon, walking in a trench coat against a tide of people walking in the opposite direction, with some song that underlies – or imbues with irony – the whole scene.) For me, it is always Imogen Heap.
Heap played at the Paramount last night, an ornate movie palace from the twenties in downtown Seattle with beaded chandeliers and a Baroque ceiling covered in golden sunbursts, orbs, fleur-de-lis, curlicues and Celtic knots. The seats had been removed. The stage was set with one tree in the middle, white and cardboard like the White Tree in Lord of the Rings, and a glass piano, several electrical consoles, various percussive instruments, electric drum sets, and guitars.
She was preceded by three acts: a collection of local singers who were to join her later and who performed solo works and backed each other up; a British singer, Ben Christophers, who had a lovely Thom Yorkish voice and whose songs were strophic and melodic and chromatic; and Geese, a two-piece London-based band of a man and a woman who each played an electric violin able to explore a full range of sounds through their pedal use and looping. Of the three, it will be Geese who will draw the most attention. Their songs were avant-garde soundscapes, both expansive and minute. Those violins could sound like a range of other instruments, could soar and pluck and clash atonally, aleatorically. I’d love to hear more – their Cds were entirely sold out by the end of the concert.
Heap herself came in between sets to stutteringly introduce the performers. But after the interlude, she walked on in concert gear – a spandexy black outfit with a black shrug, and hair teased into an elevated reproduction of Georgian fashion – swinging a long tube above her head. The tube whistled above her, and with her arm outstretched she still managed to look serious.
She has Patti Smith’s long-limbed, long-faced dead-panned coltishness, but she also has the stereotypically endearing British trait of bumbling chatter. She made awkwardly polite talk between songs and the crowd loved it. She scampered around the stage pushing buttons, looping instruments, looping herself, recording wine glasses (there were microphones around her wrists), playing the piano, making the piano sound like another instrument; and she danced and whirled delightedly around the front like a large fairy, stalking around the stage with her hands held out in front of her as though physically feeling the pulse of the music.
Though it was enough just to be – at last! – watching Imogen Heap in person and seeing if her voice really could go that high and that low (it could), the draw of the concert was the chance to find out exactly how she could manufacture those very electronically reproduced and developed sounds within the limits of the stage.
Her ethos is simple: when extemporaneously composing a song snatch based on a key and melody from the audience (f-sharp minor) to sell online for charity, she said “I’ll make mistakes; I always do. I’ll edit it later.” But no one cares that her skill is in the knife and the cutting room, because her genius is her ear for sounds and combinations. She spoke about going to Africa and running around taking samples of pots and boilers, brush fires and “my bare ass,” she laughed. She is an all-round composer, but her lyrics will always be secondary to her sonic experimentation. She described her future endeavors as a "musical ecosystem."
She was accompanied by the two Geese violinists, a percussionist who played a mean marimba, Ben Christophers on the guitar, and a bassist/ secondary percussionist. She sang all my favorites and the show was well-balanced between her three albums (easy, as she played for two and a half hours); she played her own drum set; she coaxed the audience into being her own looped harmonies in “Just for Now” and did an acapella version of “Earth” with the seven solo singers from the first act; she played the rippling piano part on “Tidal” that I have always wondered if she could actual play while singing live; she started “First Train Home” with the wineglasses, and sang “Let Go” to tremendous applause, accompanied by the voices of ever emotive hipster who’d ever seen Garden State.
But the finale was, of course, what we hoped for. It was what everyone wanted in every city on every tour, and I had been eager to see performed since hearing the recorded track. Some sort of white synthesizer that hung around her neck that she could thread her voice through. By playing chords and singing, she replicated her voice live to create the cluster chords that make “Hide and Seek” so beautiful, all the while able to detach her voice from the chords and swoop elastically from her middle to her highest range. In the darkened auditorium everyone knew the words; we sang the lines “Ransom notes keep falling out your mouth” as she soared above us, and it was still and sincere like little flickering candles.