Chagall Holds an Electronic Symphony in the Palms of Her Hands
If you’ve ever watched a live performance of electronic music, you might be familiar with the image of an artist standing behind a turntable or digital controller, one headphone pressed to their ear, rotating knobs and hitting buttons to create a flurry of wild-sounding effects. Amsterdam-born electronic music producer and singer-songwriter Chagall offers a drastically different picture: an artist not behind a table but in the middle of the stage, conducting an electronic symphony with dramatic hand motions, controlling LED drones and massive light installations with her movements, directing a choreographed dance with a 3D avatar that shadows her every move on a giant visual backdrop. With the power of new music technology such as MiMU Gloves, Chagall is stretching the limits of what a live electronic music experience can look like.
An early adopter and brand ambassador for the MiMU Gloves and a lead designer of the accompanying Glover software, Chagall has been touring the world for years, demonstrating how the gloves are able to fade, filter, compress, and modulate sounds to weave a sonic tapestry in real time. Importantly, the physical freedom afforded by the gloves allows her to sing, dance, and maintain a captivating onstage presence all while controlling every aspect of the music making process with gestures. When Chagall visited Berklee in the fall of 2020 for an interactive performance seminar and workshop, students witnessed how artists like her are changing electronic music performance. This led to the Dream Machine project, a collaboration between the college's Electronic Production and Design and Liberal Arts and Sciences departments and Boston Conservatory at Berklee's Dance Division.
Chagall has been a featured speaker for organizations such as TED and Ableton, and is one of only a handful performers tapping into the full potential of MiMU Gloves and other forms of motion-capture technology. Her latest projects include a fleet of LED drones that fly around the stage in sync with a dance routine, and her current tour incorporates a huge art installation of lights that respond directly to movement to enhance an already mesmerizing performance. On the heels of Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day, we were fortunate to talk with Chagall about her vision for the future of live electronic music.
Watch Chagall perform with the MiMU Gloves at the Den Theatre in Chicago:
How did you become interested in MiMU Gloves initially?
My first introduction to the MiMU Gloves was a TED Talk by Imogen Heap, the famous artist and company cofounder. She did a demonstration with the gloves, and I remember a moment where she was looping her voice and she kind of "grabbed" her voice over her head, which put a high-filter EQ on it, and then she let it go and basically "threw" her voice all over the room, which brought all of the frequencies back into the mix. I was blown away by this because that’s the kind of digital effect you usually see a DJ creating by turning a knob. But Imogen Heap showed us that as a singer, you could now do it through this really powerful physical expression. That was really amazing.
I was so excited by the capabilities of the product that I wrote the company a very enthusiastic email, and somehow I got an email back from Kelly Snook, the company cofounder and instrument’s inventor, who has also been to Berklee to demonstrate the gloves. Even though I had no direct experience with the technology, she decided to bring me on board to work with the company and help design the next evolution of the gloves. I ended up becoming the UX [universal experience] designer for the software called Glover, which we released last year.
How would you compare playing, recording, and performing with MiMU Gloves versus a more traditional digital instrument?
I always felt like I had to choose between two avenues to perform my music. I could either try to make this music feel as live as possible, which meant I would be at a controller looking very busy, pushing buttons and twisting knobs and that kind of thing. Or I could sing and tell the story at a more emotional level and feel that deeper connection with the audience, but that would mean the music would have to be prerecorded. The MiMU Gloves made it possible to do both. I could create digital music and effects in real time while also being a singer and connecting with the people in front of me, where they could see exactly what I was doing through my movements. The gloves are a bridge between these two worlds that have really elevated what I’m able to do with my music.
You are one of only a handful of artists currently implementing the MiMU Gloves into your songwriting and performing. What are the key ideas you try to convey to people who might not be as familiar with this instrument when demonstrating its abilities?
There’s a few different aspects of the gloves that I always try to get across. The first is that you can learn anything. Musicians can be a bit scared of computers, programming, and things that aren’t traditional instruments. What I really try to convey is that they shouldn’t be. I wasn’t trained in any of this; I studied history! I just knew that I had an idea and a vision of what I wanted my performance to be on stage and I figured out that I needed MiMU Gloves and a 3D scan of myself and an LED installation to make that possible. The tools are getting easier to use by the day as well, so it’s really worth investigating what’s out there to make your performance a little bit different.
I also feel that for singers, this gives you the freedom to control what your voice sounds like with movements that suit your persona on stage. A lot of singers might want to incorporate active and live digital elements into their music, but aren’t necessarily attracted to the idea of the conventional DJ, standing behind a table and manipulating sounds with faders and knobs. The gloves give you the freedom to explore sounds and create digital effects without having to give up those elements of movement and physicality in your performance.
Finally, the gloves show how electronic music can be as engaging as music made with traditional instruments. What’s cool about a guitarist or drummer, for example, is that you can really see how their movements are connected to the sounds they are making. You can see it happening right in front of you. There’s so much incredible electronic music being made, but so often it ends up being looped on a backing track while other instruments are played on top, or it takes place on a launchpad where the audience can’t really see what’s taking place. The gloves bridge that gap and make the experience much more transparent and engaging.
What other music technology aside from MiMU Gloves have you used to further establish that engaging and real-time connection between your music, your performance, and the audience?
In my performances, I’ve used a full-body motion-capture suit, the kind that were originally made for CGI in movies and VR gaming. I turned that into a MIDI controller and also used a virtual space where my real-time Avatar (essentially a 3D-scan shadowing the movement of my body) is interacting with certain visual and sonic elements during my performance. We have also used LED drones controlled with a motion-capture system and cameras set up around the stage. I would wear the motion-capture suit and the drones would respond to my movements. This is a different type of system, but it creates a beautiful visual effect.
Additionally during the pandemic, I started experimenting with controlling stage lights. This experimentation eventually evolved into this big cocoon-like LED installation that surrounds me on stage. It’s a very large physical presence, and I can control the lights with my movements, shine them on people in the room and create these wild visuals. This experiment gave birth to my current project, called Unlocked, and it's centered around the theme of what people do when all of your deadlines and external expectations are gone, which was the case for many of us at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a confrontational time for many of us as we were stuck with ourselves and learning a lot about who we were. And so the light installation is a physical representation of that idea. In fact, I named it B.A.B.Y. (Bionic Assistant for Becoming Yourself). We are currently on tour doing this and are recording an album of the music that accompanies this experience.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about experimenting with MiMU Gloves or any kind of emerging music technology?
There’s going to be a learning curve as there always is for a new instrument. You do need a certain amount of willingness to learn something new to augment what you already can do. There is now so much available when it comes to the gloves, and there is so much documentation on how to use them, how to create amazing presets, that kind of thing. You can learn pretty quickly if you put in the time. It’s really about getting through that first week and that initial learning curve, and then you can take off with it. But until you experience them hands-on, you can’t get a feel for what you can do and the potential that is there. Once you do and that "a-ha!" moment happens, it’s beyond inspiring.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at Chagall's latest project, Unlocked: