FEATURE: Spotlight: Holly Herndon






Holly Herndon


I am always searching around for artists…

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

with an interesting edge that stray away from the traditional. Holly Herndon is certainty someone who does not fit into normal moulds and sits alongside convention. Her music is at once human and relatable, but it is daring, advanced and stunning. She was born in America but now bases herself in Berlin. As reviews and interview selections in this feature will make clear, Herndon’s use of technology and electronics is incredible. By combining the visual programming language, Max/MSP, to generate customise instruments alongside computer-based vocals, what you get with her music is something hugely advanced but, when listening, you can hear the musician who created it. Rather than detach herself and use machinery to convey her spirit, Herndon is very much the soul and lifeblood of the music. Although her latest album, PROTO, has been lauded and received huge celebration, there was an aspect of the recording that caught the attention of the media. As she explained in this interview with The Guardian, Herndon has used AI to take her music to new places:

I’m used to strange in the studio,” says Holly Herndon. Even so, the experimental electronic composer has never ventured anywhere quite this strange before. For her forthcoming third album, Proto, she has teamed up not just with fellow musicians, programmers and members of the public, but a “baby” called Spawn.

Spawn is quite advanced for a newborn. She can mimic, interpret and develop musical ideas, often revealing elements in Herndon’s compositions that she was unaware of. That’s because Spawn has actually been built from artificial intelligence – Herndon collaborated with the AI expert Jules LaPlace in her endless quest to find fresh new sounds.

Forget problematic hologram tours – neural-net voice models could soon make it possible for musical heroes to record wholly new songs from beyond the grave. Holly quotes Miles Davis’s fear of “artistic necrophilia”, meant in the sense that every generation should redefine sound for themselves. “Otherwise we’ll get this recursive feedback loop,” she says, “where we can’t imagine a future that’s different because we’re always regurgitating the past.”

Instead, Holly’s vision of the future is to make the human visible within the machine. On Swim, the last song completed for the album, the human and non-human members of the ensemble are at their most seamlessly, serenely unified. “They really occupy the same space,” she beams. It’s the pinnacle of years of research, and has already transformed their expectations for further projects. “Working with AI has made me appreciate the human body; we’re such amazing sensors,” Holly laughs. “Our eyes and ears and all this stuff you can’t encapsulate in a media file … it really makes you appreciate your own meat sack.”

Not only is Herndon’s music fantastic, but here is an artist who is going to extraordinary lengths to see what can be achieved by bringing AI into a studio environment. I often think of the studio as quite a boring or sterile space. In Holly Herndon’s world, you get something truly fantastical, unusual and hugely interesting. In terms of structure and sound, every Holly Herndon has a different skin. On her 2012 debut, Movement, there are seven tracks that range from 1:04 (Interlude) to 8:15 (Terminal). This Experimental/Electronic album was produced by Herndon and, right from her first album – she recorded music beforehand -, here was an artist exploring something new.

For those who are familiar with a particular style of Electronic music will need to brace themselves when it comes to Herndon. There is plenty of emotion and feel in the music, but it is the minimalistic aspects of Movement that make it such a wonderful album. It is a remarkable work that gained a lot of positive reviews. Here is what Consequence of Sound wrote back in 2012:

“Movement is more of a lucid chronicle of sounds as opposed to what’s expected from the artists working within the increasing sphere of electronica: entertainment. The onset of opener “Terminal” is gradual and tense, while the most beat-driven track, “Fade”, manages to intensely toy with senses ranging from confusion to elation. Herndon’s vocals both chill and burn, oscillating between groans and fades to create space-age soundscapes, most notably with “Control And”.

Admittedly, Movement isn’t entirely accessible to a vast, viral audience — particularly through the spine-crawling, post-drowning gasps of “Breathe”. Rather, it’s for the ones who glean satisfaction from simultaneously thinking and dancing. Futuristic and still visceral, even sexual, Movement‘s strength gleans itself from the subtleties. A revolutionary minimalist debut, Movement traces the origin of shadows instead of the light”. 

Every artist in every genre has a different creative process. I often think about Rock and Pop artists living quite fast lives out in the open. They absorb what is around them and combine that with tales and experiences from their own lives. I get images of very modern artists on their laptop or composing lyrics on their phone; bringing various musicians together in the studio and then, when they tour, they play these songs to the cheering masses.

If you work like Holly Herndon, I imagine there is a lot more experimentation and solitude; a more isolated and smaller world than that of the Pop or Rock artist. That might be a common misconception, though it is clear Herndon’s life and routine changed from Movement to Platform (in 2015). I know quite a few people who listened to a lot of Electronic music before they discovered Herndon and were sort of blown away by her debut. If anything, there is even to love and pour over on her sophomore album. Herndon discussed the new album with FACT Magazine; she talked about the changes between albums, working with her collaborator Mat Dryhurst and the importance of vocals on Movement.   

Of course, the premise of Platform is that it’s about collaboration and communication.

Well, [debut album] Movement was very much about solo me, in this weird little rehearsal space in Oakland. These people wanted to start an art space, but they never got their shit together. So I was renting this super creepy corner of this empty warehouse, engaged in this very insular exercise, trying to sort out my process. That was a really important thing, especially for my debut album. But for Platform I really wanted to open the practice up and invite more people in. It’s conceptually important for the album as a whole, as well. There are all these other people involved in the creation process.


Did ideas pop up while you were making and touring Movement?

With Movement I was able to establish a language, especially vocal processes, and a palette that I was able to carry over and use. This time I was able to work more conceptually, without having to figure out my process, if that makes sense. But I’m always building and adding tools. Mat has developed a bunch of new processes that I use on the album. But also, touring – going from festival to festival and really embraced by a global touring community – that was really flattering, and also really eye-opening. So I had the feeling – what does this mean, what’s the next step? How can I make this more meaningful?

Holly Herndon is currently gearing up for a tour of Europe; the demand is huge! Her first couple of albums saw her fanbase rise and more and more eyes trained her way. It is clear that there was a bit of a leap in terms of Platform. Again, Herndon was redefining and rewriting the rules regarding Electronic music. Platform is a bit light on upbeat and raging tunes; it is a more futuristic and nuanced album that is more emotive, textured and immersive. When you listen to Herndon’s music, you sort of let the sounds take you away. Herndon continues to grow in stature and confidence regarding her visions and confidence.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Bennett Perez

Platform is a terrific album that gained Herndon a lot of new admirers and followers. In terms of reviews, again, there was huge positivity and praise. This assessment from The Guardian hit the nail on the head:

You couldn’t exactly describe Holly Herndon’s second album as a collection of club bangers. Berlin’s techno scene inspired her foray into technology-obsessed electronic music, but Platform takes a futuristic step beyond your average Eurotrance rave – imagine a robot-party playlist peppered with warped, processed vocals and jittery cascades of sub-bass frequencies and you’re not far off. In a recent Guardian interview, Herndon described the laptop as a “hyper-emotional instrument”; she turns cold, lifeless synthetic beats into disconcerting, disjointed rhythms that glitch and collapse on each other in the style of FKA Twigs producer Arca, Aphex Twin or Maria Minerva. Lovers of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) – the pleasurable, brain-tingling sensations that are triggered in some people by certain rustling, ticking or whispering sounds – will shiver with excitement hearing Lonely at the Top, while centrepiece Home tackles the impact of the NSA revelations with echoey vocals and bass thuds. Banger-free, perhaps, but gloriously avant garde and fiercely inventive”.

Her most recent album, PROTO, was released in May and ranks alongside the finest of the year. If PROTO is the first Herndon album you have been exposed to, I would suggest getting her debut and seeing how her music has evolved and changed. PROTO is quite a heavy and intense listen in places, but the songs will definitely ingrain themselves in the mind. These are songs that are diverse and have such rich backgrounds; you can feel the craft and the emotion intensely. Even if you are not steeped in the history of Electronic music that is experimental and strays away from the traditional club fare, you will be able to find something to connect with in PROTO. I will finish up in a second, but I want to bring a review from CLASH:

‘PROTO’ is stripped down to its traditional roots and then built up again with Herndon’s compositions. No joke: each improvisation session involved a communal meal of soup shared together. “Our vision of technology is that it enables relationships and liberates us to be more human together, which it so often is not designed to do,” explains Herndon, of the approach.

The result is a sort of spacious, algorave glee club. Herndon’s own origins in Eastern Tennessee bring in Appalachian Sacred Harp call-and-response techniques, as well as nods to coal miners’ union songs, church house hymns, and African American field calls. Standout track ‘Frontier’ imports elements of American folk singing and Celtic traditional music over complex percussion. It’s hair-raising, as much a John Cage-esque chance composition as an a cappella ballad.

At times the line connecting human and machine becomes more exacting, as if “Spawn” is pulling at its leash. ‘PROTO’ is operatic but highly tenuous – Herndon stages a radical, tender kind of post-humanism, but she leaves room for the drama of its arrival. The album is full of anticipation. At times it’s ugly and overblown. But it’s a collective vision, one that reflects back on our own inputs into the dataset as well as at our folk stories of survival and resistance”.

I’ll admit that, whilst Holly Herndon’s music might not capture and engross everyone, I do think there are genres such as Electronica that are resigned to the outskirts; many assuming it is quite divisive, niche and cold. In fact, if you listen closely, there are some incredible artists emerging that are taking the genre in new directions. Herndon is a phenomenal artist who has released some simply wonderful music. I love the fact she has introduced AI into her music and she approaches composition almost scientifically. You might assume that would remove some of the humanity and soul; actually, her music is incredibly evocative and bright. There are some darker and less disciplined moments, but I think that creates balance. If you are unsure how to approach Holly Herndon’s music, I would suggest you dip your toes in the waters and…  

EMBRACE it fully.


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