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Holly Herndon Returns to the Avant-Pop Platform 

Wednesday, May 20 2015
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Holly Herndon makes music that sounds like now.

Her songs are a mashup of audio clips from her browser activity, Skype conversations, and recordings of her domestic life that she processes through a laptop while layering, looping, and cutting up her voice. The result? Experimental pop, with lots of different moving parts.

"Home," a track from her new album Platform, begins with the sound of a ball bouncing across the floor, symbolizing, according to Herndon, how easy it is to drop the ball. Soon after, subtle beats lure you in with the soft and steady pulse of a metronome, along with modulations of her voice echoing for attention.

The song is simultaneously a love letter to technology and a breakup letter to whomever is spying on Herndon from the NSA.

"That's one of the important reasons why I made 'Home,' because I love my laptop and I love this technology, but I can also see that with this great ability to be connected, there's also this great ability to be surveilled," Herndon says.

In the "Home" video — a collaboration with the Dutch design group Metahaven — a stranger films Herndon's every move. At times, the entire video screen is taken over by NSA logos that nearly blur out the image of Herndon singing lines such as, "I can feel you in my room ... and it feels like you see me." Filters, words, and graphics push to the forefront of the screen, while Herndon's voice, a comforting soprano, is shattered by sharp cuts and sounds of the world breaking beneath her feet.

Shattering preconceptions has been an essential part of Herndon's work ever since she started performing choral music as a child, back in her hometown of Johnson City in rural Tennessee. Her choral background has served to give her a voice that's nuanced, introspective, and rooted in the classics. After visiting Berlin as a teenager, Herndon was impressed with the city's vibrant art scene, and the multidisciplinary, collaborative nature of the work done there. At 22, she moved to Berlin full time, and became immersed in club culture and techno while studying vocal improvisation.

After spending five years in Germany, Herndon realized that she needed the tools to take her own interest in electronic and experimental music further. She moved back to the U.S. in 2008 and landed at Mills College as a student of the MFA program in electronic music composition. It was there that she began composing her debut album Movement on her laptop.

Mills has a long legacy of influence on experimental and electronic musicians. One of its professors, Pauline Oliveros, was a central figure in San Francisco's experimental electronic music scene of the 1950s and '60s. And although Herndon wasn't a formal student of the Mills College founder of "Deep Listening," Oliveros' focus on intensely listening to, and deciphering, the sounds of everyday life can be heard reverberating decades later throughout Herndon's evolving discography.

The transition between Movement and Platform represents a coming home for Herndon. Movement was an exploration of experimental sound, chopped up intermittently with her signature electronic pop pieces. Platform is more cohesive, with a definite rhythm to it. Each song builds off the last, and even Herndon's most experimental track "Lonely at the Top" seamlessly flows into the avant-garde "DAO," and pop-tech anthems like "Home."

At home, Herndon says, her partner and co-producer, the artist Mat Dryhurst, is almost constantly recording her. Sounds from their domestic life, ranging from a refrigerator door opening to private conversations, are all taped in realtime. Sometimes, she doesn't even know that she's being recorded.

"At the end of 'Home,' you can hear a giggle," Herndon says. "That was from him recording a Skype conversation that we were having, I didn't realize that he was recording it, and so that was a natural and unedited, unabashed laugh/giggle that I'm having with my partner. Whenever I hear that in the song, it's so hyper-personal for me, because it's not like I giggled into a microphone."

It's an apropos metaphor: If we are always being recorded by the government, why not take the same tools, use them to document ourselves, and then reinterpret them the way we choose to? What if we can take control of the intimacy of our technology and use it as a way to engage with others?

These questions — about surveillance, our relationship to technology, and how to create ways to respond to the problems of our age — are at the heart of Platform. Featuring collaborations with artists including Metahaven, producer Amnesia Scanner, artist and programmer Claire Tolan, and the New York-based queer punk hero Colin Self, the album is a platform for different voices and communities interested in using art as a form of activism.

When speaking about her collaboration with Herndon, the ASMR artist Tolan says, "It's called 'Lonely at the Top' because they (the 1 percent) feel like they're trapped at the top of the food chain, and the question is, how do they develop a coping mechanism when there's this vast inequality that's present with the world?"

Throughout Platform, Herndon reveals the many layers of inequality, but instead of reverting to our generation's favorite pastime, solutionism (the belief that all difficulties have solutions), she dives deeply into each problem, seeing it as a prism that can help us understand and shed more light onto possible causes, without offering one-size-fits-all prescriptions. "I'm really interested in responding to my current conditions," Herndon says. "I'm not interested in nostalgia so much. I'm more interested in responding to today, and new problems that arise from the kinds of paradigms we're facing require new emotional responses and emotional modalities that we can use."

Moving on

Having just wrapped up a teaching stint at Stanford, Herndon has joined the ranks of San Francisco musicians who have recently moved to Los Angeles due to increased rents and fewer artistic opportunities in the Bay Area. As I catch up with Herndon by phone, it seems as though she is constantly in motion and transitioning to her next big project. We speak the day after she's returned from the first leg of her European tour and right before she's about to set out for Death Valley, where she will be shooting the music video for another track from Platform, "Morning Sun." It's a ray of light on the album — upbeat pop that you could wake up, dance to, or just as easily feel "happy to be alive" to.

And yet — Herndon's move to Southern California seems unexpected. Her academic and technological grounding is strong in the Bay Area, with several years left at Stanford to complete her doctorate in Computer Music. As artists get pushed farther out of the Bay Area, though, support is becoming virtually nonexistent — unlike in L.A., where Herndon says strong music and arts scenes thrive.

"There is something to be said about a really active and vibrant arts community, and I just don't really see that in San Francisco, and that is something that is happening in L.A., and it's very refreshing and nice," Herndon says.

"If you're going to scrape by and live somewhere expensive, you're going to want to be at the heart of where the activity is," Herndon continues. "San Francisco doesn't have that — it doesn't have much activity to offer for the prices involved. So Los Angeles is kind of an obvious choice."

Compassionate Critiques

Picture a wasted city. Tall buildings reach towards an unkind sky. Computers, keyboards, and monitors lie scattered around, useless now with no one to use them. Somewhere, a crinkle of paper becomes a low rumble. A drum is heard in the distance. A flag is drawn. People rise, leading the charge, trying to take back their city.

That's the sound of "Unequal," Herndon's collaboration with queer punk Colin Self. It's ominously beautiful, and Self's vocals, sung in an early music style, sound like a battle cry in the fight against Techtopia.

Herndon and Self thought of prophets who spoke for their age, both real and imaginary, ranging from Joan of Arc to Katniss Everdeen, to create and offer our generation "a prayer for humanity."

Herndon says, "I imagined [Self] as a Joan of Arc figure, burning at a pyre yet remaining vigilant and optimistic. Inequity, whether it be racial, gendered or economic, is such a pressing topic, and it felt liberating to be able to write something unashamedly emotional."

"Unequal" creates vivid imagery of this sort of uprising, unique to each listener, but it's a moving meditation on what it means to "fight for each other." The sound is evocative of choral hymns, chamber music, and even the way Self's voice reverberates is reminiscent of listening to a church performance.

"Holly's music is like receiving a cochlear implant that gives listeners an expanded sonic territory for listening," Self says. "It sounds like the present moment, our interfaces, the face in front of the computer and a labyrinth of virtual conversations."

Chris Chafe, director of Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, is a pioneer in his field. He's the co-inventor of the brain stethoscope, which monitors brain waves and turns them into sounds that track seizures and brain activity, while synthesizing abstract, yet emotive music.

Chafe has worked with Herndon for three years, and sees her music in a similar light as Self does. He says Herndon's changing what we can do with our voices in computer music, shifting the conversation, and playing with questions of identity, while also creating "empathy by ear."

"There's this very strong, long trajectory over the voice, and doing simulations and manipulations by and with computers, and she's right in there doing things that catch your ear in a way that I find is the primary fascination of why you would do this with a computer in the first place. Because you can get in there and manipulate identity, and that's what she's doing."

Nostalgia has had a very limiting effect on computer music. It makes music from 30 years ago the dominant reference point for the kind of music that is made today. Instead of drawing connections among contemporary musicians like Helena Hauff and Laurel Halo, many have compared Herndon to Laurie Anderson, as she is an artist who made computer music mainstream, while pushing the boundaries of art, visual installations, and performance. But the comparison is too easy — even for listeners who fell in love with Anderson's Big Science or Mister Heartbreak, having heard nothing like them before.

Anderson's early work has a low-fi quality to it. Listening to Big Science today, you wonder: Are we really living in the future Anderson envisioned? While Anderson's music remains classic, the tools used on Big Science firmly root the music in the '80s.

Instead of using retro synthesizers, Herndon manipulates sounds from software that she has made herself, after making recordings of the white noise of our generation. Her music responds to current emotional conditions, as mundane as waiting for a text message while seeing the elusive "...." to reacting to our government's spying program. These are emotional problems that could not be envisioned or dealt with at the time Big Science was conceived, and while it is a classic album, it's important we make space in music for the new classic.

"I think with a lot of female artists, it's like, 'Oh, she's the new PJ Harvey,' or 'She's the new Björk,'" Herndon says. She has to be the new someone. Herndon dares to be herself.


About The Author

Michelle Threadgould

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