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Monday, August 10, 2015

A Homecoming for Holly Herndon, the Queen of Techtopia

Posted By on Mon, Aug 10, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge holly_kid_who_fainted_1_.jpg
Holly Herndon takes the stage, and begins communicating to the audience on her laptop. She sends a message to all of us on the projection behind her. "SHOUT TO THE KID WHO FAINTED," referencing a fan who passed out in the front row and had to be carried off, never to be seen again. "PUTTING US ALL TO SHAME," Herndon types. She doesn't speak because she doesn't have to. Her laptop is her voice, and it makes her instrument even more human.

The screen is over-taken by 3-D images of humans skewered by the word "LOVE." Mini office landscapes of office environments complete with crumpled paper, laptops, and half-filled coffee cups spiral on-screen and are chopped-up by floating pieces of corn, steak, and cabbage. While the images that are featured are familiar, and sound mundane, the shadows created across Herdon's face, and how each image floats, as if it were in space with zero gravity, gives a kind of levity to the room. Designed by programmer and artist Akihiko Taniguchi, who collaborated with Herndon on her music video for "Chorus," the visuals in the art installation match Herndon's Avant-pop aesthetic.

This summer, Herndon told SF Weekly, "We're trying to figure out how to hack the tour model a little bit, so it's not just like we pull into different cities and then we play the same thing every night, and it's not really responsive. We're trying to figure out how to make it way more site-specific and way more two-directional conversation with the audience, and trying to integrate some of the other thinkers and some of the people who influenced the album, into the live show."

As Herndon starts performing "Chorus," each layer of sound shakes the room. Whenever she sings, she digitally modifies her voice, so that the sounds coming from her microphone never matches what you are seeing coming from her mouth. It is like watching the alien from The Fifth Element perform an opera, you have no idea what she is saying or how she is doing it, but the sheer power, strangeness, and the way that her voice fills up the room keeps you captivated.

At the front of the stage, the audience acts like it's worshipping at the alter of Herndon. The hands of her followers solemnly touch the stage, with their eyes closed, feeling the vibrations of the music, and in some way letting the spirit of techtopia possess them. Others, as if at a Pentecostal revival, jerk back and forth, hands up, ready to embrace their own salvation. Herndon delivers.

And in between songs, she sends her followers new messages. She types about coming back from touring Germany, "Berghain, the only place where artists from SF and tech ppl from SF actually hang out," before describing what it was like meeting so many journalists who are in hiding, like Edward Snowden, for doing their job. She types, "So a healthy fuck the nsa this evening."

As Herndon performs the song "Home," her breakup and love letter to the person spying on her from the NSA, she sings, "I know that you know me better than I know me." Sounds from her domestic life, a refrigerator door opening, a ball bouncing, steps on hardwood floors are all recorded and layered together to create an ominous intimacy to the track, mirroring what the NSA's invasion of privacy feels like in our lives.

"I think it's important not to see things in black and white terms, and I think that this happens so often in music, we're either pro technology or anti-technology, and technology doesn't necessarily have it's own agency — it's just part of society, and part of human thought and human will, and so it's going to have all of the wonderful things and all of the terrible things." Herndon told SF Weekly.

Watching Herndon's performance, the audience was left impressed by all of the ways she revealed how technology is changing music and our lives. The show was collaborative and let the audience into her process. When Herndon left the stage, you were left wondering: when will the queen of techtopia return?

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Michelle Threadgould

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