Release Date: May 10, 2019
Record label: 4AD
On each of her albums, Holly Herndon thoughtfully examines the boundaries between humankind and technology, and how our innovations define us as much as we define them. She began her explorations with the sketches of physical and virtual intimacy that made up 2012's Movement and broadened her scope on 2014's Platform, where her self-surveillance of her everyday online interactions ranged from mundane to unsettling. On 2019's PROTO, she takes another significant step forward.
Holly Herndon makes music with that most personal of instruments: her computer, a machine used not only to weave together complex electronic compositions but also to access the frightening and spectacular realm of the internet. In her work, the Berlin-based composer wrestles with systems, both the soft internal system of the psyche and the equally mysterious phenomena of social-media networks, recommendation algorithms, and panopticon surveillance. Herndon's voice featured prominently on her first two albums, skittering across dense electronic compositions, her words hard to make out and her presence difficult to pin down.
Any discussion of Holly Herndon's newest album, PROTO, must start with how it was conceived, but it doesn't have to end there. Herndon, her partner Mat Dryhurst, and programmer Jules LaPlace brought to life an "A.I. baby", name of Spawn, who was taught to translate arrangements from Herndon and a slew of collaborators, resulting in something beyond any sort of "futuristic" descriptor.
Yet however monolithic, coldly rational and value-free artificial intelligence and automation appear in the popular imagination, the way they will affect societies, and to what ends, depends entirely on the political and ethical choices that the powers-that-be make today. Holly Herndon , the San Francisco-based sound artist and composer, is adamant that we should embrace and explore these new opportunities, liberating us to be "more human together". Where previous albums Movement and Platform focused on the laptop as a conduit for embodied, personal expression, on PROTO Herndon asks how we might empower new forms of collective creativity in the age of machine learning.
Holly Herndon is relatively anomalous in the music community, for believing that artificial intelligence can be a welcome addition to the compositional process rather than a threat to it. On Proto she co-created and utilised an AI program called Spawn, which was taught how to understand a cappella singing - as heard in the two 'live training' interludes - and while the concept might sound wacky it makes a lot of sense in an era where singers are becoming increasingly inseparable from their specific vocal production setup. The album opens with the brief but immersive Birth, full of wordless vocals twisted by granular synthesis and garbled attempts at speech, following on with the epic Alienation.
In 2019, a year that once sounded so far-off and futuristic that we feared humans would be indistinguishable from androids by now, we're still talking about artificial intelligence in rigid, unknowable terms. It's the revolution that's always just around the corner. Of course, AI is already embedded in our lives in variously banal and sinister ways.
What does it take to make an Americana record with artificial intelligence (AI)? Roving caravans of Amazon warehouse workers searching for seasonal labour throughout the American South; rust belt cities desperate to become a hub for tech start-ups, gentrification and all; or maybe Haight-Ashbury tech workers fighting for union recognition. Holly Herndon's 'PROTO' tracks the folk music education of an AI named "Spawn", and offers a sonic alternative to our tech hellworld. Like any good folk record, there's ambivalence here.
Holly Herndon by Boris Camaca "Amidst a lot of misleading AI hype, it communicates something honest about the state of this technology; it is still a baby. It is important to be cautious that we are not raising a monster." says Holly Herndon about Spawn, the AI program developed by now-Dr Herndon and partner/collaborator Mat Dryhurst which was used to create PROTO. The process challenges her own position as composer - she writes and plays the music before programming it into Spawn to produce its own sonic ideas.
T here's something soothing about how rubbish Google's new predictive email tools are - if AI can't work out what you want to tell your accounts department, then it won't be organising a Terminator-style insurrection any time soon. So what hope does AI have for composing music, if bland office missives are too creatively challenging? California-based electronic composer Holly Herndon considers this moment of slowly emergent machine learning on her third album. Alongside the musicians in her ensemble is Spawn, an AI she created with husband Mat Dryhurst and developer Jules LaPlace, that listened to what the group was composing and mimicked it to create music of its own.