An audience with Holly Herndon is a bit like the coolest university seminar you could ever hope for. Within the space of an hour I receive a crash course in musical lexicography, Detroit techno, philosophical design, digital neo-feudalism, Internet security, social theory, visual programming and the machinations of corporate espionage. By the end of our time together I’m left with even more questions than answers despite an almost exhilarating overload of information along the way.
The blitzkrieg of perspectives, theories and references might be overwhelming – even exhausting at times – but it comes as no surprise to anybody familiar with Herndon’s CV. Already a Master of Fine Arts graduate from Oakland, California’s Mills College, the Tennessee native is currently a doctoral candidate in composition at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. It’s the same place where composer John M. Chowning first discovered the FM synthesis algorithm in the ‘60s, later licensing it to Yamaha for use in their famous DX7 digital synthesiser.
Herndon isn’t just here to show off her own intellectual chops though. She’s taking time out of her career in academia to promote her second record, ‘Platform’, which comes out later this month on 4AD. Even the ostensibly straightforward title holds significance, borrowed from design and philosophy theorist Benedict Singleton and referring to his concept of creating a platform through which we can come together to define our collective future.
We’re here to talk about the music contained therein but there’s a snag: it’s almost completely indescribable. In previous interviews Herndon has talked about a book by Joanna Demers called Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, which explores the lack of a suitable musicology lexicon around the sort of music she makes. I tell her that makes my job pretty difficult.
I’m not getting off that easily. “I’m not going to do your job for you!” she laughs, popping some sugar into her tea. We’re sat in a roped-off area of the bar at the modish Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, but Herndon isn’t indulging. It’s still early afternoon and in any case, she’s got plenty of other people like me to see before the day is done. On press shots she often looks saucer-eyed and cold – almost austere – but away from the high-concept photo shoots and face-to-face under the soft lights of the bar she’s rosy-cheeked and disarmingly pretty.
“Thinking about the lexicon – that’s a good word – I was teaching a class last term at Stanford and we kind of came head-to-head with this issue quite a bit because we were dealing with students from really diverse backgrounds. Like we had students from the electrical engineering department, the physics department or the music department, so we were like using vocabulary from all over the place and trying to find the right words [to describe certain pieces of music]; trying to help the students find their own words.
“I think it’s important when people are writing about music that they draw from their own experience as well and not from this prescribed kind of…” List of genres? “Well you’ve just got to draw from what you know. Maybe you don’t have to draw from other music references, maybe you draw from the other literature you’re reading. So that’s my non-answer for you!”
Okay then, here goes. Herndon’s music represents the raison d’être for magazines like Wire: electronic music that’s entirely emancipated from the past, impossibly futuristic and unapologetically experimental. Each track tends to involve glitchy vocal contortions paired with field recordings and painstakingly programmed synthesiser modulations stretched across invariably unorthodox time signatures.
Herndon’s voice is key. “It often starts with a vocal improvisation within whatever system I’ve set up,” she says of her recording process. “So on [new track] ‘An Exit’ for example, I was like, oh my God I can make my voice sound like a violin, so that’s how it started. You know it’s always kind of some weird vocal thing that I’m doing, then usually a rhythm and then everything else is kind of fitted in.”
It’s a polite oversimplification of more than 15 years’ refinement of her craft. Herndon first crossed paths with electronic music during a German exchange programme as a teenager. It was a formative experience. Immersing herself in Berlin’s minimal techno scene, she would go on to live in the city for five years, DJing on the club circuit and making her first tentative steps into music production, including an ill-fated stint learning to play contrabass with a Russian tutor.
Realising that she didn’t have to play an instrument to realise her ambitions as a music composer, Herndon instead sought to explore the possibilities of laptop production, eventually moving to California to enrol in a Masters in Electronic Music and Recording Media at Mills College. “I was just kind of noodling around with like sequencers and not at all knowing what I was doing until I went there,” she laughs. “That’s when I learned from [San Franciscan composer] John Bischoff. He started the first network computer ensemble – I think this was in the late ’70s – they were using the KIM 1, which is an early computer that basically looks like a calculator.”
It was at Mills that Herndon first began to experiment with Max/MSP, a powerful visual programming language for music and multimedia that allows direct manipulation and reprogramming of digital synthesisers. Nowadays the software forms a fundamental part of her production arsenal, along with the more conventional likes of Ableton Live. It’s one of the ways through which Herndon is able to push her music beyond traditional genres.
“Electronic music has a wonderful history of futurism but then sometimes it’s like the snake eating its tail or something,” she says. “We get obsessed with futurism from the past, so it becomes like retro-futurism. I mean the idea of futurism is quite prevalent in electronic music but whether or not that is an actual 2015 future or a 1980 ‘future’ is quite an issue.”
For ‘Platform’, Herndon was keen to continue routing her own sense of futurism to the present. She sought out key collaborators to build upon her innovative compositional approach and reach beyond her own personal perceptions. “Yeah it was me trying not to be so naval-gazey,” she laughs. Dutch design and research studio Metahaven were particularly influential, shaping the videos for ‘Interference’ and ‘Home’ as well as contributing to the aesthetic of the music itself. “One thing I loved about their work is that they’re amazing aesthetes and amazing designs but they’ve made it a really fundamental part of their practice to use their visual, aesthetic language in the service of other ideas and political topics that they’re tackling,” she says. “So that was hugely inspirational and I would like to be able to apply the same approach to my work.”
Herndon also used her lyrics to explore and respond to reflect on modernity, spending a lot of time focusing on the intersectionality of technology and the personal; the private and public spheres and the way in which the pervasion of technology is blurring these, for better and worse. On ‘Home’, she tackles the intrusion of agencies like the NSA into daily life as she sings: “I know that you know me better than I know me.”
I mention the idea of the Panopticon, conceived by philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham as a hypothetical prison of total surveillance and self-policing. Herndon picks up the thread. “I have this sometime collaborator, Hannes Grassegger. He’s this economist in Switzerland and his dad was a victim of corporate espionage in the ‘80s. Like an American guy came over there and spied on him, he thought they were really good friends, the guy went to his daughter’s wedding, then he found out [about the espionage] later.
“Hannes was telling me that since finding out, the way his family communicate — on the phone, or in an e-mail or in any documented way – has changed because their family was violated in that way. You know, when you start to see your language change… When the language changes, then your brain and the way connections are made begins to change and that structure is changing you, like mentally and physically. The same could be said for the NSA and the way they’re reading our e-mails, you know; the way we change our behaviour, that can have a real physical and mental impact on us. I liked that story a lot.”
For all its weighty societal considerations, though, Herndon likes to think of her music as intrinsically optimistic. Just as the Internet and technology might represent omnipresent intrusion into our lives, so too can those same things bring us together. One of her party tricks at recent gigs has been to pull up an enlarged Facebook invitation for her gig on to a big screen, then trawl through invitees’ photos, updates and relationship statuses in front of a crowd torn between voyeuristic curiosity and mock-horror about who’s on parade next.
Some of Herndon’s positivity stems from her Tennessee family and their Southern spirit. “My family’s like the happiest,” she says with a smile. “They sing and dance in the kitchen and stuff. My partner [fellow composer and collaborator Mat Dryhurst] is British and he’s like, ‘Whoah!’”
Mostly though, Herndon just sees the potential for good in the modern connected world. “I think often, especially in orthodox electronic music circles, we can often get really depressed with the realities of today and use that as a springboard to have kind of an introspective, escapist aesthetic,” she argues. “I’m more interested in an outward-facing, optimistic aesthetic where we’re trying to imagine what we’d want it to be instead of just being upset with the way that it is.”
One of the tracks on the new record – ‘Lonely at the Top’ – showcases ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. It’s a perceptual phenomenon involving sounds and other stimuli that produce pleasurable tingling sensations in people that experience them. For some people that might be the sound of rain on glass, or rustling paper. Entire communities have sprung up online dedicated to creating and sending these sounds amongst themselves – proof positive, says Herndon, that the Internet can touch our lives in real and physical ways.
“The prevailing idea is that the Internet and our conversations on the Internet are not real and we’re not really connected and it’s dissolving relationships and whatever. I like ASMR as an example of people actually physically connecting over the Internet, sending each other these sounds, comforting and soothing each other. I think it’s a really sweet and optimistic community online.”
Herndon enlisted the help of ASMR expert Claire Tolan to keep things fresh. Tolan whispers comically aggrandising nothings into the listener’s ear in sweet, dulcet tones. “I didn’t want to just do like a regular ASMR song,” says Herndon, “there are so many of them online and I didn’t need to add to that cannon. I thought it would be funny to make a critique of the 1% and how, if you’re born into that privilege, you can convince yourself that you deserve that privilege; it’s not through fate, rather that you, as a person, are so exceptional that you deserve to have all these opportunities that other people don’t have. It’s almost like a coping mechanism.”
Optimistic or otherwise, it’s hard to shake the sense that much of Herndon’s music trades in high-minded intellectualism. A few weeks ago Herndon moved beyond the cosseted technology bubble of San Francisco and Silicon Valley to Los Angeles. Later this year she’s scheduled to play headline shows and festival slots.
I wonder, is there any doubt about managing to translate these complex messages across new horizons? “We really underestimate audiences sometimes,” she insists. “Like, yes, give people enough so that they’re not totally alienated. But also, people are smart and intelligent and everybody’s playlist is way more interesting than we give them credit for. People can handle something a little bit off-kilter; we don’t have to pander to them all the time. Just give people some access points and they’ll go with you on your journey.”