Chances are your feelings about computer technologies range from the suspicious to the scared shitless. AI has always lived at the apocalyptic reaches of the scale; seemingly the natural end point of technology gone wrong being a robot that stops obeying its master and instead decides it wants us all dead. For added chill, Hollywood will give these disobedient killing machines human form so lifelike as to be undetectable in the street, plunging us into a world of absolute mistrust and perpetual fear. From Blade Runnerto Ex Machina, to Postman Pat: The Movie, we’ve repeatedly been told to distrust AI since at least 2001: A Space Odyssey’s murderous spacecraft pilot HAL 9000.
Herndon and Dryhurst firmly reject such kitsch ideas of a possible dystopia but agree that we should all be critical of technology and certainly those who control it. The tech threat they have always focused on is more real than HAL 9000, and already upon us.
When I ask Herndon if she ever feels scared by technology, she says: “Of course. We all are. With Platform, the whole album was about the power of these [social media] platforms, and how much they shape our lives, and a few years later Facebook swung the election. It’s not even a joyous thing like, ‘I told you so’, but at shows years ago we were like, ‘leave Facebook’. It wasn’t a surprise – this shit has been clear.
“The internet was the wild west; now it a mall,” she says. “That wasn’t the cyberpunk dream. And then you see Congress trying to grill Mark Zuckerberg and they’re asking him how their iPhones works. That’s a different company! You’re not going to be able to take care of it.”
The use of Spawn on PROTOis likely to lead some to be instantly dismissive of it. After all, the big headline of the record is ‘Holly Herndon’s made an album with AI’, which is not just open to oversimplification but false assumption too. That assumption is essentially this: Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst built an AI machine and called it Spawn, which then did all the work for them and spat out this record of weird, twisted electronics – as if it wasn’t bad enough that she already makes all her music on a laptop. For some, the fear of AI here is even greater than a killer-bot uprising; it’s taking away our precious music: the purest expression of mankind; the closest thing we have to magic, no more legitimate than when wire strings are stretched across wood and pressed with real life fingers.
It’s a little woolly, but I get it… although it’s not true in this case. Because while PROTOwas created using elements of AI, Herndon and Dryhurst weren’t interested in automation (that assumption comes from a narrow view of what AI can be used for). In fact, if manual labour is a currency of authenticity in music, PROTOis more legitimate than most guitar records I can think of. As Herndon explains to me exactly how Spawn works, she notes that Spawn is only one member of an ensemble of 14 that includes Dryhurst and developer Jules LaPlace. The remaining members of the group are vocalists who would meet to “feed” Spawn by singing and talking to her.
Perhaps it’s worth us defining what an AI (or, to be more accurate, ‘machine learning’) is before we go any further: broadly speaking, it’s a machine that receives information and from that interaction gains some more information that it can then do something with. The original information you feed into your AI is called a data set, and usually comes from an open source online. But Holly wrote her own data sets, which she then taught to her ensemble who then read and sang them to Spawn in an attempt to teach her to not just repeat what she heard, but to learn more of the language from. PROTO’s purest example of this is a collaboration with footwork producer Jlin called ‘Godmother’ – a wilfully ugly sounding track of stutters and hisses. When I inevitably ask Herndon if she feels affection for her AI baby, she says she felt it most on ‘Godmother’, when Spawn started to sing in her voice, where it sounds like she’s beat-boxing like Timberland. “And believe me, I have neverbeat-boxed,” she cries. “I was horrified when I heard it. But it was also hilarious, because it’s the mix of singing and speech and her trying to make sense of that.”
Typically, PROTOwas made thus: once Dryhurst had put Spawn together in a gaming PC, and LaPlace had begun developing her without learning parameters, Herndon and her group of vocalists would sing and read to her for hours (including one public training performance of 300 people, to teach Spawn how to create music from a large gathering of voices). For two years this went on, originally delivering mostly noise, until one day, after 6 months, “we thought, finally, something that doesn’t sound like shit. Which is why a lot of people aren’t fucking with AI,” says Herndon, “because it’s annoying, and there was the first 6 months when everything sounded like ass.”
The project’s breakthrough moment features as PROTO’s opening track, ‘Birth’ – a holy tone over which Spawn garbles to life in Herndon’s voice. “That was when we were first really excited,” she says. “There were words in there that I wasn’t even saying. Like, she says ‘cunt’. Kids say the darndest things,” she laughs.
Where ‘Birth’ is minimal and only 75 seconds long, the rest of PROTO’s production could only just begin. Using the tradition of musique concrete,think of it this way – Holly Herndon could have sourced a bunch of sound as material from anywhere within an hour and then started to make her third album with it, beginning the process of tirelessly iterating and drawing on her own compositional skills to add her own elements. There would have still been months of work ahead of her to create a record as emotive and unique in sound as PROTOis. Instead of that, she spent two years generating her source material by educating herself in AI and training an AI baby with a community of people that at one point totalled 300 at Berlin exhibition hall Martin-Groupius-Bau. “So it’s not about automating the composition process or trying to replace that at all,” Herndon stresses. “It’s about trying to find what’s aesthetically interesting and new with this new technology which can be used in a compositional environment.”
She points out that most AI experiments in music have gone down a far simpler route of imitation of composition, rather than using sound as material. So a study teaches an AI how Bach would use notes (their pitch, length and rhythm) and set the parameters for the machine to learn from that and create their own Bach-like pieces of music. “For me, that’s really not interesting,” says Herndon. “That leads to this retromania and repetition of itself. We were much more interested in sound as material. And it’s more personal because you’re training it on a person and their sound.
“Putting the ensemble together was part of the broader PROTOapproach,” she goes on. “We saw how fully automated electronic music was becoming – and of course I’ve been part of that: drum machines, computer music etc. – and we wondered where that can go and where the human fits into live performance, especially within these super synchronised AV hybrid DJ sets. We were questioning where do humans fit into this. What things are worth preserving and what things are worth automating? To do that I wanted to work with humans, still working with the computer as the brain. And so that’s why we started the PROTO ensemble. And we saw Spawn as part of the ensemble, and Jules [LaPlace]. Part of that was having them over and us singing together, which I’d record, and a lot of that I’d train Spawn on. Then I’d cook for everyone, which sounds really hippy.”
Having taken German at school solely to “get the fuck out of east Tennessee”, these elements of a record that seems so technologically advanced are rooted in Herndon’s earthy upbringing, from singing in choirs to making soup for others. After two albums of little face-to-face interaction (Movementwas very much a solo album, while the collaborators on Platformwere largely reached online) Herndon missed people. She says: “One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because I was really lonely in the studio. Of course there is still a lot of that – after the recordings someone has to sit there and listen to every single take for hours – but that human contact was a huge part of it.”
So rather than PROTObeing a symbol (and warning sign) of how humans could even be made obsolete within making music, it’s quite the opposite – Herndon is using tech to get more human interaction into her life.
“That’s the whole point,” she says, “technology should free us up to be more human. That’s what it should be doing, so we don’t have to go through these machine-like motions. The human body has been like a machine since industrialisation, so how can technology get the body out of these machine-like motions so we can be more human together. That’s the vision.”
It brings to mind Herndon’s views on collecting vinyl – something she doesn’t do, much to the horror of some. But her argument in her defence is not just pragmatic but honourably egalitarian as it sticks up for modern technology. Put simply, digital music has made music instantly accessible in every corner of the world, more regardless of wealth and class than ever before. Even in terms of sharing music with a friend, they don’t need to come over to pick up your LP anymore. Should that convenience not be celebrated? Is that not an example of technology freeing us up to be more human?