Type “Will A.I. replace?” into Google and its own complex set of code will auto populate a list of suggestions from doctors to teachers, lawyers to humans. “Musicians” doesn’t make the top ten but with artificial intelligence increasingly infiltrating the way music is made, it’s becoming an increasingly valid question.
For many it’s a frightening prospect; a dehumanization of something inherently emotional. But as the PR headlines of “first album ever created by A.I.!” become more frequent, how A.I. is incorporated into production is going to get more interesting. It’s certainly how Holly Herndon sees it; technology and modern computing consistent themes in her work. On her debut, Movement, Herndon created custom instruments and vocal processes using visual programming software. On its follow up, Platform, she experimented with everything from sampling her internet browsing habits to triggering Autonomous sensory meridian response (a tingling sensation on the skin that moves down the back of the neck).
Third album PROTO is no less technologically curious with Herndon creating an “A.I. baby” called Spawn to help comprise a choir of both human and A.I. voices. Presumably opener ‘Birth’ speaks to that genesis – the early moments of something not really living but learning to live; mimicking not because it understands but because that’s what it’s programmed to do.
It’s indicative of the process behind the album with human touch and bias acting as the catalyst with the technology learning through data, custom hard-coded rules and any other measure of binary alchemy. And in that context, PROTO sounds both like and unlike the sum of its parts: impersonal but human, robotic but curiously beautiful.
‘Eternal’ strikes the balance between the contrasts of being and machine with vocals flashing and floating above dramatically dystopian dance tropes. That symbiosis is uglier and more honest in the garbled electronica of ‘Godmother’ but then unusually alluring in the digital paganism of ‘Frontier’ or the Enya-routed-through-a-modem drift of ‘SWIM’.
By the end, ‘Last Gasp’ captures an odd sense of death – like watching the LEDs go out of Johnny 5’s eyes. Because for all of the unsettling babbling and creepy imitation, Herndon doesn’t want to “live in a world where humans are automated off stage” and as such, Spawn often feels part of the ensemble, not an instrument of it. That contributes towards making PROTO a compelling, if not always a comfortable, listen, and perhaps less a question of “Will A.I. replace musicians?” and more “Do androids dream of electronic beats?”