Deep musical therapy – Holly Herndon, Aisha Devi and Jlin are Queens Of The Electronic Underground

A night of challenging and absorbing sonics in Manchester

The 2019 edition of Manchester International Festival has been a platform for a heavyweight roster of world-leading female talent: Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Janelle Monáe, and Maxine Peake, to name just a few. Tonight at Manchester’s Ritz, BBC Radio 6 Music’s Mary Anne Hobbs has assembled a squad of female electronic composers to rival any bill in the world.  Across seven hours, seven sets of vanguard-taunting music give glimpses of seven different futures, all so far unfamiliar, all brimming with untapped potential, ranging from the voice-manipulated abstract pop of Los Angeles’ Katie Gately to the unpredictable attack of heavy metal field recording artist Klara Lewis.

Early on Swiss producer Aisha Devi brings a bold, aggressive energy to the night. Out of a bed of cold, stark ambience, stabs of intrusion harpoon through the Ritz, seducing occasional dance moves before pummelling the very idea of them out of the atmosphere again with a synthetic sledgehammer. There is little to no familiarity to the structure of her set, creating an appealingly disorienting feeling in the room, which is now beginning to fill. Devi’s music is the very definition of underground: not familiar enough to pigeonhole snugly into a movement, not identifiable enough to quite see yet where it’s pointing us, we just know that it knows the way forward, and we are willing to follow.

Holly Herndon’s performance

Holly Herndon has been making headlines this year with the release of her third album Proto, a project built from the ground up using artificial intelligence technology. In Herndon’s own words, the record is a newborn AI baby that she would feed with her written compositions. In turn ‘Spawn’, as the baby is named, would repurpose the music and regurgitate the output back to Herndon, who would then continue work on it, and so on until she felt it to be complete. On stage tonight, she is joined by five singers, an apparent break from tradition for her live performances. The result is a polyphonic wash of sound that is as challenging as it is absorbing. It is an internalised experience – take the journey into the depths of your own listening experience and you begin to tune into the interplay between the strands of Herndon and Spawn’s compositions, and the rewards come in on a tidal wave of revelation. Judging by the huge reactions after each piece, it would appear that many in the room are finding the same. Momentary vocal harmony breaks call to mind the great records of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, before jolting us off in a brand new direction once again. It is a form of deep musical therapy.

The headline slot is owned tonight by Indiana producer (photographed, top) Jlin, the modern standard bearer for the Chicago subgenre of footwork. Her set is a locomotive express, a maniacally syncopated and turbocharged body of music that inculcates you into its speed of life, like your heart has been wired up to her drum machine and you have to keep up to stay alive. Taking on the traditions established by the late DJ Rashad, Jlin is out there on virgin ground now, a true musical trailblazer. Her set is enhanced by flashes of sound, light and ideas, each one shattering the moment that it appears. Chopped up snatches of vocals form the basis of the tone but clarify nothing. Jlin herself remains behind a stage-obscuring veil throughout; realistically, we are all behind Jlin’s veil when it comes to understanding her music. On an experiential level, though, it is an essential experience for fans of experimental music, something that can be said of this festival event in general. In this age of reckoning for gender balance in festival booking, MIF has shown itself to be once again setting the agenda, rather than catching up with it.

O2 Ritz, Manchester, Saturday 20 July

Photos: Festival / Gemma Parker / Priti Shikotra