Quite extraordinary craft: Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon, London, February 2, 2013

Originally published in The Bomber Jacket, February 2013.

It’s February in London. Kraftwerk, whose influence has cast a looming shadow over electronic music since the early 1970s, are in town, bringing their retrospective to the London’s Tate Modern art gallery. But for those more interested in the future of electronic music than its past, sound artist Holly Herndon’s London début – across the river and a few miles to the east in Café Oto’s tiny performance space – is a much more enticing prospect.

Herndon’s début album, ‘Movement’ (RVNG Intl) has attracted glowing praise since its release late last year. The album, as well as Herndon’s 40 minute-odd mix for FACT magazine, which dropped this week, has been praised for the ways in which they meld the rigours of avant-garde electronic music with the more rugged end of club music.

It’s been popular in recent years to criticise electronic music events for their passivity. Herndon turns this cliché on its head. Speaking to FACT magazine in November 2012, Herndon described the laptop as ‘the most personal instrument that the world has ever seen’, and her concerts can be seen as a way to highlight both the personal and performative aspects of her music. At Café Oto, the effect is mesmerizing.

There’s no intro music, and no announcement. Elbowing through the crowd, Herndon picks up a microphone attached to her laptop. A low ‘sshhh’ grows into a metallic drone, immediately silencing the crowd. Sound somehow grows brittle, and then shatters, seemingly sending shards of sound over the heads of the rapt audience. Café Oto has no stage – the performers are on the same level as the audience – so from now on we’re up close and personal.

On ‘Movement’, Herndon’s beat-driven tracks (‘Fade’, ‘Movement’) alternate with more angular, jagged, rhythm-less works. Herndon samples, fractures and distorts her own and others’ voices, merging them deep into the fabric of the song so that it is difficult to tell where the human ends and the machine starts, for example, or using wordless sounds to make our own, human voices sound strange and alien (‘Dilato’, ‘Breathe’).

In performance, this merging of software and humanity is also a merging of the experimental and elemental sides of Herndon’s work. Before taking a master’s in electronic music at Mills College, California and, latterly, a PhD in electronic music at Stanford, Herndon spent several years living in Berlin, becoming part of the underground music scene there.

Now she has our attention, Herndon starts working the crowd. This is no lame album playback – the abstract textures of ‘Movement’ are underpinned by rugged drums and bass lines, with no pauses between tunes. A scrawny, curly-headed man in front of me starts jerking and shaking. As the acid house squelches of ‘Movement’ (the song) start up, I realise he is dancing. Herndon meanwhile is singing wordless sounds into her microphone while simultaneously controlling sounds and rhythms on her laptop and mixer, the sound endlessly mutating with each new bar.

Herndon has cited Donna Haraway’s theories of cyborgs, feminism and technology as early influences on her thinking and music. The image of the cyborg, a hybrid of the machine and organism, resonates with Herndon’s desire to use ‘technology to expand and augment human emotion’, as she said in an interview with British website music The Quietus last year.

As the gig progresses, I’m reminded more and more of this image. The treated vocal sounds seem to be breathing life into the software. Then, mid-way through, Herndon puts down the microphone and picks up two small contact mics, and starts sweeping them across the her laptop keyboard, generating crashing piano chords and white noise. Later, she uses the mics to play yet more vocal sounds – the left hand, sweeping above and cross the keyboard, producing a long, pure tone, while the right hand performs a zigzagging motion resulting in a spacey, tremolo effect.

The evening’s final track, ‘Fade’, sees Herndon introducing her own vocals again. Over a tough, Detroit-techno inspired beat, she intones ‘we… have … gone … too… far…’  manipulated and cut up these sound like emissions from a distant galaxy, or, like the Voyager satellite in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture, our own transmissions run through the filter of a superior intelligence and played back to us.

Then it finishes, and the audience applaud rapturously. It’s been a short yet, but an involving one. Herndon’s work is a shot across the bows for conventional electronic music, and we should pay close attention to the direction she’s plotting.

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