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Holly Herndon – PROTO Review

May 13, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Holly Herndon - PROTO
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Holly Herndon – PROTO Review  

01. Birth
02. Alienation
03. Canaan (Live Training)
04. Eternal
05. Crawler
06. Extreme Love (with Lily Anna Hayes and Jenna Sutela)
07. Frontier
08. Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
09. SWIM
10. Evening Shades (Live Training)
11. Bridge (with Martine Syms)
12. Godmother (with Jlin)
13. Last Gasp

Normally the term “serious musician” is reserved for the dull, but proficient, serving as a thinly veiled insult rather than a genuine compliment. Holly Herndon, on the other hand, is a serious musician in the most literal sense. She is deeply invested in the creative process on an intellectual level having recently attained a PhD from Stanford’s Center for Computer Research In Music and Acoustics. Each of her albums serves as a thesis on society and technology. Her ethereal machine music holds a mirror up to our distorted, symbiotic internet-aged existence: capturing how our lives have become splintered, augment and enriched by the uneasy merger of our URL and IRL identities.

PROTO represents a dramatic leap away from the complex fragmented compositions of old and toward the world of machine learning. Alongside her partner Mat Dryhurst and programmer Jules LaPlace, Herndon has created an AI named Spawn, that serves as her newest bandmate and collaborator. Spawn echoes, mimics, mutilates and spews out its own interpretation of Holly’s music: fumbling around in the dark towards some kind of creative consciousness. Employed throughout the album as a quasi-backing singer turned producer, Spawn’s very existence provides both the impetus for the project and its intellectual underpinnings. Holly is diving headlong into the world of algorithmic reinterpretation, AI creativity, and, in a strange way, motherhood. In the process, the entire future of human agency is thrown into question.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as is so often the case with attempts at creating either a nightmarish or euphoric vision of the future, it is the most decidedly human and archaic sounds that shine through. The two “Live Training” tracks (which should be enough to convince anyone to buy a ticket to Herndon’s upcoming tour) might involve live machine manipulation, but in truth speak so strongly to that great anti-digital bastion: religion. “Canaan” is a hauntingly beautiful choral piece that recalls paganism of the Viking age and the Celtic songs of harth and home. “Evening Shades” is trippier still: more obviously distorted, but equally rooted in the traditional arts. The vocals may glitch and lag, but the immediate thought is of solemn Gregorian chant or even the hopeless, but defiant songs emanating from below decks on a slave ship (as opposed to anything remotely digital).

Concessions to humanity litter the project: most notably in PROTO’s warped, tortured and at times uneasy atmosphere. “Crawler” echoes the first stages of consciousness, as a newborn gropes for form and understanding. It is genuinely inspiring to hear crystal clear bursts of bird song and rippling waves break through the hazy sonic abstractions as the world slowly comes into view. Rather than the endless repetitions of machine learning (the slow, clinical refinement as more data is fed in), PROTO instead feels like a commentary on the limited human understanding of intelligence and awareness. The trauma and uncertainty is Herndon’s (and our own), Spawn may be learning like a babe, but it has no feelings on the matter.

Unsurprisingly, given the hysterical state of the headlines and popular science regarding our algorithmic overlords (not without some justification), a mood of paranoia, faint hope and skittish alienation pervades – which is strange: after all, why would machine music be so inherently apprehensive? Granted we’ve all seen the charming fragility of ultra modern robots struggling to open doors before eventually getting the hang of it, but trepidation is not the sound of the digital age. Instead, it’s crisp, confident and efficient. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. In “Crawler’s” final moments, when clarity emerges and  the human vocals suddenly ring clear asking: “Why am I so lost?” Perhaps this isn’t the cry of a machine struggling to interpret, but laments of data mined human beings mourning their newfound lack of purpose.

Part of PROTO’s joy lies in engaging with these big philosophical questions amidst all the strange alien oddness. At times the album does have the air of art installation (“Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt”), but it would be wrong to dismiss Herndon’s compositional skills. This is a pop album after all. It is being released for consumption and repeated listening and, when she wants to, Herndon can move toward outright banger territory. “Frontier” starts with a serenely resilient blend of shifting forced harmonies and cries, before chopping and bopping its way towards a seductively danceable beat. Lead single “Eternal” is even better, already one the year’s best songs, its treatment of the human voice is intoxicatingly despairing and perfectly paired with a monumental percussion track.

PROTO proves that Herndon knows the power of clarity amid confusion and her vocal has a tremendous power when it fleetingly breeches the experimental surface (“Alienation”). She’s equally versed in chant and many of her hardest hitting arrangements are backed not by the thud of bass or the stab of synths, but by vocal arrangements that vary from both tender and inhumane extremes to the sounds of gentle isolated abstraction and even genuine communal warmth (“SWIM”).

There are missteps. The two spoken word tracks,  “Bridge” and “Extreme Love”, feel too cute by half and end up conveying a sense contrived smugness, which is a shame, as both efforts have their merits. “Bridge’s” instrumental is enchanting, while “Extreme Love’s” tale of microbial creation is about as close as Herndon will ever come to clearly explaining PROTO’s core conceit. The biggest disappointment is the Spawn and Jlin assisted “Godmother”: it might feel vaguely disconcerting, but it’s never disorientating – if anything, it proves overly familiar. Like a ropey first year art project, it’s supposed to exude edginess, but instead feels strangely backward looking and trite. Luckily, its memory is quickly washed away by the beautiful and, truth be told, pleasingly straightforward “Last Gasp”: a final message from a mother to her alien, artificial offspring.

Despite the odd stumbling block and Herndon’s own intellectual trappings, PROTO thrives as a celebration of the human voice, which stands distorted, fractured, transmuted, but still unrivalled in its power. The philosophical underpinnings of the album and the creation of the Spawn AI will no doubt provoke both endless conversation and new avenues for exploration, but it would be wrong to consider this collection a mere thinkpiece. PROTO is, above all, a living, breathing, awe-inspiring piece of music and music making remains an art, rather than a science. Thankfully, Holly Herndon is a master of the arts (as well as doctor).

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Holly Herndon has created her own AI named Spawn and her latest album, PROTO, tackles questions of human agency in a world of machine learning. Despite its hefty themes and abstract electronic and choral sounds, her third album remains a profoundly human affair that speaks to the anxiety of motherhood, an alien exploration of childhood and the beauty of traditional singing more than it does the future of employment or human/AI relations.

article topics :

Holly Herndon, David Hayter