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Holly Herndon - PROTO Music Album Reviews

Created with a choral ensemble and a nascent AI, the Berlin-based electronic musician’s third album is a meditation on community, technology, and the future of, and beyond, the human species.

Holly Herndon makes music with that most personal of instruments: her computer, a machine used not only to weave together complex electronic compositions but also to access the frightening and spectacular realm of the internet. In her work, the Berlin-based composer wrestles with systems, both the soft internal system of the psyche and the equally mysterious phenomena of social-media networks, recommendation algorithms, and panopticon surveillance. Herndon’s voice featured prominently on her first two albums, skittering across dense electronic compositions, her words hard to make out and her presence difficult to pin down. On her third album, PROTO, she opens her process to include not just her own voice but the voices of a choral ensemble. The group includes Spawn, a “nascent machine intelligence” that runs on a modified gaming computer and was created in collaboration with AI expert Jules LaPlace. Trained to process audio, Spawn uses neural networks to riff on music she hears; Herndon, who uses she/her pronouns to refer to Spawn, considers the AI not as an instrument or a tool but as an ensemble member.


PROTO is Herndon’s most technologically adventurous work to date, but it is also by far her most ecstatically humanistic. One of its most stunning and revealing moments comes on “Frontier,” a work inspired by Appalachian Sacred Harp singing, an a cappella tradition originating in American Christian communities. A single unadorned voice runs through a scale, as if leading a vocal warm-up; on the last note, a chorus of human and machine voices joins in. The sound undoubtedly stems from human throats and yet it is serrated and compressed in a way that could only have come from digital processing. But the seam between the two is not clear. There is no artificial layer to peel back, no true voice underneath plastic coating. Ninety seconds into the song, vocal notes shudder into a riff. The natural glissando of human singing dissipates; there is one note and then there is another, with no passageway between them, yet the music does not sound inhuman. It sounds like a new kind of human vocalizing, augmented by machine, not reduced by it.

Though PROTO’s vocal treatments sound futuristic, the album builds on a 50-year history of humans singing through computers. One of the earliest musical applications of voice-processing technologies dates back to the late 1960s, when synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos and her composition partner Rachel Elkind ran Elkind’s voice through a machine designed for telephone communications. The result can be heard in the soundtrack to the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange: Elkind sings the vocal part to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, her robotic voice perfectly suited to the synthesized instrumentation. When Elkind sings on a single vocal track, her lone voice sounds like a chorus. The machine amplifies the self beyond the borders of the individual.

Voice processors have proliferated since the 1970s, and in many of their most notable uses they have shredded, distorted, and multiplied the voices of women. In the 1980s, Laurie Anderson deployed a series of digital filters oriented toward comically deepened “vocal drag,” which also served as her own trio of backup singers. In 1998, Cher’s “Believe” threw Auto-Tune technology into overdrive to force her voice into a futuristic trill. This century’s musical cyborgs are some of the most fascinating and innovative contemporary performers: FKA twigs, Fever Ray, Charli XCX, SPELLLING, Arca, SOPHIE. That none of these artists are men points to a gender-transgressive impulse within cyborg performance: a desire to use technology to break open the body’s perceived boundaries and take flight away from the repressive and the mundane.

“The popular image of a cyborg is one of body augmentation,” Herndon said in a 2015 interview, whereas she and her collaborator Mat Dryhurst are “more interested in the emotional cyborg—those who use tools to emote, express compassion, build alliances across networks, disperse into anonymity.” It is no surprise, then, that as Herndon’s work becomes more technologically experimental, it also becomes more emotional. Cries of abjection and yearning populate PROTO. “Why am I so lost?” asks a chorus of overlapping voices toward the end of “Crawler.” On the rippling “Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt,” a solo voice issues forlorn sentences into sheets of processing: “I need to belong,” sings the voice, a statement that also opens the next song, “SWIM.” Voices cry out for each other and then coalesce, finding communion and solace in their mutual presence.

PROTO is a patient album and a technologically transparent one. Two tracks, “Canaan” and “Evening Shades,” document the process of training Spawn. Unmodified human voices sing and then Spawn responds with her interpretations of what she’s heard, like a young child in speech therapy. Rather than simply dazzle listeners with a perfectly honed AI, Herndon invites us into the awkward but beautiful process behind Spawn’s capabilities, the mistakes the computer makes as it learns. These two live-training tracks are a welcome reminder of the human labor behind automated systems.

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Herndon’s last album, Platform, included a spoken-word piece in the form of an ASMR track designed to make listeners imagine themselves as a high-powered executive getting a massage. PROTO’s spoken-word interlude moves away from irony, instead letting a child take on the heavy subject of the future of life in the universe. “Extreme Love” imagines human beings not as Earth’s rightful inheritors squandering our prize but as an intermediary form of life whose primary purpose is to harbor and spread bacteria, “those minds inside us and crawling at our feet.” It is a hopeful narrative, a story of humans unknowingly birthing the next generation of life, incubating extremophiles in our guts that can survive long after we’ve cooked ourselves. “Extreme Love” speaks of human beings as components in a vast and incomprehensible system of life and behavior, an ecological phenomenon acting the only way we know how, opening a doorway into the next phase of the Earth’s history. It is a strange comfort, a vision of the future without guilt.

Of course it is painful to sit here on the edge of what seems like inevitable extinction, to want to keep living while watching enormous systems of human activity conspire to wipe out most life. The inertia of annihilation daunts. “Extreme Love” offers comfort by reminding us how small we are, and how natural—parts of a whole that moves not because of individual will but slowly across eons and of its own accord. It is so human to want more—to want to be, effectively, beyond human—and so human not to get it, except in glimpses. In rare moments survival offers itself. Voices call out and then cohere; loneliness drives us to be less lonely.
The specter of death lacerates PROTO—the closing song, “Last Gasp,” lurches along on a menacing, apocalyptic beat—but Herndon is not interested in preaching fatalism. Her music winnows its way toward what is most alive in its listeners. Hearing Spawn gargling human voices sparks up a mix of pathos and awe—pathos because of how childlike the sound is, awe at its complex and bizarre texture. Herndon and her ensemble displace the human voice from its usual setting just enough that it startles the ear. But that displacement allows you to hear voices as if for the very first time, listening ravenously for proof that out there in the unknown, someone besides yourself exists and is singing.


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