Features I by I 15.11.12

Speaking in code: Holly Herndon explains why the laptop is the most personal instrument the world has ever known

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Holly Herndon has just released one of the year’s most striking debut albums.

Movement, which came out on RVNG Intl. last week, is a bold and disorienting synthesis of academic computer music and dancefloor sensuality; the common theme running through the disparate material it compiles is the body and its relationship to technology.

FACT spoke to the Bay Area-based composer and scholar to talk about the making of the record, reconciling the academy with the pop realm, and why the laptop is the most personal instrument that the world has ever known.


You’re very active in the academic field, but with the release of Movement you’ve entered what might broadly be described as the pop realm. How separate are the two things for you, or how separate do you want them be?

“I think there has been a separation in the past, but it’s something that I’m trying to reconcile, and I’m trying to blur the lines more and more. I feel that this is something the record speaks to by having abstract pieces jammed right up next to pieces that are more, in your words, ‘in the pop realm’  [laughs]. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision when I sit down to write, but it’s definitely something I’ve struggled with in the past – you know, trying to find a way for these things to live side by side, because I don’t think that they have to be so separate.”

What would you say characterises your work? What connects your most abstract pieces to your most accessible?

“A big piece of that would be the tools that I’m using. Using Max/MSP and creating custom processes…I use the same processes whether I’m working on a dance track or on a more abstract or experimental track. That’s something I’m really dedicated to – figuring out what the next thing that I can do with a laptop is that I’m not already doing. I think you’ll see those themes throughout my academic and my non-academic work. Right now I’m not really trying to make such a clear division…I have one-on-one composition lessons at school, and sometimes I’ll go in and play a dance track, and my professor will sit there and listen to it and give me feedback [laughs]… it’s kind of amusing that they’re willing to do that, I guess it’s a unique place for that.”


“I feel the album is a little bit risky, because it’s constantly asking the listener to switch gears, pretty dramatically.”


Part of academic discipline is being able to give an account of your work, to be able to describe what it is and why it’s interesting. Have you felt comfortable explaining Movement to your teachers and peers?

“Because of the situation I’m in I’ve obviously found myself talking about this album to people inside the academy, so I’m having to find the language to talk about it, yeah… A lot of the inspiration for the album was theory: I was really into N. Katherine Hales at the time, and of course Donna Haraway, so there’s some natural starting points for these conversations. I really started writing it at the end of my Master’s at Mills, so I was deeply entrenched in writing my thesis and thinking about these things, so yeah, of course that’s a part of it. And I feel really comfortable talking about it in that way.”

Was Movement conceived as an album with a clear narrative?

“It’s kind of a grouping of music that was all created at the same time. I didn’t sit down and think oh, ok, this is the story arc that I want to communicate. It was just a case of what I was working on at the time and what made sense to me as a complete work. And in a way I feel it’s a little bit risky, because it’s constantly asking the listener to switch gears, pretty dramatically, but this was the only way that I was able to really communicate my aesthetic, and my taste.

“I really struggled for a long time because I used to play in a concert hall and I would play one very specific kind of thing, and then I’d be asked to play in a club and I’d play something completely different, or I’d get asked to play a noise show… and I ended up with all these different sets, these different factions of music, all organised in different folders, and I was like, this is crazy [laughs]…. So I thought, OK, I’m one person, with multiple different interests, and I think audiences are actually incredibly sophisticated and they can completely handle switching gears. People listen to music in a completely fractured way: they’ll listen to it on YouTube, or whatever, with everything mashed together in playlists, and so I think people are totally ready for that kind of experience anyway. And I wasn’t sure if they would be, but after the last few performances I did I’ve begun to feel that they are, and that’s incredibly gratifying.”

Does your venturing into the “pop realm” (there it is again) make sense to the people in the academy? Are they supportive of it, or perhaps suspicious, or..?

“I think they’ve been incredibly supportive, and I think it’s their job to try to push me forward, at this point, you know? So the other day I was playing a piece for my professor and it was kind of a half-assed dance track, and he was like….this really isn’t that interesting [laughs]. And we talked about how it could be made more interesting. But then, you know, we might be listening to something with like a really repetitive acid line and he’ll be like, this is so repetitive, what’s the point of this? And I had to explain to him that well, within the history of acid music this kind of repetition is a sort of language – and so they’re open to learning about sonic languages that they might not be familiar with. As long as I can explain it in that way, then it’s fine, but then the other track I couldn’t explain in that way, because it really was just not very interesting…[laughs]

“I find it very helpful [being in the academic environment]. I don’t know how most artists work, but I feel like there’s a human nature towards having a bag of tricks, you know, these tools that you feel really comfortable with, and keep going back to and reusing. And what’s so wonderful about being in this environment is that they’re not letting me do that. So I’m still able to learn enough about my tools so that I’m really fast and efficient with them but they’re also pushing me outside of my comfort zone so that I’m forced to learn how to use other things, and I think that’s really important. You know, I have to write for acoustic instruments, that’s part of the deal, and that’s actually really exciting.”


“The laptop can do things that no other instrument has ever been able to do, and I also think that it’s the most personal instrument that the world has ever seen.”


The human voice, subject to all kinds of processing and manipulation, is a big part of Movement and of your live performances. Where does your interest in it stem from?

“The voice was one of the very first things I was interested in…as a kid, I was heavily involved in various different secular and non-secular choirs, so it’s something that I’m really familiar with – even when I was at Mills I joined the early music ensemble, ‘cos I’m just a total choir nerd [laughs]. So that was something that I’ve always been really drawn to, and when I went to Mills that was the first time that I really accepted the computer as my main instrument; before that I was always kind of…well, I felt that in order to be able to take myself seriously as a modern composer that I needed to play some sort of orchestral instrument. So I started learning contrabass when I was living in Berlin, and it was crazy…I would lug this huge bass through subways and up stairs to take lessons from this crazy Russian guy who would yell at me and tell me how bad I was…and then I went to Mills and I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t have to do this. There are all these very serious and very interesting computer musicians and this is actually the most interesting instrument for me, really.

“[The laptop] can do things that no other instrument has ever been able to do, and I also think that it’s the most personal instrument that the world has ever seen. So that’s when I first became obsessed with it. And then the conversational naturally goes to, what is computer music performance? And at the time people were saying all electronic music performance is disembodied and disengaging, so I started thinking about how to really kind of hammer home the embodied experience of laptop performance, and probably the most obvious way to show that was through the human voice. So that’s how it started, and it’s just been incredibly fulfilling. I like to process my own voice but I also like to write for other vocalists as well and I want to continue to do that for sure.”

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Holly Herndon

Tell us about some of your recent collaborations.

“I worked on a piece with Reza Negarestani, he wrote a book called Cyclonopedia. We collaborated for this festival which was all around ‘dark ecology’ – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that? It’s kind of misleading as a term, I think… It’s this philosopher, Timothy Morton, I think he’s based in California, that coined the term dark ecology as a way to talk about people creating a kind of a mystical Other out of nature, and how that’s actually detrimental to nature, because you’re separating yourself from it rather than acknowledging that you’re a part of it. I don’t know though, when I hear the term dark ecology I automatically see images of a mystical nature [laughs]. And that’s kind of the way a lot of the festival went – I was like no, read the book guys! [laughs] Anyway, I collaborated with Reza on that piece; basically I told him the topic, and then we brainstormed over Skype for several hours, and he’s just such an amazing mind – I think he’s one of the most interesting thinkers around right now – so it was such a privilege to see him kind of riff on this topic.


“I’m such a fidelity junky.”


“We decided to come up with this performance where I’m making the audience hyper-aware of the mundanity of the concert experience, making them realise that they’re complicit with the objects around themselves. So the way I did that was by incorporating sounds from the audience into the performance itself, while still running a performance – it wasn’t just the sounds of the audience, so people weren’t sure what was happening. I knew the cellphone ringtones of some people in the audience and I called them during the performance, then I sampled them, and I was playing that back in a rhythmic, almost Pan Sonic kind of way. I had a glass falling, panned hard left, so people thought someone had spilled a beer bottle at the bat, et cetera…and the grand crescendo at the end was that I finished, everyone clapped, and I walked off the stage, but I was recording their clapping, and I came back onstage and I played it back to them, made it rhythmic, processed it. And it makes people feel really insecure and uncomfortable in their environment. And so I thought that was pretty successful, I’d really like to do something with him again.

What about Jamal Moss and J-Lin?

“A while ago, several months ago, I was on Soundcloud and I clicked on [Jamal Moss’s] profile and I noticed that I was the only person he was following, and I was like what is going on?! I had to take a screenshot [laughs]. So I reached out to him and we started sharing some files. Basically he sent me an insane amount of material that I’ve kind of been fishing through and I guess remixing in a way. We have one track that’s pretty close to being done, and I think we’re going to try to do a little EP or something; I finally got to meet him in person at Unsound, which was cool. We have a very different approach, I think, so it’s challenging and interesting. I’m such a fidelity junky, whereas he’s like I’m just going to jam it out down to a Minidisc [laughs]. I don’t know where it’s going to go; the first piece we’ve done is actually quite academic-sounding and sparse, but I think we’re going to do some more beat-based stuff too.

“With Jlin, basically I heard her song ‘Erotic Heat’ on the Bangs & Works Vol.2 compilation – for me that was by far the best track on that compilation, I was blown away and I was like, who is this woman!? [laughs] So I wrote her, and we ended up working on a track together, it was really fun and easy, so now I’m investing in FruityLoops [laughs] and again, we’re going to make a little EP or something together.”


“The techno-focus of this region is insane. Before I moved here I wasn’t a laptop performer, and now I am, and I think that’s very much a result of my surroundings.”


You’re now based in the Bay Area, having previously spent several years in Berlin. Has location played a role in your work? 

“I think it plays a massive role…for one thing, San Francisco is so small, so it’s not like there’s this massive movement in one direction or the other… so a lot of the artists here are on their own trip, if that makes sense? Which I think can be really alienating but is ultimately an advantage, because you can really craft your own sound.

“But I think that an even bigger influence is the incredible technology – the techno-focus of this region is insane. Before I moved here I wasn’t a laptop performer, and now I am, and I think that’s very much a result of my surroundings. We have Silicon Valley right there, you know…most people at the forefront of technological development are based in Northern California. The conversations that you’re hearing here in the cafes, they’re like five years ahead of anywhere else I’ve ever lived…it can be terrifying and it can be incredibly inspiring at the time. It’s definitely made me engage with technology in a way that I just didn’t even know about before, so I think I’m very much of a produce of the Bay in that sense.

“Berlin couldn’t have been more different… But I mean I wouldn’t be making the music I am if I’d not experienced both worlds. I enjoyed those developmental years in Europe – it’s a very different lifestyle, a very different pace, there’s a completely different focus when it comes to the club scene, the understanding of electronic music on a broader scale is incredible, the casual nature of the club experience in Berlin is something that I’ve never seen replicated in the United States anywhere. So I’m so glad that I had that. At a certain point, though, I felt like I’d reached a kind of a ceiling as to what I was able to accomplish there. That might have been because I was an expat; I mean, I speak German, but it always somewhat of a barrier, you know, my German was never perfect. Institutionally Europe is much more conservative than California, so coming to California I felt like I was really able to be exposed to the kind of tools and information that I was primed for.

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