Holly Herndon — PROTO (May 10, 2019) Location: Berlin, Germany
Album release: May 10, 2019
Record Label: 4AD
01. Birth 1:14
02. Alienation 3:43
03. Canaan (Live Training) 1:36
04. Eternal 4:45
05. Crawler 5:57
06. Extreme Love (with Lily Anna Hayes and Jenna Sutela) 2:34
07. Frontier 4:29
08. Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt 3:11
09. SWIM 4:38
10. Evening Shades (Live Training) 1:33
11. Bridge (with Martine Syms) 2:48
12. Godmother (with Jlin) 2:30
13. Last Gasp 5:09
∠ As with most other areas of life, artificial intelligence has been shaping our relationship with music in various unseen, rather scary ways. Listen to anything on Spotify and algorithms will tell you what you like before you know it yourself. Do so much as google Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and you will be bombarded with offers of online divorce services or — worse — retirement plans. Warner has even acquired an app for algorithmically composed music. The robots are no longer merely telling us what albums to buy, they are making them too. ( https://www.thetimes.co.uk/ )
∠ From the moment Holly Herndon opens the door of her west Berlin apartment I have one eye scanning the place for her baby. “What’s she doing right now?”, I ask when we find her sat at the back of Holly’s desk, partially obscured by a monitor. “She’s just chillin’,” says Holly, and we pass through into the next room.
∠ When Holly is changing for our photo shoot, her PR and I go back and stare at the baby and agree how hypnotic she is. Her name is Spawn. She’s probably the height of any other baby out there but she’s square shaped and has a glass front, so you can see her heart beating in hues of pink, purple, blue and green. She’s an “AI baby”, which either makes everything I’ve said so far far less or far more creepy. That really depends on you, although, if you’re open to it, Holly and Spawn and the new album they’ve made together are capable of shifting your perspective on artificial intelligence and its place not just in music and art, but in our aggressively progressive world. To understand how we got to PROTO, though (out 10 May via 4AD), first we need to remind ourselves of how Holly Herndon became the only artist capable of delivering it. ∠ ( https://www.loudandquiet.com/interview/holly-herndon/ )
Album Review by Dafydd Jenkins | 07 May 2019 | Score: ★★★★★
∠ US electronic experimentalist Holly Herndon makes cerebral and emotive contributions to the on~going discourse of art and AI on her best album yet, PROTO.
∠ As a student of both avant~garde synthesists and club~adjacent electronic music, composer Holly Herndon has always been concerned with the pervasive relationship between humans and technology today. Her main instrument — besides her sonorous voice — is the laptop, a tool which has now superseded both diary and planner, containing more of ourselves than we often like to acknowledge (schedules, work, friends, sex, entertainment, interests). It’s a nuanced relationship, nurturing and uneven, and Herndon’s work often seems borne out of these intersections. Where 2015’s Platform explored how technology enables and perverts communication between humans, PROTO — her latest on 4AD — casts its gaze at our relationship with ‘inhuman’ beings, which proves to be just as troubling.
∠ Earlier this year, Endel, an algorithm created by a subsidiary of tech company Techstars Music’18, ‘signed’ a record deal with Warner Music Group, making it the first AI in history to sign with a major label. Herndon took to Twitter with a quietly alarmed statement: “this is a warning shot […] that we are about to be inundated with automated and procedurally generated music systems, producing good enough music to appease most people for most situations.”
∠ The Endel app is primarily intended as less a music platform and more a lifestyle tool, something to help you sleep, work, and commute, generating sound in real time based on location, weather and heart rate. But for Herndon, among many others, the news is an ill omen. Where AI was once a mere possibility, it now accompanies us wherever we go, in our pockets or on our wrists — and now AI can create our music. Herndon begs the question: how should we handle it?
∠ Bolstered by radical notions of reproduction and communal creativity, PROTO begins to posit an answer in administering the assistance of Spawn, a machine learning unit co~created by Herndon, long~time collaborator Mathew Dryhurst, and ensemble developer Jules LaPlace. Over the course of the album — namely in vocal pieces Canaan and Evening Shades, both followed by the words ‘live training’ in parenthesis — Spawn uses its gathered knowledge to accompany gorgeous, folk~informed performances, utilising something akin to early musical call and response methods.
∠ The idea is as powerful as its sound, bringing AI directly into human histories of communal music performance. What’s more, PROTO is unabashedly a work of collaboration — among which Spawn can be counted as an agent. Lily Anna Hayes and Jenna Sutela articulate a sci~fi creation myth on the levitational spoken piece Extreme Love, while the Jlin featuring Godmother runs the gamut of the footwork producer’s triplet~spamming exploits, made totally terrifying with Herndon’s hyperventilating sound font.
∠ The album abounds with references to growth milestones, and we’re compelled to imagine Spawn just as Herndon does — a child being nurtured, liable to absorb and internalise the world around it. Opener Birth stutters with pre~linguistic speech. Alienation soon follows like a first cognisant sensation, its language matured into near~intelligible shapes, inviting connotations with Marxian theories of worker’s estrangement in capitalist modes of production. ‘Why am I so lost?’, asks the singers of Crawler in woven, ghostly voices. It’s tempting to ascribe these anxieties to Spawn, a would~be robot servant, brought into a society where music is less a great mystery and more just another service in numbing the workforce — cynically, not unlike Endel.
∠ PROTO feels far bigger than its 45~minute runtime. By design or coincidence, it’s a prism through which concerns of our strange, as~yet unknowable epoch refract. In other words: it’s great, difficult, enjoyable, rewarding, prescient — a notable work of art. It wouldn’t be surprising if the years to come recognise it as such.
Holly Herndon — PROTO (May 10, 2019) Location: Berlin, Germany