PROTO, by Holly Herndon

Deconstructed Dance Music / 4AD / May 10, 2019 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom

Although using the laptop as a musical instrument is nothing new today, what makes Holly Herndon’s approach to it stand out is her wider techno-social concerns congruent with increased digitalisation and ubiquitous technology. In other words, she does not just think of the laptop as an instrument, but as part of a major cultural shift from an analogue era to a contemporary digital realm with novel forms of social oppressions and emancipatory possibilities. Thus, rejecting simplistic narratives according to which technology either should be ditched completely (based on some kind of pre-technological authenticity), or simply will make the human redundant, what interests Herndon is rather how the human and the technological may mutually amplify each other through the constructions of novel communities, artistic expressions and images of what it means to be human. She thus advocates what she refers to as ‘laptop intimacy’ – which alludes to the new kinds of intimacies that may be fostered in advanced technological environments.

This has been a continuous theme throughout Herndon’s work, including her previous albums, which have approached it both sonically and conceptually through everything from net concréte and ASMR to platform politics and the politics of one’s digital self. Indeed, one way to characterise Herndon’s work is as experimental, or deconstructed, pop adequate to the digital now, which is pregnant with critical concepts that it distributes through wider sociocultural realms than the university departments and art worlds where they first were introduced and taken up. Today, this is an almost forgotten capacity of pop, but which was crucial to the popular modernist musical forms and social networks of the post-war decades – and that urgently needs to be reinvented in the context of our present digital culture. It is indeed in this sense that Herndon stands out the most for me – as someone who really has taken up this question of what a subversive popular artist (and, by extension, popular culture) could look like today.

On PROTO, this junction is constituted by communal singing and artificial intelligence. For whereas her first album Movement (2012) was very much a solo project, and her second album Platform (2015) drew upon lots of online collaborations, PROTO is fuelled by ensemble singing with participants who were present in the same physical locations. Yet what of course has drawn most attention is Herndon’s use of artificial intelligence, in the form of an A.I. baby named Spawn that was trained by her and her ensemble to the point where it could contribute to the musical compositions in the form of vocal output based on the data sets that were being fed to it. The overall result of this is typical Herndon, and one of the strongest aspects of the album is indeed how the positive feedback-loops between humans and technology have resulted in music that really cannot be reduced to one or the other. Unsurprisingly, it is the vocal work that stands out the most (not just because of Spawn, but also since the voice has always been Herndon’s primary sonic medium for integrating the human with the technological) – both on astonishing ensemble pieces like ‘Crawler’ and ‘Frontier’, and on pieces such as ‘Alienation’ and ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’ where (I believe) Herndon sings alone.

At the same time, there is also something that I am missing a bit in this approach – for what primarily interests me is how the use of A.I. in music could be utilised in order to produce novel sonic forms and compositional methodologies like earlier music technologies did. Indeed, when gear such as synthesisers, samplers and drum machines first were experimented with beyond the replication of previous sonic forms, the formal expressions of music expanded dramatically – so the question for me is if A.I. could help facilitating a similar kind of formal sonic revolution. But, again, this is an approach that I am somewhat missing on the album, since the methodology of integrating Spawn into a human vocal ensemble to the point where it becomes impossible to immediately identify what voices were generated by whom rather seems to aim to train the A.I. to operate in established formal and compositional contexts – as opposed to carving out new ones. This may be contrasted with the work of a duo like Autechre, whose compositional utilisation of A.I. for cutting-edge formal experimentation – the artists programming the system that makes the music, rather than making the music themselves – feels as alien today as I can image that the uses of synthesisers and drum machines for subversive formal purposes felt to listeners when they were first being utilised in that way.

This is not to suggest that PROTO is uninteresting from a formal perspective – on the contrary, the synthetic genre-mashups that I elsewhere have associated Herndon’s music with are as present as ever – although I would have found it even more interesting if Spawn’s presence had been utilised more explicitly for this purpose. In that regard, the track that stands out the most for me is the single ‘Godmother’, which was a collaboration between Herndon, the footwork-producer Jlin and Spawn – who was fed with Jlin’s tracks and then recreated them through Herndon’s voice. The result is a track that sounds markedly different from the others because of the absence of human participants and familiar melodic and beat components, which all have been set aside in favour of Spawn’s sonic probing. It is thus a track where formal experimentation goes hand-in-hand with machine learning in such a way that the former becomes something like a sonic index of a nascent intelligence trying to assemble itself on the basis of the data sets that are being fed to it by its human ancestors.

All of this comes down to the more general conceptual question that is crucial to PROTO: How to work with A.I. in order to prevent it from simply becoming an extension of past and present social stereotypes, cultural canons and racial and gender inequalities? This remains unanswered on the album, but it is of course its point that we simply do not yet know how all of this eventually will turn out. In that regard, techno-cultural experiments such as this are important as a means to construct different scenarios than the A.I. narratives concomitant with platform capitalism, for the purpose of speculating on how the distribution and cultivation of intelligence may amplify the vectors of kinship and creativity.