Holly Herndon: a Human Future for Computer Music


Holly talks about laptop performance, the singularity, and her Tennessee roots at EM15 in Montreal.

Experimental composer and performer Holly Herndon is a mediator between worlds. Her adventurous and overtly digital sound at once appeals to the pop sensibilities of a casual audience while challenging the minds of more active listeners. By infusing familiar elements of pop music with the weird world of digital signal processing, Holly conjures an enchanting balance that stretches the affordances of personal computing to further empower the most empathetic instrument of all: the human voice.

Tennessee native Holly grew up singing in choirs. When she was 16, she studied abroad in Germany where she was simultaneously introduced to electronic music and the club scene. Her proven love for vocal performance and her new infatuation with dance music would eventually become the cornerstones of her study and practice. This Fall she is co-teaching a course on aesthetics in post-1980s electronic music as she continues to seek her doctorate in Music Composition at Stanford University.

Holly stands as one of the most vocal defenders of laptop performance in recent memory. She presses listeners to consider the complex implications of mediating one’s life through a hyper-personal digital interface. In this way she contributes to some of the recent philosophical, metaphysical, and ethical questions raised concerning not only the nature of privacy in the digital age but also the aesthetic and functional value of the human-computer symbiosis.

Holly Herndon – “Home”

Holly laughs a lot. She’s effortlessly articulate and casually irreverent. I caught her set at EM15 in Montreal and was privileged to ask her about her process, her vision of the performative space, and her Southern roots.

Jordan Young: The first question is selfish for my cohort in South Carolina. Do you identify as a southerner at all?

Holly Herndon: That’s an interesting question. I even sometimes have trouble identifying as an American (laughter), so like, I don’t know how regional I want to get. I definitely don’t deny that I am from the South. It’s a huge part of who I am and my heritage.

There’s a long history of intellectualism coming from the South, so I don’t want to disregard that. You know, the South gets a really bad reputation. The South has done a lot of fucked up things, and that’s why the South has a bad reputation, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the South is—you know, the way the South is portrayed in the media, it’s like anytime somebody’s stupid, they slap on a Southern accent, and you know, that’s a shame because it kind of oversimplifies a very complicated region and a very rich—culturally rich region.

The birth place of jazz.

The birth place of a lot. (laughter)

I have some questions for you about the computer in the performative space. Something inherent to computer performance specifically is that automation is somehow involved. I was curious about your ideology in negotiating which elements are performative and which are delegated to automation.

That is one of the huge benefits of working with machines; they are very good at repetition and they can take on a lot of the labor that previously had to happen all by hand, physical movement. I really am not a purist in any way. I think if somebody gets up on stage and plays a predetermined .wav file and does it in an engaging and performative way, I don’t have a problem with that. I think the audiences’ needs are changing, and so as long as you are connecting with your audience and you’re meeting those needs and there is some sort of conversation happening, it doesn’t really matter to me how much is automated or not automated. For my personal process, I like having control. I like being able to react in the moment and change things. Last night my set was probably a little bit more aggressive and noisy than it was a month ago in Asheville (Moogfest) just because of the atmosphere, and so I like being able to respond in that way. So yeah, I don’t know. I don’t have an ideology either way.

I was just at your talk with Jen, where you said you don’t recognize your computer as a collaborator. I was kind of curious, and this is extremely extrapolative—do you ever foresee a time in which that line, where the automation becomes conscious enough that you might be able to—I remember you having said, that by using your induction microphones, you’re giving your laptop a voice… do you ever foresee a time when that voice might become—

The singularity? Are we talking about the singularity here? (laughter)

I mean, I didn’t want to be so abashed (laughing).

No, I get it. Yeah, sure. Why not? And maybe it’s already happened for some composers. I don’t know if you’re familiar with George Lewis. He’s an amazing composer and performer. I think he’s a Columbia faculty member. This group out of Chicago with Rosco Mitchell and Richard Abrams and that crew—he wrote software in the early nineties or late eighties—anyway, he wrote a piece called “Voyager.” He wrote this program that improvises with a performer and responds, and he writes very beautifully about his process. He tries to endue the qualities of his community. He’s an African American composer, and he talks about how he endues the qualities of the improvisation community that he comes from, and the cultural community that he comes from, into the way the computer responds. He’s almost given the computer this heritage or this personality and it then responds to the performer. The recording I’ve heard was with Rosco Mitchell, and it’s really beautiful. It really does feel like it has a personality of it’s own. That’s not how I work right now, but I think there is merit and validity to working in that way.

Holly Herndon – “Chorus”

You’re very vocal about the laptop as an instrument. Have you delved any into controllerism? Do you maybe have any studio toys?

It’s a fine line between goofy and very not goofy (laughter). Right now I use a really beautiful MIDI controller from Livid. They make really beautiful stuff. I also use my induction mics—the induction mics are already pretty out there for people. They’re like, “Whoa! What is that?” The thing is, with a lot of the controllerism, I think it’s fascinating research, and I love that people get really nerdy about it and dive really deep, and I want people to continue to do that. With what I’m trying to do, I’m really interested in communicating first and foremost and I don’t want to create a barrier between what I’m doing and the audience, and I think sometimes when things are so new or so alien to people—like a lot of my sounds are quite alien, a lot of the processes, the things I’m doing with my voice are already quite alienating, so if my performance method was also something completely new for people, I think it might be too much for people to take at once. I’m not saying I’m trying to water anything down, but I’m trying to communicate and sometimes you can put up barriers for yourself in that way.

I am fascinated by it. I don’t know if you know the work of Ge Wang. He’s a professor at Stanford and he has the laptop orchestra and he also has an iPhone orchestra, and they do all kinds of stuff with controllers. It’s a laptop ensemble and a phone ensemble so they’re doing all kinds of stuff like waving their phones around and doing crazy stuff with their laptop. I think it’s fascinating research and really interested and I would like to see more of that, and I want to integrate some of that into what I’m doing. I just want to do it in a way that’s not alienating for people. I mean, you often think about the modular synthesizers and then Moog put the keyboard on there and everyone was all of the sudden like, “Oh, now we know what to do!” but it’s like, well synth can actually do a lot more than just what the diatonic scale is letting you do. There are all these notes in between that we can play, but just because we have this keyboard attached to it, we’re kind of stuck to that. I don’t want it to have to be familiar to where it’s limiting, but at the same time I don’t want to put up a barrier.

A lot of people see the laptop as being that barrier or even a lot of the gestural interfaces that are coming out now like the Imogen Heap gloves.

I mean, speaking about the glove though, are you familiar with Laetitia Sonami? She has the Lady’s Glove, and she developed that at STEIM. I don’t know if they’re still going, but it was a research institute in Amsterdam. She developed the Lady’s Glove like 10 years ago, and I’ve seen her perform. It’s very similar to the Imogen Heap gloves. Of course, she’s often performing to a very curated audience who are open to that kind of thing, but I’ve seen very embodied and engaging performances by her with that, and this is like a long time ago when a lot of this stuff was still pretty new. So I think it just depends on what the performer is able to communicate to the audience.


The great thing about the performative space is that you have that feedback between the artist and the audience, and a lot of people—especially with experimental electronic artists—they’ll go up on stage and bore holes into their equipment and never look up. Someone could interpret that as kind of doubling down on this very recent notion that the audience is purely spectator; they aren’t participants in the performance. In your research and study, have you considered any modes of incorporating different forms of audience and feedback?

I’ve definitely thought about that a lot. It’s really difficult. I know that’s not a good answer, but it’s really difficult to do it in a way that—something problematic about audience participation is like: say that you have this red button and you press the red button and the audience can see that the red button is flashing. All that people will do is press the red button over and over and over to see like, “Oh look, I’m making it flash,” so you really have to design an interaction that’s meaningful. I don’t want to do something that’s just gimmicky like, “The audience can do this, so let’s add that on,” but I do think that it is a fascinating area to go. I just haven’t fully figured out how to do it yet. I do find it really interesting that everybody has little mini computers in their pockets—somehow to figure out how to harness that. Unsound last year had kind of a controversial stance. They made everybody not take their cellphones to the shows. There was a cellphone ban to try to make people be more in the moment, which is one approach, but I think it’s a little bit reactionary, and I think it’s maybe more interesting if it’s like—instead of just being like, let’s pretend like those don’t exist, let’s figure out how to integrate them in a meaningful way. If the problem is that people aren’t being in the moment, how do we make that piece of equipment be part of the moment? And I don’t have a smart answer for that yet, but I am interested in it for sure.

Have you seen Dan Deacon’s live show?

Briefly! He did that performance in Oakland, and we kind of came in at the last minute—you know, where everybody’s flashing the colors? Yeah, yeah, yeah. He has done a really good job of harnessing the energy of the crowd and having it be a shared moment, a very in-the-moment kind of experience. Yeah, I think he’s really successful with that.

Do you think that you’ll end up staying in education long term or do you see it as more of a means to improve your artistry?

I think it’s both; I am interested in education. I’m really excited about a course I’m teaching next year in the aesthetics of electronic music so I’m going to see how that goes. I do like the energy of being around really young people, but I also really like having an art practice. I think that there’s a way to do both. I would like to see more academics be very present and be very engaged and approachable. So if I was to pursue academia, I would still want to be very present. And also the music industry is totally broken so… (laughing)

Of course, academia isn’t in great shape either necessarily.

It’s true, it’s true. You know, I’m hedging my bets! (laughing)

Check out some of her latest output, “CALL”

and for a full hour interview with Holly at Mutek presented by The Wire:

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