Step Right Up: Holly Herndon
Interview with Holly Herndon.
“I think my sound is a combination of my home in Tennessee, with vocal harmonies, Berlin, with an appreciation of electronic music and the avant-garde tradition, and the Bay Area with a focus on custom software and technology.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Holly Herndon’s debut full-length, ‘Movement’ – released at the tail end of last year on Brooklyn-based music institution, RVNG Intl – heralds a new voice in electronic music, and indeed contemporary music as a whole. The San Francisco-based sound artist/musician has created an utterly innovative and ground-breaking work, across a dazzling collection of seven sonic creations that comprises ‘Movement’. The myriad of influences shared by Herndon are diffused wonderfully throughout the musical compositions that in turn, creates a genre-defying opus, existing at the interface between human and technology. Terms such as avant-guard or futuristic would only lightly suggest the significance of Herndon’s masterful skill and unique vision, inherent in this special debut record.
Growing up in Tennessee, Herndon moved to Berlin during her teenage years, and would be deeply drawn to the techno culture, resulting in an appreciation of electronic music. Herndon studied at Berlin University, and later returned to the U.S and completed a Masters in Electronic Music and Recording Media at Mills College, California. In 2011, the Tennessee-native earned the prestigious Elizabeth Mills Crothers award for Best Composer. Indeed, Herndon’s modern composition training and undying devotion to techno music is very much imprinted on the sonic canvas of ‘Movement’. Currently, Herndon is taking up a doctoral study in Electronic Music at Stanford. This marked devotion to her chosen discipline and gifted talents are clear to witness upon listening to the works of Herndon.
The pieces on ‘Movement’ revolve around a vocal idea, which is then processed using custom instruments and vocal processes, developed in the programming language Max/MSP. The vocal processing is immaculately conveyed on the track ‘Fade’ with sensual voice harmonies utilized throughout, often with long moments of silence as the counterpoint. Soon, the process begins to unfurl and many intriguing elements gradually come to the surface. The singular focus on custom software and technology is clearly demonstrated on songs such as ‘Breathe’ and the epic album opener ‘Terminal’, showcasing utterly transfixing compositions in experimental computer music. ‘Terminal’ in many ways, is the ideal beginning of ‘Movement”s visionary journey, as the meditative and the discord elements collide. The slow-burning techno beats creates a sprawling, expansive sound, where Herndon’s central vocal idea interwoven throughout the sonic envelope. It’s simply electronic music belonging to a space and time, we have not yet arrived upon.
In the words of Herndon: “The laptop is the most intimate instrument we have at our disposal, engaging and absorbing our confessions and inspirations. Its influence has both devastated and invigorated music as we know it. We’ve only just begun unlocking the possibilities at our fingertips. Those possibilities are what I work towards and against.”
The more techno-based songs such as ‘Fade’ and title-track (and lead single) ‘Movement’ are the immediate highlights on ‘Movement’. ‘Fade’ is sublime. In many ways, the techno gem shares the trance-dance odyssies of Brooklyn-based duo, and label-mates Blondes – whose latest LP ‘Swisher’ was recently released by RVNG Intl – forming a pulsating synth-led dance opus. ‘Fade’ operates on an entirely ‘other’ dimension of sound, inhabiting an entire new realm of possibility. The drum details were provided by Beau Wanzer of Streetwalker, completing the sonic layers required to form such a momentous techno exploration. Title-track ‘Movement’ is the album’s centerpiece, depicting the human-computer symbiosis, which is Laurie Anderson and Pan Sonic in equal amounts. The music video to ‘Movement’, directed by Matt Dryhurst (and photographic direction by Tolleson) is a beautiful representation – and embodiment-of Herndon’s visceral music. The closing cuts, ‘Interlude’ and ‘Dialto’ are gorgeously rooted in minimalism – as Herndon’s vocals are transformed by digital means – that conjures up the sound of early music a la Tallis, Pärt and beyond.
Herndon has collaborated with Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani, Chicago house explorer, Jamal Moss AKA Hieroglyphic Being, NHK and Chicago footwork producer Jlin in the recent past. ‘Movement’ represents a significant body of work from this highly gifted artist and producer. Similar to RVNG Intl’s ‘Ekstasis’ by Julia Holter last year, ‘Movement’ is one of those unclassifiable albums that provides endless inspiration.
Interview with Holly Herndon.
Congratulations Holly on your wonderful debut album, ‘Movement’. At the heart of the album are stunning modern compositions, where your vocal experiments are infused with innovative techno music. Please discuss for me the creative process involved in your work, and the custom instruments and vocal processes inherent in ‘Movement’?
My pieces usually revolve around a vocal idea, which is usually a digital process. I will workshop this in my studio and in concert until it takes a more composed form.
My favourite song on ‘Movement’ is the sublime ‘Fade’. A swirling dance odyssey that builds gradually throughout. The mix of vocals and laptop wizardry is something to truly behold. Please outline the construction of this song please?
This track was built around the “swirling” vocals, to use your term. I worked with a patch for a long time to get that epic building, moving sound. Once they were in place, the track was built around them, including the main vocal lines. The rave-y synth lines and overall movement were built up combining soft synths and a 101. The drum details came last. I knew I wanted a heavy drum sound, so I asked a friend of mine, Beau Wanzer of Streetwalker, to record his 808 for me. He sent me some amazing lines, which I then chopped up and arranged to fit the song.
You left your Tennessee home for Berlin as a teenager. This must have awakened your love for the arts, and particularly your love of music. Recount for me please your memories of Berlin, and how this city has shaped your music?
I think the environment always has an effect on the art that is made there or after being there. To quote the Dutch composer, Andriesson:
“Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that. How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determined by your own social circumstances and listening experience, and the availability of financial support.”
I think my sound is a combination of my home in Tennessee, with vocal harmonies, Berlin, with an appreciation of electronic music and the avant-garde tradition, and the Bay Area with a focus on custom software and technology.
You are currently a doctoral candidate in composition at Stanford University. I would love to gain an insight into this whole study area of composition and what specific aspects of composition fascinates you the most?
It is hard to distill that into a single statement. I was drawn to Stanford because of the long history of experimentation at CCRMA in computer music. There are so many amazing minds there that are all doing fascinating work! This is nicely balanced with a music program based in traditional musical pedagogy mixed with heavy influence from avant-garde art music. Brian Ferneyhough, one of the professors, is a well-known new complexity composer, coming out of the European art music tradition.
What records have inspired you the most, and have made the most impact on your life?
Again, it is difficult to distill this into one statement. When I was making Movement, I was listening to Meredith Monk, Mika Vainio, Byrd and Feldman. These days I’m revisiting Missy Elliot, Ablinger, Ives, & Marclay, along with early electronic pioneers Chowning, Lansky, early music a la Tallis and UK Grime.
‘Movement’ is out now on RVNG Intl.