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Holly Herndon Goes Off the Grid

on May 22, 2015, 12:00pm

Holly Herndon is straddling a strange intersection. One night she’s DJing a musty basement club, the next she’s reviewing her Masters thesis with a teacher. Then she is the teacher, facing a sea of students on her mission to secure her doctorate from Stanford University. She sets up temporary studios nearly everywhere she goes. She has a hundred ideas itching to get out, and as both her album release and graduation date inch closer, she’s finally on the brink of setting them all free.

The electronic musician and performance artist earned an MFA from Oakland’s Mills College, and is now a few months shy of receiving her PhD in composition. She has three full-lengths to her name: 2011’s cassette-only Car, 2012’s Movement, and now Platformin addition to last year’s Chorus EP. Her packed schedule might lead you to believe she’s as tightly wound as her trademark braid, but when we meet in her label’s cozy office in New York City, she’s relaxed. If I didn’t know better, I would believe she’d been strolling through the city over the past few days, taking in the skyscrapers. Herndon was in Europe the night before, she informs me, and she flies back home to California in less than 24 hours. She has a lot to do and a lot to say, and it isn’t reserved for her fellow academics.

The difference between academic music and non-academic music is exaggerated, according to Herndon. Making music from a scholarly background isn’t about staying within an elite academic context. It’s not even about reaching a hand down from the ivory tower. It’s about using what you learn to make something that can be interpreted in multiple ways by anyone. Herndon’s new album, Platform, samples her Skype activity, YouTube clicks, and fridge door slamming; it also flaunts original coding in the visual programming language Max/MSP. Her music takes cues from the compositional theories of German electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as her instrument, the computer, and its ability to annotate modern life.

Holly Herndon - Platform album

The album’s title is inspired by writer, designer, and strategist Benedict Singleton. While Silicon Valley’s overarching philosophy is “solutionism,” or creating a new technology to solve a problem without fully understanding what happens if you solve it that way, Singleton believes in platforms as communication modes for people to improvise together. “Instead of trying to project answers to future problems and pre-solve things,” Herndon explains, “you shift and answer problems as they go.”

Before her world started whirring in time to a laptop fan, Herndon enjoyed the local acoustics in her hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee in the ‘80s. She was effectively cut off from the Internet until her senior year of high school, as were most of her peers. She began playing guitar in the church where her father was a preacher. Her first run-in with electronic music came at age 16, when she visited Berlin on a class trip. There, at last, eurotrance consumed her upon first listen, and when she returned to the city two years later on an exchange visit, she stayed put for a year to better figure out the culture.

“There’s something about hearing really good techno on your laptop speakers while you’re cooking dinner or listening to it in a club with a certain energy on the dance floor,” she says. Club life began reeling her in. In Berlin, where parties rage nonstop through the weekend into Tuesday morning, electronic music is the norm. Even her ex-boyfriend’s mother would flick on hard techno before hopping in the shower.

Back in the States, Herndon applied to Masters programs and got a job at a children’s museum developing interactive media exhibits, work that later influenced her playful music videos. The job consumed too much time, so when she bailed, she decided to pursue music full-time through the postgraduate program at Mills College. It was immediately clear that she’d made the right choice. Weekly lessons on performance systems and building programs allowed her to dive into complex sound sculpting, even as a newly minted programmer. When she returned to Berlin yet again to spend five years working at a music placement agency, she found her groove, and later decided to uproot for the electronic music capital of the US: Oakland, California.

West Coast culture was the opposite of Berlin’s urban crunch, but it gave her a forceful push. “A lot of people think of the Bay Area as the tech bro side, the Googles and the Facebooks and corporate tech, but there’s actually a huge community of DIY tech there as well. It’s a very savvy and oriented place that’s not all corporate,” she says. “There’s a lot of really smart, highly skilled people who are interested in skill sharing, so it was a good place to start using technology to learn how to code.”

Herndon is constantly looking ahead with a hungry brain, grasping at texts and sounds available both in and beyond the classroom. Two of her biggest influences, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles, were discovered through her own extracurricular reading habits. In a sense, she’s handing herself the hardest test possible: Create music that will reach people it wasn’t entirely designed for.

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“I definitely block out my calendar,” she laughs, explaining how she schedules time to write songs. “I can’t teach and go home and write music. It’s too exhausting. I’ll try to on the weekend, but it gets hard. This album I wrote during my winter break and my summer break.”

Now, after two years of paperwork and grading, Herndon is finally done with the two-year teaching commitment her doctoral program requires. There’s no more “Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, 1980 to Today” work to grade. Naturally, she treated herself by moving to Los Angeles.

Platform feels in some ways like the amassed highlights of Herndon’s work to date. “Morning Sun” chirps like a tiny alarm clock, “DAO” reeks with the sounds of grinding metal, and “Locker Leak” samples advertisements about terracotta and Greek yogurt in a lively artificial voice. Then there’s “Chorus”, where Herndon hands over the reins to a software program, letting it eavesdrop on her browser and pull out audio from her browsing history. It then chops, folds, and smooths the samples into a glitchy, repetitive slices that play intermittently throughout.

Platform also gave Herndon the opportunity to bring various collaborators on board. In addition to her partner, Mat Dryhurst, contributing ideas and code to the tracks, she brought on Dutch design studio Metahaven, producers Amnesia Scanner, artist Spencer Longo, and vocalists Colin Self, Amanda DeBoer, and Stef Caers. Each worked to add different vocal parts like opera, tweak a song’s final production, or insert lyrics Herndon couldn’t have otherwise composed. By what she considers a stroke of luck (and what I consider an indication of her personality), every collaboration went effortlessly. “That’s not normal,” she laughs. “We did all of [“Unequal”] in three days over the internet. It’s creepily too easy.”

One of the album’s most intriguing numbers, “Lonely At The Top”, captures the wonderful world of autonomous sensory meridian response, better known as ASMR — a neologism for the perceptual phenomenon of a pleasurable tingling sensation in your head, scalp, and back that’s triggered by certain sounds. All around the world, people film homemade ASMR videos, upload them for free, and comfort strangers in a selfless, therapeutic way. “A lot of people think it’s creepy,” she says. “I thought it was so weird and wonderful that strangers are anonymously connecting in such an emotional and physical way over the Internet.” The phenomenon has been around for decades without a proper name, but recent reports from the New York Times and Salon have brought it into the spotlight. A quick YouTube search bears fruitful results. For most, the sound of a brush running through hair, the raking of sand, or the gentle pouring of water into a glass does the trick. For Herndon, it’s the tapping of acrylic nails on a smartphone screen.

On “Lonely At The Top”, Herndon casts Claire Tolan and her delicate whisper in a comical script. Forget about the everyman patient practices on YouTube: This piece is for the Donald Trumps and the Charlie Sheens. “We both love ASMR, but wanted to do something a little bit different with it, not just a spot scene,” she says with a grin. “We wanted to do something critical and decided to write an ASMR for the one percent, someone who’s like, ‘Yes, I deserve this and everything great that’s happened to me is because I am totally amazing.’”

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Tolan hosts an ASMR radio show, educates others about privacy issues at an NGO, and archives intense videos of war footage to piece events together and hold war criminals responsible. She’s also witty to boot. The two hashed out the script over the course of one night while perched on a balcony Herndon rented in Berlin last summer. “How do you write a script for someone who’s not speaking?” Herndon recalls. “You have to describe that person, but they can never say anything. It was hard to twist it around.” Her hands move quickly in the air when she talks. Of all the Platform collaborations, Tolan’s seems to be the one still fresh in her mind.

With the majority of ASMR videos being made by younger women — many of whom role-play as nurses, hair stylists, or close friends — ASMR is typically seen as a feminized, nurturing form of labor. Electronic music, by contrast, is not. The field is dominated by men, and when women claim their spot behind the board, they have to fight to be taken seriously (as Björk made clear earlier this year).

“Opening up FACT magazine and seeing a female artist there is probably inspiring for younger female artists to see themselves in that role,” Herndon says, smiling. “Watching friends of mine like Laurel [Halo] is really awesome. She very much plays in a man’s world, doing hardware techno in the clubs. I’m usually on the weirdo stage. People know that I’m doing my own thing, but she is in a tough situation being in that scene, and she definitely holds her own.”

Even while enrolled at Mills, an all-women’s undergraduate college with a co-ed graduate school, Herndon was outnumbered. “Because it was an electronic music program, for some reason it was almost all men. It was me, another female, and 10 men in this graduate program … in this women’s school. The environment is very welcoming and friendly, so it was a great place to learn about all this stuff that could be potentially intimidating, but it was still odd looking around.”

Herndon doesn’t just produce her own music; she is in creative control of everything her music touches. All of her videos, which push the boundaries for both electronic music and video art, involve her oversight. When I ask about them, she firmly states her role: “I am involved in everything.” Editing and producing are often left up to others, but Herndon, as she explains, is right there brainstorming, directing, and calling the shots.

Look at “Home”. After realizing that her laptop’s data could potentially be surveilled by the NSA, Herndon sought out a catchy pop hook to mask that concept’s dark undertones. Both are enhanced in the song’s video, a snowstorm of PRISM logos and program files, many of which seem to nod to the documents that Edward Snowden leaked. This is the first time she’s used a clean vocal with palpable lyrics, and “Home” is arguably her first song that’s catchy upon first listen. Sure, it’s splattered with samples and collapses under its cold recorded vocals (“I can feel you in my room” grows eerier by the minute), but the rhythmic bass and irregular pulse of a bouncing ball keep it moving smoothly.

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“A lot of people oversimplify it — and it always feels so weird to talk about the Internet, like it’s one thing,” she says of the technology that occupies so much of her work. “They think it’s separating us and we don’t talk to one another anymore and we just use emojis. That doesn’t negate emotion. It’s just a different kind of emotion. It’s an extension of our human relationships.”

On the flip side, technology can get the best of her. “Pretty much everything I do is hyper-edited,” she admits. “It’s moving the tiniest sample three milliseconds earlier that people wouldn’t notice.” From BPM adjustments to alternate beginnings, the editing process allows for an unfathomable number of choices. “The first thing I do on any track is establish a palette. Once I have a palette, then I know I can have a track out of it,” she says. “The thing I love about working on a computer instead of sampler is that you can add swing to certain samplers and drum machines, but with a computer you can go off the grid … so much.”

It can be hard to feel confident about your instrument when almost all of your listeners use a computer just as frequently as you do. The laptop is the window to your parents on Skype, the paperless form on which you file your taxes, and the dark school hallway where bullies scrawl the nastiest words on your locker. It’s an intimate possession deeply integrated into American culture, a machine created by humans for humans, and Herndon is pushing it to mimic humans in dynamic ways. Live, she aims to involve the audience in more ways than one. She pulls attendees’ Facebook photos onstage via a projector, mingling her music with images from her audience’s personal lives. The computer is her instrument, and she plays it with dramatic, growing talent.

So why not present Platform for her final thesis? She’s allowed to, or so she thinks: “I’ve been testing the water, bringing different things in, and no one’s said ‘no’ yet,” she laughs. Given that 4AD is releasing her record to a public who’s already interested in her work, for her doctorate, she wants to push herself to get weirder. “I don’t know if that even feels right,” she says. “I may want to take the opportunity of writing the dissertation work to do something I may not normally have access to. Sometimes I work in multichannel and that stuff’s not very commercially viable since it’s difficult to present to people. I fortunately don’t have to decide until this fall. I’m definitely going to procrastinate as long as possible, as everyone does.” Slowly, but remarkably, she is comping it all down like the one woman wonder she is, eager to internalize everything the world, online and off, throws at her.

“The university was really supportive and flexible, fortunately,” Herndon says. “Until someone says, ‘You have to stop doing what you’re doing,’ I’m going to keep going.”

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