Analog synths and vintage drum machines may be badges of authenticity in a certain sector of electronic music, but for Johnson City, Tennessee native Holly Herndon, clicking a mouse onstage is about as real as you can get. “Sometimes when people are performing, they’ll have their laptop hidden under a table and then they’ll have all their [other] gear on top of the table, so no one can see what’s going on,” she explains over the phone from her apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District, her accent just shy of a drawl. “I think computers are the most personal instruments you can actually use right now. You receive devastating news on your email, you have really intimate conversations with your family on Skype. So I really embrace the laptop as my instrument, and as an instrument that I don’t want to apologize for.”
It’s the morning of Herndon’s first day as a PhD student at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (in tandem with the school’s engineering department), and the redheaded vocalist and composer sounds about as excited as a kid at the front door of Willy Wonka’s Factory. With its state-of-the-art sound labs and large laptop orchestra, this historical birthplace of digital FM Synthesis, the science behind the quintessentially ’80s sound of the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, is the perfect destination for someone moved by the unsung humanity of computers. Musically, though, it’s a long way from where she started. Growing up, Herndon spent the greater part of middle school and high school singing soprano one in church and school ensembles and even in a state-wide competitive choir. But it wasn’t until she started traveling to Berlin in the summers during college that she fell in with the club scene, and began fusing her interest in vocal technique with the minimal techno booming through the floor at venues like Watergate and Berghain. In 2008, she enrolled in an electronic music MFA program at Mills College in Oakland, and devoted the next two years to re-imagining her craft primarily as a sensual call-and-response between fluted breath and a MacBook Pro.
“It’s an honest overview of my interests,” she says of her dark and prickly RVNG Intl. debut, Movement, which grew out of a group of performances she developed at Mills using the visual programming language Max/MSP. The title, she explains, is both a play on the classical music term and a nod to the way the human body reacts almost reflexively to a pounding, four-on-the-floor rhthym, which is fitting for an album that marries darting beats and grinding bass tones with the sound of the composer digitally Frankenstein-ing her own voice. “It’s a kind of symbiosis,” she says, describing the process of applying layer upon layer of pitch-shifting or delay effects to her own sighs, gasps and sung notes. “I think it’s my attempt at understanding how we can make this human/machine relationship natural. It’s like, how can we use these new tools we have? How can we use them to imagine new musical paradigms?” Herndon may not be able to answer her question just yet, but she’s banking on the hunch that you can’t make experimental music without actually experimenting.
Movement is out today via RVNG Intl. Order on CD or vinyl here.