Holly Herndon Platform

[RVNG Intl./4AD; 2015]

Styles: Patches and Processes, ASMR, sousveillance
Others: Pierre Schaffer, ARCA, BMO

Holly Herndon’s latest collection of avant-garde electronic music is smart, innovative, politically urgent, and very, very sensual. Make no mistake, it’s laptop music through and through. It completely refuses the comforts of pop or dance — unified voice, repetitive chorus, consistent beats, etc. — and risks leaving many listeners cold. As Herndon sees it, though, the laptop is a “hyper-emotional instrument,” one with “more emotional content than a violin could ever dream of.” Platform explores the effects of long-term laptop companionship on both body and soul, as it intervenes between humans and mediates their emotional experiences with the world. In considering how we express feeling today, Herndon claims, “I find it odd to use a violin swell from another era to discuss the feeling I have after a Skype breakup.” The result of such thinking is a set of scattered, schizophrenic tracks, full of desktop clicking and whirring, punctuated throughout by electronically-rendered rumbles, crashes, and splats, gasps and shivers, broken phonemes, and strange pitch-shifting chants. Herndon offers something like anxious web surfing turned to sound — too many open browser windows at once — an experience that never quite converges into full song, but comes charged with its own intense emotions and sensations. Digital patches and programs allow her to abstract sonic intensities that in turn become new sensual intensities, a kinky workout session for ear and body both. Sure, it’s unnerving, confusing, violent even, but this sonic savaging of human being reveals a whole other set of physical pleasures.

If you want to understand the strange alchemy of Herndon’s sound, you might do a quick trace of her biography. The story goes that she was raised in Tennessee on bibles and church choirs, then shed her past in the Berlin club scene and finally, seeking a more focused education, attended Mills College and, later, Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Platform falls somewhere in the middle of this postmodern Bermuda Triangle. It’s a surreal blend of art school and clubland, biomorphology and digital design, hi-tech paranoia and new-age grace. Critics are already trying to categorize the album as Herndon’s turn to pop and embrace of lyricism, but she’s too savvy about disciplinary boundaries and carefully deconstructs such distinctions at every turn. These tracks willfully refuse to be labeled, and one of the pleasures of the album is listening to its various modes buckle and bristle against each other. More to the point, Herndon’s whole method, with its emphasis on found sound — what she calls “net concrete” as an updated version of “musique concrete” — works to destabilize easy associations between sound and source. Also, this time out, her adventures in digital manipulation are inspired by ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), which is the use of sensory stimuli (such as the sound of fingernails tapping on an iPhone case or the voice of Bob Ross describing how to paint a sky) to generate pleasurable, tingling sensations in the body (i.e., sonic goosebumps). In all this, Herndon’s songs demand a new taxonomy based on the various kinds of affect they generate and a new scale of evaluation, one in which categories of good or bad, pleasurable or unpleasurable, refer back not to established styles and traditions, but to complex digital platforms and weird physiological processes.

Still, Platform has a few distinct modes — three, by my count — and its various tracks can be evaluated according to roughly human standards:

Herndon’s music is most bracing — scalp-tingling, really — when she brings multiple streams of processed sound into complex relation. Tracks such as “Interference” and “Chorus” come across less as songs than as thrilling sonic landscapes, cut through with multiple paths and obstacles; unclear figures in the background suddenly burst into the fore, warping everything else in the mix around their own movement, while unexpected noises sputter into rhythm to provide alternative escapes. They are marvels of disjointed time and harmony, stretching the listener’s habitual modes of cognition, seeming to follow no established code or to follow multiple codes at once, shifting vertiginously from one section to the next. At the same time, they play astoundingly with scale: micro-phonic figures suddenly grow monstrous in the ear and then small and innocuous again, while seemingly dense and stable passages evaporate unexpectedly into the second ether. These tracks induce strange combustible states of dread and elation, but all of their emotions are decisively “musical,” bound to the sounds and noises in the mix.

A second mode, seeming to develop out of Herndon’s early choral experiences, churns the modal harmonies and dynamic spatial arrangements of early modern sacred music (think Byrd and Tallis) into restless configurations of pomo angst. The best of these is the haunting track “Unequal,” in which a sad monk chants for something like honesty and grace in the middle of a fiery post-apocalyptic landscape. Herndon has always twisted voices toward startling ends, most of them personal and intimate, but her interest in digital abstraction finds a perfect counterpart here in the similar distortion of voice and emotion demanded by traditional songs of worship and piety. “Unequal” proves a true moment of solace in the middle of a very cluttered album, even as earthquakes and explosions and monstrous technological rumblings everywhere threaten to derail the monk’s faithful chant. Like A Canticle for Leibowitz condensed into a five-minute sonic prayer.

Platform seems less successful in its equal smattering of more directly vocal tracks. The album simply can’t support the shift from its unapologetic oddball offerings to more traditional vocals; Herndon’s commitment to the former, most clearly on display in the first half of the album, completely evacuates the possibility of returning to the latter, which awkwardly emerges in the second half. The bright multi-tracked vocals on “Morning Sun” are impressive in sound, but obtrusive as a statement. The pop refrain on “An Exit” seems out of place, borrowed from an earlier, discarded register. Other tracks that feature spoken word come across similarly as slight, but they are tweaked in more interesting ways. “Locker Leak” echoes the lingo of contemporary marketing, but pitch-shifts the slogans in ways that recall Gertrude Stein’s experiments in sonic wordplay. “Lonely At the Top” is a sustained monologue featuring a female body therapist trained to pleasure and relax a successful male client, but the hokey scenario is just an excuse for Herndon to push her experiments into ASMR to the limit, with whispering voice, rustling paper, and wet sucking sounds offered for the listener’s own sensual pleasure.

Here, though, one runs up against the fact that Platform is also an album that is heavy on ideas, and it’s been publicized as such in a somewhat distracting and self-defeating way, as if the songs themselves were lacking or uninteresting in themselves. “Chorus” is apparently about “sousveillance” and the ways in which self-discipline today overlaps with institutional discipline; the track is built off of a program that records the sounds of Herndon’s web-browsing activity. “Locker Leak” plays with the language and attitudes of personal marketing in self-conscious and ambivalent ways; “Home” addresses the NSA, the brokering of personal privacy on the net, and what it means to “know” yourself or someone else in the age of the personal computer. I certainly appreciate Herndon’s efforts to join the larger conversation, but her songs, with their inscrutably processed lyrics and chaotic multi-tracking, convey little of this sort on their own. They seem less valuable as they contribute ideas about contemporary issues than as they contribute new attitudes and emotions in relation to the technologies that raise them. I feel a similar resistance to the focus on the digital processes and patches used to construct these songs. The technology might be novel and transformative, but it matters much less than the attitudes and values that went into its use — i.e., the very non-technological and even humanist work of creativity that vitalized those patches and processes in the first place.

Conceptually, Herndon seems on a more productive track when developing her album’s title concept of the “platform.” In addition to approaching the album as a “platform” or stage for progressive ideas, she also wants to think about the “platform” as a stable system or framework that allows for the exploration of open-ended and interactive processes. She borrows this formulation from Benedict Singleton, a strategist with commitments to both design and philosophy, whose concept of “platform dynamics” opposes the linear logic and ideological closure of the “plan” with the contingency and adaptability of the “platform.” Think here of the digital platform as a hosting service for open online exchange or the laptop itself as coded platform for less coded interaction with other media. Herndon’s commitment to platform dynamics is affirmed by the multiple collaborations on her album (with musicians, performance artists, philosophers, designers, engineers, etc.) as well as by the openness with which she pursues digital technique. In an interview last year at the Red Bull Academy, Herndon discussed how she frequently approaches a patch or a program with a specific plan in mind, only to have it fail and thereby reveal another, more interesting process at work. This seems like the right stress to place on digital art, particularly because it leaves room for a lot more than digitization. There’s also a bravery in this attitude that raises the bar for the listener as well, especially if he or she has any hope of stepping up to Herndon’s platform and experiencing the full innovation of her music.

Still, though, can we get a remix? Herndon’s album took shape in a way that’s true to her ideas and vision, in healthy resistance to pop and dance music as forms of escapism, but one can’t help but imagine a second version of Platform with more beats. Really, any couple of measures on the album contains enough clubland dna to craft a whole set of forward-leaning dance tracks. Herndon knows that pop escapism often contains its own utopian potential, communal ideals that are not far off from the politics of her own music. Moving bodies on the dance floor often leads to social movement in a larger sense, both off and on the internet. But this suggests a larger, more complicated issue with the album: namely, that Herndon’s sense of platform exchange doesn’t really extend to the relation between artist and audience. She’s still working a one-way process, one that seems to reflect both Western performance tradition and the contemporary restraints of digital music, and Platform, especially in the second half, feels a bit top-heavy with ideas and technology and digital processes. It’s telling that Herndon has yet to release any of her software for other users; in a way, on Platform too, there’s just too much control on the artist’s side and not enough room for engagement on the listener end. Still, Herndon is just setting to work as a musician, and she’s already pushing her sound well beyond the experiments of the 20th-century avant-garde. More to the point, it will take us awhile to get our minds and bodies around the sounds of Platform, while I’m sure Herndon is already feeling her way toward more radical ends.

Links: Holly Herndon - RVNG Intl./4AD

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