Web Exclusive: Interview with Holly Herndon

by Tristan Rodman

Illustration by Pierie Korostoff

published March 7, 2014

Editor’s note: This unexcerpted interview accompanies “Holding Notes: thinking through St. Vincent and Holly Herndon” from Issue 5. The biographical information below comes from the full piece.

Holly Herndon is an electronic composer and performer, and a current graduate student at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. On Movement, her 2012 full-length, Herndon pushes her voice to extreme technological limits. Sounds leave her mouth at a constant rate, but return at uneven intervals. Her voice is never embodied, never disembodied. Spoken tones and syllables float from left to right before colliding with planes of booming drums. For much of the album, the downbeat is never where you expect it to be.

     On “Chorus,” released as a single earlier this year, she samples her online activity, from Skype chats to the idle browsing of YouTube videos. Its sounds are dense and deliberate, the result of intensive studio work. The B-side, “Solo Voice,” turns a single, extended vocal tone into small packets spinning around the listener’s head. It was recorded in one take.

     This past week, Herndon released #sonicchatroulette, a web-based remix of “Chorus” that splits the track into thirty discrete samples. Visitors play parts of the song together in real time. When I logged on to the site last week, four people were practicing their own sequence, attempting to lock into a groove.

     We email here about her show at with St. Vincent House of Blues in Boston, the importance of performance gestures, and reconciling theoretical divides.

The College Hill Independent: Does your approach to playing a set change when you play in rock venues or clubs as opposed to playing in an academic context? What differs? How do you imagine your audiences in each case?

Holly Herndon: Normally when I play in an academic context I am performing one work, or writing a work for players, and so it’s different in so much as you are rarely expected to create a ‘set’ of sorts - people are cool with the idea of it being one distinct thought, and that allows you to go quite deep. In clubs, on the other hand, it is often a less ‘curated’ community - which is actually very exciting and although it inserts some pressure to try and make the music accessible I actually really enjoy playing with those expectations and fielding ideas to see how far I can push people. The academy is often highly specialized, which is great in some respects, however live club environments are often filled with people from a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives - and ultimately I really like the idea of my music reaching places that weren’t entirely designated for it. That would represent progress.

The Indy: A piece like “Chorus” has a strong conceptual component. Do you attempt to translate this into a live setting?

HH: I’m actually trying to figure this out at the moment. ‘Chorus' is funny, as it began as a live track - I’ve been playing it out since 2012, and then went through this intensive studio process where I was spying on myself, and warping and contouring the composition to be interesting around that. Now due to it’s popularity I’m playing it live again, and while it’s quite volatile at the moment I enjoy this idea of workshopping and refining it in public - I’m changing aspects of my set almost every night on this St.Vincent tour - the only true way to refine these things is by testing them in a high stakes environment!

The Indy: How has your training “in the academy” pushed you towards the music you're currently making? Do you feel there's a different approach taught by conservatory-style educations and computer music programs like those at Mills and Stanford?

HH: I think it’s fair to say there is a big difference between Stanford and Mills computer music programs and conservatory environments. Both are characteristically Californian and open minded, and I’ve heard horror stories from friends who went through more traditional conservatory environments and ultimately felt quite alienated. For what I do I am quite a lone wolf in both an academic context and in the popular music sphere, but most importantly I feel like Mills and Stanford, as well as my label and community of artists, have been supportive of my idiosyncrasies - which I am really grateful for. I have heard that some places aren’t quite as encouraging, and I just wouldn’t put myself through that. If a school at post graduate level is not nurturing you then I would question the value of attending altogether.

     I had actually began my musical path, and was a part of an active musical community long before pursuing post graduate study, and so this was always clear to me. Mills and Stanford have helped me a great deal in terms of formalizing my practice and growing confidence, however I have found that many of the people best tooled to benefit from those environments came into them with some kind of direction in mind with their practice, and some kind of idea where they would go once they are done. School is not a substitute for doing it, but can be incredibly helpful in providing you with resources and encouragement to do it better.

The Indy: What led you towards a graduate education in computer music? What are your main areas of research?

HH: I was performing and writing in Berlin for many years before I went to Mills, and eventually applied there when I felt like I had hit a technical wall. I wanted to build my own instruments and have more control over my work, and so a lot of my research there began with nerding out on signal processing - and ultimately culminated in my exploring this idea of embodiment in electronic music and laptop performance - thinking of ways to create empathy between audience and performer without incorporating traditional gestures familiar to acoustic instruments. At Stanford I’m following on from this, and have most recently been exploring this idea of creating palpable connections across networks. In a way I think probably my most important area of research at the moment is an unfolding experiment in reconciling the theory/practice and academic/popular divides that are so embedded in people’s brains. I am active in as many spheres as makes sense for my work and ideas, and feel pretty passionate about not restricting them to fit into any one box - it just doesn’t seem contemporary to do so - we don’t receive information in these neatly packaged, quarantined environments, so why should we tailor our work in that way? Only time will tell how far I can take it before hitting another wall!

The Indy: Does the more “scholarly” side of your education make its way into your music? What are the theoretical approaches you've been taught, and how might you embrace or reject them?

HH: Almost everything I have done involves some aspect of theory, in so much as I feel lucky to be a part of a heavily discursive community of artists and thinkers. In the past few years I’ve collaborated a lot with thinkers like Reza Negarestani and Mat Dryhurst, who operate largely outside of the academy, and I incorporated a lot of ideas from academics like Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles into my first LP - ‘Movement’. Honestly a lot of these influences came from organically reading up on subjects that interested me, and were not a direct result of things I was taught in an academic environment - although naturally you can derive a lot of context and inspiration when surrounded by bright people in an institution. It is important to emphasize that the academy does not have a monopoly on theoretical thought, and there is no substitute for being active and curious - many of the theoretical approaches I find myself applying to my work were inspired by people who have no association with a university. 

The Indy: What, in terms of technology (or technologies—and here I consider the voice very much to be a technology), are you using to perform live?

HH: I use a lot of Max/MSP with Ableton Live, my voice, lots of microphones and an awesome MIDI controller made by Livid Instruments. 

The Indy: You used a lot of deliberate, even exaggerated performance gestures in your set last night. What purpose, for you (or for your audience), do these gestures serve?

HH: Honestly a lot of the gestural interfaces I use, like the induction microphones, are done to make performing live a bit more volatile and interesting for me - although it definitely does serve to dispel this idea that I could be ‘checking my email’ while performing with my laptop. Inspired by my friend, the artist Scott Arford, I developed that gestural control system to play the electrical information coming from my laptop processor, simply as a means to explore how much more I could do with it as an instrument. I strongly believe this is not necessary - as intent can be registered without physical gesture, however do feel that more physical interactions with the laptop as an instrument could serve to assuage people’s biases, and segue us from insisting on seeing performers hitting or strumming things in order to pay attention. I often baulk at the affectations of musical performance - the posturing and antiquated histrionics of it, and so pulling the sounds out of my laptop physically makes for a more visual show without me having to play a role that would make me uncomfortable.

The Indy: How did the tour with St. Vincent get set up? Who approached whom? And how have you felt about playing a string of dates as her opener? What has the audience response been like?

HH: As far as I know, Annie requested I join her, which is really very flattering, and a really cool opportunity to perform my work to a bigger and less familiar audience. So far it has been really fun - and inspiring to see how powerful and water tight the St.Vincent live show is, everything has been considered and there is such a solid foundation for each player to be expressive on stage. I have ambition for my own work, and so getting to see first hand how it happens when you get to that level is really amazing - I’m going to leave this tour with a lot of notes, although no amount of preparation can account for how accomplished a performer Annie is. It’s great to see.

     The audience response so far seems to have been really positive! It’s so hard to say, I was sent one glib review where a journalist seemed baffled by what I was doing up there, but have also received a lot of support from people after the shows. I’m realistic that my music can be challenging for some people, however am really grateful for the opportunity to bring challenging work to an audience of this size. It speaks volumes that St.Vincent is eager to facilitate that at her shows, and is really spiriting.

The Indy: The Digital Witness Tour, and a lot of St. Vincent's most recent album, deals very deliberately with overuse of technology and the alienation it may cause. Your work seems, though, to go in another direction—using technological overuse as a creative material (on “Chorus"). How do you feel about St. Vincent’s message? Is this something you have in mind when you take the stage as an opening act?

HH: Not really, although it is nice to be amongst a group of people thinking about these things. I feel like it is legitimate to express concern about overuse of devices or social media and how it may alienate some, and I have just chosen to approach the subject from a different angle. The best possible scenario is for everyone, regardless of their varying optimism on the issue, to acknowledge that the new normal involves the pressures and benefits of multiple devices and an unprecedented amount of information flowing through us. There is nothing reactionary in acknowledging that this can be problematic, and it is our role as artists to offer insights as to how best to navigate this predicament. The only people I fundamentally disagree with are those who stubbornly ignore such issues altogether, dip out, and pretend like it’s 1989 or something. I guess the principal thing I stand for is educating oneself about the potentials and pitfalls of contemporary technology such that you can use it for positive ends. Debate around these issues is a crucial part of that.