Holly Herndon – PROTO

US electronic experimentalist Holly Herndon makes cerebral and emotive contributions to the on-going discourse of art and AI on her best album yet, PROTO

Album Review by Dafydd Jenkins | 07 May 2019
  • Holly Herndon – PROTO
Album title: PROTO
Artist: Holly Herndon
Label: 4AD
Release date: 10 May

As a student of both avant-garde synthesists and club-adjacent electronic music, composer Holly Herndon has always been concerned with the pervasive relationship between humans and technology today. Her main instrument – besides her sonorous voice – is the laptop, a tool which has now superseded both diary and planner, containing more of ourselves than we often like to acknowledge (schedules, work, friends, sex, entertainment, interests). It’s a nuanced relationship, nurturing and uneven, and Herndon’s work often seems borne out of these intersections. Where 2015’s Platform explored how technology enables and perverts communication between humans, PROTO – her latest on 4AD – casts its gaze at our relationship with ‘inhuman’ beings, which proves to be just as troubling.

Earlier this year, Endel, an algorithm created by a subsidiary of tech company Techstars Music’18, 'signed' a record deal with Warner Music Group, making it the first AI in history to sign with a major label. Herndon took to Twitter with a quietly alarmed statement: "this is a warning shot […] that we are about to be inundated with automated and procedurally generated music systems, producing good enough music to appease most people for most situations."

The Endel app is primarily intended as less a music platform and more a lifestyle tool, something to help you sleep, work, and commute, generating sound in real time based on location, weather and heart rate. But for Herndon, among many others, the news is an ill omen. Where AI was once a mere possibility, it now accompanies us wherever we go, in our pockets or on our wrists – and now AI can create our music. Herndon begs the question: how should we handle it?

Bolstered by radical notions of reproduction and communal creativity, PROTO begins to posit an answer in administering the assistance of Spawn, a machine learning unit co-created by Herndon, long-time collaborator Mathew Dryhurst, and ensemble developer Jules LaPlace. Over the course of the album – namely in vocal pieces Canaan and Evening Shades, both followed by the words 'live training' in parenthesis – Spawn uses its gathered knowledge to accompany gorgeous, folk-informed performances, utilising something akin to early musical call and response methods.

The idea is as powerful as its sound, bringing AI directly into human histories of communal music performance. What’s more, PROTO is unabashedly a work of collaboration – among which Spawn can be counted as an agent. Lily Anna Hayes and Jenna Sutela articulate a sci-fi creation myth on the levitational spoken piece Extreme Love, while the Jlin featuring Godmother runs the gamut of the footwork producer’s triplet-spamming exploits, made totally terrifying with Herndon’s hyperventilating sound font.

The album abounds with references to growth milestones, and we’re compelled to imagine Spawn just as Herndon does – a child being nurtured, liable to absorb and internalise the world around it. Opener Birth stutters with pre-linguistic speech. Alienation soon follows like a first cognisant sensation, its language matured into near-intelligible shapes, inviting connotations with Marxian theories of worker’s estrangement in capitalist modes of production. 'Why am I so lost?', asks the singers of Crawler in woven, ghostly voices. It’s tempting to ascribe these anxieties to Spawn, a would-be robot servant, brought into a society where music is less a great mystery and more just another service in numbing the workforce – cynically, not unlike Endel.

PROTO feels far bigger than its 45-minute runtime. By design or coincidence, it’s a prism through which concerns of our strange, as-yet unknowable epoch refract. In other words: it’s great, difficult, enjoyable, rewarding, prescient – a notable work of art. It wouldn’t be surprising if the years to come recognise it as such.

Listen to: Alienation, Eternal, Crawler