Holly Herndon on techno-optimism, the academy, and the computer as a compositional tool.
In the past year alone alone, Holly Herndon released her debut solo record, Movement, performed at a few high-profile festivals and at least one venerable modern art museum, and began studying toward a PhD at Stanford University. Once we managed to contact each other on Skype (both of us were tired enough to sleep through the first interview we scheduled), she was friendly and generous, speaking at length about a record that she must have been talking about for weeks already.
This generosity of spirit is characteristic of Herndon’s work, too. Though Movement has already spawned a dozen well-deserved think pieces, the record is incredibly listenable. With the music on this album, she broaches questions about the lines drawn between the body and the machine, the traditional musical instrument and the laptop, and dance music and academic music, but she does so without a hint of the opacity that tends to accompany such conceptually dense work. Her pieces, which include a cassette titled Car which features car sounds and is meant to be played in a car, and an audience-pranking collaboration with the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani, are just as sonically engaging as they are dead smart.
Where 2012 saddled the listening public with a glut of musicians who responded to the anxieties of the new millennium with a self-defeating nostalgia or by taking refuge in a dark and anxious aesthetic, Herndon’s response is refreshing—she expresses a deep and playful optimism for the technological possibilities of the future. We spoke about, among other things: day jobs, upright bass, the academy, electronic-music pioneers, gender, California, noise, and synthesizers.
Sean Higgins How long is your program at Stanford?
Holly Herndon It's funded for five years, and then if you need to take more, some people get funding to extend that. But I would like it to be no more than five years.
SH I can understand that. I had originally gone to school for a PhD, and then after the Master's I decided to bolt—I couldn't have imagined being there for another four years after that.
HH It felt like the right thing for me right now—I was working at a children's museum developing interactive exhibits. And that was really fun, but it was incredibly time-consuming spending 40 hours a week focusing on something that I knew I did not want for my life trajectory. It’s obviously not paying the bills yet to just make music, so this seemed like a happy medium—having a salary but being able to focus on what I wanted to focus on.
SH I’ve been trying to find a similar sort of balance with technical writing. But I find it’s worse being able to write, but not about what I want to. I spend all this time writing help documentation for software . . .
HH And then you’re tired of writing at the end of the day! I did something similar for a while when I was living in Berlin. I was working for an advertising agency—it was a little startup and they had a music databank. So on the fun days I would do music placement: I would get a commercial clip and I would pick music out for it, but the majority of the time would be going through volumes and volumes of music and cataloguing it and categorizing it with keywords and I hated music . . . I never wanted to listen to music ever again.
SH But you were also in a band while you were there, right?
HH I was there for five years, so a lot happened. But yeah, during that time I was also in a band and I lived off of that for a while, which was really cool—we had enough tour support and we were playing so regularly, I was able to tour full time for a year and a half. And Berlin’s so cheap anyway—when your rent is $200 it’s not that hard to come up with. My friend Nicole, who was in the band, is now a professional songwriter for pop stars in LA. She writes for Britney and Tom Jones, which is pretty cool. We just went in completely opposite directions.
SH I wanted to ask about that. You used to be in a synthpop band, and now you’ve released a record that is getting a lot of press for being “academic.” Was this what you intended? How do you feel about people calling it that?
HH That doesn’t bother me. I think it’s funny, in a way. Parts of it are, I guess, academic because they were conceived in a time when I was in the academy. I don’t know what the definition of “academic” is. For a lot of people if it’s a little bit weird and heady, then it’s academic, and if I’m validated by a university system, then it’s academic. A lot of people are asking, “Do you have a struggle between your pop-driven, dance-driven tracks and your more academic music?” For me it’s not a conflict at all. I think people in the pop world don’t really interact with academia so much, so it’s this weird other. And I think it’s the same the other way around. I think they’re enamored with and terrified by each other. It’s really not that different. It’s just a focus.
SH Are you finding any this attitude within your program?
HH I’m finding my program to be incredibly open, and I think that’s due to a couple of things. It’s the only PhD program I applied to because California has a different way of dealing with institutional thought and the academy as an idea. It’s a way more open and laid-back, but still an incredibly rigorous place. I just feel much more comfortable in this environment I think than I would in an east-coast school. They’re much more accepting of the weird path I took to where I am now. And the other reason is that Stanford has this department called CCRMA [pronounced karma], the computer music and acoustics research center, that I’m working in. Basically, you have a lot of engineers there from the commercial world who have developed major technologies that have been used in popular music and the music market. So there’s a big interest and a big crossover there—they realize that a lot of the most interesting music technology research also happens outside of the academy. A lot of the best engineers there have their own companies where they’re developing modeling algorithms for various reverbs, but they’re also teaching students there how to do that themselves.
SH A lot of the places I applied to when I was looking at PhDs had maybe one professor who had worked with sound once in the ’80s, so it’s great to hear that there are programs that are forward-thinking in their approach.
HH It’s funny, even at Stanford I got caught in this conversation with the secretary of the music department because I needed an instrument locker. She asked me what my instrument and I said, “It’s a computer.” And she was like, “No, this is for instruments.” “That is my instrument.” She ended up giving me a locker but I thought it was hilarious that, even there where it’s so computer-centric, we were still having this conversation.
SH That’s something I wanted to mention—since you went to Mills before, what brought you to Stanford? You said it was the only place you applied to, right?
HH That’s actually a really good question because I don’t think I’m necessarily a seamless or a natural fit for the program. I’m divided into two departments: the CCRMA department, which is very engineering based, and the music department. And that’s like Darmstadters, or contemporary-classical, ensemble directors. And the reason why I chose this particular program is because I was so drawn to CCRMA, but sometimes CCRMA can get so focused on technology that some of the students can forget to think about how that’s applied, or sometimes when they make work it’s less aesthetically developed because they’ve spent their lives engineering. So I think it’s really nice to have faculty who are just concerned with music and can help me develop that aspect as well. Plus, I wanted to stay in the Bay.
SH What made you want to stick around?
HH The really amazing thing about the Bay Area is that it is so technologically forward, with Silicon Valley right there—and everyone here works in tech, it’s insane. I mean, it can get really obnoxious sometimes, but the conversations that people are having about technology—I find them to be years ahead of the conversations people are having about technology elsewhere. And I often forget that until I travel and I think, Oh my god, that’s a new idea for you guys? People were talking about that in my local cafe. And people are really open to technological ideas. If you have an idea like, I’m imagining the future of performance is people logged into this console and then it’s like surround yah-dee-da, or whatever your crazy idea is, people are going to say, “Okay.” And then they’ll start thinking about it and having a conversation instead of being like, “Well, you know, wouldn’t that really just, uh, lose the humanity of the performance?” And a lot of like European or East Coast attitudes—more European—can be a little bit more techno-skeptical. People are very techno-optimistic here, and I am a techno-optimist, for sure.
SH What a wonderful phrase. How much would you say the work you’ve been doing has changed as a result of this techno-optimism that you found out there? I mean, you’re not originally from California, right?
HH No, I’m from the South. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, not that far from Asheville, North Carolina on the Tennessee side. I’m from bluegrass country, as “acoustic and natural” as you can get. And I didn’t grow up dealing with computers that much—I remember we got internet my senior year in high school.
When I moved here, I was using my computer a little bit—I was enrolled in this electronic music program but I was still dealing with a lot with analog gear and being in this area made me accept the computer as an instrument. I think before that I always thought of it as this recording device or a tool of some sort but I never really thought of it as my primary instrument. I was playing upright bass when I moved here, because I felt the need to have this crazy orchestral instrument in order to take myself seriously, which was stupid. I don’t really know why I wasted all that time doing that to myself, but once I figured out that the computer was going to be my instrument, that was a massive shift aesthetically and as far as my practice. I think that’s definitely a product of being in the Bay Area.
SH How does using a computer affect the way you compose? One of the things I find exciting about the computer is that there are so many different ways that you can use it to make sound.
HH I think it depends on whom I’m writing for. If I’m writing for myself, I will start with an idea and try to make it a specific process, like a processing patch in Max/MSP or something. I try to get the sound that I’m going for and then just start whittling away at it. If I’m writing for someone, like a vocal ensemble or an instrumentalist, I take a different approach—sometimes I’ll use Sibelius. You know that program?
SH Yeah, I’ve attempted to use it before.
HH It’s kind of a dangerous tool, because it tries to write the next note for you. You have to not let it take you in the direction it wants to take you.
SH I remember that once I had written a very simple melody in Sibelius, and I turned on some setting and it suddenly became horribly baroque and complex. I think this is common to a lot of computer music writing tools—it’s almost easier to let the machine do the work for you.
HH It really is. You have to catch yourself, and I definitely have some things that I do to try to fight against that.
SH Like what?
HH If I’m using Ableton [another composition program] or something, I’ll turn the measures off or just not let the computer make me put the next beat somewhere.
SH I would assume using patches and things to create your own sounds probably also goes a long way toward that.
SH I was reading about the work you did with the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani. I read Cyclonopedia and I only vaguely remember it because it’s—
HH It’s insane.
SH Yes, it’s very insane. So how did that collaboration come about? How does an artist go about developing a piece with someone like him?
HH It came about because my partner, Mat Dryhurst, read the book and fell in love with it and started emailing with him. Then they started getting into these two-page long discussions, so they became friends—internet friends. And then Mat shared some of my work with him, and he was really interested in it.
And then I was asked to perform at a festival here in San Francisco that was organized by a collective, 23Five. The theme of the festival was dark ecology, which is a term coined by Timothy Morton. The idea is about not idealizing nature, because in doing so you’re creating an other, and this will eventually damage nature because you’re not seeing yourself as part of it. I thought that it seemed like a good crossover with some of the work that Reza has done. So basically the collaboration involved some really long Skype conversations where he would just riff on the idea and I would do my best to keep up and take notes, because he speaks like he writes—he speaks in philosophy prose. He’s such a pro and he’s so in that world that he’s able to articulate things in very well laid-out arguments. So I just sat there and scribbled everything down. And I tried to ask as many questions as possible and we somehow managed to get to this point where we decided that we needed to create this—what was it he called it . . . It was like taking the mundane to the psychotic.
SH Oh, I wrote this down: “The psychotically mundane.”
HH Yeah. So Mat, who was also deeply involved in the conception of the piece, Reza, and I really wanted the audience to feel like they were objects in the room and part of the performance itself. So I had some samples: I hard-panned the sounds of bottles knocking over because it was in a gallery-ish venue and people didn’t know if that was part of the piece or if somebody had knocked something over at the bar. And the whole time music is running, so people are thinking that there’s a normal performance going on, and then I’ll call someone and their phone will go off in the audience and then I’ll sample the ringtone and play it back in a rhythmic way. And Mat was hidden in the crowd triggering things from my computer using a controller—all part of the conspiracy of the performance! It really made people paranoid and more aware of themselves in the audience.
For the crescendo at the end, I got up and everyone started clapping and I walked off for a second. Then I came back and I took their clapping and played it back to them and processed it. They were part of the performance at that point. When I was done everyone was scared to start clapping. I think that it was successful in that way.
It was really nice to work with someone who is so at the forefront of thought. Being able to try to translate those ideas sonically is a challenge because sound is already abstracted, but I would love to do more of that. I feel like he’s such an amazing resource.
SH I think I need to read Cyclonopedia again.
HH I think he’s releasing a new book, so hold out. Because when I was talking to him about Cyclonopedia he seemed almost over it. He was saying, “My thought has developed so much since then.” I originally wanted to do something on Cyclonopedia for this festival and he said, “Let’s not do anything about Cyclonopedia. I’m somewhere else now. Let’s do this other thing that I’m thinking about.”
SH I imagine that’s what it must be like to talk about a record that you’ve already finished.
HH Yeah, kind of.
SH So what are you on to now, then?
HH That’s a good question. I haven’t started the next record per se, yet, but I’ve started thinking about it and I’m doing some collaborations with people right now. I’m doing some things for school—I’m writing for a percussion ensemble, I’m doing a remix of F.C. Judd’s work. Do you know him? He’s British, almost an outsider tinkerer but he worked in parallel with the Radiophonic Workshop—Daphne Oram and he were good friends and they were developing some of the same technologies and would trade notes. He was doing a lot of the early experiments in tape delay and stuff like that. And he would record all of his experiments, so he has this huge archive of material and Public Information, a UK-based label, is doing an album with people using his material. That’s what I’ve been working on this week, and it’s been really challenging, actually.
SH Seems like an unusual opportunity. Have you ever worked with material like this before?
HH No. Usually with a remix there is a song there, but these aren’t really songs, they’re just sound effects. I got some good feedback from my composition teacher the other day. I made this piece and I knew it was not working and I brought it in to him and he said, “This is terrible, you can’t turn this in.” And I said, “I know, help me!” He gave me some really good suggestions on how to do more justice to the material, because for some reason I was just adding his stuff in under my bag of tricks. I wasn’t really trying to engage with and understand the material itself. So I’ve taken a new approach and I think it sounds a thousand times better.
SH What’s your new approach, how does one “remix” something like this?
HH I used it as a chance to try and become more familiar with the programming language ChucK, which was developed by one of the faculty members here, Ge Wang. I took Judd's sound effects and analyzed their amplitude and frequency, and then mapped that data onto recordings of his voice in lectures in real time. It created a sort of chaotic pitch-amplitude-shifting effect that was the playful basis of the track. I felt like I needed to work more with his material rather than my own, so this was a way for me to break out of my usual mode of working and try to really get into his material.
SH There’ve been a lot of these re-issues recently: The Radiophonic Workshop, Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani—all these early electronic musicians. But it seems like people have been very reverent so far, and so it’s encouraging to see that there might actually be another direction to take this material—using it rather than just collecting it and putting out giant anthologies.
HH I think it’s interesting that you bring up these examples—especially these female examples—because I feel like there’s this archetype of the woman in electronic music and it’s so idealized by synth nerds across the world. They’re dying for their synth queens or whatever. I even have friends who ask, “Hey, do you know any synth queens? Introduce me to some of your synth queens.”
But looking back at those early pioneers, I think if they were working today, they’d be working in software and they’d be using computers. I think it’s so funny for people to idealize these people who were at the cutting edge of technology at their time. This is another reason why I wanted to take Judd's work and use a very recently developed technology to rework it. He was at the vanguard of sound effects and electronic music during his time, so I think he would appreciate that I used ChucK. There are so many similarities between ChucK and his early hardware experiments—not a lot of documentation, a lot of trial and error, etc.
But people get stuck in that period and want to emulate exactly what they were doing at that time. I find that really strange. Do you know what I mean?
SH Yes, absolutely. I enjoy listening to it, but. . .
HH I think it’s great to listen to and enjoy and study, but I think it’s strange for people in 2012 to emulate it or want that to be today.
SH I want to go back to this “synth queen” idea you brought up, because gender is clearly important to your work. You mentioned in your Wire feature that you were happy to produce your own voice, to be able make the female voice ugly if you wanted to rather than having it beautified by a male producer. I was wondering to what extent your considerations of gender in general and the gender politics of electronic music affected your music?
HH I think my approach to gender politics is an embodied one—imagine that! I spent a lot of my youth being angry about certain aspects of gender roles in our society. But now, I feel very empowered and just try to create the reality that I hope for on a daily basis. This question comes up quite a bit because there is a dramatic imbalance in the number of male and female producers. I usually let people know that I agree with Donna Haraway in that I don’t buy into a sisterhood or an idea of "female" music. We are all individuals and groups—I have just as much in common with someone from my same socio-economic background as someone of the same gender.
I do find myself being compared to female producers that I have little in common with other than our gender due to journalistic laziness. I think certain aesthetic agendas are pushed forward in music communities based on arcane notions of femininity, etc. My reaction to that is to own what I am doing and offer new paradigms. I'm not going to be the synth goddess—this is something else. That is why it is powerful for me to control my vocals, since vocal processing is something that we are seeing more and more of. There is a certain expectation about what a female vocal should sound like—often pitch-shifted up and reverbed out—that fits in nicely with old-fashioned ideas of female value and beauty. To me it is more interesting to find new forms, and this is happening more and more. This of course does not mean that we have to discard all of the old forms at the same time. I see it as a continuum.
Herndon gets up to blow her nose
SH I listened to your piece, “Car.”
HH Oh, cool!
SH But I was not able to listen to it in a car.
HH Oh. Well, I’ll forgive you, but you should try to listen to it in a car.
SH Why did you make it specifically for the car? It seems like an interesting idea because the car is one of the few places where people will still actually listen to music or any sort of sound carefully rather than just putting it on and vacuuming—or making a pie.
HH It really is. It’s an intimate listening space. You know, it’s a small capsule and you can’t really get out if you’re on the freeway or something—you’re confined to that space and you’re probably listening alone or with one or two other people. The reason why I chose the car is because I was asked to do a cassette release for Third Sex, which is a little label in Chicago that has recently changed its name to nero porca miseria, and I was thinking, Who even listens to cassettes anymore? Where do they listen to cassettes? So I asked Philip Kruse—who runs the label—to ask his fanbase. So he sent out an email and asked them, “Where do you guys listen to the tapes that you buy from my label?” And he got back the most responses from people who said they listen in their car, which I thought was hilarious, because who has a tape player in their car anymore, you know what I mean? Apparently, noise kids do.
SH Oh yeah, noise kids love tapes.
HH So then I was thinking, Okay, since people are going to listen to it in their car, I’m going to make it for the car. That’s where that came from.
SH So I should listen to it in a car.
HH I made it for my car, too, so it is probably more or less successful in different cars. There are some bass sweeps that make my car vibrate in a really cool way. I tried to sweep it enough so that it would hit most cars, but if you can get a Toyota Matrix, that would be the optimal listening space.
But listening to it in a car, while moving, is interesting because it gets really quiet and deals with subtle car sounds so that you don’t even know that it’s there and then it comes back. So I think it makes people aware of their listening environment, which I think is interesting.
SH Something about it made me aware of the sound itself, too. When I was listening to it, I was trying to imagine what the sound waves themselves look like.
HH They’re beautiful! You can see them on Soundcloud, actually. Some of them look like fishbones. Some of them are perfect triangles.
SH Do you ever use the visualization of the soundwaves to help you structure a piece?
HH I haven’t until the F.C. Judd thing. I looked at the structure of the sample—it’s just a four second sample—and I’m using it to structure the piece as a whole. Which is a little bit more formal than I usually am.
SH “Car” also made me more aware of sound as a physical thing—while I was listening to it, I was also intently watching my speakers move. It’s a neat—but probably difficult—trick to make people think about the physical aspects of the sounds that they’re listening to, to pull them out of their abstract appreciation.
HH It’s definitely something that I’m interested in working with. I think the real challenge is trying to build that into a less abstract composition. So there is some of that on the album, very subtly—some of the speaker popping—but I would like to be able to master it in a way that it could be a composition tool that I could implement. Basically, I’d like to be able to use that for pop music, too. One of my music heroes is Mika Vainio [of experimental electronic music group Pan Sonic], and I think he is—I don’t know if you could call his music pop, but you could definitely call it dance music. I feel like he does that really well.
SH I can’t remember the piece, but I was listening to one of his tracks and I started to feel physically very weird. Which makes sense. If I’m remembering correctly, he used to lock himself in rooms and listen to a specific tone for days at a time?
HH I don’t know, but probably. He’s a weirdo. But to be fair, I just love synthesis so much that, when I was making “Car,” I would find a nice warm beating or something and I would just sit there and bathe in synthesis for an hour and be like, "Oh! I need to record this and move on.” I can totally understand someone locking themselves in a room and just listening to sine tones.
SH Speaking of which, I watched some videos of you performing live at noise festivals.
HH NorCal Noisefest?
SH Yes. As you know, noise is one of my personal interests. What drew you to the noise scene?
HH I think the reason why I got involved with the noise community is because it was the most open. You can get up and do almost anything and people will let you do that and listen to you. Some of the early stuff I was doing I felt like I really just wanted to experiment and find my sound. It’s a really good community to be able to try things out. It doesn’t have to have a beat the whole time, it doesn’t have to have a song structure. I never was making what a lot of people would consider “pure noise,” I never sounded like Wolf Eyes or anything, but I feel like that community is a really good place to experiment. Have you ever seen Naomi Elizabeth?
HH She’s crazy. I became internet-obsessed with her for a minute. She’s this wannabe pop starlet from Los Angeles. I can’t tell if it’s ironic or if she’s quirky, but she makes these really awkward pop videos and pop songs where she’s in a bikini, and she’ll be writhing around in a hot tub or something. But she was on the noise circuit for a while because they would let her do her weirdo thing, she would sing to a backing track in a miniskirt and slither around on the stage. But that was a place where she found an audience. I don’t think people particularly liked it, and I think it made a lot of noise dudes very uncomfortable, which is kind of the most “noise” you can get in a way—it’s super punk—but I thought it was interesting that she could find a way to perform and travel around through that community. If you hear her music, you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s just so weird. But in a poppy way. It’s super mainstream weird.
SH So for you noise mostly offers a community in which you could explore.
HH It’s not just a community. Nowadays, I don’t really find myself going to noise shows, but I spent time going to noise shows and listening to that music. I like harsh music. I can deal with a harsher palette.
SH I can hear that on your record—when you sent it to me, you said you were usually apprehensive about sending it out because some people can’t deal with atonal music?
HH You know, I’m getting less and less so because of the reception of this record. It’s been blowing my mind, in a way. I thought some of the tracks were pretty weird and not super digestible, but maybe because of the way that they’re placed in between the other ones, or maybe its just the way that the album flows, but people are really receptive to it. It was on NPR, which I was really not expecting. I did a Pitchfork interview. Even in things that are for a broader audience or more mainstream in that way, people are really understanding and getting it, and that’s been very encouraging.
SH I wouldn’t have necessarily expected it to show up on NPR either. Maybe I flatter myself in thinking that my tastes are a little bit more bizarre than most peoples’ . . .
HH I think your taste is more bizarre than most. A lot of the comments on the internet are like, “Whoa, this is super weird.” Sometimes I’ll dip into Twitter and see what people are writing about it and they’ll be saying, “Oh, this is making me sick!” or something like that. But I think that audiences are getting more sophisticated and more diverse, which is a good thing.
SH I’m thrilled to see this kind of music appreciated beyond the more niche publications. I never saw it as being too weird or niche to begin with—I thought all the tracks on the record sounded very musical. But my dog was a little freaked out by it.
HH That’s what I strive for.
SH Well, you did a good job. She looked pretty nervous.
HH I think people are left wanting a little bit more from contemporary pop music. A lot of it’s amazing, but a lot of it just really sounds the same, and so I think people are open to more outsider music in a way. And the United States is starting to understand electronic music and dance music. Skrillex has done wonders with the American consciousness.
SH It’s amazing that something so indebted to America could take such a long time to catch hold here.
HH It really is, it’s been such a mainstay in Europe for so long. So much of the early pioneering work happened here that it’s strange that it’s taken so long. It’s definitely on its way to being a really big thing here, which is great.
Sean Higgins is a writer and cultural critic living in Portland, ME. He tweets at @luckycloud, blogs about television at Cool Medium, and writes about music, sound, and other nonsense all over the Internet.