Holly Herndon Radiates Human and A.I Symbiosis in PROTO

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Holly Herndon | PROTO | 4AD

Release Date: May 10th, 2019

The artificial; the organic – an extraterrestrial anxiety pushes and pulls through our blue-blood veins. A juxtaposition; the cold mechanical, technological hijack. The possibility of replacement; human beings as luddites, afraid – future advancement, breaking us down. Yet, the expectation of the worst. Why? We are not disposable, and although the fear swims within us; the robotic, gears and cogs grinding in our organs; not to be replaced, but to embrace Symbiosis of the organic and the artificial. A.I as companions – as creators, assistants. The overwhelm of the protocol era – where do our expectations lie?

Avant-pop, experimental composer Holly Herndon returns with her third full length album, PROTO. Living in the technological age with ever advancing A.I, it’s easy for the anxiety to spring forth from ambiguity as to what our future holds. Yet in PROTO, Herndon’s exploration into the future of A.I isn’t surrendered into fear, the take-over of the machines. Rather, A.I is implemented, not an immortal enemy but rather a compliment to human creation. Herndon’s extensive studies into music and machine learning sings true within PROTO – most notably, the live ensemble of human voices – experiments; gathering together, teaching, allowing Herndon’s creation “Spawn” (fashioned within a gaming PC) to collaborate, create. Developed by Herndon in partnership with Mathew Dryhurst, and ensemble developer Jules LaPlace – hundreds of people came together, embracing the possibilities; allowing “Spawn” to learn and identify new, unfamiliar sounds by a call and response technique – a digital experience in collaboration with the organic.

Eternal’ greets us with saccharine vocals, a twist; processed, a human call-out with a magnetic pull, sweeping in pitch; a moment as if waiting for a response, when. An exaggerated staccato, glitch-quick beat, climatic breaks through – a deep percussion submerged within the high-pitched bounce. A break in tempo, the opening vocals rising and falling. While still cradling the artificial, a spectral voice weaves itself between the soundscape. Layers swerve as textural braids, driving claps and deep voiced-percussion glow as the track progresses; an immersive dreamscape of nonlinear construction.

Slightly disconcerting, yet oddly beautiful ‘Frontier’ opens with a singular voice, calling forth; and in response, an extraterrestrial choir burst forth, a holy moment of voices readying a hymn. The voices rally together in a comforting melody, perfectly balanced in tone; images of a seasoned chorus caressing an alien cathedral. Seeping from the vocals is their processed tone, ever so slight; a curious glimmer of the robotic; an artificial filter not dominant, but complimenting. The juxtaposition between human melodies and their intertwined, magnetic partner pulls the track forward into an eccentric dance; as further elements of beat-driven electronics break forth, the soundscapes swirl between tribal percussive timbres, dancing processed vocals; human tradition hundreds of years in the future.

SWIM’ exhibits a similar theme with an angelic, alien choir present in collaboration; yet the electronic-pop, walls of sound stand strong as the foundation. The slightly auto-tuned, slow gregorian-esque chants serve as a haunting bassline as the track opens, backing tender vocals. Gentle claps sprout a spherical immersion in sound, shimmering dreamlike-pop as a priority; layers of timbres slide effortlessly over, under, within the others. Gliding synths fluttering between angelic choirs, confident beats cradling vocals as melodies loop; building into a climax, the dreamscape overwhelms in an addictive awe.

Herndon’s sweeping melodies, human-but-not-quite vocals and twirling textures glimmer in the pop-experimental, an avant garde dance with unexpected moments of reflection. PROTO is the exploration of visions of the future, an expedition toward technological transformations, inventions and creations; yet not approached with fear, or dominance. Approaching our evolving technology – a narrative based in harmony, a narrative based in insight – PROTO reworks the anxiety of technology, embracing digital and human symbiosis.

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Review by Jenna Dreisenstock