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Three Songs No Flash

PROTO-untypical: Holly Herndon Live In Brighton
David Bennun , October 22nd, 2019 12:28

The American composer and performer, along with her unique vocal ensemble, takes electronic music out of the AI box and into truly new territory, says David Bennun after attending Brighton Digital Festival at the Attenborough Centre For The Creative Arts (ACCA)

Photograph by Boris Camaca

It’s fitting that Brighton Digital Festival at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) should run the gamut between Laurie Anderson, the godmother of contemporary digital performance art, and Holly Herndon, who is presently doing things with technology that dazzle the senses and, the more you discover about them, boggle the mind.

Anderson isn’t physically in attendance, which seems even more fitting. Being present but not present is a very Laurie Anderson thing to do. Her cool, reassuring voice is here. (I like to think that when the remains of our civilisation are dug or dredged up in, oh, I don’t know, 50 years’ time, she will be taken by archeologists to be some kind of cybernetic priestess who soothed us with gnomic wisdom as we tumbled flaming to our doom.) It accompanies ‘To The Moon’, an interactive virtual reality installation devised by her and Hsin-Chien Huang. If there were such a thing as arthouse theme parks, they would surely contain rides like this, visually enrapturing, with meditative serenity taking the place of the adrenalin rush.

It’s not unreasonable to think of Herndon as a spiritual (and in some ways aesthetic) descendent of Anderson’s, in her spirit of curiosity, her lightness of touch, her positivity tempered by critical enquiry, her eagerness to push the possibilities of available technology as far as they will go. When I refer to her “doing things with technology”, I don’t mean using technology to create, although she is of course doing that. I mean doing things in collaboration with technology. Her latest album, PROTO, is a genuine example of that often chimerical proposition of the human merged with the technological. It’s an idea at the very root of electronic music; Kraftwerk’s entire shtick was based upon it, and they named their greatest album after it. Yet they and, overwhelmingly, those who came them after have used technology essentially as a tool rather than a partner – not because they lacked the imagination, but because technology lacked the capability.

Herndon, an American based in Berlin (although she has recently spent much of her time earning a PhD in composition from the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University in California), has developed an AI device she calls Spawn, teaching it to mimic voices and to learn musical processes, then to emit its own variations and innovations, which she incorporates back into the music she initially fed it. Spawn looks like a home-made box of tricks, because that’s what it is. Herndon calls it a “baby”, in the sense that it learns and grows and is still at a relatively rudimentary stage. She does not consider AI a substitute for human intelligence and instinct, but a supplement to it; she is not keen upon the notion of music produced without human agency. While Spawn has not made the trip from Berlin, its contributions are intrinsic to Herndon’s performance.

All of which would be of significant academic interest, but little more, were Herndon’s music not so extraordinary. The proof of the pudding, and all that. PROTO is a remarkable record, but it only hints at the experience of seeing and hearing a six-piece vocal ensemble (including Herndon herself) recreate – not reproduce; recreate, make anew – the songs before you.

The stage is bare but for a large table housing computer equipment, attended to by a chap in the discreet black favoured by those who want to appear a mobile form of stage furniture themselves (this is Herndon’s frequent collaborator Mat Dryhurst); a backdrop screen onto which hyperreal digital animations are projected; and microphones, behind which the ensemble congregate. The singers are curiously costumed, in linen garments and scarves whose drape and bleached hues recall at times the subjects of Renaissance religious paintings, an effect that will be repeated throughout the show, and at others an idealised Slavic peasantry – reinforced by the way their voices, swooping and swirling in interwoven curlicues, bring to mind, variously, plainsong, church choirs, and the Bulgarian folk music popularised by Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.

Spawn, Herndon will later reveal, is in part responsible for these vocal arrangements; it “trained” the singers, as she puts it. On the album, some of the voices you hear are Spawn itself (it’s near-impossible to tell which, unless advised.) Here, they are all human, although often so transmuted that only the sight of the singers themselves betrays it. The songs range from almost untreated a cappella pieces to bass-heavy neo-techno during which the ensemble capers and raves as if it were the ecstatic congregation in some sect that speaks, and indeed sings, in tongues.

If the more dynamic moments are theatrical – a theatricality that is intentionally dispelled between songs, when Herndon speaks to the audience as if this were a discussion group rather than a concert – then the still ones bring back that painterly quality, especially when two of the ensemble perform a duet from opposing balconies, while the remaining four gather in an intimate huddle on the stage floor, and the sound falls on them like light. On Herndon’s solo turn, ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’, she kneels upon the table, and her voice ripples through the effects as if it were a fish swimming near the surface of shining water, cascades of silver falling away from its shape.

This show is ravishing in its grace, its invention, its detail, its generosity, its pushing back of limits. The more futuristic it feels, the more human it becomes. This matters, because Herndon is a rare explorer who sees in AI the potential for it to make us more ourselves. It’s not that she is unaware of technology’s capacity to generate alienation and dystopia; on the contrary, her previous work shows she was well ahead of that curve, Rather, that she does not consider it inevitable. PROTO shows another way, and it shows it beautifully.