Electronic music has, since the beginning, been at the razor’s edge of science and artistry, somewhere between radical noise and classically-derived engineering. But few artists have managed to meld the dark thump of techno with the intricate constructions of post-minimalist new music quite like Holly Herndon. Her rapid-punctuated, ethereal vocals are float above complex, dance music-inspired machinery, producing an effect that is arrestingly gorgeous and frightening all at once. In short, it’s damned good stuff.
Indeed, Herndon was for me and many others one of the highlights of CTM Festival last year – a knock-your-socks-off change from the expected festival fare. With another CTM edition starting tomorrow night in Berlin, I’m hopeful we’re treated to even one similar epiphanies. It’s notable that they’re one of the few larger festivals in the world that makes this kind of musical adventure headliner stuff, not a hastily-considered afterthought – top billing for the most interesting music. (Disclaimer: CDM is a CTM program partner.)
In fact, let’s skip the usual bits about how she’s done a PhD and comes from the academic world. The reality is, dance music – experimental or otherwise – is these days full of people with that resume. The tools themselves have this very pedigree. It’s the music that comes out that matters, that needs no diploma.
Writing about such things is always hard, of course; it’s better to just listen to the stuff than waste time reading what I’ve written some of the time. But now, Herndon gives us a visual. “Chorus” finds surreally-beautiful visuals spun from the mundane, Skype chats and cluttered desks transformed through the looking glass into point clouds, bump maps, pixellated 3D models. It’s our reality seen through the eyes of Kinect and depth scanners.
It’s the virtual world of 2014 as we know it in reality, not the one we projected in the 80s and 90s. It’s the stuff stacking up by our MacBooks, the dull bits of our lives, re-assembled in ever-denser digital form.
Director Akihiko Taniguchi captures the urgent beauty of her music. The artists’ comments:
So much of Chorus was constructed by spying on my own online habits. It felt fitting to invite Akihiko, who I had been spying on online for a long time before my approach, to contribute the visual treatment of the piece.
I was interested in exploring the textures of daily necessities and the embodiment / physicality of the computer and Internet. One of the most striking contemporary images is that of the desktop capture, which is seen commonly on YouTube as part of software tutorials. I like the shots of desktops that are poorly organized and ‘lived-in’.
Referencing one of my earlier pieces ‘study of real-time 3D Internet’, I considered how it corresponds to the personal environment outside of the screen and how particular it is to my identity and my friend’s identities. I asked several friends to photograph their desktop environments and then rendered these images with custom 3D software, shooting video by moving throughout this virtual space. This video is a collection of records of life of friends and their Internet environments.
I love the idea of depicting the mundane and quotidian in high definition, and how evocative and individual each of these spaces are. Thinking about intimacy and the laptop is familiar territory for me. I’ve also been thinking a lot about privacy, particularly in light of the ongoing revelations regarding the NSA, which add a more sinister sub-narrative to Akihiko’s piece.
The most crucial conversations happening in technology at the moment focus squarely on our work space, our email, our iSight and our smart phone, and how much we can honestly claim those spaces to be ours at all in an era of indiscriminate and imperceptible surveillance.
Also worth noting: all these vocal gymnastics you’re hearing are absolutely possible real-time; Holly can do dazzling renditions of these onstage, too, which is not something that can be said of all of this work. (She’s a good testament to CCRMA, the Stanford program that pushes new performance techniques alongside other sound science.)
There are many ways to grab this release, but of course, straight from the label or Bandcamp is the most fun:
Specs on that release from RVNG, the Brooklyn-based label:
Chorus is the new single from Holly Herndon, the inimitable artist and technologist responsible for 2012’s acclaimed album, Movement. Another evolution in her production technique, Chorus bridges multiple disciplines and spaces to blur the politic between natural and synthetic.
For “Chorus”, Herndon sampled her daily browsing experience, channeling YouTube, Skype and other audio sources across the web for data that freely forms atop a bumping beat. Much like online browsing, “Chorus” creates a coherent / incoherent experience from disparate conceptual and contextual sources.
“Chorus” continues Herndon’s emphasis on vocal processing, crafted with polyphonic passages from live vocal takes and re-synthesized instances of her own voice and those foraged and sampled. “Chorus” may come as a stylistic deviation from Movement, but more accurately continues Herndon’s practice outside of genre orthodoxy — a stratosphere where multiple styles and histories are experienced in her personal laptop space.
In contrast to the laborious studio effort that went into the a-side, “Solo Voice” was tracked in a single take. “Solo Voice” takes a rhythmic, polyphonic vocal effect customized by Herndon and spreads it across a spectrum of song to sputter for a unsettling minimalist accomplishment.
Chorus is a timely reminder ahead of Herndon’s next album that her universe is one meticulously crafted with each creative and technological discovery.
Holly Herndon’s Chorus will be released on January 21, 2014 as a limited edition 12” and digitally. The vinyl version of Chorus is elaborately packaged in a jacket featuring a debossed “chorus” of spines. Around the release date Herndon will offer a web-based tool allowing users to compose their own version of “Chorus” around a browser based experience.
For an interview with Holly, The Fader did a nice piece on her and two of our other favorites.
Via Holly’s Tumblr, which is about her, but that’s fine: