- An ensemble of human vocalists and an AI "baby" guide the experimental artist's latest LP.
- In 2019, a year that once sounded so far-off and futuristic that we feared humans would be indistinguishable from androids by now, we're still talking about artificial intelligence in rigid, unknowable terms. It's the revolution that's always just around the corner. Of course, AI is already embedded in our lives in variously banal and sinister ways. It's the algorithm that creates your personalised playlist, the tracking tool that pings when your Deliveroo has arrived. But we're only just coming to terms with its more creative uses. Few musicians have explored AI as a compositional tool or as a source of brand new sounds, which is understandable given the academic knowledge needed to grapple with the technology. For now, AI seems equivalent to the tape reels and oscillators that defined early electronic music: for specialists only. Holly Herndon is one of those specialists, having just received her PhD in composition from Stanford. But with her club music connections and Radiohead support slots, she straddles the divide between academia and pop culture.
Her third album, Proto, is an ambitious attempt to bring AI into the sphere of composition, not by handing the blueprints to a computer and hoping for the best—as heard on the retro algorithm pop of "Daddy's Car," a product of AI research at Sony—but by harnessing AI's potential as an unpredictable collaborator. On 2012's Movement and 2015's Platform, Herndon explored the potential of the human voice as a rich data stream, sending her vocals through heavy electronic processing and harnessing the skin-tingling potential of human speech.
Proto pushes this focus on the human voice in two directions at once. On one side, an ensemble of singers sourced from Herndon's Berlin network—including Colin Self, violist Annie Garlid, PAN composer Stine Janvin and Evelyn Saylor, an expert in the folk singing style known as Sacred Harp—who came together to record a series of loose group vocalisations. These "live training" sessions, which appear here in their raw state or with computerised tunings, bear an eerie resemblance to Bulgarian or Indonesian folk choirs, or even the Hebridean psalm singers compiled on Arc Light Editions last year: rough, dissonant, human. The quasi-religious mood also nods to Herndon's own background as a choir singer in East Tennessee.
Proto is a concept album of sorts, at the centre of which is a creature called Spawn, an AI developed with her collaborator and partner, Mat Dryhurst, and the developer and coder Jules LaPlace. Rather than a faceless computer program or a servile Alexa-style fembot, Spawn is imagined as a newborn baby to be nurtured and taught. By listening to the group vocalisations, she (it's a girl) taught herself to manipulate sound with code following a process of machine learning.
Though Spawn only features on about a third of the album, the AI's conceptual impact is key to Proto. The album begins with a few minutes of Spawn's first words, a web of binary baby babble. Similar sounds reappear when guest producer Jlin flips Herndon's speech into a beatboxing droid on "Godmother," an ugly track that echoes the uncanny glitches that mindless AI programs habitually produce.
The compositions elsewhere are dense and overwhelming. With their boxy '80s drums and Fourth World vocals, several of them—"Eternal," "Frontier," "SWIM"—resemble the manicured art pop of Yeasayer. On others, like "Alienation" and "Last Gasp," Herndon's high-def, widescreen sound feels oddly weightless, like a CGI monster felled by fantasy weapons. Perhaps it's the fault of Spawn, a being ultimately lacking in both personhood and gravitas—or perhaps it's a product of too many big ideas flung together, like a thousand light bulbs being switched on at once.
The title Proto refers to our "protocol era" of ideological battles over the future of AI, politics and the internet itself. It also means original, or first. Herndon is racing ahead, eager to plant her flag in the unknown territory where AI and art co-exist. Her results are most memorable in the raw, quiet moments, where the ensemble's mongrel hide shows through, and on emotive tracks like "Frontier," where rhythm and melody aren't left behind in the quest to win the science fair. That Herndon has placed herself and her friends and collaborators at the heart of the project is a reminder that technology is ultimately a product of human hands, and human biases. "Our eyes and ears and all this stuff you can't encapsulate in a media file," as she put it recently. "It really makes you appreciate your own meat sack."
03. Canaan (Live Training) feat. Evelyn Saylor and Annie Garlid
06. Extreme Love feat. Lily Anna Hayes and Jenna Sutela
08. Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
10. Evening Shades (Live Training)
11. Bridge feat. Martine Syms
12. Godmother feat. Jlin and Spawn
13. Last Gasp