Jlin, Holly Herndon, and ‘Spawn’ find beauty in AI’s flaws

Musicians don’t just endure technology when it breaks. They embrace the broken. So it’s fitting that Holly Herndon’s team have produced a demonic spawn of machine learning algorithms – and that the results are wonderful.

The new music video for the Holly Herndon + Jlin collaboration have been making the rounds online, so you may have seen it already:

But let’s talk about what’s going on here. Holly is continuing a long-running collaboration with producer Jlin, here joined by technologist Mat Dryhurst and coder Jules LaPlace. (The music video itself is directed by Daniel Costa Neves with software developer Leif Ryge, employing still more machine learning technique to merge the two artists’ faces.)

Machine learning processes are being explored in different media in parallel – characters and text, images, and sound, voice, and music. But the results can be all over the place. And ultimately, there are humans as the last stage. We judge the results of the algorithms, project our own desires and fears on what they produce, and imagine anthropomorphic intents and characteristics.

Sometimes errors like over-fitting then take on a personality all their own – even as mathematically sophisticated results fail to inspire.

But that’s not to say these reactions aren’t just as real. An part of may make the video “Godmother” compelling is not just the buzzword of AI, but the fact that it genuinely sounds different.

The software ‘Spawn,’ developed by Ryge working with the team, is a machine learning-powered encoder. Herndon and company have anthropomorphized that code in their description, but that itself is also fair – not least because the track is composed in such a way to suggest a distinct vocalist.

I love Holly’s poetic description below, but I think it’s also important to be precise about what we’re hearing. That is, we can talk about the evocative qualities of an oboe, but we should definitely still call an oboe an oboe.

So in this case, I confirmed with Dryhurst that what I was hearing. The analysis stage employs neural network style transfers – some links on that below, though LaPlace and the artists here did make their own special code brew. And then they merged that with a unique vocoder – the high-quality WORLD vocoder. That is, they feed a bunch of sounds into the encoder, and get some really wild results.

And all of that in turn makes heavy use of the unique qualities of Jlin’s voice, Holly’s own particular compositional approach and the arresting percussive take on these fragmented sounds, Matt’s technological sensibilities, LaPlace’s code, a whole lot of time spent on parameters and training and adaptation…

Forget automation in this instance. All of this involves more human input and more combined human effort that any conventionally produced track would.

Is it worth it? Well, aesthetically, you could make comparisons to artists like Autechre, but then you could do that with anything with mangled sample content in it. And on a literal level, the result is the equivalent of a mangled sample. The results retain recognizable spectral components of the original samples, and they add a whole bunch of sonic artifacts which sound (correctly, really) ‘digital’ and computer-based to our ears.

But it’s also worth noting that what you hear is particular to this vocoder technique and especially to audio texture synthesis and neutral network-based style transfer of sound. It’s a commentary on 2018 machine learning not just conceptually, but because what you hear sounds the way it does because of the state of that tech.

And that’s always been the spirit of music. The peculiar sound and behavior of a Theremin says a lot about how radios and circuits respond to a human presence. Vocoders have ultimately proven culturally significant for their aesthetic peculiarities even if their original intention was encoding speech. We respond to broken circuits and broken code on an emotional and cultural level, just as we do acoustic instruments.

In a blog post that’s now a couple of years old – ancient history in machine learning terms, perhaps – Dmitry Ulyanov and Vadim Lebedev acknowledged that some of the techniques they used for “audio texture synthesis and style transfer” used a technique intended for something else. And they implied that the results didn’t work – that they had “stylistic” interest more than functional ones.

Dmitry even calls this a partial failure: “I see a slow but consistent interest increase in music/audio by the community, for sure amazing things are just yet to come. I bet in 2017 already we will find a way to make WaveNet practical but my attempts failed so far :)”

Spoiler – that hasn’t really happened in 2017 or 2018. But “failure” to be practical isn’t necessarily a failure. The rising interest has been partly in producing strange results – again, recalling that the vocoder, Theremin, FM synthesis, and many other techniques evolved largely because musicians thought the sounds were cool.

But this also suggests that musicians may uniquely be able to cut through the hype around so-called AI techniques. And that’s important, because these techniques are assigned mystical powers, Wizard of Oz-style.

Big corporations can only hype machine learning when it seems to be magical. But musicians can hype up machine learning even when it breaks – and knowing how and when it breaks is more important than ever. Here’s Holly’s official statement on the release:

For the past two years, we have been building an ensemble in Berlin.

One member is a nascent machine intelligence we have named Spawn. She is being raised by listening to and learning from her parents, and those people close to us who come through our home or participate at our performances.

Spawn can already do quite a few wonderful things. ‘Godmother’ was generated from her listening to the artworks of her godmother Jlin, and attempting to reimagine them in her mother’s voice.

This piece of music was generated from silence with no samples, edits, or overdubs, and trained with the guidance of Spawn’s godfather Jules LaPlace.

In nurturing collaboration with the enhanced capacities of Spawn, I am able to create music with my voice that far surpass the physical limitations of my body.

Going through this process has brought about interesting questions about the future of music. The advent of sampling raised many concerns about the ethical use of material created by others, but the era of machine legible culture accelerates and abstracts that conversation. Simply through witnessing music, Spawn is already pretty good at learning to recreate signature composition styles or vocal characters, and will only get better, sufficient that anyone collaborating with her might be able to mimic the work of, or communicate through the voice of, another.

Are we to recoil from these developments, and place limitations on the ability for non-human entities like Spawn to witness things that we want to protect? Is permission-less mimicry the logical end point of a data-driven new musical ecosystem surgically tailored to give people more of what they like, with less and less emphasis on the provenance, or identity, of an idea? Or is there a more beautiful, symbiotic, path of machine/human collaboration, owing to the legacies of pioneers like George Lewis, that view these developments as an opportunity to reconsider who we are, and dream up new ways of creating and organizing accordingly.

I find something hopeful about the roughness of this piece of music. Amidst a lot of misleading AI hype, it communicates something honest about the state of this technology; it is still a baby. It is important to be cautious that we are not raising a monster.

– Holly Herndon

Some interesting code:


Go hear the music:


Previously, from the hacklab program I direct, talks and a performance lab with CTM Festival:

What culture, ritual will be like in the age of AI, as imagined by a Hacklab

A look at AI’s strange and dystopian future for art, music, and society

I also wrote about machine learning:

Minds, machines, and centralization: AI and music

The post Jlin, Holly Herndon, and ‘Spawn’ find beauty in AI’s flaws appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Listen to John Chowning tell how he invented FM synthesis

To this day, it’s a synthesis method capable of producing wonderfully otherworldly sounds. And now as its applications on cell phones and cheap PC audio fade into distant memory, FM synthesis is left as one of the great achievements of musical invention, full stop – let alone being a key milestone of 20th century technology. So perhaps it’s time to revisit its significance.

Who better to do that with than the person who first discovered the technique?

At an event hosted by CTM Festival and HKW Berlin, with CDM as media partner, we got to do just that, inviting John Chowning to recount FM’s evolution. I have to say, it was one of those uniquely inspiring moments, where you get to feel you understand how the sounds you make connect to musical history.

Part of that feeling came from the fact that artist Holly Herndon, who herself has studied with John at Stanford, hosted the interview – one sound experimenter and composer to another, student and teacher.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

It’s worth giving the whole interview a listen. Some of this has been recounted before, but it finds some unique clarity here.

The scene starts with a comparison of Paris’ avant garde music scene to Berlin’s today (something I got to talk to John about a bit over dinner), tracing his path from there to the fertile ground for technological invention that was Bell Labs. (If something cool and futuristic was invented in the 20th Century, there’s a good chance Bell was where it happened.)

At Bell Labs, John talks about finding the “open door” of the computer – the unlimited possibility for that machine to produce sound as envisioned by Max Mathews, coupled with the expertise to harness that power.

But it took a musician’s curiosity and brute-force trial and error to find what would become a seminal means of synthesizing sound. And at first, John thought it might be a mistake. (From about thirteen minutes in, you get the story, complete with sound examples.)

It’s what John himself describes as a “happy accident.” Perhaps that’s the best kind of musical discovery.

John recalls:

“Was it distortion? …. I thought, well, maybe this is an artifact of the system. But I did more experiments and realized that I was hearing … a complex wave using two oscillators that I imagine probably had eight or ten harmonics.”

“I didn’t yet understand the applications of the mathematics of FM to what I had done. So with a set of examples I went to an engineering friend and asked if this was some sort of unique, surprising but interesting result. I pointed out that it transposed; it seemed to behave in a proper way.”

“We looked up the mathematics for the equation for frequency modulation radio broadcasting, and it all fell out and was perfectly explained. So that was the beginning.”

Here’s the 1971 piece Holly mentions, Sabelithe. I’m finding a lot of these early computer pieces are starting to sound weirdly contemporary today. I think our ears are ready to revisit them in a new cultural context, with new works likely to go different directions – especially as we routinely now hear these sounds in festivals and clubs, whereas they were once restricted to sit-down affairs in academic concert halls. (Believe me, I know – the latter is where I started, so I’ve watched this shift first-hand.)

There’s also a great video from Berklee that features John talking about his work:

And if you need still more history, here’s an historic meet-up between John Chowning, Max Mathews, and Curtis Roads:

The post Listen to John Chowning tell how he invented FM synthesis appeared first on cdm createdigitalmusic.

Music and math unite, from Chowning to Rhythmicon

You have to love German. In English, I can string together whole paragraphs that try and fail to capture the potential of electronic sound. In German, we get to call an event Technosphärenklänge – a word whose utterance is a timbral adventure in itself. And in an event with that name promising to be a landmark for the electronic music sphere, CTM Festival is bringing together pioneering machines and pioneering humans. It’s a convergence of the worlds of mathematics and music that has never happened in this combination on one stage before – and we’ll take you there.

For one, there’s John Chowning. Chowning’s name will always appear first in sentences involving “the inventor of FM (frequency modulation) synthesis.” But while the impact of that can’t be overstated, he’s also a pioneer in finding mathematical beauty in composition and in equally significant contributions to sound spatialization. Moreover, like his late colleague Max Mathews, John’s teaching reaches beyond even his own discoveries – so much about electronic music achievement can be connected to his students and his students’ students.

So it’s fitting that Holly Herndon will do an interview with John, as she has studied with him.

FM synthesis you know, but in celebration of John’s work, let’s share still more. There’s his gorgeous milestone 1977 composition Stria, which holds up today as computer music, and is built in mystical mathematic beauty around the Golden Mean.

Here, via AES, he talks about his role in the origins of FM.

Here’s John in action in some wonderful historical moments:

Chowning at Stanford's CCRMA - the program he founded - with Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe. Photo credit: CCRMA.

Chowning at Stanford’s CCRMA – the program he founded – with Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe. Photo credit: CCRMA.

John Chowning (standing, plaid shirt) at CCRMA with Pierre Boulez (at computer), Max Mathews (glasses, far right) and others. Photo credit: José Mercado.

John Chowning (standing, plaid shirt) at CCRMA with Pierre Boulez (at computer), Max Mathews (glasses, far right) and others. Photo credit: José Mercado.

Pairing John with Holly is already a meeting of minds that should be fun to witness, but we also get a world-premiere musical collaboration that unites Chowning’s musical imagination with Mark Fell.

Mark Fell. Photo courtesy the artist / CTM Festival.

Mark Fell. Photo courtesy the artist / CTM Festival.

If Chowning represents the mathematics of music in digital form, a creation of none other than Leon Theremin makes it physical-mechanical. The Rhythmicon could be seen as the prototypical drum machine. The 1932 invention, in a 60s-built rendition made by Theremin himself, will debut in Berlin via Moscow-based researcher Andrey Smirnov.

Watch it in action:

Theremin's Rhythmicon - progenitor of drum machines ever since. Photo: Andrey Smirnov, courtesy CTM Festival.

Theremin’s Rhythmicon – progenitor of drum machines ever since. Photo: Andrey Smirnov, courtesy CTM Festival.

Andrey Smirnov gives a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy Synth Lab in Moscow in 2013.  Photo: Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool.

Andrey Smirnov gives a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy Synth Lab in Moscow in 2013. Photo: Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool.

Marcus Schmickler will join CDM's Peter Kirn in conversation. Photo by Marc Comes, courtesy CTM Festival.

Marcus Schmickler will join CDM’s Peter Kirn in conversation. Photo by Marc Comes, courtesy CTM Festival.

We hope to share content from the whole program. I’ll also be talking personally to German composer Marcus Schmickler. His numbers tickle the brain directly. Building on the work of Jean-Claude Risset, his Fortuna Ribbons project plays with sonic perception. If the Shepard Tone is the sonic barber pole of sound, sine waves superimposed in a fashion that seems to make them constantly ascend or descend, the Shepard–Risset glissando is an M.C. Escher staircase – continuous sonic aural illusion.

The best way to appreciate Schmickler’s work may be simply to watch how people respond when they hear it (keep watching, as the reactions start to get more interesting):

You can also try putting on this record at your next party:

More on his work:

Let us know if you’ve got a question you’d like me to ask him, especially if you’re a Schmickler fan.

Stay tuned to CDM for more with the artists and the results of the talks.

But if you are in Berlin this month, you can come visit us in person. Marcus Schmickler joins Carsten Goertz, Mark Fell and John Chowning perform, Andrey Smirnov performs, and gamut inc (whom we joined at CTM Festival in February) are back. Then Holly and I take on the talks the following day.

Technosphärenklänge #2: Konzerte [HKW]

Technosphärenklänge #2 – Concerts [CTM]

Technosphärenklänge #2: Talks und Vorträge [HKW]

Technosphärenklänge #2 – Lectures [CTM]

And the series:

The Technosphärenklänge (Sounds of the Technosphere) concert series aims to explore current practices in sound and music as an element and expression of the technosphere – the quasi autonomous entity that is the sum of operational and technical processes and infrastructures around the globe, and whose conflicted interaction with natural planetary processes characterises the Earth’s current geological time, dubbed the Anthropocene. Developed in close collaboration between HKW and CTM Festival, the series is scheduled to take place at irregular intervals until 2018.

The post Music and math unite, from Chowning to Rhythmicon appeared first on cdm createdigitalmusic.

7 Ways SONAR+D is Asking Bigger Questions About Music Tech

Lineup Sónar+D 2015 from Sónar on Vimeo.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking the same questions repeatedly. Cyclical inquiries are necessary in any practice. And over time, you refine answers.

But this year’s SONAR+D program promises something different.

SONAR+D is the younger, digital discourse alongside Barcelona’s massive electronic music festival. SONAR itself deserves a lot of credit for helping create the template a lot of digital music and media festivals follow today. And as that has since blurred into a parade of headliners, SONAR+D added a lot of dimension. There were good talks, hacklabs, workshops, and a showcase of makers.

Speaking as someone who either follows or participates in a lot of these things, though, I can’t wait for this year’s lineup. It seems uniquely ambitious and relevant, and I hope it sets the tone for the rest of this year.

Here are the threads I hope to follow – and why I’m glad CDM is a media partner of SONAR this year.

1. It’s not afraid to ask some hard questions. First up, I’m really curious what will come out of the discussion I’m joining, “De-westernalizing music through technology.” It’s a conversation I hope will spill over far past SONAR.

Xavi Serra is a leading researcher from one of the world’s hottest programs in music tech, the Music Technology Group at Pompeu Fabra University. And he’s in a fascinating new area, examining computational models for the world’s music. That includes delving into music from India, Turkey, Maghreb (Arabic-Andalusian), and Chinese Peking Opera idioms. Israeli producer Ariel Tagar is re-releasing rare Middle Eastern vinyl, and went to Jamaica to produce a record – sans computers, Jamaican style. Watch the trailer for a documentary that tracked them from Tel Aviv to the Kingston ghettos:

Congo Beat The Drum – Kalbata & Mixmonster // Trailer from kalbata on Vimeo.

Given the assumptions and defaults made by many music software tools are narrow even in the context of Western Classical practice, I think there’s plenty to explore here.

Speaking of asking tough questions, Holly Herndon is asking a lot of particularly timely ones. Without a hint of cynicism, her work digs into the profound interactions our computers have with privacy, surveillance, and politics – all the while keeping matters musical and personal. I’m particularly keen to hear what she’ll talk about to veteran music journalist Kate Hutchinson (The Guardian). This is a great chance to catch her live at SONAR, too.


2. It’s highlighting some of our favorite music. Apart from Holly, SONAR+D is honing in on some of the music I can say at least I most love. Editions Mego, Resident Advisor meeting up with Voices from the Lake, and XL Recordings are all in the spotlight. All that and sonic reflections on Mies van der Rohe.


3. It’s directly celebrating open technologies. There’s very little discussion of open tech at these sort of events. Not so, SONAR. Arduino co-founder David Cuartielles is directly engaging open source hardware. And this is a timely moment for Arduino, given the traction of new (sometimes competing) platforms, Arduino’s entrance into MOMA, and challenges around branding. There’s a workshop with a Theremin and step sequencer, too.

littleBits are on-hand, too, complete with a workshop featuring a performance by FEZ co-developer Renaud Bédard, playing live. littleBit’s industrial design lead Jordi Borràs is a Barcelona native, since transplanted to that company’s home in New York, and will talk about how the platform can “snap into the Internet” with the Cloud bit. That should be Internet of Things buzzword-compliant, as should an appearance by Bruce Sterling, hosted by WIRED Italy.


4. It just might break some new DJ tech. DJing’s two biggest titans are each coming to show their latest stuff. In this corner, Pioneer: their PLX-100 and XDJ are the company’s latest play for the booth, covering their bases for both vinyl and computer control. Meanwhile, with the tech just about to hit users, Native Instruments are showing Stems, flanked by none other than Carl Craig, Luciano, and Kerri Chandler.

5. It could help European entrepreneurship and innovation. When I first came to SONAR, Spain was still reeling from the economic crisis. The entire European arts community was sorting out where to go next. Now, it seems, we’re getting some answers – and SONAR is unique in embracing DIY initiative as part of the solution. There’s talk of a href=”http://sonarplusd.com/activity/m-startup-barcelona/”>how Barcelona is making startups work, and Google Creative Lab is talking about how they work.

There’s also an active role by Kickstarter, including the opening keynote – and no accident that you’ll get to see a Kickstarter-funded futuristic digital handpan as part of the event, too.

But this isn’t just about the startup-style, fend-for-yourself American model. European policy has a role, as well – one that can be more targeted and effective than perhaps it was in the past. The European Commission is a platform for neurotechnology, and in a massive talk will discuss open digital science ranging from NGOs to researchers to academics to EC wonks.


6. You might learn to build something.As in past years, there’s a 24-hour Hack Day sure to yield new stuff. As to the last point, though, this now includes European-funded building blocks to accelerate development to a new level.

Even if you’re not hacking, you can build the new synth project coming out of Mute Records.

7. It’s just generally got some cool stuff. Moldover, he of controllerism fame, is in town. Motionographer is showing eye candy. The creators of the beautiful indie game Monomument Valley are talking about their work, and Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk are going VR. The 808 movie is screening, with Arthur Baker (who’s also performing). And there’s lots more, even before we get to the artists playing the festival.

We’ll be reporting back. But:

If you’re going to Barcelona…

Discover Sónar and Sónar+D with your accreditation at a reduced price:

Thanks to the partnership between Create Digital Music and Sónar+D to promote networking opportunities among related communities around the Creative Industries, we are offering 10 professional accreditations -first come first serve- with an exclusive discount deal to attend Sónar 2015 only until 12th of June 2015

Promotional Price:

250€ – Day and Night accreditation. Price without promotion 310 euros

Find all the accreditation benefits: http://sonarplusd.com/buy-your-accreditation/

Ask for your promotional pass by contacting promotions@sonar.es

And no, we’re not getting paid for this piece – these are my opinions.

Believe me, otherwise I would happily just show up for my panel and sneak away to the beach the rest of the time!

I’m really excited! I’ll be chugging Red Bulls and trying to absorb as much as I can!

The post 7 Ways SONAR+D is Asking Bigger Questions About Music Tech appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Listen to an All-Female Chorus of Electronic Music Experimentation, from Akkamiau


The first antidote to any element of today’s music scene we don’t like is to begin sharing the music we love.

And here’s a case in point. It’s a must-listen mix of all-female artists (via the female:pressure network), assembled by Akkamiau Kočičí aka hiT͟Hərˈto͞o.

This list for me is significant not because these are female artists. This could just as easily be a list of artists who move me personally, who inspire my own music.

Akkamiau shared some sentiments on making this mix with me that would seem to echo that. These artists are not only female but members of the vast female:pressure network, it’s true. (The only exception is Happa, who remixes Holly Herndon.) But that restriction, says Akkamiau, was “just as a conceptual limitation of the selection, to set the pool.”

“After I did that, I went much more for feelings hidden in the tracks and tried to tell a story, to express a story. But the story is quite abstract; it’s really about the waves on the surface, the visible outcome of the inner movement. It’s like the reflections of deeper, more complex emotions on a two-dimensional screen.”

I like inner messages, so for me, this one was about expressing the individual “voices” of the ladies into a common chorus of techno abstraction and experimental attitude to sound. In a way, I think I also selected similar characters for this story, researchers, people who search in soundscapes for their own structures. People who don’t follow any prescribed methods and are not afraid to step out of genres.”

Now, I could easily just forget this is a list of female artists and share it under the heading of “here’s some of my favorite music right now” – full stop.

But too often, I hear people say “I don’t know very many female artists.”

And even beyond that, too often I hear people say, “I can’t find electronic music I really like.”

These are two problems that clearly have some connections to one another. And they’re also two problems with easy solutions.

We need to share music with each other – our own, other people’s. I think when we do, our own music and our own listening will get better. We can make weird elitist arguments or look for musical heroes like we’re trying to find producer equivalents of Richard Wagner. But I think it can be much simpler than that. Listen, and if you hear something, something you care for, share it. If you don’t hear that something, then don’t stop to complain – look elsewhere.

I’m biased in that I know some of the people on this list reasonably well – but I feel really lucky to know them, too, so I’ll accept that bias, and keep getting to know people like that. I hope you get to, too.


Anna Stereopoulou – [-∞] )o++o(
Cio d’Or – Now And Then
Aschka – Oktogon
Milena Kriegs – Auburn
Monya – Apolitical Policy
Mary Velo – Art Of Speech
Laura Luna de Castillo – Oxytocin
Adriana Lopez – Indicie
Irradiation – Angular Momentum
Jana Sleep – Libra
Micol Danieli – Hold Back The Down (Andrea Belluzzi Remix)
Planningtorock – Changes
Aisha Devi – Hakken Dub
Myriam Bleau – Photomaton (rmx)
NIC ENDO – I didn’t exist
Rebekah – Equilibrium
Electric Indigo – Cinq
LCC – Caix
rRoxymore – ####
hiT͟Hərˈto͞o – 02
Hyperaktivist – Senseless Rebellion
Holly Herndon – Chorus (Happa remix)
Arielle Esther – Angst
Bonnie Li – White
Machine Girl – Ionic Funk
Neotropic – Wreckage of DReams
Lower Order Ethics – Soft As Sin (excerpt)

Check out Akkamiau at:


And because networks are the future, see this one network:

Photo, top, by Jordan Katz.

The post Listen to an All-Female Chorus of Electronic Music Experimentation, from Akkamiau appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Listen to Holly Herndon’s ‘Platform’ and the Emotional Content of the Laptop


I’m remiss in not posting this last week when it debuted, and I suspect many CDM readers have heard already, but if not – drop everything, and have a listen to ‘Platform,’ the new LP from composer/producer Holly Herndon.

There’s a lot to discuss here. “Platform,” as the name implies, is intended as a first step toward other interactions. There’s the process and technique behind the music itself. A fearless champion of the laptop’s instrumental and compositional potential, Holly has made the album itself and the discourse around it into a means of demonstrating and discussing the kinds of processes that can realize the possibilities of the computer. There’s a conceptual conversation to have, investigations into the worlds of technology, utopia, and electronic surveillance – more than just music, the album is a project about our digital lives. And then there’s even plenty to say about Holly’s own career trajectory. More than anyone I know, she has been able to successfully bridge the academic electronic musical realm, the world of festival and club stages, and the popular media view of electronic music. (And yes, I count three largely separated cultural islands there. I’ve now and then personally drowned in the seas that separate them, so this is no small feat.)

But because those are all wonderfully deep rabbit holes into which to climb, I think it’s best to start with the music. Hearing them for me had an odd sense of familiarity. I’d heard some of these track in some form in a couple of live shows, but to me, that sensation with music is a flag that I should pay close attention to what I’m hearing. Pop or “hooks” or not, there’s something that happens when a composition works, a way it finds its way into your brain. It sounds like you’ve heard it before the first time you’ve heard it, and stays with you and makes you want to hear it again. Because this record is in the mainstream press, you’ll see some writers stumble around odd descriptions like “techno.” But it seems to me timeless, genre-less. Part of its genetic code is modern: this dense forest of repeated samples and slices, a self-awareness and comfort with the means of production. Another part feels like a modern answer to much earlier work of Eno, Laurie Anderson, retold by a generation that grew up with those sounds. But from that soup comes tracks that feel like songs, feel fully formed, get into your head.

In between, there are also great moments of theater and wit, so I’ll be curious to see where the “platform” leads.

But more than that, blending her voice digitally through the whole spectrum, Holly makes her music really sing. To be a platform for technique and higher concepts, I think that’s essential: the machine has to have a voice, and more than ever, you have the feeling Holly has found her voice.

I’m writing I know largely to producers (hello, CDM nation). And I know many of you, like Holly, have brains crammed with technical knowledge; many of you have tried to mediate between cultures like dance floors and academic music labs. My sense on “Platform” is of an artist who found a way to speak and sing with that voice, literally and broadly. I don’t think your voice will necessarily sound like Holly’s. But I hope this is the sign of more music to come.

For that larger audience, Holly has something to say – about collaboration and the implications for the wider tribe of people making music with computers. Posted to her Facebook page yesterday, on the occasion of the release:

Ever since I released my first album a couple of years ago, I have been humbled to see just how far my alien songs can travel. Thanks to a tireless community, it has been an incredible few years for experimental music. Abstract sounds are being embraced far beyond their traditional niche, and it made me wonder, what can be done with this new opportunity? Holding hands with a wider audience, can we channel abstraction towards greater action?
For this reason, Platform demanded to be a collaborative project, and I feel so grateful to have worked with some of my favorite artists to pull this together. Metahaven, Mat Dryhurst and Matt Werth have been a pivotal inspiration from the beginning, and Colin Self, Amnesia Scanner, Claire Tolan, Spencer Longo, Amanda DeBoer, Akihiko Taniguchi, Cuahtemoc Peranda, Stef Caers and Mark Pistel have all played crucial roles in this release. Thank you!
Many great minds have inspired pieces on this record. The ideas and spirit of Suhail Malik, Benedict Singleton, Jacob Applebaum, Keller Easterling, Guy Standing, Reza Negarestani, Amber Case, Benjamin Bratton, Hannes Grassegger, Jacob Applebaum, Laura Poitras, Nick Srnicek, Brian Rogers, Amber Halford, Nathan Jurgenson and Barry Threw regularly appeared in our discussions and continue to influence our aspirations for Platform going forward. Thank you!
We have received generous support from many several organizations for which I am really grateful – Lighthouse, CCRMA, Wallris. Thank you!
This album is just the beginning of a greater project, and I’m ecstatic to have partnered with 4AD and RVNG Intl on this journey. We need new fantasies, new archetypes, new strategies and new ways to love. All of the power we need to make something special happen may well be found in the rooms we dance in.
Optimistically, Holly xx.

I hope we get into these other conversations and hop on this ‘platform’ with the artist in coming weeks. In the meantime, some reading to get you started, and hopefully inspire some other conversations to have.

More reading, as we work on that:


Holly Herndon: the queen of tech-topia [The Guardian]

Shape Shifter: Underground star. Experimental musician. Stanford Ph.D. candidate. [The California Sunday Magazine]

Musician Holly Herndon taps into politics, the NSA and your Facebook photos [Wired UK]

Holly Herndon’s Trying to Find New Ways to Play the World’s Oldest Instrument

Serial Experiments for a Better Future: Holly Herndon’s ‘Platform’ [Rhizone]

One issue we’ll have to discuss is this quote, from the Guardian story:

“A lot of people complain about it being less engaging, less natural, less emotional, but my laptop mediates so much of my life: my Skype, my bank account, my emails, my relationships,” she says. “It’s actually a hyper-emotional instrument; it has more emotional content than a violin could ever dream of.”

Robert Henke last month at NODE Festival used a panel I was moderating to argue that the laptop needed to go away, as I understood it primarily because he wanted to make music away from the machine that brought all these rivers of information and communication. (Sincere apologies to Robert; I think I practically shouted at him when he told me that’s what he wanted to talk about, as I was afraid it’d derail the entire panel in a whirlpool of unsolvable and oft-repeated design critiques of the machine and I decided, selfishly, I mostly wanted to talk about something else.) But Holly reframes the whole question in an interesting way – if a challenging one, since it makes us consider the machine as an object, as an instrument, and as the emotional-social context for the music itself.

Remember when I talked about rabbit holes? Yes, see you in Wonderland in our next installment.

Out now on digital, CD, vinyl.


The post Listen to Holly Herndon’s ‘Platform’ and the Emotional Content of the Laptop appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Holly Herndon, Ethereal and Heavy-Hitting, Creates Video World as Deliciously Surreal as Auditory One

Holly Herndon – Chorus [Official Video] from RVNG Intl. on Vimeo.

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:

Holly Herndon:

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.

Akihiko Taniguchi:

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:


Holly Herndon. Photo courtesy the artist.

Holly Herndon. Photo courtesy the artist.

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.

Find My Way: Holly Herndon, James Ferraro, Oneohtrix Point Never

Via Holly’s Tumblr, which is about her, but that’s fine:

The post Holly Herndon, Ethereal and Heavy-Hitting, Creates Video World as Deliciously Surreal as Auditory One appeared first on Create Digital Music.