Holly Herndon, the Tennesse-born, San Francisco-based multi-format (composer, musician, vocalist, producer) electronic/experimental/laptop artist has grand ideas and plans that commence with the launch of her second album, the made-for-headphones Platform, on May 19th on RVNG Intl. and 4AD. She believes that the use of technology can bring us together and not separate us; that our daily lives are immersed in the digital world to the extent that the Internet, for the most part, is where we exist these days; and that we can form solid connections with each other through this medium. Her musical MO is to mine bits and bytes from field and personal recordings, sounds from the Internet, processed vocals, and drum programming and re(de)fine and combine them into intricate aural amalgams that express the emotional side of digital sounds.
Holly is optimistic that this way of communicating via music can break down barriers and create a forum for new ideas, support, hope, and community. Her goal is positive interaction and the creation of Platform is just the first step in the process. Holly has gathered a collective of like-minded artists around her for this endeavor including sound architect Mat Dryhurst, Dutch design studio Metahaven, AMSR programmer Claire Tolan, and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett.
Whether any of this interesting and informative backstory is directly reflected in the music, however, is a pertinent question to ask, especially since the purpose of this album is to provoke discussion and draw people together. Can the casual listener with no previous knowledge of Holly Herndon and her ideologies glean important details about the intimate relationship between ourselves and our (human-made) machines? Will the listener realize that personal emotion and conceptual technology are connected, since it all stems from the human brain? Or will the listener just be able to ‘feel’ the vibe when listening to a certain song or specific sound bite? In this respect, Platform the album comes across as just one piece of the puzzle that Holly is trying to solve. For Holly, it’s the starting point for conversation and collaboration with her and her colleagues – and for the listeners who want to take that next step with her.
After Holly released her debut album, Movement, in 2012, she went on to drop the singles “Chorus” in early 2014 and “Home” in late 2014, both of which made it onto Platform. The subject of “Home” is the NSA’s invasion of privacy via its surveillance of people’s personal devices. With this context in mind, the progression of the lyrics “It feels like you see me” to “I know you know me better than I know me” makes perfect sense. Holly’s airy, brightly lamenting tone is cut up into single words that are interspersed with wordless vocal fragments that sound like ‘Sweet Flute’ mode on a keyboard. This nodal vocal style draws out her words slowly and pulls the listener along through the sporadic crashing, crunching, and clattering noises strewn throughout the tune. Occasional skittering percussion also holds the collection of sounds together, but just barely.
The highly crafted “Chorus” sounds even more random at its start, with sonic micro-blips of Internet and vocal ephemera that Holly recorded and strung together. Holly has repurposed the original sounds that she recorded, lifting them out of their everyday milieu and fashioning them into ‘music’, at least to the finely attuned ear. For listeners who are accustomed to the traditional stylistic boxes like ‘rock and ‘pop’, the song thankfully begins to take on a more familiar shape when fast-ticking and clacking beats are added to the mix. The peppering of tiny ‘n’ quick vocal and other blips then plays off the electro-pop rhythm to an aurally recognizable effect.
Album-opener “Interference” is a complex, but sleekly polished collage of sound that also contains a rhythmic thread to hold onto while navigating the jittery potpourri of glitches, clicks, blips, and ethereal vocal slivers. Like on other tracks, Holly’s ultra-processed vocals come off like a caffeinated Enya (The “Orinoco Flow” songstress was ahead of her time!), breathy and warm, sometimes keening, sometimes crestfallen. A weakness in the construct of “Interference”, however, is revealed by Holly’s too-chopped up vocals where no words can be discerned. Hearing Holly’s lyrics is paramount to understanding the meaning of her songs and when that is taken away, her main purpose becomes lost in the electronic sonics.
Even when the words can be heard, or at least partially, their intent can be puzzling, like the spoken word poetics on “Locker Leak” which Holly co-wrote with Spencer Longo. Alliterative and inverted words, some sounding like commercial catchphrases (“Add it to your bucketlist”), populate the track – Commentary on our ad-plastered modern society or just entertaining wordplay? The glue, so to speak, that holds the sonically disjointed Platform together is Holly’s vocals and guest artist vocal contributions. It’s this human element that is the entryway into Holly’s concept that technology is actually a part of us and not apart from us.