Herndon keys in on the notion that we might ultimately project ourselves into our synthetic children, but she takes a maternal outlook on things.
Mary Anne Hobbs, no stranger to adventurous DJ selections, delivered a particularly sharp piece of programming as criticism in the wake of Holly Herndon’s sophomore breakthrough, Platform. Spotlighting the emerging producer/composer’s simultaneous innovation and her proximity to the elastic boundaries of classical music, Hobbs played “Morning Sun,” one of the album’s many experiments in vocal layering, against a portion of Hildegard von Bingen’s Caritas abundat in omnia. The back-to-back sequencing sent several messages: it placed Herndon’s experiments with vocals into a context of liturgical music as a means of using human voices to express the ineffable, confirmed the soulfulness at the heart of Herndon’s complex, academic ruminations on the role of the human in a digitized world, and, for good measure, placed Herndon in a timeline of crucial, left field female composers.
PROTO takes the bold steps of Platform and expands them further, producing the artist’s densest album yet by fully realizing Herndon’s interest in the expanding roles of software and AI in shaping our social lives. Herndon went so far as to help develop a new AI program to help compose the album. Crucially, her creation, Spawn, does not function as a master control program but instead takes the form of an infant, learning as if in real time how to create by studying its “mother’s” inputs. Much of science fiction (and real) speculation about AI has worried that the development of synthetic sentience would result in humanity being judged “obsolete” and subsequently eradicated. Recent developments in artificial intelligence, however, have revealed a new wrinkle to possible flaws: software used to help screen Amazon job applicants or study social media interactions, for example, quickly revealed, then chaotically embodied, the human biases latent in processes, suggesting that AI might not only become smarter than us but magnify our worst social failings, replacing clinical machine dispassion with learned prejudice and active exclusion.
Herndon keys in on the notion that we might ultimately project ourselves into our synthetic children, but she takes a maternal outlook on things. Broadly speaking, PROTO is structured as if following the development of a child. Opener “Birth” is nought but gibbering, glitchy approximations of baby speech, yet by “Last Gasp” Spawn has morphed into a fully fleshed repository of vocal programming, adding new layers to Herndon’s already complex folding and multiplication of the human voice. By continuing to use human vocals as a primary instrument for programming, Herndon allows Spawn’s increasingly sophisticated arrangements to effectively re-define humanity itself. On “Extreme Love,” Spawn takes on the voice of a young girl but speaks with eerie maturity, laying out the album’s thesis on the shifting nature of human life when it calmly says, “Existence is no longer enclosed in the body. We are not a collection of individuals but a macro-organism living as an ecosystem. We are completely outside ourselves, and the world is completely within us.” Later on the same track, Spawn seems to leapfrog its own status as Herndon’s “child” when it contemplates the mutable life at its fingertips and asks, “Is this how it feels to become the mother of a new species?”
Remarkably, the heady conceptual framework of the album is largely realized through tracks that could conceivably be thrown into a club set. “Alienation” regularly bursts into ecstatic rave-up walls of synthesizers that have the same buoyant bliss as tracks on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. “Eternal,” with its jumbled, darting percussion and sped-up vocal fragments, has more than a little footwork in it, a trait it naturally shares with “Godmother,” on which avant-juke maestro Jlin contributes her own brand of outré dance music. The latter marks a brief nightmare amid the broader giddiness of the album, all tensely multi-tracked, heavily clipped jitters and groans over a spacious, dubby backdrop of clattering beats.
By the same token, PROTO also deepens Herndon’s connections to broader movements in classical and liturgical composition. Several tracks marked “Live Training” find the artist working in more stripped-down fashion with an actual, flesh-and-blood chorus that draws extensively from the Appalachian form of spiritual music known as Sacred Harp. On tracks like “Canaan,” a single singer introduces a line that is immediately joined and harmonized by other voices, the infinitesimal separation between the singer’s toys slightly with a sense of tempo and progression without any programming tricks, reveling in the ability of real people to complicate and distend themselves to ineffable, profound emotional effect.
Herndon shares little aesthetically with the so-called vaporwave producers of the 2010s, with their pointillist array of chopped and screwed kitsch samples reworked into some kind of treatise for the content graveyard of the era of instant disposability, or even the likes of Daniel Lopatin and Dominick Fernow, who have mastered the art of using dense arrays of noise to signify human and ecological decay. But what she shares with all of these loose peers is a gift for finding the logic in our oversaturated times, drawing actual compositions from the overwhelming too-muchness of the Internet. What sets Herndon apart is her ability to find the optimism in this information overload, the belief that, much like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey, an unfathomable technological leap might ultimately drag humanity along with it, not resigning us to the recycle bin but instead producing our next evolutionary step. PROTO, in which the artist effectively gives birth to her own version of 2001’s Star Child, celebrates the fact that humans will imprint upon artificial intelligence, that in reflecting our flaws, software might also capture our best attributes.