San Francisco-based electronic musician Holly Herndon makes music about living with technology. She’s interested in expressing emotions we’ve only recently begun to feel: Frustration with a glitchy Skype call, protectiveness over cherished devices, pride from a productive day with a FitBit. She’s a philosopher, a technologist, a composer, and a visionary. Her music is nominally techno but, as a PhD candidate at Stanford’s computer music program, it’s only a vessel for the ideas she wants to explore.
Given the high concept behind her art it was hard to know what to expect from her show, part of Pitchfork’s Tinnitus Music Series, at the Wick. (Side note: I’d never been to this venue, a cavernous repurposed factory, before, and I’ll be back: It’s one of the downright coolest spaces I’ve seen outside DIY basements.)
Pink noise filtered from the speakers as Herndon and a stage crew futzed for what seemed like ages setting up a projector next to her computer. As they zeroed in on the right arrangement, a guy positioned stage right at a laptop connected to the projector opened a TextEdit window and typed in a phone number: It was an invitation to the audience to text questions and confessions throughout the night. Shortly after that, the roadies left the stage, the lights went down, and Herndon began.
Wasting no time, she dove straight into a driving beat, placing short, breathy vocalizations into key points as she built her loops. Her eyes rarely left her computer as she manipulated these constructs into endless iterations. On her album it’s her compositional training that shines brightest; here, in a pitch-black repurposed factory, it was her years spent in the Berlin techno scene. There were no breaks in her dizzying flow and, although tracks from Platform made appearances, Herndon gave us a set more akin to a DJ’s, which was perfect. She had the dancefloor at her feet.
Herndon understood the limitations of the night’s format: This wasn’t a dance club, so people would face the stage, staring at her as she stared at her computer, which is frankly kind of boring. So she gave us something to watch. The screen behind her projected questions and answers for a while, plus the occasional playful statement, typed in real-time into the same TextEdit window that earlier displayed the phone number. Given the nature of the questions and their coyly insightful answers it seemed unlikely they were coming from the audience. My favorite: “Q: Sometimes I don’t know if I’m a boy or a girl. A: Why choose?”
Eventually the screen switched over to a crude video-game rendering of a room similar to the one in which we stood. Paper-thin objects and people, including Herndon and the projector screen, were placed throughout. The player — ostensibly another guy sitting at the side of the stage with a laptop — began plowing through the scene, knocking over everything in his path. The more he destroyed, the more surreal the scene became: Endless streams of MacBook Pros (the same computer he used), flashes of meat cuts in between piles of people, images of fruits and vegetables. It was strongly reminiscent of visual work I’d seen by EMA, who, like Herndon, is a young experimental musician obsessed with digital dystopias and women’s position within them. Like her work, the music we were all here for became part of the visuals and vice-versa. This was Herndon’s world, and she had invited us to step in.
At one point the “Q” section of the screen read “Can we make this something we want to remember as our life flashes before our eyes?” Herndon understands so well our digitally-induced obsession with having meaningful experiences. The answer that quickly appeared was simple, soothing, and, considering her phenomenal show, accurate: “You don’t even have to try.” Just sit back and enjoy. Holly Herndon had us covered.
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