The California-based boffin returns triumphant with an ingenious second album of laptop exploits
Avant-garde composer, visionary sound artist, dedicated academic – Holly Herndon’s passion for electronic music is no passing fancy. In fact, the American musician is what you might loosely term a “boffin”. She spent her formative years immersed in Berlin’s minimal techno scene, studied for a Masters in Electronic Music at Mills College in California (other alumni include Steve Reich and Morton Subotnick), and is currently in the midst of a doctorate in Computer Music at Stanford University. Serious stuff.
Herndon’s work is much more interesting and colourful than those scholarly roots might suggest, though, as evidenced by the beautifully contorted cyber-pop of ‘Platform’, her second album and her first for 4AD (in collaboration with New York imprint RVNG Intl). With their renewed eye for rising talent, you could say 4AD was something of a spiritual home for Herndon. On paper, she’s a great fit with the label’s roster of enigmatic and eclectic artists, new and old. She even sounds uncannily like Karin Oliver from artful 4AD stalwarts His Name Is Alive on ‘Home’.
As with much of 4AD’s output, Herndon’s oeuvre is straight out of leftfield. Working primarily via her laptop, her production chops have evolved dramatically since her 2012 debut album, ‘Movement’. Using visual programming language Max/MSP to build her own custom instruments and vocal processes, she fuses modern composition and club music to electrifying effect. Here, a maelstrom of fragmented, treated samples rubs up against repetitive, loping beats, locking you squarely into its splintered, mesmeric pulses.
What really stands out is her innovative use of the voice, both spoken and sung, as an instrument. On ‘An Exit’, her own crystalline tones – real, sampled, synthetic and cut-up – are positioned over skittering thwacks and bleeps as the track builds into a looped euphoric crescendo, while ‘DAO’ sees her employ startling Meredith Monk-style ululations and yelps amidst a scattergun collage of smooth rattles and clicks. The creative flow of ideas is extraordinary throughout, channelling a cluster of influences – from composers such as Maryanne Amacher to synth noodlers Art Of Noise to contemporary New York electronic musician/producer Fatima Al Qadiri – into something that becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
‘Chorus’ in particular, pieced together from samples of Herndon’s online audio browsing experiences (Skype, YouTube, etc), is testament to her skill, as broken beats and snippets form a joyously ornate and intricate track, coming on like a gentle love-in between Orbital and Laurie Anderson. On ‘Morning Sun’, meanwhile, synthetic claps and crashes, arpeggiated palpitations, and a chorus of voices collide in a glorious, beatific pile-up of sound. This is woman and machine in perfect harmony.
Described by Herndon as a “rupture, a paradisic gesture”, ‘Platform’ is that rare beast: a shapeshifting and adventurous record, complex and strange, but intoxicating and accessible. It’s a genuinely rapturous and inventive take on the electronic genre. “To change the shape of our future”, utters a prophetic voice halfway through ‘Unequal’. Rather like the pioneers before her, Herndon is striving to do just that. It’s a tall order, but given such scintillating, trailblazing laptop exploits, you wouldn’t bet against her.