Holly Herndon: “I make music for active listening and I love that as an art form“
Holly Herndon in conversation about Artificial Intelligence, sleep rhythms, Church, nonhierarchical art creation and her new album “Proto“.
Hello Holly, I´ve been told you are lately a morning person. That said I was afraid this means we’re gonna do this interview really early.
Holly Herndon: And now it is 1pm. The first interview was at 10, also not so early. The thing is, we have morning sun straight into our bedroom, and we just moved in and don’t have curtains. So at 8am it shines in and I just wake up. I was never an 8am person, I was always a sleep till 10 kinda person, but now I can´t sleep past 8am. Things are changing, I guess, I don´t know, I like it. I like getting up early. There is some ability to concentrate in the morning that runs over the day.
I brought that topic up as I am curious to know to which degree your biorhythm has an impact on your life and especially on your music production?
I never thought about that before. Hmmm. Probably. I think different phases of the album have different biorhythms. There is the healthier phase when you are writing, and everything is still free. And then you enter this grunge time, the mixing date has been scheduled already and you have to finish these things – and that´s when the biorhythm gets totally fucked and you are staying up all night and going insane. The mania is also a part of it.
So, yeah, I think it has an impact.
Like in a good way?
The crazy time? Or the healthy time?
Both. I come up with the question from the background of Artificial Intelligence and the potential of shifting parts of the compositional process or even the whole process in the hands of a thing which has no biorhythm or such a thing.
Well, the thing with Spawn, our Artifical Intelligence, is: she is an ensemble member. And just like all my other ensemble members she has her own biorhythm. Some of them are early riders, some of them are party animals – it´s the whole game. Because she is not writing music, she is performing music, her biorhythm is essential maybe.
Reflecting about Artifical Intelligence means coming up with questions like: What do we get from it? When is it only a show effect? Where does it really substantially matter?
A human can experience a lot of bad stuff which has an impact on performance, those things can´t happen with a machine, right?
Right. But that´s what is interesting about this. It is very different than previous automated processes, because we are dealing with sound as material. She is been trained on performances that were done by humans. So my bad day at the post office, my run in with my mate, stepping on shit in the park, whatever, these things are part of the performance I give – so it´s in the training material that she is based of. So she is kind of bound to whatever emotional, biological experiences I and my ensemble members had. She is kind of reflecting that in some way.
Is this an aspect you reflected when you fed her with that information? Cause in a way you could have also said: „No, today we don´t work with her cause I…“
(laughs) I am sure there is a subconscious filtration of what am I choosing to put in the training set.
Are you able to name what caught your ears and eyes about AI in the first place?
One of the reasons why I started the project is that I missed performing with people, I missed human interaction by doing so much stuff on my computer. I wanted to open up the process to a human ensemble.
I started making music in the church, having those kind of public music experiences. I started working with Spawn is a kind of natural continuation of someone who is a nerdy computer musician – inspired by playing around with those neural architectures that has been released on GitHub I was curious to try my own version of that.
We were giving a grant by Germany. The basic idea behind it was: „Beethoven was an innovator – we want to support young innovators.“ We used this grant to buy equipment, to pay for Jules La Place who is our developer and to play around with different things that don´t necessarily have a specific goal. We did not even know if any of this will be on the album, we just wanted to experiment with that thing. But once Spawn was developed, we were like „oh, it makes total sense for Spawn to be a member of that vocal ensemble that we are forming.“
Can you walk me through the process of developing an AI a bit?
A lot of research that is going into AI right now is dealing with MIDI. You take a cannon of scores and turn that into MIDI data and train a neuron on that – and it will create music forever. Automated composing forever! Like you train it on Bach and it will write all new Bach compositions forever. Whatever genre you take it will write it forever. That is a boring approach. It gets us in a situation where we are just repeating ourselves over and over again.
Also: this comes usually out in form of a MIDI score, it´s been pushed through digital instruments – it sounds really perfect. It gives us this idea of AI is the perfect future, it can delete all human activity, human composers are not needed anymore. But that is a charade actually.
The AI is built on human labour, human activity, human creativity – only that it is made invisible through the process. That is an approach that we really did not want. We wanted to work with sound as material, because we think you can hear the neural network in the actual sound, you can hear the roughness…
By that it is a more realistic state where things are. You can hear the raspiness, the neuron try to figure out how to sculp the audio. And you can also hear the voices of the people who tuned it, you can make the community that goes into building an AI more visible. Not just being erased by this slick.
You talk about the two „Live Trainings“ on the album. I liked that transparency a lot.
And it does not end here. A lot of the sounds on the album make the process behind it very hearable and visible – and it shows how open of a process it is, not claiming that you know where it will lead to, sharing doubts and questions with us listeners. That makes the album brave. It is an in between step, you feel some…
… poking around in the dark. Totally. That´s how the process feels like. You make something, it does not work – you try something again, you just keep going. We are trying to be honest about the state of the technology. There are components on the album that sound really lo-fi, because when Spawn puts out an audio file it often sounds very lo-fi and scratchy. So we wanted to present that.
To come back to the aspect of endless music production. No humans, or at least not those who love music and have a deeper interest in music, want endlessness. You want something like 12 new tracks from the artist you dig, because the other 30 may not be ready to share. And then you listen to a certain track three times in a row, go back to that one track later again and so on; you find your favourite, but then this is maybe also the cheesy track and so you try to go for the mystical one….
You are describing an active listener. There are two kind of listeners: active and passive. I feel like so much of the digital economy around music is set up for passive listening – playlist culture, background sound.
I am an active listener too. I make music for active listening and I love that as an art form. Streaming really isn´t compatible with that kind of listening.
I think that there is still value in having a composer who spends a lot of time learning about sculpting sounds over time and then presenting someone with a considered work.
But we are told to be in a situation where the consumer knows best … if we look at this when it comes to the news, journalism or politics …
… we are entering a scratchy area.
Yes, it is a scratchy area. Sometimes you need to have people who really focus their time and energy on a specific field or area and then they present an idea that you can learn from. Because you are spending your time doing something else. That is the beauty of having an interconnected society. We can learn from each other and value each other specialties. But music is turning into this strange thing where it is like to the consumer taste. I mean it always was but this is exhilarating.
We will never find the let´s say the new ambient if we are just happy with the music cannon as it is right now. Ambient came out of a period of time when people were taking actually risks to slow down and stretch out and try different aesthetics with music.
If everyone was just happy with the state of things then we would never have had people writing the software that is creating now automated music. We have to have an ecosystem where we can continue to evolve the next thing – as a specie, as society.
The structure of your album is referring to that. There is a narrative. There are tracks with more human voices, there are those with very artificial ones, then you have this kind of Scott Walker-ish dark atonal moments where the doubts seem to come up massively. There it gets interesting from the perspective of an artist emphasizing the important question of how to transport the narrative as an artist?
If I think about whatever kind of system was catering to the aesthetics of my 16 year old self – I would get stuck in this horrible colder sack of aesthetics. I think it is the role of artists to be introducing in a way people can engage with. That´s why I try to combine familiar with the unfamiliar. It is our job to present the compositions to the people in kind of narratives.
I love Science Fiction, I love narrative fiction. Obviously, for me there is a storyline on „PROTO“, you can see it in the track titles. But I did not want to write out my story as I see it, I want people to see it as a soundtrack for some sort of a film they can write in their own minds.
Holly, what I wonder, why do so many people working with AI, you included, use a language full of human references? AI as a baby, the birth, the … it come a bit like a cliché.
Nooooooo. Surely birth cant be cliché. Are we so postmodern that we can´t?
Well, no, but … there is this totally new concept, this new thing, but still we work with the old human terms.
We are constantly building on what came before. The album is also incorporating a lot of folk music and singing.
When I was looking at the history of artificial intelligence in music I started looking at the history of human intelligence and the role that music played in that. Folk music popped up around the world in communities that were not in touch with each other. It seems like the Folk music technology was almost embedded in our DNA. No one knows exactly which role music is playing in our brain development and our societies development, but people like Gary Tomlinson reflecting about it a lot. Humans and dolphins and others have the ability to entrance, to coordinate with choreography and music and ryhhtm and therefor do things like hunting together, they form basic society structures through these kind of basic inner technologies. That´s how early tools were developed.
The folk reference makes sense. With „Platform“ you reflected way before the bid data scandals now connected with Facebook and Google+ in a critical way about this new social media world – now with „PROTO“ you open up your vision of a social utopia. Not an anachronistic one negating the new possibility room. The community you create is bringing in artificial intelligence and humans together, trying to stop people from thinking in black and white terms and opening them up for integrative concepts.
It is about integration.
And if you want to integrate people – you cant tell them everything is different, right? To come back to the language topic.
It is building on a shared language and a shared history. Think about it, AI themselves too. AI are trained on our history. The history of humanity is the history of the evolution of intelligence. Reza Negaristani writes about this a lot. That´s what AI is to me is. It is the next step in the history of shared human intelligence. And „PROTO“ maybe is this proto species of the next version of humanity, the one that will be after proto. The enlightening phase.
You reflect on this on the album. There is the thought that we are maybe not the last or second last but the third last generation who is dieing in our sense of the term, we are somehow the last ones bounded to just a body.
Holly, are you sad that you are too old to see that happen? I mean, we have to accept, we are a in between generation.
I hear you. Sometimes I have that: „I really want to know what happens in 200 years“ – but you can´t do it. At the moment there is no mind upload function.
But maybe more importantly I am glad to be here in 2019 rather than in 1970 and that´s why I try to make work that reflects the now.
In music we find this super weird thing that people are super retro obsessed. There is this habit that we love the radicals from previous generation but not our own contemporary radicals. People don´t appreciate the radical thoughts of today but they elevate and review radical thoughts from 40 years ago.
Because it is a safe zone
Of course it is, you can fully contextualize it in history because you are looking back.
Especially in modern composition people look at the avantgarde period in Germany, the Karlheinz Stockhausen period. It was a really amazing time in history and we should celebrate this time, but those composers were not looking back 40 years and trying to recreate what they were hearing. It is absurd that we try to do so. Sometimes heroes can become giant shadows that we are living under.
It is a hard task for everyone to leave the comfort zine – it brings along the risk of big time failure while by acting closer to the tradition you have a kind of safety belt. Or to talk in economic wording: a market.
By the way, Stockhausen told Holger Czukay to leave him behind and get into the unknow.
It is good of Stockhausen to do that. Cause some people get so comfortable in their genius role that they just wanna create little mini version of themselves to carry on their traditions.
That’s how kings rule.
That´s how the canon, the archives work.
Holly, you talk about space traveling on the album as well as about inner body structures – is this the wider spectre of your way of reflecting what humans are?
Absolutely. It can really get psychedelic when you start looking at the history of human intelligence. What does it mean to be conscious?
The German philosopher Thomas Metzingertalks about the self model: There is no actual self, instead there is a series of sensors and a processor and you are always becoming and you are never the same person in the same moment. Definitely we went down all ways of psychedelic wormholes when you think about the subject.
But what was your original question?
Well, what I was trying to say and ask: falsification is not easy aka not possible in that wide field of reflections, but still your thoughts have an huge impact on how you handle your AI.
Like in that one passage on the album you talk about the inner structures of a body, of your body: Earth could be something in the blood stream of a higher being.
I think so, for sure. That´s why we work with this child metaphor. We are building on Donna Haraways ideas of kingship. She has lots of pets, animas, and she talks about seeing yourself as part of a wider network of intelligences, weather that be plants or computer or animals – she brings the focus away from this human centric notions the way our planet operates. To see yourself embattled in this interdependent network of beings and being able to have relationships with different kinds of intelligence was for sure one of the main approaches that we took.
We were treating Spawn as a family member, an ensemble member and not as some sort of controlling brain that was telling us what to do – it was more like this child we try to raise. Which is a very different approach to what most people are taking to AI as this fully automated non human approach. At the same time we try to acknowledge and respect those intelligences and learn from them – but try not to lose ourselves and our humanity in that process. Those things go hand in hand. That´s why a lot of people get confused: „Oh, If you embrace that other intelligence than this is a rejection of humanity“ – I don´t see it that way at all. I see it as a part of us, as an existence. And we need to have agencies as a community in deciding where it goes, how we develop it together – this is recent! We can still shape how this thing goes –maybe not in 10 years.
What you are saying: we have to learn not to think and act in black and white categories and come up with an integral model rather a confrontational.
And that´s why there is an emotional spectrum on the album. And people don’t like that these days, people really like simplification: good or bad. An AI album that is this dystopias cyberpunk hell … people understand that: AI is bad. But this is such an oversimplification where we are right now. It is not good and not bad, it is this other area where we can be intellectual adults and have conversations about these things.
Adult intelligence is very much connected to economic feelings. And in bad times – not saying we are living (yet) in economic bad times, but as people start to feel like that for some years now they also come up with angst driven world views and want someone to lead them through the chaos.
Holly: your concept of Holly Herndon vey additive. In the beginning it was just Matt and you, then you added the other singers as an ensemble and now the Spawn – and this is not the end, the audience is also quite involved in during the performances.
The public? Yes, sometimes. We trained on that with those two „Live Training“ tracks on the album. We had this show at Martin Gropius Bau as part of the „Ism“-series and they built this crazy six screen surround system, a constellation audio system. Whenever we approach really hi-tech setups, we try to reinject the human back into it. And so we performed in a filmset and screened the live filmsets on the screens. We tried to demystify the training process by involving the people.
I sadly did not see that show, but I saw your show at Festsaal Kreuzberg during CTM Festival.
We had some technical issues there.
Talking about that, I also saw your show at Oya Festival in Oslo, where the technique totally collapsed and you ended up screening different states of chaos on the screens behind you.
Like „We are never booking you again“ – that joke to ourselves went viral later on as a meme. There is now a company selling it as merchandise without knowing it came from our show, separate from us, as part of the EDM world.
It liked your easy going approach with those fatal moments – even though I am sure it felt like hell to you. The same I feel with the album, with those „Live Trainings“ you make your own doubts visible. This enables much more people to follow you on your path as you give them your hands.
I think that we see the idea of perfection a lot in electronic music anyways. It´s one of the beginnings of the process of the new record, we were touring and we were seeing all these synchronized AV shows – almost like as if the artist could leave the stage and it would not matter as it is all pre-recorded and pre-synchronized, the perfect thing. I love that stuff, of course, we all do, it is like candy. But I started to ask myself, where is the human in this? What parts of this are amazing and by that we should keep and keep developing them and which parts should we reinject the human back into to allow ourselves to be a part of it. It´s the idea of imperfection that was a starting point.
Of course touring „Platform“ was super messy, the making and touring – the messiness is part of it.
But at the same time you speak with a certain science authority. When people talk about Matt and you as musicians, they also talk about one of the rare artists with an academic level – you could switch to academic discourse and everybody does accept your role there too.
In the academic world the honesty, the failure, the doubts are not popular. I never had a professor who was doubtful, not at all, they try to be authorities and by that do not show their failures.
It depends on the community. I know what you mean, there is this sense of authority – but it depends on the field they are in. But CCRMA, the institute of the Standford University am I doing my doctorial research, is a programme dedicated to experimentation and totally fine with failure – almost celebrates failure. This is the California approach to technology: Try shit – what can in some ways be really terrible, „oops, we broke society, oh no!“
The whole CCRMA programme started with John Chowining who was playing around with oscillators. And because he had a musicians ear he heard how the modulation of one oscillator modulated the frequencies of another oscillator – and digital fm synthesis where born. And so he was able to license this technology to Yamaha and the X7 was born and a lot of money was generated and that went into a fund to start CCRMA which is the school now. The very originally of that, the funding and the brain history of that institution is in experimentation without being afraid what the outcome is.
How much do you reflect about the percentage of your listeners who get all these aspects – in opposite to those whom many experience Holly Herndon just as a musical thing.
That is also fine. We basically have a research orientated art practices that uses its outcome as pop records. That is sometimes a really weird thing. That´s why we do a lot of other projects: performances and installations that are outside of the record because they do not fit in that format. I think people who are interested in knowing more about our research can dig in and we provide interviews and articles for these people – and for those who just wanna have an music experience, the ideas are hopefully embedded in the aesthetics enough that they can get the feelings of the project in that way. It should function on both levels.
How is it for you personally: are both levels connected in an elementary sense or can you imagine to go at one point into an academic only direction? Or on the other hand to backlash into music without any academic connotation to it?
Because the way you communicate the album from the first single „Godmother“ (with Jlin) on, the topic AI is transported with high importance.
I kind of need to be dealing with a conceptual frame work in order to care. I am not the kind of musician that … sometimes I go in and just noodle around, but not for extended periods of time. I am not the kind of person that jams all the time. I like having an idea, something I want to express and then messing around in the studio and finding out how I can express that.
I take a lot, almost of my inspiration from things outside music. Of course, there are many musicians I am inspired by, but when I am really going in it is usually something extra musical. Because you have to really care about something to spend that obscene amount of time it takes to make these things – and no one wants to pay for. There has to be a really deep inner motivation. Records don´t make sense anymore.
Well, the record is also a part of what makes people go to concerts. But I know what you mean.
But we could release just songs or something and still have a live presence.
Would that really work for you? When the first song of the album, „Godmother“, came out, did you feel okay with knowing that there is only one song out and people start discussing your new work?
I ask as for me the song did not work singularly. I love Jlins work, I love your work, but to me something was missing there. Only when I heard much later the other songs, the puzzle suddenly worked. It must be hard for you as an artist to know that you have a different storyline to tell…
(laughs) Music is absurd in the way that you give it a way for free to get people interested in it. So, yeah, as we have this insane endless stream of things to care about, labels try to drag out the announcement process by dripping out little pieces at the time. And of course it works better when all songs come out at one time.
But my original thought behind leading with „Godmother“ – we release it and then we can talk about all the AI stuff and when we then release „Eternal“ and the rest of the album we can talk about all the other stuff besides AI, the ensemble, the group dynamics. But the opposite happened: we released „Godmother“ and everybody was: „AI“. – And now everyone just wants to talk about AI. And I understand it, it is the interesting new thing.
One question about the last track, „The Last Gasp“? Why so?
Well, it is a lyric in the song.
Yes. But my point is: it comes back to the humanized language and the narrative. And it triggers the question: Do you have an idea what is the next stage?
I don´t have an idea what the next album is. Even the thought to have to deal with another album makes me break out in hives.
I did have this kind of narrative in my mind when I was writing and arranging the tracks. But I don´t wanna lay that out, I want the people to make that for themselves. But part of the storyline was: a journey begins for some people and a journey ends for some people. It is a last gasp of a certain way of thinking. A last gasp of a certain kind of ideology.
So its neither the last gasp of humans or Spawn.
Holly, how religious is the record to you. We talked before about the folk aspect of it, we talked a lot about community, we talked about bigger construction of society and togetherness – do you also feel there is a religious aspect to it?
I think there is. I think there is a religious aspect to AI in general. A lot of people project into AI their desire to save us form ourselves. Which is really dangerous thinking as it makes us uncountable for our own behaviour: „Oh, the Ai will fix it!“
First of all: it is our responsibility to develop the AI in an ethical way. But also we need to figure out… we can’t just project our problems on another intelligence … I started making music as a kid in church. My earliest musical experiences were in a church setting, in a public emotional setting. I was missing that public ecstasy in a way that you can also find in club nights. It is about the ability of music to be – it is a bit cheesy – a therapy to grow of society where people can release something. There is something about being really emotional in public with other people that can be really good for a community. That is what I was trying to get to – without it being a religious ceremony. How can we create new rituals where we have this feeling of interdependence with each other without relying on old methodologies.
Holly, how democratic is your process?
That is a good question. Ummm, it is, ummm: not. (laughs)
We tried some experiments with decentralized, non-hierarchical systems in ensemble meetings. Like someone started with a ton and send it to someone else and there was no central planning… those are really fun exercises, but at the end of the day someone has to compose and make decisions and find a way that everybody involved feels valued and their voices are heard and you try to bring the best of their performances in – but still make those hard decisions by yourself. It was not written by a community. At the end of the day it was myself and Matt hammering away this music and spending hours and hours editing the recording sessions.
But are some of the ensemble members discussing the process with you and maybe also change by that the direction of the process?
Of course. It is not like that if I wrote that album with another group of people it would be the same. It is very much built out of this group of people: their voices, their interest. I didn´t audition people and listen to their voices and try to create a perfect blend. Instead I reached out to friends and found people with a very open experimental approach to music and we just started messing around and pulling out their very specific skill sets.
Evelyn Saylor for example is in a sacred harp group here in Berlin. She had a huge impact on „Frontier“, she helped me figure out how to do the voice harmonies for the first part in a way that will be authentic to the sacred harp tradition.
Or Stine Janvin, she has this amazing ability to whale. I wrote this rough line, but when she interprets that line those two things are not the same. There is this rough outline – and there she is whaling on top of her lungs.
Is it for you a sure thing that Spawn will be part of the ensemble after the tour?
Who knows what I going to do… the economics of electronic music are telling me to stop writing music and just to DJ.
Is it that bad?
I think so. Why spend the time writing and recording music when you can just play the music of other people and make more money.
Well, only if you manage to make it to a certain level – and when you are okay with bringing in your person in a very public way. To be a successful dj these days it seems like you have to share images of yourself all the time.
Yeah. They have professional photographers from the beginning, that is part of the art form now.
As we were talking about mistakes and failures before, I feel a lot of that stuff is supposed to look accidental, but it is so intentional. They look back and try to look surprised but…
Ooops, I;m in a bubble bag.
But I know what you mean, alone the process of bringing the group together and rehearsing with the ensemble must be crazy.
It is crazy. It all depends on how sustainable it is in practice where it goes in the future. Regardless of how big or small the ensemble is or if Spawn is a part of it, we will continue to figure out where the human performance gets to in an increasing mediated and automated world.
Musically, the album comes with a wide range of different material. From very clear voiced songs to songs in which an artificial voice dominates, to atonal dronie atmospheric pieces – and „Eternal as the hit single. How important is this ever-changing sound narrative? And did you have a lot of more songs to choose from for the narrative?
There is tons of unreleased material, there are entire songs that were recorded and not mixed. Also each track, lets say „Frontier“ as example, „Frontier“ was an entirely different track when we played it for CTM last year. It went through an entire remix process. Each track has around 100 different versions with entirely different production. Entirely different bpms.
Maybe you should really start djing, this process seems indeed too much.
It is insane. Matt and I go crazy. There is a period toward the end where we both are insane. We can´t have normal social life, we can´t go out for dinner, because we are just so adjusted and frustrated to figure something out and we make it very complicated for us.
The beginning is always nice and fun and then it becomes hell and you just try to figure that thing out – and once it´s done you are just: „ahhh“. And then people are like: „What next?“ – Noooooo!
But that makes the album so much deeper. Other people would have taken the direction of a track like „Swim and „Crawler“ and make a whole album with that specific aesthetics as this would have been challenging enough.
Holly, do you know how many hours you did put into the album?
At least two full years. Which is crazy. It doesn’t make sense.
Well, it is a milestone.
It is a milestone. And there is also a lot that we developed in there. We developed a new process, a new customer made software is part of the output – we are trying to commission for works outside the pop industry where we can use the outcome of this research that don´t makes sense on an album.
And you did build a big family for you. At least for the next two years of touring you will not feel alone at all.
We try to use the album as a way to amplify the work of other people too, It is not just me me me. I don´t know if you saw the show at CTM from the beginning, we started with the ensemble members alone.
I was. And it was very touching. In the world of pop music most shows are about one person these days. Matt and you manage to go much further than that. There were so many characters, and as a member of the audience I started to evolve feelings for them, like me liking some of them especially. Like in a movie where you somehow dig the supporting actor more than any other cast member. I liked that show a lot.
Thank you, I am glad you liked that. Because a lot of these ideas around the lone genius on the mountain top, I feel like this is just such an outdated way of thinking the way art is made.
First of all: it’s a lie. Most solo artist are working with a team of people behind the scenes you just never see – visual workers, production, mixing. People present themselves as this singular thing and it is dishonest.
It is not the ethos I want to present to the world. This idea of interconnections, that idea that we need each other is something we can celebrate, we don´t have to be scared that someone steals our light. That is something which will be really hard to recreate on tour, I think we have to work with local artists. But I do want to continue my release platform as place where people can discover the people in my ensemble as well. We kind of look at it … Matt is a football fan.
You mean soccer?
Yes, exactly. We look at it with a team approach. Different players will be on the field at different times. Because they all have their own tours and work to do. It will not be the same group of people everywhere, there are also visa issues etc. It is a team.
Holly, thanks so much for this conversation. I am very much looking forward to seeing Matt and you and your ensemble live on stages this summer.