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“Embodied instrument”: Holly Herndon interview

This is one of a few recent interviews I’ve conducted for Douban Music with artists from one of the Beggars labels, arranged by Beggars China (贝阁中国). Since most of the artists I’ve been interviewing for Douban don’t have any immediate plans to come to China, it doesn’t make sense to put these on pangbianr. But some are quite interesting, and I want the English versions to exist somewhere. (I posted an interview with Parquet Courts vocalist Andrew Savage here; another with Merrill Garbus will turn up eventually.)

This interview with Holly Herndon was done over email in April 2016 and first published by Douban in Chinese. Today I was reading a Reza Negarestani essay on “sapience” and it reminded me of this interview, because Herndon collaborated with Negarestani in the past and I asked her about it. She didn’t elaborate much on that particular project but does have some interesting things to say about art, music, technology, critical theory, and, I guess, sapience. She’s well known for blurring the lines between these, but seems now closer than ever to achieving some kind of personal apotheosis as she finishes her PhD work at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), and her intellectual and creative pursuits “fus[e] into one coherent output”:


I want to first ask about your early release “Car”, a cassette created specifically for car stereos. Did the final format influence that actual compositional process, or just the subsequent recording and production? How important has the final music format been in your subsequent recordings?

I was asked to make a tape for the now defunct label ThirdSex in Chicago. I was thinking about format, and format fetishization, so I asked the label to find out where their customers listen to tapes. Most people responded that they listen in their car; which was honestly a surprise. So, I figured if most people are listening to tapes in their cars, then I should make something specifically for this venue. It’s also an interesting time stamp, in that these cars will likely not be allowed on the road much longer — so it’s fleeting.

This was a really early experiment in format and distribution for me, but this is an ongoing theme and concern. If you look at the “Interference” video by Metahaven and Mat Dryhurst, you will see that there are advertising banners built into the frame. I see this as a continuation of that theme: how do we consume art work? Who determines the format? What control does the artist have and what must they concede? And more interestingly perhaps: how do we want to listen to/watch art?

You spent some formative early years in Berlin. What aspects — musical/sonic, physical, cultural, etc — of the Berlin club setting have been most influential to you over time?

Berlin is a wonderful place to listen to electronic music bc there is huge variety, and most places are casual. I always found club music/experiences in the US to be stressful, often with a lot of posturing, age limits, and a 2am closing time. So, being able to experience a lot of different sounds and environmentsrob made me fall in love with electronic music and become very involved in the culture around it. I also found wonderful communities in Oakland as well, at a smaller scale.

You’re one of few artists (Robert Henke comes to mind as well) that can balance a practice encompassing club-ready dance music, academic composition and technical invention or fine-tuning of virtual instruments. How do you split your time among, say, preparing an album, a Boiler Room set, and working on your PhD?

I set aside chunks of time for different projects. I struggle when I try to do everything at once. For example, I developed a new course for CCRMA last year with another student, and during that time I was writing very little music. I was researching and preparing and enjoying the course, but I struggled to have any significant output during those 3 months. Right now I’m writing again, so sometimes it takes a while to switch gears and remember how to do certain things. I also try to read and write critically in between. It’s important to try to flex those muscles, so they don’t get out of shape.

What does your doctoral work focus on? Is it a composition, an instrument, a performance, a thesis, a combination of several of those?

It’s a collection of pieces with a written accompaniment. We can talk about it once it’s finished 🙂

How have Oakland/San Francisco shaped your working process? Are you actively performing and collaborating in the local scene there, or are you more holed away working by yourself when you’re at home?

I’m back in Berlin now actually. But I was traveling quite a bit before that. The last few years SF has been more of a landing pad, and a work space, but before I started studying, I was quite active, going out to shows and playing shows regularly. I ran out of energy.

Among your collaborators, I’m personally very interested in the philosophy of Reza Negarasteni and the critical design work of Metahaven. Both of these, in different ways, work with the co-evolution or devolution of humans and technology, a theme that’s also front and center in your work. How has your attitude toward technology, or more specifically the laptop, your primary instrument, changed over time?

I’ve already spoken at length about this, but will try to recap swiftly. I was trying to come to terms with the computer as an embodied instrument, both philosophically and practically. This led to “Movement”. Then as that relationship blossomed, and I started working closely with Metahaven and Mathew Dryhurst, I began thinking of embodiment politically (the personal is political, or the personal is geopolitical as Metahaven often say). I’ve been thinking and making work about digital rights, the complicated relationship that we have to/through our machines, and how this impacts society.

I read that “Lonely at the Top” off your latest album is designed to trigger ASMR, a nervous-system-based euphoric sensation. Do you think there are different euphorias that can be triggered by music? I.e., a euphoria of dancing to monotonous techno for hours at a time vs a euphoria brought on by sustained deep listening? How do you try to touch this part of the brain with your music?

Certainly different music stimulates the brain in different ways, as well as different listening environments and activities. I’m interested in ecstatic performance as a way for the audience to emote together in public, while also dealing with what it means to live in the present. Often ecstasy can be escapist, but I’m more interested in alternatives, or an exit strategy, than a moment of escape. Last year Mat Dryhurst and I did at installation at Kunstverein Hamburg where we infused political slogans from an imaginary subculture with ASMR triggers. We were curious if statements were paired with the physical sensations that ASMR triggers, if they would be perceived in a different way.

You’re a composer, performer, artist, soon to be Doctor. What are the most interesting projects you’re working on now or plan to pick up in the near future? Where do you see your work or your career headed over the next 10 years?

Finally it is all fusing into one coherent output. I think I tried to separate these interests for a long time and the work suffered. I’m not sure what the future holds. I plan on continuing to try different things and see where they take me.

Published in Music


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