Interview: Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon is an electronic musician and performance artist who is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in computer-based music at Stanford. Watch the music video for "Home" below and then read our interview with the artist.

You first became involved with electronic music when you were an exchange student in Berlin, where you got involved in the club scene and its rich tradition of techno music. What made you decide to study in Berlin in the first place?


It was an opportunity provided by my high school in East Tennessee, so it wasn’t like I had a choice of a number of different places - my German teacher (Frau Lockett) was obsessed with Germany and was incredibly engaged, and arranged an cultural exchange with a Polish family in Neuköln. I went on exchange twice, first with that sweet Polish family, and second to do a semester in high school with another sweet family. It was on the second trip that I started to notice the alien sounds around me. Thinking about it, Frau Lockett making those decisions has set me on an entirely different path. It was so important.


Does location influence your music? I can imagine that Berlin, though deeply entrenched in electronic music, offers a different experience from San Francisco, which has its own unique, highly active “hacker culture” and progressive take on technology, but isn’t necessarily a place where one may hear Kraftwerk playing in the grocery store.


Naturally, although there are many different ways to experience each city, I quite clearly moved to Berlin to participate in club and art culture there, and clearly moved to the Bay to nerd out and study. There is a revered and historic electronic party culture in San Francisco, and the Bay Area has played a crucial part in the development of a great many innovations in electronic music - a lot of which happening at Mills College and Stanford where I have studied. On the flip side, Berlin has an incredible history with regards to hacker culture, with Chaos Computer Club and C-base being commonly understood as the first openly available hacker spaces, for example. In this regard, my location has pretty much been determined by the best available opportunity at the time - and I’ve tried to take best advantage of the opportunities made available to me in a way that will influence my work positively. Both places are pretty inspiring and diverse.


Experimentalism, in my mind, connotes deviating from an orthodox approach to doing things, and orthodoxy changes with each passing day. A lot of music classified in record stores as ‘experimental’ seems very safe to me, much safer in fact, than a lot of music that takes risks in a popular or academic context.

What makes music “experimental?” What distinguishes “academic” music from “popular” music?


I think, simply, academic music is something that happens within an academy, and popular music is something that has reached a large audience of people. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, however because a lot of academic music is perceived as being detached, and a lot of popular music is perceived as being dumb, there are negative associations with the terms that are limiting. Experimentalism, in my mind, connotes deviating from an orthodox approach to doing things, and orthodoxy changes with each passing day. A lot of music classified in record stores as ‘experimental’ seems very safe to me, much safer in fact, than a lot of music that takes risks in a popular or academic context. 


What is it like to study at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics? Are there any courses that you particularly enjoy?


It has been amazing, there are some amazing minds there and every interaction so far has been wonderful. Considering the history and rigor of the place it is an incredibly friendly and supportive community, and even the most technically brilliant faculty and students are active artists who are really passionate and enthusiastic about the expressive potentials of technology. It is really common for faculty and students to collaborate artistically together, for example, which just makes for an approachable and fun environment. I’ve experienced some intensive DSP classes there that have made my eyes cross, and have really enjoyed studying solo with Chris Chafe, who runs the department and is an authority on network performance.


Why did you decide to pursue the academic study of music at Mills and Stanford?


I just hit a wall with my practice and wanted to learn how to take control of my tools and expand my understanding and skills. I went to Mills after years of performing within the club and noise community, and saw it as a focussed way to expand my palette and begin to develop a greater understanding of instruments like the laptop - some of the professors there have been making computer music for decades, and it felt like a supportive environment to develop confidence in myself as a computer musician. Mills helped me to become the artist I am today, and Stanford represents an opportunity for me to expand my practice way further - it’s a really unique opportunity to be able to work in between a rigorous music school and a rigorous engineering department with such a focus on music. It’s hard to juggle my public career and academic work, but I’m really committed to learning as much as I can while the opportunity is available to me.


You’ve mentioned that you are a fan of the work of Donna Haraway. How has her Cyborg Manifesto informed your work? What is your take on other musicians such as Burial and Arca who deliberately manipulate vocals in order to manipulate listeners’ perception of gender?


The Cyborg Manifesto has been very helpful to me, both in reconciling my relationship with my devices, and also in reconciling my own place as a woman making computer music. The essential point is that we ought to be defined by our affinities, or the things that we pursue, rather than the things we have not chosen - such as our gender. That is a compelling possibility, and a lot of my own manipulation of my voice is an attempt toward a hybridized expression that eschews categorization. 


I had no idea that either Burial or Arca deliberately worked with vocals so as to obfuscate gender, however would really welcome that. They are both incredible producers. I played a show with Arca in New York last year and am a big fan of his work and the communities in New York that appear to have embraced a very future progressive understanding of identity and aesthetics. He is a special artist. 


What are your thoughts on the term “IDM?”


It honestly means nothing to me. I mean I know what it means, but don’t really know what it refers to - it seems like one of those terms that may have been slapped on a community of producers who were all doing different things - kind of an odd catch all, which doesn’t seem very intelligent. I haven’t seen it in regards to my music, but artists don’t really have control over that. Someone showed me the other day that I’m apparently a popular ‘vaporwave’ artist on wikipedia - it’s funny to think that you might be part of a scene you had no prior knowledge about! Perhaps there are some amazing artists out there going by that term but I don’t know the first thing about it.


Have you ever worked with Pure Data? If so, how is it different from Max/MSP?

I’ve not done much in PD, but have worked some in ChucK. Ostensibly you can do a lot of the same things in all of these languages, except Max and Pure Data has the added benefit of being a visual, modular system, which I just find easier to organize my thoughts. I think a lot of it depends on how you started. For most CS visual programing languages can be annoying, but that’s how I started, so it makes the most sense to me. PD and SuperCollider are both free, which is of course amazing, especially for educational purposes.


You just came back from a short tour with St. Vincent. (Note: This interview was conducted the spring before publication.) How did that get set up? What was the audience response like?


Yes it was really fun. I was approached by Annie to do the tour, and because of school could only do the East Coast dates. It was mostly really positive, and a great experience to play such huge venues. It was different, in a sense, as I felt in many cases people had mostly come to see the headliner and so it felt like I was challenging a lot of people - which is kind of a cool place to be, if a little daunting. Playing to 4,000 people who didn’t come to see you is a politic, as even if you manage to captivate 1,000 of them - you are doing so in an environment with 3,000 other people talking. It takes concentration and was definitely an education - it is really spiriting to see my music received by a whole new audience, and kind of a test run to see if I could envisage myself captivating a whole massive venue like that one day. St.Vincent is a huge production, and flawless - it’s like a whole other medium when you deliver at that scale and intensity and I have nothing but respect - particularly as she seems intent on providing opportunities for weirdos such as myself to reach new ears.


How do you translate your music to a live setting?


Most of my music comes from a series of processes, and so I just perform these processes live, with a little pruning to make the delivery manageable for a solo performer. I keep myself very busy - I’m usually controlling multiple things and singing at the same time - ultimately it would be nice to be able to just concentrate on one or two things, but for now it’s like a weird kinetic workout I have pretty well covered :)


What projects are you currently embarking on?


I’m working on a new record, which is a big production that involved some exciting components that will roll out pretty soon. I’m trying to be ambitious and push myself on this release. I don’t want it to be just another album, and want it to explore my full range of interests and collaborators - I figure I’m lucky enough to have the attention of a few people so am going to try and use that platform to do something daring. 


I’m also working on a bunch of commissions for ensembles and choirs, am continuing to work on the electronic car project and have a couple of art related projects in the works. Plus school stuff, it’s going to be a hectic year! 


What gear/software do you use, besides Max/MSP? You explain in your Pitchfork video profile that you use induction microphones to pick up signals from your laptop; how exactly does that work?


That would be cheating :) I developed the induction mic ‘wand’ technique from watching the artist Scott Arford use them to pick up activity from devices, he is such a wealth of knowledge and has developed all kinds of insane feedback techniques for his musical and installation work. Aside from those I do use some analog gear, mostly filters and mixers for production and textures, and a few really awesome recorders and piezos for field recording stuff. I used Mat Dryhurst’s Dispatch patch to record my browsing on ‘Chorus’, and have been playing with that a lot too as it is great for establishing really odd palettes.


What advice do you have for beginning artists?


Participate. The internet is deceptive, as it can seem like you are participating when in actuality you are just making contributions to the people you have already met and already know about. I’d encourage young artists to meet people, perform, and develop your work by testing things out in pressured scenarios - the only way things get better is when there is risk involved. I’ve played a lot of terrible shows in my life, and made a lot of terrible tracks, but those experiences make you better. You can spend a lifetime in your bedroom fantasizing about what you are doing, and convincing yourself it’s a real thing in the world, but the only real way to test those assumptions and grow is to participate and learn from mistakes. 


How does vocal improvisation play into your work?


It’s the root of almost everything I do with my voice. Thanks Lauren Newton :)