Don't call it academic: an interview with Holly Herndon

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The producer talks academic pursuits and the dangers of genre nostalgia.

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Abby Garnett | March 10, 2014

Holly Herndon

Two years ago, Holly Herndon released the stellar Movement, a fascinating synthesis of experimental techno with cerebral compositional techniques. Movement was partly the result of Herndon’s work as an MFA student at Mills College, a program for which she returned to the States after living in Berlin for five years.

“I was just kind of doing it on my own time,” she says of writing the album. “I didn’t have a schedule at all.”

These days, Herndon is busy recording new material for an as-yet-untitled album to be released on RVNG some time in the Fall. She’s also juggling more balls than ever: now fully immersed in a doctoral program in composition at Stanford University, she’s accruing an ever-expanding list of commissioned projects (including a 45-part choral work for the Brooklyn Youth Ensemble) as well as an increasingly demanding schedule as a touring musician.

“I’m really having to learn how to project manage my creative time, which is really hard,” she says. “I definitely lose sleep at night, like ‘Ah! What if I don’t get a good idea in time?’”

Herndon describes writing the material for her follow-up as “this crazy, emotional ride.” But she seems to be thriving under the pressure.

“Everybody says it’s ‘the dreaded sophomore album,’ but I’m excited about what’s coming out.”

She’s hesitant to divulge details, but hints that she’s been getting out of her comfort zone: “the last album was just me alone in my room, and for this one I’m incorporating other people in ways that have been really amazing.”

When we spoke, Herndon was fresh off the release of her Chorus EP a few weeks prior, and was gearing up for a short tour with indie guitar goddess St. Vincent. On this particular weekend, she was also putting in some much-needed studio time and grading a mountain of undergraduate papers. Despite all the demands on her time, Herndon spoke with me at length about Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where she does much of her work (I learn from our conversation that CCRMA is properly pronounced “karma”), her performance techniques, and her views on the culture of electronic music.

Do you like living in San Francisco?

I think I have learned a lot by living here, because it’s so forward-thinking when it comes to technology, and that’s had a very profound effect on my practice. There’s also a huge hacker community here, and people who are willing to share their knowledge and teach you how to do things. But a lot of the performance that I do is in Europe, and it’s just an incredibly long flight. As far as the city, it’s under a million people living here in San Francisco, so I miss some of the programming that’s happening in places like London and New York. I’m a little bit ready to move on.

I’m definitely fantasizing of like the old days of massive apartments in Berlin. Before we moved here we had this crazy four room place with French double doors and huge hardwood floors and really tall ceilings… and then you move to the States and you pay double and your apartment has carpet that’s like 50 years old.

It seems like you had a pretty profound experience living in Berlin.

I did, yeah. I lived there for five years, and I met my partner there. It’s also just the mentality. Berlin is a very diverse place and there’s people of every walk, but it can lend to some sort of escapism in a lot of ways. The mentality here in the Bay Area is very business driven and very work-oriented. It’s almost like they’re opposites in that sense. I think finding a nice balance between the two is good.

When you were in Berlin, did you ever go to Berghain?

I basically lived in nightclubs for at least a year. I went to Panorama Bar more, but I got to play Berghain at CTM last year and that was awesome.

Did you happen to see the article in Rolling Stone on Berghain that came out recently?

I saw it on Facebook. I didn’t read the full article but I kind of saw the reactions to the article, which were probably even more hilarious than the article itself. I guess it’s seeping into the mainstream conscious.

I started going to Berlin when I was really young on exchange programs, so I’ve been going there for over 10 years now, and I’ve always had people there tell me, “Oh, it was so much better before.” I think that’s just kind of the nature of a place changing so dramatically. Every generation deserves to have their time there, so I try not to get too nostalgic. It’s always going to be evolving and it’s always going to be offering something new to someone.

Do you feel that nostalgia prevents people from moving forward creatively, particularly in electronic music?

Nostalgia’s a huge problem in electronic music. People get really nostalgic for a certain sound or for certain equipment, instead of trying something that might work a little bit better or be more interesting. I’m interested in the computer because it can do things that those machines never even dreamed of doing.

Nostalgia can also lead into certain kinds of orthodoxy within genre, and I think that gets really dangerous. Once you create this entire rule structure of what something’s supposed to be like, that’s when I get completely bored and turn off. I’m more interested when things are mixed up and mashed up and people are able to experiment outside of orthodoxy. I’m not completely anti-nostalgia, but it’s not really a sensibility that I strongly play into. I think we can find new forms and new paradigms.

Like a lot of people are really into old science fiction, for instance, and that stuff’s really cool, but I’m more interested in new science fiction. Those old fantasies, they’re so mired in what were the social issues of the day. I like coming up with new fantasies.

Do you have a favorite professor or course at Stanford?

Yea, my advisor right now, his name’s Chris Chase, and he is the director of CCRMA. The department was founded by a man named John Chowning, who discovered digital FM synthesis and patented it, and that’s how we have the DX7 and like a load of Yamaha instruments. A lot of really amazing research and development has happened there. So that’s really inspiring. It’s a very unusual environment, because it’s mostly a place with engineers who are interested in music, and then they kind of allow us composers to work with them and hang out there. You don’t often find a mathematician working alongside a composer to try to figure out the best performance technique with X, Y, and Z.

Do you ever feel limited by your association in the media with a certain strain of electronic composers, or feel that you’re being unfairly parceled into a more academic representation?

I think it depends on the media outlet. You know, each article has its own angle. I did find it really interesting that the academic thing was such a huge talking point.The idea that what I’m doing is academic-sounding is kind of hilarious to me, because I listen to a lot of academic music and it really doesn’t sound like what I’m doing. I’m just taking some of the ideas from that world.

With Movement, I was mostly compared to other women making music, and a lot of women who aren’t using electronics at all, just because I have a female voice and they have a female voice. And I find that very disheartening. I think it ghettoizes women into one lump category, that it’s unfair and it’s limiting. I’ve seen it happen with tons of other female friends and musicians. And I’ve seen a lot of women compared to me, now. It feels truncating in a way, kind of like chopping off a limb.

But then when Chorus came out I was compared a lot to Autechre and I was like “okay, I don’t necessarily see the comparisons there, but at least I’m being compared to men now, I guess that’s a step up!”

I think part of it is people just lacking the vocabulary to describe what the music is doing.

Yea, I think it’s a vocabulary issue. I was reading a book last year by Joanna Demers called Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, and she talks about this problem exactly, that when people talk about electronic music, they either talk about the general feeling, like “oh, like it’s spacey,” or they talk about the equipment and technology used. But there’s no specific musicology terms that people are really comfortable using when it comes to electronic music.

What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?

I listen to everything. I listen to pop music, I listen to dance music. It totally depends on my mood. I was revisiting Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly the other day in the car and listening to Busta Rhymes’ intro. I forgot how much I loved his voice, and just the cadence of his flow and his articulation that he brings in. You can totally apply that to drums, or you can apply that to the stop and the start of a track or something. It’s just a certain kind of movement.

So will we hear a Busta Rhymes sound on your new album?

I would love to be able to claim that, but I don’t think I would be able to do him justice. But I definitely listen to his voice a lot, and all of that stuff has a huge influence on what I do. Especially when it comes to timing and syncopation.

Do you have any other favorite voices?

Scott Walker, he has an amazing voice. And David Bowie. I also worked with a vocalist recently who was pretty amazing. Her name is Amanda DeBoer. She is a singer based in Chicago. I commissioned a libretto from a philosopher named Reza Negarestani, and I wrote a 10 channel piece for her to perform over the internet. It was spatialized in the concert hall to make you feel like she was there even though she wasn’t there.

Do you find yourself more drawn to male or female voices?

I think it’s all about the delivery. I’m a soprano and sometimes I struggle with my voice sounding too sweet. I think soprano voices are sometimes kind of difficult to work with. In opera, traditionally, the part-writing puts women in a very specific damsel-in-distress role, or a “woman gone mad” kind of a role. When I was working with Amanda, she was performing this piece by Berio while she was in town called “Sequenza.” It’s a ground-breaking piece for extended vocal technique and it’s a really beautiful, interesting piece, but it’s basically about a woman going mad. And it makes me twitch to have male composers writing for “a woman overwrought by her emotions who just can’t control herself anymore.” That just makes me want to barf.

The piece I wrote with Amanda started out with some breathing and gasping sounds, and when we were listening to it, we didn’t think anything of it. But I played it for a male friend and he said “oh, this sounds sexual.” So I think female voices can sometimes be weighted in certain ways that make it difficult to deal with as a medium. But that’s what’s so liberating about digital processing. I can make my voice ugly, I can make it gender-neutral, I can make it do anything that I want to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to my physical body.

Do you feel it’s important for an audience to be able to see you when you perform, and to see what you’re doing, in order to connect with the sound?

I think it is right now, but I don’t know if that will always be the case in the future. Our expectation and our needs as an audience are changing, and I have no idea where it’s going. It’s always important to have some sort of audience-performer empathy. But whether or not that person even physically has to be there, I think that all of those things are malleable, and who knows what’s going to happen in the next 50 years.

In my own performance, some tracks are very layered and dense, and there’s no way the audience would be able to understand what all is happening in the computer. So in order to combat that a little bit I will strip down certain parts to explain the process of how I’m actually building up a track. That gives the audience an understanding of what it is that I’m doing. Otherwise, you’d never know if somebody’s just checking their email up there.

Do you personally have an emotional attachment to your laptop?

I don’t have a personal emotional attachment to the hardware, but I have an emotional attachment to the experiences I have through the hardware. I’m on Skype every other day with people all around the world. I was on Skype with my in-laws this morning, and they live in Kuwait. My laptop facilitates all that, and it’s also how I express myself creatively. It’s not necessarily this attachment to the physical thing, because I switch my laptop every two or three years, but it’s more what it facilitates and how it functions as a tool.

You grew up in Tennessee. Do you still have family out there?

I do. I’m playing Moogfest in April, and I grew up right on the border of North Carolina really close to Asheville, so they’re all going to drive over.

I’ve heard Asheville has an up-and-coming electronic scene. Have you played there before?

I have not played there before. I haven’t lived in the South in a really long time so I’m not sure what’s going on there now. It was always kind of like a hippy retreat when I was growing up. It’s where you would go to buy a pipe, or a hippie skirt. The town I grew up in didn’t really have a lot of subculture options, so I would go to Asheville or I would go to Atlanta to try to find records and stuff.

How does your family feel about your music?

They like it. I think I’ve been doing it for long enough that they’re not weirded out anymore. My mom came to the final concert at Mills when all the students were presenting their work and it was really interesting to talk to her about all the different pieces. She just kind of intuitively liked the things that were really good, and knew the things that were kinda bullshit, and called bullshit on them.

My family are all music lovers. When I was in Berlin people would always ask me, “do you guys really dance a lot? Because in all of the sitcoms all of the families are always dancing all the time.” And actually, we are one of those families. My family totally dances and is really goofy. They’re extremely happy, optimistic people.

Did you have any pets growing up?

Yes, I had a dog named Skittles. And Skittles was unfortunately not very bright and had this really awful habit of chasing the UPS truck. He got run over like three times and the third time, he just didn’t survive it. And that was Skittles. After Skittles we decided to get cats.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Oh god, I have no idea. I change every year so dramatically. And I think it means that I’m growing. So whatever I’m able to imagine right now, I hope that I’m something I couldn’t imagine now because I will have grown.

I think that being flexible is a really good thing. I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese philosophy about pragmatism lately, and it’s definitely having an impact on my way of thinking. There’s a war philosophy where they wouldn’t plan the strategy, they would just go into battle and then respond to conditions. I think that’s a really interesting way of living life, and it’s kind of the only way that really works. Because you can plan and plan and plan, and you can still have no idea what’s gonna happen.

Holly Herndon's Chorus EP is out now on RVNG intl.

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