Holly Herndon – PROTO

Testing the limits of technology to pave a new path for pop music, ‘PROTO’ is surely something to marvel at.
Label: 4AD
Released: 10th May 2019
Rating: ★★★

Trying to even begin to understand ‘PROTO’ takes about as much work as it does to listen to it.

‘PROTO’ feels less an album, and more a window into a future many of us can’t even begin to understand. As such, it’s not easy listening. At times, it comes across as the sonic equivalent of being forced into a dark room with the most technical thesis to have been published in the most technical journal. Especially if you’ve spent the last week listening to Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’. But, given time, it becomes an intriguing prospect.

A collaboration between Holly Herndon and an Artificial Intelligence that she created with Matthew Dryhurst named Spawn, it takes the term “electronic music” to its very extreme. Herndon has always been on the cutting edge of avant-pop, creating electronic music that drew inspiration as much from academic research as from the dancefloor. But ‘PROTO’ feels like something else entirely. Testing the limits of technology to pave a new path for pop music.

Every week, Herndon would host learning sessions in which Spawn would listen to the sound of a choir and translate that into harmonies, rhythms, beats and general noises. Piecing together songs as it grew.

‘Godmother’ is a prime example of this process, which is an intensely disturbing track made of skittering beats, disjointed vocalisation and white noise. All written and produced by Spawn from the sounds it has been fed, it feels like an idea just starting to take shape. An illustrative look at the potential. Because AI is ultimately no substitute creatively for real people.

Last year, Lexus released an ad for one of their cars written entirely by an AI. After feeding it hours worth of Cannes Lion-winning luxury car adverts, it created a 60-second spot that was… not that good. And ‘Godmother’ feels very similar to that.

When Herndon and her vocalists get more involved in the process, however, there’s something oddly beautiful about it. Man and machine working together to create something unique. That’s what Herndon is trying to get at, and why ‘PROTO’ exists. It’s her and her collaborators putting their influence on the future and making it so humans aren’t replaced by AIs when it comes to making music. Her stance seems to be that AIs should augment, not replace. Neither one taking the lead, rather each one reliant on the other to build these sounds.

And it is building after all. Hearing the progression from one of the live training sessions to something like “Frontier” is absolutely astonishing. It sounds like the Appalachian Sacred Harp music of Herndon’s rural Southern American roots, but there’s something slightly off. Things are slightly off pitch, then the voices begin to glitch and the beat comes in, transforming this spiritual sound into something eminently danceable.

Unsettling. Remarkable. A din. Beautiful. You could use all these to describe ‘PROTO’, but just describing it that way would be doing it a disservice. It’s not a record you’d put on on a Sunday morning as you relax in the garden. It’s definitely not one you’d put on the office stereo. But, like a Luis Buñuel film, it’s an experience that almost transcends its medium.

It’s something that needs time, that needs effort, and that might not be to everyone’s taste – but ‘PROTO’ is surely something to marvel at, even if it often doesn’t sound great.

Chris Taylor

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