Sine the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s been much lamentation and hand-wringing for the decline of an overarching cultural narrative, as we fall farther and faster down the postmodern wormhole. This lack of commentary may have something to do with too many viewpoints, too much to take in, or too many ways of looking at things. But while we many not be able to define, definitively, the world we are living in, it would be false to say there is no “Sound Of Now 2015” — much like when former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s defined hardcore pornography by saying: “I know it when I see it.”
Modern, futuristic music is immediately identifiable: we know it when we see or hear it. One of the most common signifiers of modern music would be the mutated, modulated sound of the human voice — chopped and slurred into an anonymous, androgynous blur. From the otherworldly moaning of Burial’s Untrue to the genderfuck anonymity of 18+, to the post-everything mutations of Fever Ray & The Knife, all have been accepted and championed as being entirely contemporary.
This digitization, like the technology that surrounds us like a miasma, is a double-edged sword. On one hand, our interconnected world has made all conversations about privilege and equality more possible than ever, forcing us to put ourselves in the shoes/sandals/hooves of other people from all over the world. On the other, it can be tempting to say that these issues no longer exist — that we are “post-racism”, “post-sexism” — but we all have our meat suits, our hang-ups, our conditioning. We’re not out of the woods.
Holly Herndon tackles these dualities, knowingly, and with great aplomb, while still making a great artpop dance record. In a recent interview with The Quietus, she spoke pragmatically, about dealing with the world, as it is, including technology. She’s not interested in looking backward, or lamenting. She’s interested in moving forward, and finding positive solutions.
Herndon circumnavigates digital pitfalls, via collaboration, turning the hermetic vision of the isolated producer on its ear. Two of Platform‘s collaborators — Mat Dryhurst and Claire Tolans — act as shadowy subtexts, illustrating the silhouette of a mission statement.
Mat Dryhurst is a musician and computer programmer, who inspired Herndon with his concept of “net concrete”, a patch in the academic computer music program MaxMSP, which can convert personal web browser history into audio data, like an accelerated, out of control take on musique concrete. Net concrete’s sound collage can be heard on “Home”, an atmospheric and vaguely disassociated romance, between surveillance and the surveyed, full of crackling, crinkling percussive rattles, and weightless, unearthly basstones that sound like they were dipped in motor oil. This sound collage is rough, spastic, and noisy, not keeping with the hyperclean minimal aesthetic commonly associated with the futuristic. The net concrete approach places Platform on a continuum with fellow data-hacker/cultural commentator James Ferraro, with his influential NYC, HELL 3:00AM. While James Ferraro’s concrete statement may sound like robotripping in the world’s largest mall with food poisoning, Herndon’s sculptures seem almost loving, with clips of lovers laughing, snagged from Skype conversations, mixed in amidst the bleeps, burrs, and blurry rumbles.
Holly Herndon — “Home” Music Video
Infamous Berlin Community Radio personality Claire Tolan appears on “Lonely At The Top,” which may be Platform‘s most impactful track, and also its most experimental. “Lonely At The Top” features Tolan whispering comforting corporate-speak adages over a bedrock of the sounds of a massage, and the sparse clicking of fingers on a keyboard, with no backing music whatsoever. It’s like eavesdropping on the most sympathetic customer service representative of all time. It is a somewhat sad, sick, and also hilarious comment on high-priced professionals, paying $100/hr for a friendly ear, to have someone tell you, “You’re worth it,” and “You’re doing great!” Like the rest of Platform, there is not one easy reading of “Lonely At The Top”. It seems like a critique and observation of corporate culture, but we wonder if Herndon and Tolan are just doling out the top-shelf services for the masses. We all need to be needed, and we all want to feel special. It’s nice to hear it, sometimes.
Claire Tolan is also one of the leading icons of ASMR — autonomous sensory meridian response — that is defined as a pleasurable tingling sensation, in your head and scalp, that is often produced by the sound of whispering — or other sensory stimuli. Her cameo on Platform is one more example that Herndon is seeking out every possible permutation of the human voice and its effects, and that she’s willing to use every tool at her disposal for good, not ill.
Without knowing the present, it can be difficult to picture the future. Living in 2015 can feel like listening to millions of voices, shouting at once. It can be difficult to know who to listen to. We might as well learn to make music out of the din.
Holly Herndon — “Interference” Music Video