Holly Herndon – PROTO

Holly Herndon – PROTO

Friday, 10 May 2019, 11.00am

Holly’s third full-length album PROTO (released 10 May 2019) isn’t about A.I., but much of it was created in collaboration with her own A.I. ‘baby’, Spawn.

For the album, she assembled a contemporary ensemble of vocalists, developers, guest contributors (Jenna Sutela, Jlin, Lily Anna Haynes, Martine Syms) and an inhuman intelligence housed in a DIY souped-up gaming PC to create a record that encompasses live vocal processing and timeless folk singing, and places an emphasis on alien song craft and new forms of communion.

PROTO makes reference to what Holly refers to as the protocol era, where rapidly surfacing ideological battles over the future of A.I. protocols, centralised and decentralised internet protocols, and personal and political protocols compel us to ask ourselves who are we, what are we, what do we stand for, and what are we heading towards?

You can hear traces of Spawn throughout the album, developed in partnership with long time collaborator Mathew Dryhurst and ensemble developer Jules LaPlace, and even eavesdrop on the live training ceremonies conducted in Berlin, in which hundreds of people were gathered to teach Spawn how to identify and reinterpret unfamiliar sounds in group call-and-response singing sessions; a contemporary update on the religious gathering Holly was raised amongst in her upbringing in East Tennessee.



Anna Murray
Humanising Digital Voices

Why I gave the above rating: 

I don’t quite know how this new album by American electronic musician and sound artist Holly Herndon passed me by for 8 months. Though as one of my first discoveries of 2020 it hit hard, as if it had been storing its momentum for the moment of release.


Imagine a giant steel cube; it stands in the middle of a cavernous empty space, immediate and immovable, with its hard sharp edges glinting. Though when you reach out, it is warm to the touch, the edges slightly softer than they first appear. That is the experience of listening to PROTO


The album was created in collaboration with Spawn, an AI trained by Herndon, and even includes live ‘training’ sessions with her and other musicians in which they teach it to respond to sound. Spawn even receives a separate credit on ‘Godmother’ (also featuring regular collaborator Jlin). However, knowing this fact helps give context to it but is not a pre-requisite to enjoying it. 


It does sound almost exactly like a collaboration between electronics and voice: Herndon’s voice is to the front throughout, though often glitched and so manipulated that it can be hard to tell where the organic ends and the silicone begins. 


PROTO contains tracks that would fit equally well in contemporary choral, folk or pure electronica albums. Where the album is at its strongest is when these elements combine (such as ‘Alienation’ or ‘Frontier’), with simple melodies and gorgeous choral textures work with grumbling bass lines and thumping beats. 

Jan 14, 2020

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