What is the sound of now? This is a question that Holly Herndon has been determined to find the answer to. The reason why Herndon is interested in representing the sound of now is partially due to her influences. Herndon spent a lot of time in the nightclub techno scene in Berlin, then went to the wildly experimental Mills College in Oakland, and is now based in San Francisco, Silicon Valley- all places that are heavily influenced by a post minimalist perspective at their core. The question of the sound of now, is something Holly captures in her music, and how can the sound of now be captured without first talking about technology.
When I think of technology, I think artificiality. The two go hand in hand. Where I feel the most comfortable is when my friends and I are running around a campfire, playing the bongo, eating piping-hot smoked corn and potatoes straight from the pit. Laughing, kissing, hugging, making a general fool out of ourselves. The polar opposite of this authentic and wholesome place in my minds eye, is being hooked to my iPhone notifications like a sickly patient to an IV drip. My relationship to technology on a scale from neutral to antagonistic, is the latter. The beeping, the buzzing, the ringing, the phantom vibrations, going to sleep and waking up next to my smart phone, seem only to be doing one thing: taking me away from real life communication and conversation, making me a human being less interested in the now, and more interested in the who, what, and where.
I am not the only one who feels enslaved to technology. In fact, most people I know are typically on their phone and conversing all at once. The question is no longer are you distracted by technology, but how to evolve as a functioning, distracted person. For me, this idea easily develops into a fearfully apocalyptic projection of the future with technology at its core, involving people so distracted by technology that face to face communication seems foreign. Touches, caresses, eye contact, all lost in the unfamiliar folds of time, peoples identities lying wholly in their digital selves. The scary thing about thinking of the fusion of humanity and technology is the possibility of losing our human-ness, as so many dystopian books like The Giver and 1984 are quick to point out. Is there a way to imagine the fusion of humanity and technology without us losing our human-ness?
Something Herndon feels strongly about is fighting for the rights to our digital selves. This would mean de-corporatizing the internet, always blogging our own material.Essentially, hosting our own material at all times.
Fighting for the right to our digital selves and capturing the sound of now are both themes interwoven in Herndon's work. Herndon's work, though arguably indefinable in its essence, can best be described as a sociopolitical commentary on the use of technology as both separator and conduit.
Herndon turns to her trade, experimental music, as a mode to capture the sound of now, because sound first must be created, and only then can an audience assess its message.
Herndon's latest album, Platform, is dramatic and distorted. It is like a thriller movie, with a sense of artistic performance permeating through out. Her first song, "Interference," is extremely fragmented. Sounds have a smashed-together quality, juxtaposed precariously, each sound being interrupted by the next before you have a solid grasp. Listening to her next song...her next chorus makes you feel like a bug crawling along an underground tunnel humming with other more threatening creatures. Herndon creates a truly macro experience, sounds the listener knows they know, but that are suddenly eery and unfamiliar. There lies too, in this macro experience that Herndon has so craftily curated for her audience, a sense of sensuality, privacy, and a meditative quality. It is as if, in listening to Herndon's music, she is asking us to be patient, and to hear something about the world that is masked in sound.
The futuristic hyper-pop of Platform, is composed of sounds that have been taken from Herndon's own laptop, a sort of sonic embodiment of her personal experiences with technology. They are the sounds of multiple browser windows open, Facebook notifications, new emails, loading, installing, and, of course, plain ol' stalling. It is a cacophony of sounds that we are all familiar with, but it is also, as Herndon herself put it, an equal playing field of sound. If you listen hard enough to her music, if you focus on the peripheral one sound orbiting her music like an electronic aura, in contrast to the many sounds within her music, there is an astounding silence that Herndon captures. Think the chaotic sound of Times Square vs the silence of planet earth looked upon from outer space. If the sound of now were to sound like anything tangible, Platform is the closest thing to it.
Take Herndon's song "Dao." Listening to it I hear a woodpecker, water trickling, whisperings, a mic tapping, crackling, popping, a surreal and breathy voice, muffling, vents opening and closing, operatic singing, and a zipper being zipped and unzipped. What has Herndon done?
Herndon doesn't want you to accept her opinion about the sound of now - she wants you to make your own. She is not saying technology is good or bad; she is defamiliarizing our relationship to technology, making us see it not as something objective, but something subjective, and even intimate. Intimate, but not good or bad. Intimate, vulnerable, I am what I am, and our relationship to technology is just that. Whether we like it or not, technology is an intimate part of our lives, and something that makes us vulnerable. There is no clean and simple way to understand Herndon's music, as there is no clean and simple way to understand technology and its intimate, albeit unwarranted, insertion into our lives. Our computer, and sometimes only our computer, tells us "I know how busy you are/ I don't know how you do it/ you do seem a little stressed out/ are you ok/ just exhausted?" ("Lonely At the Top"). In turn, we tell our computers, "I can feel you in my room/ Why was I assigned to you?/ I know that you know me better than I know me" ("Home"). Ultimately, technology is a hyperpersonal extension of ourselves, a mirror into our own solidity of self, or lack thereof.
In the chaos of Herndon's music, and in Platform particularly, lies a responsibility for the listener. Herndon gives you a blank canvas, a blank map of consciousness, the sound of now that is less tied to the world's history, and more connected to the world's progressive identity as a growing organism. In this sense, Herndon is not merely capturing technology. Nor is she capturing the sound of now, exclusively. Herndon hopes her audience understands something very large when listening to her music: that life is one long improvisation. Herndon is capturing something fluid: time as a movement, not as a period. Sure, on some basic level the sound of now sounds like economic uncertainty, Wiki leaks, fragmented Skype conversations, Instagram worship, and a lack of overall privacy. More intuitively though, the sound of now sounds like the unconscious conversation of our past evolving into a more focused and aware sound of our future.