Two years ago, Holly Herndon gave birth to a nascent AI baby named Spawn. The computer learns by listening: absorbing complex stimuli and then creating something new in her mother’s voice – sounds that Holly would never be physically capable of producing herself.
That might seem like an unbelievable shift for someone who spent most of their early adult life intimidated by computers. But for the last seven years, Holly’s boundary-pushing blend of experimental music has been posing increasingly bigger questions about technology, community and communication. It’s a trajectory that has seen her develop a cult following for an acclaimed body of work – one determined to prove that computers can convey emotion better than most instruments.
That said, Holly doesn’t fit the cyberpunk stereotype. Her journey from a religious upbringing in Tennessee to studying a PhD at Stanford (via a hedonistic spell in Berlin) makes it tough for any labels to stick to her.
Today, dressed in an understated grey windbreaker, her shoulder-length red hair parted evenly, the 39-year-old is sitting in an empty restaurant beneath the West Berlin apartment she shares with partner and collaborator Mat Dryhurst. This is the first interview she’s given to promote new album PROTO – a mind-bending work shaped by an ensemble of vocalists, developers as well as Spawn – and over the course of nearly two hours, Holly manages to be both funny and insightful about a career unlike any other.
How did music first enter your life?
I grew up in East Tennessee and my first experiences with music were singing in the church choir. I took guitar lessons there, too. Coming from a very religious family, we were at church at least three times a week. That’s a huge part of community life in small-town America, but especially the South – so much so that it’s almost inescapable.
When you were growing up, did you know you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Erm… I didn’t. This was pre-ubiquitous internet, so I knew I wanted to be an artist – but I didn’t know what that meant. I was just kind of doing everything and trying stuff out: painting, doing sculpture. I was kind of all over the place.
Coming from that Church-orientated background, was moving to Berlin a culture shock?
Yeah – but I think I was looking for that culture shock. It was clear to me, even as a kid, that I didn’t want to stay in East Tennessee. I was looking for an escape. My high school had an exchange programme, but only for Germany. I was just like, ‘I want to get out.’ So I did. When I got here, I just happened to discover this crazy community that seemed really interesting.
So when you moved over full-time in 2003, was that what inspired you to make music?
It was a slow process of me plunking around and making a lot of bad music. [laughs] There were some really embarrassing performances. I’m so thankful it was a time when we weren’t all hyper-recording everything. The noise scene in Berlin was just becoming a thing and you could go up [on-stage] with some terrible stuff. It’s not like people were cheering or anything but they also weren’t booing, which was what was cool about it.
I don’t want to be one of those people who says, [in old person’s voice] “Well, back in the day…” because this was 2003 to 2008, but it was more DIY then. I also don’t want to fetishise a lack of opportunity or lack of resources, but clubbing was a very different experience. You didn’t really see designer clothes when you went out and people didn’t want to flash their money because most people didn’t have any. It felt like a community. Of course, I’m sure that stuff still exists in different micro-scenes that maybe I’m not as involved with any more.
What can you tell me about working at [infamous nightclub] Cookies?
I don’t go clubbing much any more but back in the day, people who worked at the main clubs all knew each other. You could get into the other clubs for free, or easily, and people would share drinks and other substances. It was a key to the city, in a way. And it was very much a lifestyle. When I stopped working in the club and started touring, it was almost like those two things were incompatible. It’s hard to maintain that lifestyle if you want to be doing something else; it’s kind of an ‘in or out’ thing. But I got a lot out of my system that I needed to get out of my system. It was fun.
You’ve spoken about wanting your music to sound like now. Often the term ‘contemporary’ is used as a slur to imply something won’t outlive its time. Can you elaborate on your desire to produce stuff so reflective of the current moment?
Well, there’s a difference between something that’s trendy and something situated in the here and now. We can’t have the same timeless aesthetic forever. With new technology and developments in society, new emotions arise out of that. There are new interactions, new fears, new ways of connecting with people – and that should be reflected in the art that we’re making. If I only hear things from the past, it feels like life is a foregone conclusion, that we’re only able to repeat ourselves. If I hear something that’s a glimmer of the future, it feels like there are options to modulate and be different.
So what does ‘now’ sound like to you now?
To me, today sounds like talking heads.
[laughs] No! I mean like pundits. A lot of people listen to way more podcasting and talk radio. It’s all opinions, hot takes, that kind of thing. I feel like that is so much more in the public consciousness than a new [musical] release. It’s heartbreaking because I’ll see a friend who’s spent two years on a release and then it’s like, ‘Bloop! There it goes past my Twitter feed.’ The next thing you see is somebody screaming – like a social justice warrior getting owned by a Nazi – and that’s the kind of thing that jumps out. To me, that’s what today sounds like: people frantically grappling for the next hot take. I feel like music has somehow receded into the background.
You’ve talked about using albums as trojan horses, so I was wondering what’s inside the horse that is PROTO?
Oh my god, there’s so much in here. First of all, PROTO is a new kind of ensemble that includes individuals but also a developer and a nascent AI [Spawn]. I also like the idea of this being an interesting point in history, a pre-proto-human phase before we fully figure out an AGI [artificial general intelligence]. We know it’s coming and we can kind of sense what it could mean to society, but it’s not there yet.
It also plays on PROTO being short for protocols, as in the agreed-upon behaviour for anything. I feel as if, as a society right now we’re looking at ourselves like, ‘Woah, what’s the fundamental agreed-upon behaviour here?’ And I think we’ve finally come to the conclusion that our digital lives and the ways we use technology are having very real implications in our physical lives, in our neighbourhoods and communities. It’s not just like there’s the internet and then there’s this, so understanding what kind of values we code into the protocol layer can somehow shape what happens in the world around us.
Like, imagine if you have a party or a rave, and you bake into the protocol certain behavioural things that are different from another space. [The nightclub] Berghain, for example, has its own protocol: you cannot take photographs and you cannot grope people. Those are very specific things and that’s why a lot of people like going there. I’m friends with some of the people who’ve done this series of crypto-raves [where access is granted via blockchains or tokens, facilitating a sense of privacy and community].
The idea is that we have already this logic in physical space for raves, which works in a decentralised [word-of-mouth] way. Then we have this technological system that can be trustless and encode a set of behaviours. It’s like being able to write a contract with someone you don’t know. So what happens if we put these two things together? It’s not fully figured out yet, but the marriage of those two concepts is kind of an art in itself.
As someone with a deep understanding of technology, how do you grapple with everyday dangers regarding privacy and surveillance?
No matter what technology is out there, some evil billionaire will be stroking their cat and thinking, ‘Ooooh, how can we…’ You know? [laughs] But there are just as many psychedelic freaks thinking up exciting ways of reorganising society – and that’s the kind of stuff that balances it out. But I think our current political situation is so incapable of being able to deal with issues around ethics. That’s what keeps me up at night.
When I see [Mark] Zuckerberg before Congress and one of the senators says something like [flustered Southern voice], “I can’t sign into my Google Mail,” I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’ You need to understand this shit so that you can legislate around it… because we know that companies are not going to police themselves. It would be great if they did, but that’s not how capitalism works. The goal is to create more wealth. So we need to have some sort of situation where the public is aware of what’s going on and can come to some consensus about what’s best for everyone.
As it is, you have this homogenous group of people designing systems for the rest of the planet. That’s basically what’s happened with social media. Not only is it very male and very white, but it’s also a very particular kind of neurotic personality; a particular kind of American viewpoint that’s then structuring every personal interaction online. That’s a horrible way to design a society. You need more input, obviously. [laughs] There’s this whole narrative in Silicon Valley where they’re trying to make their teams more diverse – and that’s a great first step, but it’s nowhere near close enough.
There’s a lot of controversy around the ethics of developing AI – not just in an apocalyptic sense but even on an everyday practical level… Like, if you can give it an old Beyoncé song and have it generate its own version, that potentially makes artists expendable. Do you have any ethical qualms about your research?
Oh, I have tons of ethical qualms. It’s a total ethical quagmire! This is part of technology: it replaces things and – I hate this Silicon Valley word – disrupts things. Essentially, the hope is that the information age is disrupting the industrial age in ways we see all around us… One optimistic area of thought is that the internet will create a whole new wealth of opportunity and creativity. But for me, the more crazy quagmire we’re in relates to platform politics, how that is shaping our lives and how it takes away a lot of our privacy – issues we’ve seen play out over the last several years.
The most powerful AI will be built with the biggest data sets. And who has the biggest data sets? Well, it’s these corporations who have carte blanche to hoover up all of our digital selves for free. So our own behaviour is being manipulated but, at the same time, we’re training the service even more – so it’s this crazy feedback loop. AI is going to force us to make some really tough decisions… and I don’t think we’re anywhere near ready for that.