The Stanford Ph.D Student Making Human Music with a Laptop

When it comes to music-making, laptops get a bad rap. They're cold, impersonal, inexpressive, and can't summon the warmth of traditional acoustic instruments. Or at least that's one way to look at it. Experimental musician Holly Herndon disagrees — and has spent much of her career exploring the expressive potential of the machines that are now an inseparable part of modern life.

Herndon has one foot in the contemporary pop world, and the other in the academy, as a Ph.D candidate at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. She came to popular attention last year with the release of Movement, her debut LP on New York imprint RVNG Intl. The work tries to address what Herndon describes as "the antiquated argument that computer music performance is more disembodied or 'unnatural' than either analog electronic music performance or acoustic music performance." She did this in a novel way, by fusing contemporary European techno sensibilities to digitally manipulated samples of her own voice.

Nowhere was this more successful than on the album's titular lead single, where she layers wiggling synth arpeggios over a muted four-to-the-floor pulse reminiscent of minimal German techno. Her voice comes in waves, rushing over the rhythmic grid, contorting away from what's naturally possible while still retaining an intimate harmonic warmth. The inclusion of these organic elements in such alien digital landscapes can be disconcerting, forcing listeners to become aware of their own close relationship with technology. Herndon also gets confrontational in "Terminal," which brings to mind the grim incapacitation of medical ventilators and hospital equipment with textures composed from the human breath and then layered atop a buzzing hum.

Herndon's is an important message, one that feels especially relevant coming from a place so engrossed in technology as the Bay Area. Though it's hard not to feel that computers are impersonal, Herndon's music challenges us to see the ways in which they're just as expressive as traditional instruments. Expect her to continue exploring these ideas in the coming year with a new, as-yet-untitled single in November and a sophomore LP in 2014.

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What a challenging space - Holly seems to have excelled in this new genre. It's so great to hear about successful Stanford students in all kinds of fields, not just tech. 


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