Designing Exit Strategies: An Interview with Composer and Musician Holly Herndon

photograph by Maria Louceiro

Many people are quick to label San Francisco based musician and composer Holly Herndon a “futuristic” artist, but the truth of the matter is that she may actually be more present than many other artists that are working in electronic music genre. Present in the sense of her intentions and her use of the tools of our time. It is the music of the future imagined ten or fifteen years ago when composers were still primitively discovering and harnessing the power that computers can offer in terms of the construction of music. Moreover, Herndon is coming to the electronic music genre with a scholarly background and a deep understanding about the processes of music – after leaving Tennessee for the Berlin club scene where she immersed herself in the sounds of that culture, she received her degree from Mills College in Oakland. She studied under the likes of John Bischoff, James Fei, Maggi Payne, and Fred Frith. This year, Herndon saw the release of Platorm on the 4AD label. It is her second official album and it is being lauded by critics across the board. Autre was lucky enough to catch up with Herndon for a convo – she discusses the state of club music, her early experiences as a choir girl growing up in the South, and her blurring of the line between academia and pop music. 

Joe McKee: Tell me about the new record. I’d like to get an idea of what’s evolved, what’s changed, what direction it’s gone—musically, thematically, lyrically.

Holly Herndon: It’s always weird to summarize your own music. But I would say that it makes sense on this trajectory that went from Movement to “Chorus” to where it is now. If you follow that trajectory, you’ll end up somewhere that makes sense for this new record. I think one of the biggest aesthetic changes is that it’s involved other people. Movement was me being a weirdo in a room with no windows. It was a very isolated exercise. Whereas this has been very collaborative, which has been really good and healthy.

JM: What brought you to that point? Was it purely that getting too insular was starting to drive you a little bit mad? Or was it that you were feeling you needed to shake things up creatively?

HH: There’s some of that. But there’s also some of the navel gazing-ness that comes with working insularly. That was bothering me, in general, about music—specifically dance music. I felt like there was a lot of inward-reflection, where right now in our world we need more outward-reflection. There’s been a lot of escapism in the club in the last several years. I think escapism has a place, but right now, what we need is people designing exit strategies instead of partaking in escapist hedonism.

JM: And finding solutions?

HH: Yes, but it’s not “solutions” as in “solutionism.” In the Bay Area, that’s a problem with tech. People are very solution-oriented. With tech, you can solve any problem. I think it’s great when people are problem-solving, don’t get me wrong. But there’s also a problem with solutionism as a whole, when you think that you can solve any problem. This leads me to [an] interesting thinker, Benedict Singleton. He talks about building a platform of new ways for people to communicate with each other. He’s a designer by practice, so a lot of that comes out of the fact that you can never design the perfect future. You can never foresee all of the ways in which the world is going to change. You’ll design for the perfect future, but then something will be invented that changes the game entirely. You have to start over. You have to think in an entirely different way. So instead of trying to design this perfect solution, it’s more important to design platforms to communicate in interesting, new ways. Then, it’s like a petri dish. People can come up with their own solutions to new problems as they arise.

JM: Can you give any examples?

HH: One example for that would be Twitter. It’s kind of a cheesy example, but Twitter was originally designed to be an internal communication messaging board for quick messages inside of a company. Now, it’s become a platform for all kinds of different things. It’s a platform for people to talk about race issues, anything. Twitter has become its own beast—there’s no longer that little, internal communication. It was never designed to be a platform for these specific things. But it was designed in a way for people to communicate. 

JM: Let me reign you in and ask, where does that come into play in the record and the collaborative element?

HH: I started thinking about how I felt that a lot of club world was navel-gazing, insular, and escapist. I started to ask, How can music be an agency? How can music be important, and invited to the table to talk about important things, not just escapism or entertainment? I started looking to people who are thinking about these same things, but maybe in a different discipline. That’s how I started working with Metahaven.

JM: Tell me a little bit about Metahaven. Have you collaborated with them again on this record?

HH: I’ve been working with them a lot throughout the past year. Mostly just epic, long email exchanges. We did the video, and we’re working on some other stuff. They designed the cover for the record. I was interested in them as a design collective because this is exactly how they’ve approached their practices over the past couple of years: They said, “We’re really good designers. We have a great aesthetic eye. But we also care about all these other things. How can we use design as a force for good, or a force to talk about other things that we care a lot about?” If you look into some of their work, you’ll see really good examples of what I’m talking about. Some of the books that they’ve published and some of the projects that they’ve done are very much aligned with what I’m talking about. That’s why I was so drawn to working with them.

JM:  I’m curious as to how you got to this point creatively. Your upbringing—everything that I’ve read, it seems to begin in Berlin. Forgive me for not digging that deep; I like to keep a little mystery. But prior to Berlin, how did you find yourself composing music, particularly on a laptop? Did it begin at a young age? Did you come from a music family? What instigated this long, complex, in-depth journey that you’ve had with composition?

HH: My earliest musical experiences were in the church. I was in the church choir. I was also in the school choir and the state choir. That’s where I learned how to read music. I also took guitar lessons at the church. I grew up in the South, so a lot of life outside of school is church-involved. But I also started making weird, cut-up radio shows—not a real radio show, but a recording on a cassette. I started doing that when I was really young with my best friend—fifth grade. Ten or eleven.  Really young—we were playing with dolls. We had this radio show, which was so insane—I don’t know why we came up with it. But now that I’m thinking back on it, it was probably a weird response to the neo-con radio stuff that we were exposed to. But we had this radio show called “Women’s Radio.” I did not grow up in a feminist situation. We would do fake interviews with Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton.

JM: That sounds quite advanced for a ten or eleven year old, I must say.

HH: We didn’t know what we were saying. Madeleine Albright was a serious thinker—we were not bringing her to light at all.

JM: I was climbing trees and bumping into things at that age, so its very impressive that you were doing those things.

HH: I seriously think if you listened to it now, you wouldn’t be impressed, [but] I started messing around with recording over stuff—in a super-simplified way. That’s my earliest memory of sampling.

JM: Bridging the gap between then and now, can you give me a little dot-point form of how you found yourself in Berlin in that club scene world? And then coming to a point of exploring the academic angle?

HH: When I was in East Tennessee, I knew that the local German teacher arranged exchange programs if you learned German. I really wanted to get out of East Tennessee and go to Berlin. This is before I knew what “Berlin” meant, naturally. I didn’t know it as an electronic music site or anything like that. I just knew that it was far, far away.

"I loved Tennessee, obviously. But at that age, it’s like, 'Get me the fuck out!' I learned German and did this exchange. Through that, I met a German guy, and I fell in love with him. He was a club kid, so I was initiated into that world. We broke up." 

JM: You wanted to get the hell out of Tennessee?

HH: I loved Tennessee, obviously. But at that age, it’s like, “Get me the fuck out!” I learned German and did this exchange. Through that, I met a German guy, and I fell in love with him. He was a club kid, so I was initiated into that world. We broke up.

JM: Do you feel like you got stuck in the club scene?

HH: It’s like anyone who explores music. I feel like people get really stuck on the club part, and that’s probably because it was the first thing that I did. But I was also involved in other scenes in Berlin. I was always going to new music concerts. I was never fully satisfied with one thing. I was always trying to check other things out.

JM: Then what did you do?

HH: Then, I wanted to formally study. I was always trying to make stuff myself, and it never really sounded the way I wanted it to sound. I applied to a program in Berlin and to Mills. I got into both programs, but I decided to go to Mills because it seemed like a better fit. Fortunately it was a really good fit. That’s when I got exposed to the more academic side. But Mills is a very unusual place for the academy. It’s super hippie, super laid-back. I wouldn’t have been able to go to a more traditional program. Mills is a pretty special place for that. And I had never considered doing a doctoral program. I had never even thought about it. But then, when I was at Mills, that was something people were talking about. I didn’t even realize it was an option. Then, I started to learn more about the DIY computer music history in the Bay Area. I learned about CCRMA [Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics] which is here in Palo Alto. It’s like a rabbit hole—you uncover one thing, then you uncover the next thing.

JM: It seems that the more you dig into the music composition, sound art world, everything seems to be under the cover of darkness. The more you dig, it’s incredible what’s revealed. I’ve been having chats with a few people of late, and I find it incredible. The support group, the size of this scene—it is really not exposed in a big way. It’s a massive undercurrent, internationally, which I’ve only learned about in the last few months.

HH: As part of my program, we teach. I was able to introduce new curriculum, which is awesome. So I’m able to teach my own class—the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music Post-1980. A lot of programs stop their pedagogy, the repertoire they cover in the 70s. The 60s and 70s was the heyday of electronic music, and no one wants to talk about the digital 80s. This musicologist PhD student and I designed this program together. Even though it doesn’t sound like a lot of time--1980-2015—it’s so hard to cover everything we care about. It was this huge timespan; we keep running out of time in all of our lectures. That’s the wonderful thing about music—you can always be learning about something new.   

JM: Now, maybe, more so than ever. It’s endless, the amount of music that’s being created and released. It’s impossible to keep up.

HH: It is impossible. But that’s one of the purposes of the class. It’s not about learning the history, necessarily. The history is important, but it’s not about having a photographic memory. It’s more about having the skills to be able to make an aesthetic judgment on something—why you like something, or why you don’t like something.

JM: That’s a very good point.

HH: When something is released after the students have come out of the class, I want them to be able to listen to it and make up their own minds. I want them to be able to argue why they think it is or is not good, to know its history.

JM: On a completely different note, can you tell me about your time learning with Fred Frith? I’m a fan of his work.

HH: Oh, that seems like ages ago! Fred is an awesome composition teacher. Stylistically, we’re very different. There are some composition professors who impose their sound on you. And then there are those really great ones who don’t impose their sound or even their aesthetic on you. Instead, they try to give you the tools to be able to better shape your own work, or think about your work in different ways. He was one of those in the latter category.

JM: I dare say there are some parallels between your work and his. Despite his being more acoustic-based, I can see parallels.

HH: Just the whole improv thing—that’s a huge deal at Mills. They have a program for improvisation. I wasn’t in that program, but it’s so small that people from different programs are all together. People were improvising all over the place. I was in his improvisation ensemble when I was there. I don’t improvise in the same way—I don’t do free improv now. But having that experience definitely has impacted my studio and performance practices.

JM: I’m curious how that affects your composition, too. Being from an academic background, your job is to dissect and intellectualize your work. Where do you draw the line between the cerebral and the visceral? Is there an element of chance in your compositions? I was speaking with Jonathan Bepler about this; improvisation is a huge part of his composition. How does that come into play when you’re dealing with things like computers and software?

HH: I think it depends on for whom I’m writing. If I’m writing for myself, a lot of it comes out of studio improvisation, setting up the system and then improvising with it. If I’m writing for someone else, I make a conscious decision on how much freedom I want the player to have within the composition. I wrote a soprano solo last year, and I gave her, basically, chords and rhythms to play with. But I gave her great flexibility as to how she wanted to order the. It totally depends on for whom I’m writing, what the point of the piece is, what the performer/composer dynamic is.

JM: But did you find—in the case of writing this record—that there were moments of chance and improvisation? 

HH: Of course! That’s what noodling around in the studio is, eventually. Its not always, and then I’m going to do this. It’s like, this part works, I’m going to try out this thing and see what it sounds like next to it or on top of it. That’s improvising, too. A lot of it is setting up a vocal or percussion system, letting it run, playing within it, and then picking out the good parts. A lot of the percussion parts are written that way.

JM: When you’re creating these on the laptop, in a fairly academic realm, you’re really blurring the lines between the worlds of academia, club music, electronic music, and pop music. What is the pull-push relationship there? Is there much thought that goes into it? Or is it a natural inclination to tie all of these worlds together?

HH: I think it’s something that I have been wanting to do for a long time but didn’t know how. I felt like that was a burden that I was placing on myself—and maybe the academy was, lightly, but not overtly. You can hear that in Movement. It’s almost like each track is in a different genre. It’s contained—this track is like this, this track is like that. That was still my brain separating things. I don’t want to feel like I want to do something for one context and something different for another context. But I feel like that’s imposed on me sometimes, too, because I can work in different scenarios. I’ve had festival organizers ask me to play their festival but not play any beats. That was really strange—why is there this divide? Especially when it’s considered a divide between a low-brow and high-brow thing. The album definitely has tracks that clearly belong somewhere. If you needed to categorize the tracks, they would clearly be in a different category than other tracks. But I think I’m getting better at blending all of my interests more seamlessly.

Click here to download Platform in multiple formats. Holly Herndon will also be making a number of appearances, including Mississippi Studios in Portland, Oregon on July 30 (buy tickets here). Visit her website for more tour dates.  Interview by Joe McKee. Intro text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram for updates: @AUTREMAGAZINE