Holly Herndon

The Queen of Electronic Chance


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American electro pioneer Holly Herndon has her own unique way of making music. Her computer is her instrument, her songs are sampled collages of sound. With her new album “platform,” she has become one of the most successful electro musicians of the year.

  • Author: Simon E. Fuchs
  • Photos: Bennet Perez
„I want my show to be wilder – it's perfectly fine for things to go wrong.“

Holly Herndon, you just arrived in Berlin. You were a teenager the first time you visited the city. Later, you worked here for a few years. How did Berlin influence you and your music? I heard house music for the first time here. That had an incredible influence on me. I was 16 at the time, had come from Tennessee and was staying with a guest family as part of a student exchange program. After that, it was clear to me that I wanted to return to Berlin and dive even deeper into the music scene. Of course there was electronic music in many European countries, but the scene was far more developed in Berlin. Here, I discovered how diverse electronic music can be. And how this diversity can be expressed in a musical performance.

You use your computer as an instrument. What’s the attraction? I’m drawn to the unplanned. My songs are created through happy accidents. For my song “Chorus,” I developed a program together with my partner Mat Dryhurst that we call the “net-concrete system.” The program converts the browser data compiled when I surf the web into sounds. It’s a genius way of generating music material. A good deal of my work is based on digital art and culture. That’s why I think it is important to use new and self-made digital devices myself. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to talk about it in my music.

You fiddle around quite a bit on your own with programs and devices. How do you work with conventional music programs? I used anything I can get my hands on. But I prefer to use things I’ve made myself. That gives me maximum freedom. Now and then, I also arrange parts of my music using programs like Ableton or Native Instruments. But these programs are very restricting in how things can sound. With some songs by other artists these days, you can actually hear that it has been produced with Ableton. It seems there's something of an Ableton trend at the moment. I think that every great artist should also be an inventor.

Your songs are often created with sound samples. But there’s one thing that is almost never entirely a computer product – the voice. Why? My voice was there first, before the electronic music. I used to sing in a choir. So I wanted to unite these two worlds -- the electronic and human -- in a way that makes sense. I want my songs to reach people in an emotional way, and that works best with the human voice.

„The internet is neither good or bad.“

You will be touring Europe over the next several months. What’s important to you when you play your songs live? When I tour, I try to mix myself. Nothing should sound the way it does on my albums. There’s a whole other narrative and dramatic quality when you play live than when you record songs in the studio. People should be able to see how a song builds up and how it is created in their presence. Mat Dryhurst often joins me on stage and adds visual elements to the performance. My concerts feel like a game to me. Almost nothing is planned. With other electronic concerts, everything is usually perfectly coordinated. The lasers go out at precisely the moment the base drum gets kicked. That can be great. But I want my show to be wilder – it’s perfectly fine for things to go wrong.

Your concerts feel more like a performance. What role does the audience play? The idea is to involve the audience into the performance. To do that, we show Mat’s computer screen. He goes through the profiles of audience members who have liked the concert event page and shows their public discussions. We’re not trying to make fools of people. It’s more a public service message to warn them that personal privacy on the Internet is such an important issue. It’s something you can’t neglect. We work a lot with text during the concerts. Concert-goers can write to us and we'll answer them directly on the projection screen. That allows us to maintain contact with the audience during the show.

Some argue that people are becoming more alienated from each other as a result of digital communication. What do you think? That’s a complicated discussion. I think that the Internet is neither good nor bad. You can’t look at things in a black and white way. It may be true in some cases that digital communication is damaging to human relationships. At the same time, other very beautiful things are created through the Internet. I think it’s wonderful than an ASMR community has come together. These people have come closer together through YouTube videos and are helping each other. I think it’s very sweet. That’s why I wrote a song about it on my album.

On your new album “platform,” you collaborate with many artists, like the design studio Metahaven, Amnesia Scanner’s producers and Mat Dryhurst. Why did you decide to work together with them? It’s just more fun working with a team. (She laughs.) But I also wanted to counter the image of the artist standing on top of the mountain alone. You never make music alone, even if pop icons like Beyoncé create that impression. You never see who has worked on their albums. I don’t want to try to compare myself with Beyoncé. I just wanted to do things differently. I wanted to cast the spotlight on the people I worked with on the album. That was the idea behind “platform.” I asked myself how I could give the album greater meaning. I decided to promote the people who have great ideas and address important issues.

There are very few women making electronic music. Björk once said in an interview, “It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.” What’s your feeling as an artist? The scene is very male-dominated, that is true. Many people simply doubt that a woman can do a lot on her own. That’s why it was important to me that I start a solo project with my first album in which I do as much as possible on my own. It was an important step before now working more intensely with other artists. Today, there are women who lead countries, women who lead companies. And then people don't think I can put together a drum beat. I think that’s pretty insane.

You studied electronic music at California’s legendary Mills College and you completed a doctorate in composition and “computer based music theory and acoustics” at Stanford. Why did you want to go to college? It was a very natural step. I needed this time to find my own voice. Earlier, I had worked full time and done music on the side. Still, I got to the point where I either had to quit the job or stop composing. I was very happy when I got accepted and also received a scholarship to study at Stanford. It gave me so much – financial security and musical input. My program was very experimental and relaxed. Perhaps that’s the California way of studying. It helped me a lot.

You lived for a long time in Northern California. What did you like most about the area? One word describes the place very well: Optimism. The people are very open and many are happy to share their knowledge. A community has formed there that produces good videos, others are acknowledged computer specialists, and some create experimental music. The whole scene there is small and many people know each other. I met so many people there.

How do you see your future in Berlin developing? I plan to live in Berlin until December. In recent years, many digital activists have moved here. Americans who have chosen Berlin for their exile and have found a safe haven here. I also think the electronic music scene is still very exciting. I’ve only been back here since yesterday. Tomorrow I will have to take care of all the bureaucracy. I’ll go to the local registration office as well as the immigration authority. But it’s worth it. I’m happy to be back in Berlin.