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Holly Herndon: Stanford’s newest ingenue muses on “Movement”

Courtesy of Holly Herndon

If you’re tired of the electronic music scene at Stanford, try stepping up from the romaine that is brostep and progressive house to the kale that is Holly Herndon’s new album “Movement.”

Herndon, a Ph.D student in electronic music here at Stanford, has spent the last five years in the Berlin music scene. Originally from Tennessee, the fire-haired experimentalist honed the academic side of her musical talents by earning an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College, an impressive program that has produced such musical greats as Steve Reich and Joanna Newsom.

“Movement,” which has earned Herndon coverage in NPR and Pitchfork, sits at the intersection of her avant-garde academic work and the pulsing house beats popular in Berlin clubs, creating something completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

Intermission: You seem to have taken a rather odd track, going from Tennessee to the Bay Area doing electronic music production. How did you find and follow your passion?

HH: Well, that wasn’t a direct path; that was via Berlin for five years. That was kind of a defining moment in life. I felt like I kind of became an adult there, so it came to define my aesthetics and a lot of my interests. At the end of those five years, I was trying to decide between Mills College and Universität der Künste in Berlin. UdK’s sound program was brand new and I spoke to a lot of students and they said they felt like guinea pigs, so I started looking at other schools and a friend recommended the Mills program. I actually had no intentions of leaving Berlin, but I just found this program and it seemed like a really good fit.

INT: How did you get into the club scene in Berlin from Tennessee, because that seems like a large jump?

HH: I was an exchange student in high school, so that was probably the big thing. I spoke German in high school, lived with a family in Berlin, fell in love with a German club kid and I guess the rest is history.

INT: How did you choose to come to Stanford after Mills instead of going into the industry, and how did you choose Stanford over some place else?

HH: After Miils, I worked for the Children’s Creativity Museum in downtown San Francisco and that was an amazing experience. I started an artist-in-residency program there, I was able to develop all sorts of new exhibits, deal with budgets I had never dealt with before, but it was such a departure from music in a way and you have to pay your bills somehow. I’ve always kind of been on a professional track as well by working at the music supervising company, so I have a lot of project management experience which has helped me out in my music career. Why did I come to Stanford? I really like the idea of being able to work on music all the time and not have to divide my time between something that pays my bills and something that’s my passion. The access to resources here, the Stanford “brain trust”, the crazy equipment they have at CCRMA are amazing! I wouldn’t have access to these kinds of things if I were just an artist that were touring all the time. I wanted a technical bootcamp with engineers that would be kicking my butt and forcing me to improve.

INT: So, your album out today (Nov. 13), “Movement,” not a New Order reference, right?

HH: [laughs] No, sorry.

INT: Sorry, had to ask. I really enjoy this album. It was really genre-bending in a way. It starts out with this weird, spacey, Kraut rock-y or musique concretè vibe and then sort of transitions to more of a four on the floor microhouse beat and transitions back again later. What was your inspiration for this album? What sort of artists or genres were you listening to?

HH: Well, I would say my iTunes library is pretty diverse. I listen to new music, dance music, etc., and that’s always playing in our house. For me, that’s just normal to jump from genre to genre. I wasn’t thinking “I want to make this genre piece” or “I want to make this genre piece”. It’s just kind of the soundtrack to contemporary life. I think most people are doing this though. They’re clicking around on YouTube or other things on their computer, and things are coming from different directions, so they’re not always just one pace. I think it’s fine to do albums this way. This one was about bringing all my interests together in one place and not apologizing about any of them because I think I’ve done some of that in the past. People will ask me to play a noise set and I’ll play my noise material, or I’ll be asked to play in a concert hall and I’ll play some of my new material, so this album is about just putting it all out there. It’s a little awkward in the live set where I’ll get you a dance mood and then have to stop it, but people have been really responsive to the material so far.

INT: I actually wanted to ask you about that. I’ve seen some videos of you performing live and it looks like you do a lot of your vocal samples on the spot. Some of this material seems like it would be difficult to replicate live. Have you given thought to how you’re going to perform these live?

HH: Actually, almost everything on the album was “workshopped” in a live environment. I’ll write a sketch and then perform it then I’ll take feedback from that performance and craft that into a track. Very rarely will I write something and then figure out how to perform it live.

INT: What kinds of tools and programs do you use? Anything custom?

HH: I use Max/MSP. Some of my own stuff. I make my own patches, hack together patches. I use Abelton as the overall environment. I use a little bit of hardware for some things, but I’m not a hardware fetishist in any way.

INT: On your album, you have a tendency to use a lot of vocal samples, but there weren’t any discernible lyrics from what I could hear. What was your idea behind that?

HH: I don’t think that was a conscious choice that I made. It’s funny, I heard someone ask if I’m insecure about my lyrics or if I’m hiding behind them. Maybe that’s true. I don’t know. For me, this album was about vocal processing and vocal manipulation and removing prose from the center shifted focus toward sound and texture and voice. You don’t have your synthesizer talking to you or telling you something. So, I kind of wanted it to be more like an instrument in that way. But of course, you still need phonemes or something to work with, so I would usually just record myself saying nonsense, catch my sound at particular points and edit to make something that made sense in English. But sometimes I wouldn’t.

INT: On this same note, there seems to be a lot of breathing sampling. Was this a conscious choice, or is this just something that came out of the creative process?

HH: Yeah, it was a conscious choice. I didn’t just accidentally breathe in to the mic! With Breathe, the idea was how I could take a really simple input and kind of stretch it or digitally manipulate it into a larger sonic world. It’s also this idea of having a relationship with your computer. Sort of a personal, intimate thing where you’re breathing into the computer and it’s breathing out at you with this digital splatter.

INT: What about the intro to Terminal? Isn’t that breathing?

HH: That’s actually synthesized. That’s funny, I don’t think anyone has made that comparison before. You know, I was playing at a club in Berlin and it was a really bad fit. Carter Holzig, it’s kind of touristy place. It wasn’t the right evening for me to be there and there were these tourists there who, when I started playing that, said something like “I think the air conditioner is broken!” [laughs] I thought that was hilarious.

INT: Have you played at that really notorious club? Berg something?

HH: Berghain? Yeah, I’m playing there in January. They have an amazing sound system.

INT: It seems like everyone can’t resist comparing you to Andy Stott, or at least bringing you into the same sphere as Andy Stott. I was kind of surprised by this, because you guys are both definitely doing some experimental stuff — you both played at Public Works last month — but I wouldn’t say you sound that similar. How do you feel about that?

HH: He uses vocal samples. That’s pretty much it. He uses a really broad frequency spectrum. I could maybe see some similarities. I really like his music, but there’s not that many people doing vocal manipulation in dance environments, so I think people are grappling to find analogs. There could be worse comparisons.

INT: Who would you most like to work with or collaborate with in the future?

HH: Oh, that’s hard. I’m working on a collaboration right now with Hieroglyphic Being. He’s out of Chicago. I’m trying to work with this woman also out of Chicago named Jlin. I would really like to work with Mika Vainio someday, and that might happen. He does really beautiful, super hi-fi, super minimal, super rhythmic compositions. He’s amazing. One of my favorite artists ever.

INT: In the past, you’ve done mostly live performances and installations, but now that your album is going out to anyone who wants to listen to it, have you given any thought to how to balance both your more experimental work and your more accessible work on the album or how people’s different listening environments might affect the album?

HH: I don’t think you can morph your album to how people are going to perceive it. I released a cassette last year called CAR that was specifically meant to be listened to in a car, but this EP is not meant for one location and I realize that people will listen to it on their laptop speakers, or on a huge system. You have to consider all of those things when you’re mixing and mastering, because you don’t want to be super exclusive. That’s one issue with all of the wonderful multichannel equipment we have at CCRMA. I can make a 24-channel piece that no one can hear unless they’re hear in this room. As far as translating it into a live environment, I’ve been really surprised by how receptive people are to shifting gears. I’ve tried to cater to audiences in the past. I was asked to play a techno gig this summer and I thought “Alright, I need a four-to-the-floor techno beat the whole time” and it was awful! I wasn’t being true to the material and I wasn’t being true to myself. I was just trying to squeeze myself into this weird techno box. I think audiences are really open to having these kinds of experiences. I’m hoping people will be familiar with my work when they come to my show.

INT: Some other articles portray you as a vocal proponent of laptop-driven music. Do you think you miss anything without a hardware or analog component?

HH: I don’t think that laptop alone has to be the future, just as we still have baroque instruments and baroque ensembles, but I do think that the laptop is the most capable instrument we have right now. I was listening to a talk at CCRMA the other day by John Chowning and he said in the 70s, he wrote this piece (Stria) and he was shifting around the parcels to create these new tamors that had never been heard before and he said that at some moment he realized that the computer as an instrument was the future. It was really powerful to hear the guy who discovered digital FM synthesis say that. I just think computers are more capable than anything else we have access to. I’m not an absolutist. You don’t have to shit on drum machines, but I would just prefer to develop laptops. I actually use an 808 on one of the tracks.

INT: I was going to say it sounded like you were using an 808 on Fade, but that wasn’t synthesized?

HH: No, we actually had an 808 in the studio. Drum synthesis is still something that needs some work. I don’t think that laptop performance has been fully figured out, but I don’t want to pretend like it’s not happening or hide my computer. I want to just deal with it and figure out what issues we’re all facing.

INT: As far as trends in the industry go, it seems like there’s a democratization of electronic music right now where kids can just download a copy of FL Studio or Abelton, plug in the presets, and be making their own house music in a week. On one hand, it’s cool that everyone’s trying their hand at trying to make music of some sort, but on the other it’s increasing the noise level in the industry and potentially drowning out skilled artists. How do you feel about this?

HH: I think it’s awesome. There was a time before recording when everyone was making music by themselves and it was just done of the pure joy of making music, and if we are moving back towards that, that’s great. I think because more people are making music, music will get better. Of course there’s going to be a lot to shift through, but I don’t think the overall quality of music will go down. Ge Wang, one of the professors at CCRMA, is the founder of Smool. One of their main things is getting people to play music collaboratively over networks and I think that’s really interesting and positive. Why not create a new paradigm where people are involved with the music they consume? [laughs] I don’t feel threatened, if that’s what you mean.

INT: As far your future goes, do you plan on staying academia with this sort of community, or do you think you’re going to go into the industry or tour?

HH: That’s a really tough question and I don’t have the answer right now. I just started and it’s a five year program. I just want to spend the next five years writing as much music as possible and researching and making cool things. I don’t even know what all the options are yet, but I’ve never had an issue finding a job or making my skills applicable to other fields.