INTERVJU: Holly Herndon

Mint ställde några frågor till det elektroniska fenomenet Holly Herndon inför kommande Way Out West-spelning.

Hi, Holly!
I know you’ve been to Sweden before; do you like it and what do you think about the electronical scene here?

Hey! I really love Sweden, I find myself there very often for interesting projects and festivals and always have an amazing time. I was recently performing at the incredible Norberg Festival (everyone should go) , and in a discussion with the guy driving us to the festival we made an interesting observation, that actually Sweden shares a kinship with California in a sense, if only for the fact that generally people seem really enthusiastic and proactive about making interesting things happen. I’ve seen this from a few perspectives, as I have also done some work with a Swedish design company Semcon, thinking about the future of electronic vehicles, and they approached the concepts with a similar openness and enthusiasm that I have experienced working with smart people on the West Coast. This also bleeds into the music somehow, I feel – the aspects of Swedish electronic music I am familiar with feel very open and experimental, and also unafraid to bring big concepts to a pop platform – people like The Knife, for example, have been really uncompromising with their sounds and ethics, and see no conflict in creating experimental work that is also approachable.

I’ve also had some experience of the legendary EMS studio in Stockholm, who again remind me quite a lot of the approach to experimentalism in California – they get incredibly serious work done however the amazing facility itself feels very social and friendly. Smart people don’t need to be stuffy. There is also a great legacy of music technology in Sweden, most recently thinking about companies like Teenage Engineering, Soundcloud and Spotify – all of which manage to be highly interesting and yet still very open and contemporary. I’m of course only mentioning major names here, but I do think that is indicative of my experience of the culture at large. Hopefully I keep getting invited to come back and contribute 🙂

I am very interested in where you find your inspiration; does it come from other musicians, how they use different techniques, their ways of creating different sounds, or do you come up with ideas from ”out of the blue” and then create them (or vice versa – that you come up with ideas as you work)?

I think it’s dangerous to suggest that my ideas come ”out of the blue”, as although I don’t really study individual artists practices as a source of ideas, I do firmly believe that most ideas come out of an ether, or zeitgeist, and in a sense it is just a matter of being open and perceptive to what needs to logically happen next, and obviously have the ability or conviction to make something interesting happen in that direction.

A lot of my most recent work has been transparently influenced by the internet as a medium, using patches designed to track my online browsing habits, and literally capture the new continuity and emotional pacing of our daily experiences. I am really interested in this idea of finding new modes of expression, emotion and fantasy, and the palette of our online lives is hugely influential in attempting to unlock that. My writing process is always the same, I attempt to create a palette with an idea in mind, or sometimes an uncanny feeling or observation, and then repurpose that palette to try and construct something that illustrates the initial idea.

It is a very laborious process, as I really push myself to change my tools and palette for each piece, and I’m also quite adamant that the song structures emerge from the palette and idea, and not the other way around – I have never written a song with a structure in mind from the beginning, and honestly feel like I’d be quite bad at doing that if I tried. It’s part of the reason I rarely do remixes, as I can’t just ”dial something in”, and ultimately it takes me the same amount of time to remix something as it would to create something new.

I am also lucky to be surrounded by so many artists and engineers who are pursuing their curiosity, and so there is always this ambient learning environment around me. There are so many informed and talented artists, engineers and thinkers operating today, it’s incredibly optimistic.


Speaking about inspiration, I love it when people tip me off about music, movies and/or literature! Do you have any favorites that you want to share with me?

I’m actually terrible at recommending things, so I guess I can take the easy route and just point to many of those artists I mentioned before. Check out the PAN label, Laurel Halo, Mat Dryhurst, Brian Rogers, M.E.S.H, TCF, Amnesia Scanner, Claire Tolan, Alexis Blair Penney, Colin Self and the Chez Deep crew – there are too many to mention. Read Metahaven, Ben Bratton, Benedict Singleton, Erik Davis and of course Reza Negarestani.

Can you tell me more about you collaboration with Reza Negarestani? How did it take form?

We’ve actually worked together twice now. The first time was a collaboration between us and Mat Dryhurst – they had been communicating over email for a long time around 2009/10 and I had become obsessed with ”Cyclonopedia” – just this core idea of oil as an insurgent intelligence controlling us from beneath the earth, it was such powerful imagery and such a welcome departure from the dry and didactic theory I was used to reading.

I was approached to do a piece for a festival in San Francisco, centered around Timothy Morton’s idea of ”Dark Ecology” – or basically a dangerous dualism that has been created between ourselves and the earth, that serves neither for the better. I thought it would be interesting to work with Reza on conceptualizing a performance, and he was such a pleasure to work with. We ended up performing a piece intended to make the audience intimately aware of the objects and absurd protocols around them, climaxing with a false ending that I am still slightly amazed worked as well as it did. As I bowed and the audience applauded, we recorded their applause, and then played it back, effected, to end the composition. People were unsure whether or not to applaud the second time, and I think that it was quite successful in destabilizing the familiar concert experience, and making people hyper aware of their immediate environment as something that might change, not go exactly to plan, or perhaps even work against their favor.

We also collaborated recently on a piece with Ensemble Dal Niente, where Reza wrote a gorgeous libretto entitled ”Crossing The Interface” for a piece involving networked remote soprano voices and movements in eight channels. I’m hoping that will find a release sometime this year, as I am incredibly proud of how well it came together.

Reza has emerged as one of the most brilliant minds in contemporary art and philosophy, and I am really honored to work with him, and really hope to continue doing so. For such an analytical mind, he is also a lot of fun to work with.

I read in an interview you did in 2012 that you thought the European way of making music was more old school than the American/Californian way. I really agree that it sometimes seems that we are not considered ”real” or ”authentic” musicians when we choose to express ourself without the ”classical” instruments e.g. guitars, drums and/or pianos. Do you think there has been any change in the way we view creativity since then?

In that article I was more explicitly speaking to the academic tradition, where I believe that California is quite distinct, with schools like Mills, Stanford, Cal Arts and UC San Diego, at producing and facilitating academic work that embraces new technologies and interdisciplinary practices and methods, and deviates somewhat from the conservatory model which has dominated academic music for the longest time, and is still quite popular in the East Coast of the US and Europe.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule, Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris as a huge example, but generally I see those Californian institutions as an incredibly positive force in advocating for non traditional instrumentation – I remember it being so liberating to study under professors like John Bischoff at Mills who has spent decades pursuing a practice as an unapologetic computer musician.

There is, of course, usually huge latency between the academy and music writ large, however I look at those institutions and really feel that they were and are still on the right side of history with regard to music and the public, as now it would be pretty hard to ignore the ubiquity of digital production in contemporary music – yet some persist, or treat this shift dismissively. As with my stance on being a laptop musician, I would never try to delegitimize the creation of music with traditional instruments or practices, as in some regards you can accomplish inimitable results through such methods, however I rarely see anyone from the electronic music landscape attempting to do that, it usually comes from the other side, and that warrants a strong defense. 

There is no right way to produce music, however there are new ways to produce music, and I think it is particularly interesting in the case of the laptop, where your instrument is also mediating your professional and personal life, particularly in light of things like the ongoing NSA revelations. Are we to assume that everything produced on a networked instrument is essentially a public performance? This is just one question that I’m curious to explore, and would have a hard time exploring it as fully with a guitar or a piano. Just as it would seem like a curious decision to make techno with a ukulele – the medium itself is highly integral and relevant to the exploration. As far as my practice and curiosity goes, these tools and the new possibilities and shared spaces they create are absolutely essential.



Holly Herndon spelar på GöteborgsOperan, Lilla scenen, på lördag klockan 01.45.


Fotografi: Press / Suzy Poling