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Seeing Holly Herndon perform is a multisensory labyrinth

Holly HerndonBy Alfonso Solis //

Holly Herndon //
The LAB – San Francisco
March 1st, 2015 //

It seems only fitting that Holly Herndon would bring her computerized abstraction of sounds to The LAB in SF, a space where she could freely experiment with her distorted, disembodied voice against a minced background of chaotic percussion and garbled samples without the necessary expectation of moving the crowd in the conventional sense.

Those familiar with Herndon’s work will know her music is more academic than pop, full of theory rather than infectious with melody, which isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable, but its appreciation comes from a different angle than say Caribou, who played his lush, dreamy dance-pop also on Sunday to round out Noise Pop 2015. Perhaps this was intentional on behalf of the organizers, to highlight the noise and pop spectrum of their festival at its most extreme. Caribou’s two-night sold out show can attest to the power of pop, but the small, intimate crowd willing to submit to Herndon’s dense, often difficult noise was taken on a strange and dark journey.

Holly Herndon

What is most striking initially about Herndon’s show was how well her audio experiments translated into a visual experience. With a projector behind her connected to a laptop, Herndon introduced herself by writing down some text on her computer. Right when it seemed that she was about to close the laptop and begin playing, she did what all of us do, logging on to Facebook and ingesting the endless amount of personal information that comes with it. She explored her news feed, humorously joining the show’s Facebook event page and then browsing endlessly through friends’ pages and photos.

Long after the joke was over though, Herndon continued further, navigating an endless labyrinth of profiles, uncomfortably looking at the information of friends of friends and trying to request their friendship. Where was she going? Who were these people? Should she be stalking and adding them?

Holly Herndon

People laughed nervously as a slow burn of glitch sounds began to emerge, and before you knew it, her browsing gave way to an interactive, virtual world featuring two-dimensional cutouts of people floating about while strategically-placed cameras around the room recorded and projected images of the crowd, usually catching them unexpectedly on their phones, on two adjacent screens.

Electronic artists have always explored humanity’s uncomfortable relationship with technology, but Herndon’s meta-commentary updated the formula to focus on our socially-networked existence and our vulnerability to web-based privacy violations. It’s a multimedia presentation that worked brilliantly in tandem with her music, which in and of itself has the ADHD feeling of browsing the Internet. Never content in one place, Herndon seamlessly shapes her music from glitch techno to bass-heavy ambiance to abstract delights — sounds supposedly culled from her daily web-browsing experience. Her samples are distorted to an extreme degree, almost to the point of agitation, but it’s fascinating to see how she scrambles the audio. The information is still there but beyond recognition.

Holly Herndon

Electronic music can often come across as disengaging, with the perception being that the music is planned out in ones and zeroes, but Herndon injects a level of chance and spontaneity into her performance that few other electronic artists accomplish. Singing into her microphone, her voice is immediately processed, chopped and distorted. Spontaneous moments like drinking water or laughter from her and the audience became instantly a part of her repertoire of sounds as they were manipulated into the rhythms of her music.

Herndon’s show can come across as more conceptual than actually enjoyable, her music’s database of discombobulated sounds of the Internet and her voice seeming to be a commentary on our social dependence of technology and the alienation that follows. Indeed, the show’s one-hour length left more to be desired, but Herndon finds a nice balance between electronic experimentation and accessibility. Just as the cacophonous combination of agitated percussion, glitch samples and voice manipulation would seem overwhelming, her music would give way to more recognizable, danceable songs such as “Chorus” or “Movement.” Such are Herndon’s shows, challenging and demanding but filled with gorgeous checkpoints to gather oneself and simply move to the music.

Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon

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