Holly Herndon has a thing about computers, technology and surveillance; she’s built two albums out if it, employing a programming language to create her own customised instruments and vocal procedures. Living in the paranoid U.S. today you can hardly escape these matters and the entire performance tonight has something of 1984 about it as she puts up a message on her two screens advising the audience to “leave Facebook, it ruins everything”.
Later, she dedicates a song to recently released WikiLeaker Chelsea (previously Bradley) Manning. If we had any doubt where her political sensibilities lie we don’t now though to her credit she avoids any mention of her President.
Following an absorbing DJ set from the curator of the eight Dark Matter shows at the Manchester International Festival – of which this was the first – Radio 6 Music’s Mary Anne Hobbs, Holly Herndon takes to the stage with her two-person ‘band’ to the backdrop of a circle, five-sixths ribbon-lit around its perimeter, like the Baily’s Beads phenomenon of a solar eclipse in reverse.
For a moment it reminds me of 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and not for the only time during the evening. It must mean something, along with the detailed graphics on the small screens that accompany all of her songs, though it’s anybody’s guess as to exactly what.
She fiddles around for a good few minutes before the set gets under way, plugging in various wires and firing up her laptop with disjointed and backspaced screen messages praising first Mary Anne Hobbs and then the festival’s opening musical performance (“WTF! New Order last night!”).
When it actually starts it is to a background of what sounds like astronauts and mission control exchanging status updates and that sets the scene for her performance. Unlike any artist I have ever seen, her distinctive voice is the chief input, channelled through the laptop with her cohorts adding theirs frequently and generating on one occasion what I can best describe as a coordinated screaming competition.
Holly Herndon is essentially an academic. Right now she is studying for a PhD in composition at California’s Stanford University, one of the world’s most prestigious. She has access to facilities that most electronic music experimentalists would give their right arm for but at the same time, she’ll incorporate samples she finds on YouTube and even Skype. If academia was all she could offer, live shows like this would fall flat. It is a testimony to her genius that out of all this science she can work up a head of steam, generate even a little melody here and there and, yes, she can get people dancing.
Moreover, while there is something disquieting about her music it is equally both sensual and peaceful. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was hoping she’d play Lonely at the Top, from her most recent album, Platform. Not exactly music per se, it is a softly spoken, downright sexy piece in which she convinces you, the listener, that you are the daddy, while delivering a massage. It is intended to trigger Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, the tingle you get from the base of your skull down your back while listening to a great piece of music for example. Call it ‘head orgasm.’
I’m not sure how or even if it could be replicated on stage but it would have been something to behold.
Meanwhile, the Terry Gilliam-esque graphics continue to dance in the background as an all-seeing drone flies around peoples’ workspaces, living rooms and bedrooms before heading off into 2001’s passing-through the-monolith territory, then morphing into a moving Picasso painting. It’s an aural and visual feast.
It’s a tough call comparing Holly Herndon to anyone. Conventional wisdom has the likes of Aphex Twin and Ellen Allien but she’s operating at a different level altogether. The connection I couldn’t get away from was Jean Michel Jarre and not only because he has espoused the cause of ex National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, as she has with Chelsea Manning. While the way in which they perform their electronic concoctions may be at odds they are both at the top of their game.
The other one is Julia Holter, who I had the pleasure of watching in this same venue last year and whose music is rather more conventional. In her case, another learned Californian, she’s the only writer/composer who can match Herndon in the ‘WTF is she talking about?’ category and both continue to push back the boundaries in their respective genres.
The show ends with yet another on-screen message, this one commending Manchester for how it handled bad things recently (“you’d never know”) before what is almost a gentle ballad by her standards plays out the set with the screens left blank. As the performers depart you realise that for all the plethora of vocal sound effects she actually spoke only two words all evening: ‘thank you’.