A whole lot of theory went into Holly Herndon’s excellent new album Platform, which is out today. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who are familiar with her earlier work — Herndon is one of the most cerebral musicians you’ll ever come across. She holds an MFA in music, and is known for her fascinating experiments with both production and composition.
Theory in music is a tricky business, though. For the last 50 years or so, our musical culture has been dominated by the idea that pure self-expression comes through instinct and inspiration, rather than formal study. This notion isn’t peculiar to music — you can see the shift away from the importance of technical skill toward emotional impressionism in visual art, too, and to some extent in the rise of mumblecore films and determinedly DIY indie video games. But it’s in music that it’s most pronounced. The dominant idea has been Harlan Howard’s famous claim that all a great song needs is “three chords and the truth,” with anything further than that being at best unnecessary and at worst regarded with active suspicion.
In this climate, music heavily grounded in theory has tended to gravitate toward electronic sounds. This makes sense — the earliest electronic music was created in university environments, and composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis couched their experiments in electronic sounds in academic terminology and ideas. Even as electronic music has gone mainstream, it’s remained the medium of choice for artists whose work relies heavily on ideas more abstract than direct — Aphex Twin springs to mind immediately, along fellow “IDM” artists like Autechre and Squarepusher, but also artists from throughout the history of the genre, from Kraftwerk to Kode9.
The criticism of those artists — and, to varying extents, of electronic music in general — is that their work sounds somehow inherently cold, something that’s often contrasted to the perceived “warmth” of acoustic music. The same criticisms are often leveled at music recorded and/or released in digital formats, as opposed to old-school analogue methods. Whether you buy into this is really a matter of perception — some people find great warmth and meaning in electronic music, and others swear by using 1960s recording desks and releasing music on vinyl.
But there’s a deeper philosophical point here, when you think about it: if music is about the evocation of emotion, then electronic music involves trying to render and portray human emotion and experience via the medium of machines. This is clearly a point that’s occurred to Herndon. In interviews about this record, she’s spoken about the ambivalence she feels toward her laptop — it’s both the instrument she uses to make her music (in the past, she’s called it “the most personal instrument the world has ever known”), but also a mass-produced machine that can be used, passively or actively, as a tool of repression.
Her last album, Movement, also leaned on this idea, although its sounds were more geared toward exploring how electronic music (and, specifically, dance music) have been the engine of some of the most deeply physical experiences humans can have. This record is also about human experience, but moreso the experience of being in front of a computer, of using that computer to interact with the world, and thus having your experience of the world defined — to some extent — by the computer. In this respect, it’s similar to a couple of excellent records from last year, namely EMA’s The Future’s Void and St. Vincent’s St. Vincent, both of which examined the nature of surveillance culture and the experience of being a woman on the Internet.
Platform explores similar ideas, but in a markedly different way — on this record, the sounds of the online experience are woven into the fabric of the music, using a technique that Herndon’s been calling “net concrète” (a nod to musique concrète). It’s also important to note that Platform isn’t necessarily a critique of our digital realm — in this interview with Milk Made, she explains how digital culture only adds to human interaction:
“New technologies and social paradigms create new forms of intimacy, new emotional responses… And to me, these new forms of communication need the artwork to express them. It would be oversimplification to say that the Internet is making us less connected, it just changes the way to express that; it doesn’t take anything away. Technology is extension of ourselves and society and human knowledge and human intellect, and there’s two sides that come with that, you know? You have the atom bomb one hand, and the penicillin vaccine in the other. Great things and horrible things will come about, and that’s humanity. And that’s so beautiful and amazing.”
Herndon’s singular achievement is to find a way of expressing these ideas that both allows her to examine their very nature — as inherently digital and machine-mediated — and also gets at the nature of the humanity that lies beneath them. Platform is like the moment in Terminator 2 when Arnold Schwarzenegger pulls back his skin to reveal the robot within, but in reverse — instead, it’s like finding a beating human heart at the core of some wondrous machine.