Laptops and the art of playing live
American computer composer Holly Herndon talks technology and performance
Your first album, Movement , only came out in November, but it seems to have made a big impact quite quickly. How has the time since been for you?
I feel like it took forever to get the music out there. I had been playing shows and working on these concepts for years, so I was really ready to have it out in the world. So, that part seemed very slow, but the response seemed fast. I am being invited to play much larger shows than before and all of a sudden there is an interest in my work, which is fantastic.
One aspect of the conversation around the album was the divide people set up between club music and academic music. Have you found that an interesting conversation to be a part of?
It is an interesting conversation and something that I am working through currently. I just started a doctoral program in music that is obviously highly academic, but my practice is very much rooted in performance, much of which happens currently in a club environment. I feel both welcome and alien in both situations – they are much more similar than I think they would like to admit. I think it is unusual to have someone equally active in both worlds so people often bring it up.
On that note, it seems the “club-friendly” descriptor is a lot more open-ended right now than it has been in the past, what do you think?
I agree and I think it is exciting. It is almost as if people are looking for a third space for performance; something in between or open to different experimentation and mutation. I think labels like PAN have done some really good work in that direction. It makes complete sense. Most people I know have multifaceted musical taste and are able to appreciate different styles and genres and mash them together, as long as there is a good idea behind it. Defining yourself by a particular style seems almost naive and dated at this point.
You lived in Berlin for some time. It is home to a very strong musical past and present. Was living there important in your own development?
It was extremely important; I was there for five very formative years. I have also been in the Bay Area for a few years now as well, so I think I am a weird mix of places. I do think that the environment you find yourself in has a direct impact on your work; whether in support or rebellion. I certainly think this is true of my music. I spent years in the club scene in Berlin, internalising that specific attitude toward electronic music aesthetics, lifestyle and consumption. I am also a product of living in the Bay and being really interested in technology.
You went back to Berlin in a professional capacity for CTM [the Festival for Adventurous Music and Art] this year, how was that?
CTM was amazing. I played Berghain, which has such an amazing sound system and performance space. That is probably one of my favourite performance moments so far. I also got to see some really great music that weekend and to meet up with friends. Jennifer Lucy Allen interviewed me for the Wire artist talk series, which was also really fun. There were some interesting questions from the audience that I hadn’t previously considered. It is definitely a very flattering crew of people to be involved with.
You’ve been something of an advocate for laptop performance . Do you think people are coming around to the idea of the laptop as a “personal” object and is the hidden process of a laptop less of an issue for both audiences and performers now?
Some people are coming around, others are not. They aren’t going anywhere though until something better is developed. The hidden process is an interesting question, because it actually really isn’t much more hidden than the inner workings of a modular synthesizer or a pipe organ. It is really more of a familiarity issue, which I think is changing. Controllers are becoming more sophisticated, but more importantly people are questioning what it is that they want out of a live performance. Perhaps gesture is overrated? Perhaps our needs as an audience are changing? Often the first adaption of technology tries to mimic the past. It begins to get really interesting when it breaks from the past and develops a paradigm of its own. I’m interested in taking things wherever that might be.