“Is this how it feels to become the mother of the next species?” (‘Extreme Love’). In the Canadian sci-fi horror movie Splice, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are curious scientists that riskily create an animal-human hybrid called Dren. A creation that is initially just a test subject but eventually feels like their own child. Experimental musician Holly Herndon and her partner/collaborator Mat Dryhurst have also constructed their own baby: an artificial intelligence program named Spawn, the key production component in Holly Herndon’s third record PROTO. The album’s title can be meant first or primitive, like the start of a special and significant blueprint.
Unlike Splice‘s Dren, Holly Herndon has reassured humanity in interviews that Spawn is not the dawn of a Terminator-style cyborg threat to mankind, instead it has been created to test the collaborative capabilities that AI’s can have with human musicians. If they can team-up with humans effectively then fresh new music sounds can be created, with the need to endlessly recycle nostalgic genres as a means for stylistic ideas becoming less necessary.
Spawn has not been built as an automatic music creator or a lazy composer’s friend. Like a human baby, part of its intelligence and composition ability is developed by listening to its creators sing and perform and then boomeranging their own interpretation. Two interludes ‘Canaan (Live Training)’ and ‘Evening Shades (Live Training)’ demonstrate Herndon’s methodology. You can hear the process of Holly Herndon and other vocalists Evelyn Saylor and Annie Garlid singing towards the AI and having Spawn repeat it back to them. In the latter of the two pieces, when Spawn repeats the voices, it’s really reminiscent of a toddler trying to learn to how to speak. Not quite getting it right yet but in an advanced stage of mimicry.
While PROTO’s terse opener ‘Birth’ sounds like Spawn has just been turned on and is hearing all sorts of dissonant noises without being to handle them correctly, penultimate track ‘Godmother’ is Holly Herndon entrusting the computer to create its own track by itself. It sounds like a disturbing blend of beatboxing and insects buzzing, but it’s fascinating at the same time. Perhaps they’ll let it roam free more in the future, who knows?
However, successful collaborations between humans and AI is the key motive after all for Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst to create Spawn and the majority of PROTO is all three of them working together in harmony to create a unique record. This idea of human-cyborg co-existence is conceptualised by an advertisement narrated by a young girl on sixth track ‘Extreme Love’, in which she sounds like a cross between the Red Queen in Resident Evil and Justin Medel-Johnson’s daughter that appears in M83 tracks. “Here at the edge of the world, we’re calling you to join us, Ancestor-Plus”.
Yet Herndon doesn’t want the album to sound like a cold robot’s creation because that would justify the anxiety surrounding an ominous future of synthetic music, which is why PROTO purposefully sounds half futuristic/half folk traditional. For every moment it sounds like Spawn is trying to process human behaviour digitally such as in ‘Bridge’, in which it listens to random conversations, there’s a monastic/religious atmosphere behind it. Mostly through its harmonies.
‘Frontier’ features an old tradition of shape note singing – a practice that was performed in Holly Herndon’s birthplace of Tennessee – in which vocals are sung live at different pitches to create an interestingly varied overlay of sounds. When the voices become distorted and a punching rhythm is introduced it starts to sound like Fever Ray. Furthermore, Crawler’ is a phantasmagorical whirlwind of noise (a blended mix of birds, fire destruction and waterfalls) that exists in a realm between Heaven and Hell. Holly Herndon especially sounds like she’s in limbo when she asks in a Purity Ring-style voice: “Why am I so lost?” Like another of PROTO’s most interesting tracks ‘SWIM‘, ‘Crawler’ is reminiscent of the dark opera Leaves: The Colour of Falling by Efterklang and Julia Holter’s Aviary in its surreal choral nature.
Beyond the intelligent concept, opinions on PROTO as a listening experience will differ greatly between people. Those already familiar with Holly Herndon’s two equally inventive yet cacophonous albums ‘Platform’ and ‘Movement’ and her innovative role in the now popular ASMR and laptop music will be used to her abstract and mostly inaccessible music collages. While those unaccustomed to Herndon’s work could find the lack of consistent rhythm, lack of choruses and lack of lyrical clarity frustrating and counterproductive. Either way, I don’t know about you but I really want to meet the AI baby Spawn, that’s for certain.