Holly Herndon's PROTO is the sound of progress


From Edward Snowden’s PRISM revelations to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica exposé to Black Mirror, our times seem increasingly defined by digital panic. The rise of AI is, for some, a gateway to a life made fitter, happier, more productive. For others, it’s a harbinger of the end of a human race doomed to be overthrown by robots who can do everything we can do, only better. Berlin-based artist Holly Herndon offers a more nuanced perspective: the problem is not AI itself, but the humans that control it. With the release of her third album, PROTO, she strives towards symbiosis. The result is not only an intellectually fascinating study into an early-stages system that looks forward to the future of musical composition, but also an album that can move its listener to dance and to tears.

Along with her husband the artist and technologist Mat Dryhurst and developer Jules LaPlace, Herndon is the co-parent of Spawn, an AI “baby” who interprets sound to improvise her own music. Rejecting the trend for using algorithms to generate facsimiles of past composers’ work, the team created Spawn not to work for them or instead of them, but in collaboration to create something new. The language of parenthood —“birth”, “raising”, “teaching”—eschews the master-slave trope (for is the root of so much of our AI anxiety not seeded in the idea of the vengeful robot?) and folds into the parent-child dynamic all the incumbent accountability for that child’s nature and nurture.

Language itself—the learning of it, the speaking of it—forms much of the backbone of PROTO. On “Evening Shades (Live Training)” a choir performs a line for Spawn to repeat. The result is both an insight into the technical process of her training and mimesis of a parent using repetition to teach their child to speak. “Birth”, sees Spawn test her nascent language, her glitches mimicking the babble of a baby while on “Bridge” Spawn speaks full sentences made abstract through the voice artist and performer Martine Syms. Spawn reinterprets Syms’ text on the idea of a future AI discovering her digital self, performing it in fragmented non-sequiturs. In Spawn’s digital mouth, the remnants of Syms’ digital footprint – phrases like ‘it hurts so bad’ and ‘I love the sun on my face’ – mutate in meaning. Spawn might be able to share human language, but she cannot (yet) share in the human experience she speaks of.

Desperation to belong pulses through PROTO. The shimmering ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’ recalls, along with ‘Bridge’, a lyric in another (albeit tonally dissimilar) robot’s lament, Daft Punk’s ‘Touch’ in which Paul William’s AI persona sings, “you’ve almost convinced me I’m real / I need something more”. There’s a human-inhuman duality even the title – ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Dread’  is both an emotive triplet born of consciousness, and a strategy used to influence perception by spreading false information to generation action – sales, clicks, votes – inspired by fear. The vocals, performed in Holly’s voice this time, are fully intelligible here, searching and tender, human but for the processed arpeggiating delivery that belies their true nature. Spawn’s voice might be robotic but, between glitches, she breathes.

Boundaries blur between the human and inhuman and it becomes difficult to differentiate between AI and human sounds, as well as their lyrical personae. “I need to know where I belong,” sings Spawn on ‘Fear…’, while the human choir in ‘Crawler’ ask in a keening round, ‘why am I so lost?’ Both the statement and the question seem to bind the two kinds of being in a kind of evolutionary whirlpool. Despite Herndon’s use of AI technology, PROTO is profoundly primal. From the wild cries that usher in the extraordinary ‘Eternal’, to the squelching soil and soft tap of rain in ‘Crawler’, to the breaths – ritualistic, summoning – that form the atmospheric bed of ‘Extreme Love’, something ancient wraps its roots around each song. It becomes as easy to imagine Spawn crawling out of the primordial ooze as it is to conceive of her born of binary code.

AI will evolve, no doubt, and so will the relationship between AI and human beings. Who knows what kind of music Spawn might be capable of making in ten- or twenty-years’ time, but what Herndon demonstrates in PROTO is the creative value of collaboration over automation. Once we understand the intrinsic humanity of AI – created as they are by humans, part of our evolutionary cycle – perhaps we’ll hold key to a harmonious future between humans and machines. PROTO doesn’t sound like harmony – and that’s for the better – but it does sound like progress.