Like it or lump it, A.I. and other forms of automation are playing increasing roles in everyday human life. It’ll be good and bad, but it won’t be stopped. Tech pop boffin Holly Herndon’s newun PROTO looks to the exciting and optimistic possibilities of ensuring such changes are on human terms. The tracks were created with assistance from her specially trained A.I., Spawn. Attabot, Spawn.
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That’s Doctor Holly Herndon to you punk. Often when you find out a musician has managed to pull off some serious academic work alongside their music-making it can take you by surprise. Consider the likes of Floating Points and Caribou. Yes I’m aware theirs is the sort of music that gets labelled ‘intelligent’, but the curiosity and the rigour of academic practice that has defined Herndon’s work is often absent.
Her last two album have been thoughtful examinations of our relationships to our bodies, our technologies, and the systems that define those relationship. With Proto she not only continues this exploration, but has created Spawn an AI who takes a more active role in their creative partnership. You know when computer scientists feed a neural network a bunch of data about food and it spits out fake recipes for something called ‘Out of Meat’? That’s more or less what Herndon’s done here. Except the data she used was achingly beautiful vocals, the kind of which are present on the album in the two ‘Live Training’ tracks.
All this would hit less hard if Herndon wasn’t such an accomplished pop musician. Yes her music has all the trappings of the avant-garde but her songs are fundamentally catchy and accessible. It’s easy to imagine ‘Eternal’ in riding high in the charts at the hands of someone like Sia or Ariana Grande. Toned down, ‘Frontier’ would come across as a modern gospel track. These poppier moments are made all the more potent for tracks like ‘Crawler’ and ‘Bridge’ whose absence of traditional structure offer Herndon the chance to really ruminate on the sounds she’s making.
To my ear, it’s difficult to pick out what exactly Spawn’s contributions are but I suppose that’s to Herndon’s credit. That she was able to create an AI who has been seamlessly integrated into work as complicated, thoughtful and emotive as Herndon’s is clearly a brilliant achievement. What it says about the future of human-robot relations I leave up to you. Personally, I’m more optimistic.
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