Holly Herndon – Past: Forward (four by three magazine)

Are artists, consumers and critics guilty of a stubborn addiction to the past or have we become too obsessed with the new? Music critic Giuseppe Zevolli ties Holly Herndon’s album Platform to the wider phenomenon of nostalgia for the past, while confronting her experimental compositions in the here and now.


San Francisco based electronic musician Holly Herndon does not have much time for nostalgia. In her view it is better spent on reviving the ‘world-making’ potential of music and do away with pre-existing tropes. On her track Unequal, off of her album Platform (RVNG Intl. & 4AD), a male voice recites:


“To change the shape of our future/
To be unafraid to break away”


A climactic rush of shuddering electronica accompanied by meditative, pitch-errant vocals, the song tackles social inequality, while those two verses – echoing the manifesto-like messages appearing in her video for Interference – could equally be seen to encapsulate her aesthetics as a whole.Four years after Simon Reynolds’ inescapable Retromania unveiled the ultimate ‘taboo’ of popular music culture [1], its stubborn ‘addiction to its own past’, discussions of the pervasiveness of nostalgia in music culture have progressively waned. But how far has ‘retromania’ become second nature to the practice of artists, consumers and critics as a result of that particular over-due ‘admission of guilt’? How many commentators use adjectives like ‘ground-breaking’ or ‘forward-looking’ without feeling slightly over optimistic or even naive? Does the music of 2015 sound that different from 1995? A similar question was posed by Mark Fisher during a Q&A in one of his lectures on post punk at Goldsmiths University [2].When I mentioned the anecdote in a recent conversation with Herndon, herself a researcher at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, she sounded vaguely unimpressed.  ‘The definition of ‘new’ can be different for different people. I certainly think that there are new things occurring that weren’t occurring in the 1990s, just simply through the technology that’s available now. I am really interested in music that is responding today, in contemporary conditions, not relying on some sort of past nostalgia or an idealised past that never was. I like the idea of music being at the table and being part of the dialogue of where we stand culturally and where we are going culturally’. In Herndon’s reply there is the optimism of the forward-thinking musician and a hint of the skepticism of the cultural sociologist at pains to de-romanticise unstable categories.


Merging sonic experimentation and a conceptual vision Platform is her best musical statement to date. Each song on the album carries its own ‘interpretive repertoire’: nowness, for Herndon, does not mean shying away from theory. Even Not Not Fun’s Britt Brown himself caught debunking the futurist marketability of recently appointed innovators in computer music [3], writing for The Wire conceded that Platform ‘sparkles with cybernetic newness’ [4]. Similar to Herndon’s debut Movement from 2012, but implementing her trademark jittery micro-electronics with the use of the voice and a vast array of found sounds, Platform fluctuates between disorienting, concussive compositions and the rare, oddly amicable pop sensibility (the vaporous Morning Sun, the de facto anti-individualist manifesto An Exit). Alluding to the functional vibrancy of techno (Herndon spent her formative years in Berlin’s dance clubs) and bass music, the record pivots on the classic bedrock of experimental music: encouraging the implied listener to familiarise herself with ‘alien sounds’. But it becomes innovative, when it forces us to think about technology and ‘where we are culturally’ by making aural and conceptual hints mutually dependent.In particular three songs on Platform make this tangible: in Home Herndon updates her optimistic take on the intimacy between her laptop and herself in light of the revelations on the NSA [5], turning it into a cagey break up song, in which fragments of sound mirror the uncontrollable leakage of data. In Lonely At The Top Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (the everyday sounds and noises that can make us shiver or have a tingling effect, depending on our personal sensory responses to them) becomes an equally enjoyable and unnerving celebration of the generosity of amateur online communities, where ephemeral sounds are shared to combat stress. In the outstanding Locker Leak Herndon borrows artist Spencer Longo’s ‘word sculptures’ to initiate and simultaneously deconstruct a bizarre dialogue between an over-stimulated online buyer, the ambiguous friendliness of advertisements and the panoptical ‘data thirst’ of corporations. When Herndon enthusiastically declaims words as random as ‘Aloe Vera!’ or ‘Be the first one of your friends to buy Greek yoghurt this summer!’, amidst broken beats and fading celestial choirs, you might feel like dancing, while suspiciously stepping back from the absurd. This is probably Herndon’s timely version of the new: taking the culture of technology and its ‘skip forward’ imperative and as her main source of inspiration, she (over)stimulates both body and mind to marry enjoyment and critical distance.



[1] Reynolds, S. Retromania. Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011). Faber and Faber. [2] Fisher, M. Going Overground: Post-Punk between Populism and Popular Modernism (30 October 2014). Lecture at Goldmiths University of London. [3] Sugarman, M. Dear Arca. (18 November 2014). Adhoc Magazine. [4] Brown, B. This Way Out. (2015). The Wire, Issue 374. [5] Herndon, H. Embodiment in Electronic Music Performance, MA Thesis (2010). Mills College, Oakland.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s