Hear the sounds of the future, as machine learning meets music.
In this age of speculative and sci-fi films and television series showcasing apocalyptic views of a robot futures, fantastical space and transcendent possibility, Holly Herndon’s album PROTO would feel right at home.
An American experimental musician based in Berlin, Holly Herndon played in Singapore as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), also marking the first time she’s performing in Asia. Performing material from her third album PROTO, Herndon and her choir of human and A.I. voices toes the line between humanity and machine in music.
As an album that heavily utilises A.I., PROTO is intended to immerse us in a speculative world of the future, somewhat familiar yet wholly fictional. It is an album that marks the sound of the future, with many of the tracks featuring a form of nascent machine intelligence that runs on a modified gaming computer, using neural networks to riff on music in real time. Herndon and her ensemble (Albertine Sarges, Colin Self, Lydia Saylor and Mathew Dryhurst) are like angels, both because they are dressed in ethereal, translucent black and sheer white outfits, and because their voices are not their own – either transformed by tech or in a superhuman range that sounds almost celestial.
During this 60 minute set, Herndon and her team are our guides into this new world, as they bring us on a sonic pilgrimage. Visuals projected on the screen behind depict images of colossal titans at war in a post-apocalyptic world wreaked by havoc, while ordinary humans watch, seeking solace and new homes. At other times, we see some kind of energy generating machine pulsating at full power, or shows us the world from the perspective of a very tiny person, with a sequence that has us hovering over and around a messy desktop, zooming in at the microscopic level that makes a small gap feel like a wormhole.
One imagines it as an act of seeking asylum over the course of PROTO – early on, she repeats the lyric ‘why am I so lost?’ over and over, as visuals of a forest play in the background. It feels as if nature spirits from the annals of mythology are calling out, echoing her thoughts as we wander along with her. The search continues, and before long, it becomes clear that what we are seeking is not a physical space, but a spiritual one, finding solace in tracks that veer from synth-heavy floor fillers, to hymnal, church-like movements (inspired by traditional, ritualistic Appalachian Sacred Harp singing). The future is ruled not by robot overlords, but in robot priests and choruses, granting us salvation in shelter.
With her voice modulated and processed for most of the set, it can be easy to forget the human behind the machine. But towards the end, we finally hear Herndon’s real voice and are reminded of the human element that goes into all this tech. It is the only moment of human interaction between performer and audience, a point of connection as she takes a moment to ‘collect’ the audience’s voices in a call and response sequence to train their new instrument (affectionately named Holly, as it is meant to mimic her actual speaking voice). While it temporarily takes us out of the fantasy, it is a much appreciated as an act of participation, where we know Holly the programme will at least partially comprise of us, or the memory of us, in her learning process. It is a vulnerable moment by showing us this process, this act of nurturing to raise a new A.I. to become the best version of itself it can be, treating it like a fellow ensemble member in training.
As we approach the finale, Herndon embarks on a quiet number where she crawls onto the table, the spotlight on her as her manipulated voice soars, as if she is communing directly with a higher being. Is this a glimpse of what the symbiosis of man and machine looks like in the future? That is the thought that we are left with, before the performance ends off with an exhilarating final number, the beats heavy and the energy high, as we see the interior of a cathedral overrun by plants in the background, the ensemble singing and dancing as if having entered a state of euphoric bliss. We have achieved a breakthrough, escaped from the hell of chaos, and found a little slice of paradise at last as the voices die down, and we remain still in admiration of this transcendent musical experience.
In its title, PROTO harkens back to the first men, but in this case, instead references the dawn of a new age, where men and machine co-exist. Holly Herndon and her team have allowed us as audiences to witness a very special thing indeed – the birth of machine intelligence coming to life, learning to speak, and to letting its voice soar with hope, and sing in unison in this bright future of possibilities still to come.
Photos Courtesy of Arts House Limited. Images taken by Debbie Y.
Holly Herndon: PROTO ran from 20th to 21st May 2022 at Victoria Theatre as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
SIFA 2022 runs from 20th May to 5th June 2022. Tickets and more information available from sifa.sg.