Holly Herndon’s ‘Proto’ at the Volksbühne Berlin

Following the release of her latest album Proto in May, Holly Herndon took to the Volksbühne last night with producer Mat Dryhurst and her Ensemble for the Berlin premiere of the album’s AV live show. This strongly collaborative record looks to create ‘new forms of communion’, to add a human touch to electronic music production. It combines traditional vocal music with rich electronic processing and features the first steps of Herndon’s very own musical A.I. baby, Spawn.

That the Proto live show was conceived with similar themes in mind was very clear. Throughout, I had the feeling of being invited to participate, rather than to watch. The performers were placed right at the back of the Volksbühne’s domed stage, allowing the audience to mill around freely on the main part of the stage. It made the cavernous space intimate and direct. For those further back in the seated area, it turned the audience members into performers, staging a show within a show.

The aim of humanising (musical) technology is not uncommon among electronic musicians, but Herndon’s commitment to this goes beyond most. The group of singers that form the ensemble around Herndon are the clearest manifestation of this. Surrounding her in a loose semi-circle, they made a palpable connection to the crowd. Sweeping performances of tracks like single ‘Eternal’, the rousing ‘Frontier’ and ’Chorus’ from Herndon’s Platform album, showed off their versatility through wailing and hocketing, displaying the kind of virtuosity that goes missing in many other live electronics performances.

While the communal feel was strong throughout, a definite highlight was Herndon’s solo vocoder performance for ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’. Perhaps the most immediate track on the album, Herndon performed it doused in a cold, white spotlight – yet it still felt warm and expressive. A couple of times I felt that Proto could have more such moments of detail among its broader strokes. Tracks such as ‘Last Gasp’ and ‘SWIM’ ran the risk of becoming a wash of sound in their live versions.

Sadly, we didn’t get to hear from Spawn on this occasion, but the Volksbühne crowd were recorded singing call-and-response patterns to be used in her training. A room of people singing folk music to create a vocal model with which to train a neural network? Definitely a new form of communion.


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