As I struggled to comprehend the reference-laden visual language and chaotic sonic landscape of Holly Herndon’s Sónar show last night, a friend tried to guide me through it. When empty-eyed theatre masks started spawning ad infinitum on the big screen behind the stage and blocking out everything else, he said it was a song about the NSA spying on US citizens, and how the knowledge that we’re possibly being watched changes our online behaviour.
The friend in question is Anton Kaldal, a graphic designer and the man behind Tonik Ensemble (a Sonar performer himself, and winner of the Grapevine’s album of the year 2015). He has been a fan of Holly Herndon since she released “Home” in 2014, so after the show we sat down and talked what it was like finally seeing the artist he’s looked up to for the past two years live.
What was it that initially drew you to Holly?
Sometimes there are albums that cause ripples that last for years after their release. I think Holly’s ‘Platform’ is one of those.
How did it all come together for you tonight?
Her approach to performing computer music is really something else—you can see the visual element starts right from the desktop, which is a gateway into her way of thinking. In John Rogers’s interview with Holly, she talks about being an activist and the highly political elements of her show, and I imagine that it creates a certain dialogue with the audience, especially in countries where online rights are a hot topic.
As a live performance, I had also not expected the visual element to play such a large part. Having said that, I felt it was more than just a gimmick. There’s a separate person [Matt Dryhurst] focusing on making it, and he engaged with the audience through text cues written on screen, which brings us back to the ethos she mentions in interviews: the intimate digital world, that is so cold. It is always a stuggle for electronic composers to adjust themselves and their music to a live environment. Just think about what it would’ve been like if the visual elements hadn’t been present. Would you have been as touched?
As a composition, it was more engaged with sculpture than anything else. It is very tense. Everything is hyperactive and deconstructed; she’s sharing the information overflow that is our modern digital lives. What is the soundscape of now? Comparing the past twelve months with what it was like years ago, it’s feels very ADHD. If you look at the internet as a concept, it’s a maddening place of information, and that’s what she just show us on stage, what 2015/16 looks like in the most literal sense. You can argue whether ‘Platform’ works as a traditional album or not, but she’s opening doors for others to go through, blazing a trail for others to follow.
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