”i never want to sound like I fit in, really.”

October 2, 2015
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Elly Dallas

Holly Herndon’s music covers boundaries ranging from abstract to danceable to uncomfortable. Last September, we spoke about why she chose to pursue a PhD, how Scott Walker has inspired her and why she generally avoids listening to music. 

I read that you spent time in Berlin after growing up in Tennessee. What made you choose that city in particular? 
I actually began to live in Berlin on a high school exchange program. The suggestion came from an amazing German teacher of mine and it was really formative. I learned to speak German and ultimately it gave me a great opportunity to redefine myself and absorb another culture. The big influence, of course, was how popular electronic sounds were. It was still uncommon to hear electronic sounds on the radio in the South and incredibly exciting for me at the time. I got into drum and bass and later techno, but initially was more just an appreciator. I got the opportunity to join an electronic band when I was really young and got into the habit of performing and writing work, but it was only really until I started making noise music that I think I found my own voice. Originally it was very lo-fi, but that is the wonderful thing about that community, as it was very open and almost all the performances were intended to put across an idea. There was no need to have a finished piece. I was open to explore. 

What took you to San Francisco after returning to the United States?
After leaving Berlin, I started studying at Mills College, which has an incredible and historically significant electronic music program. It’s based in Oakland, so I began to live there and play more and more shows in San Francisco. It made sense to stay and learn here because, despite being a small scene, it is quite an interesting place where people are incredibly excited to experiment with new technology. I had been playing in several different bands and solo in San Francisco for a few years and then was accepted into a doctorate program at Stanford University, which is a five year commitment. I had never really planned to be in San Francisco, but for a lot of the stuff I am interested in, it has made a lot of sense as a fit. The only challenge is trying to stay active and travel around the world as we are so far away! 

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD?
I made the decision to learn. I want to get better at what I do and Stanford is a special place with special people. It’s also a career decision. Music is not the most reliable profession, so I am also learning how to teach and finding out how I might be useful in an academic context. I want to have a long career and I find it inspiring to be able to teach other people and translate some of my experiences.

What areas of sound are you focusing on? 
In terms of research, I’ve been doing a lot of spatialization and performing through the network, but haven’t focused on a final research project yet. 

What does your digital audio workstation consist of? 
I mostly use Ableton Live, Max/MSP, Max for Live and my voice. 

Is your work mostly self-contained or do you collaborate with others for mixing and mastering?
I almost always mix with Mark Pistel, who now plays with Hercules and Love Affair, and master with Rashad Becker in Berlin. I made a decision to mix with somebody else. Although I like to be present for the process, mixing is it’s own art and I came to the conclusion 

that I would rather focus on writing. Sometimes my ears are too familiar with the material and bias to certain parts, so it can be really helpful to have another set of ears during the process. I also record a lot of my own foley using a nice little recorder and then feed that into my processes. I rarely use preset sounds and would much rather construct my own textures and environments. 

I’m a huge fan of your 2012 piece CAR. Do you feel your work process is different for larger scale or longer pieces than for shorter pieces? 
Thank you! CAR was an interesting one. I was approached by Philip Kruse at the label THIRDSEX, which releases cassettes, so I asked him where his audience played the pieces and the answer was overwhelmingly that people play cassettes in their car. I thought it would be interesting to experiment with the car as a space. It is a pretty classic example of an integrated personal technological space. I found which frequencies vibrated my car and conducted a lot of recordings of the car. The sounds of the windows opening. How sound bled from one car to another. I also threw in some announcements to blend into the driving experience. In a sense, the piece was really inspired by Scott Walker, or at least how when listening to his music you feel like you are inside a narrative. I wanted to transform the driving experience and confuse the listener as to what was recorded and what was happening in real time. I’ve done this a fair amount since, in different contexts. 

Who are your biggest musical influences? 
It’s funny. I find it really hard to answer this question. I have a lot of respect for many composers like Galina Ustvolskaya, Maryanne Amacher and John Chowning, for exmaple, but I don’t know if I would describe them as influences. 

What have you been listening to lately? 
I listen to music sporadically. People will send me links, however I try to maintain some distance from whatever is happening at moment. I would rather be influenced in ambient ways than study too many things that are happening. I never want to sound like I fit in, really. I’m a terrible DJ for this reason. So much of my process starts with experiments with my voice and that generally will guide the structure of the tracks. I couldn’t make a genre piece if I tried! 

What do you have on your agenda for the rest of the year [2014]?
There will be more work released in the music context and I’m doing a couple of exhibitions with the Dutch design group Metahaven and a couple of pieces in more of an art context. I will also be studying and teaching at Stanford. I have introduced some curriculum to teach ‘The Aesthetic of Electronic Music Post-1980’ with a colleague of mine. I’m quite excited about it. I’m also working on a new live set which will be amazing and refreshing. 

Holly's most recent album Platform was released in May 2015 on 4AD. Listen here.
Her upcoming album with Jlin features an “AI baby” named Spawn. Listen to the first track here:

- Women in Sound 2019 -