mon 22/07/2019

CD: Holly Herndon - PROTO | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Holly Herndon - PROTO

CD: Holly Herndon - PROTO

Third album finds composer asking: can AI make art?

PROTO features human and inhuman collaborators

To consider the third album from experimental composer Holly Herndon solely as a piece of music is to miss the point. PROTO is part artwork, part research project, on which Herndon teams up with collaborators both human and inhuman to discover whether artificial intelligence can be trained to produce art. The results aren’t always beautiful but that, perhaps, is what makes them human.

As track listings go, PROTO’s is perhaps a little too on-the-nose. The 13-track album opens with “Birth”; a minute-long, alien-sounding composition whose jarring sounds and guttural, inhuman vocals seem to pass for the creation myth of some otherworldly life-form. Of course, by that standard, closer “Last Gasp” should soundtrack its death throes - but the reality, as reflected in Herndon’s soaring vocals, is far more nuanced than that. That nuance, Herndon seems to tell us, applies to Spawn, the AI "baby" that warps and twists her words until only “I’m alive… I’m alive” is decipherable to the human ear - and, on the macroscopic level, to the dystopian future that some see as the inevitable conclusion of advances in automation and robotics.

Spawn was trained to mimic vocal input during regular “learning sessions” hosted by Herndon and creative partner Mat Dryhurst at their home in Berlin. Two of these sessions are actually captured on the album as “Canaan” and “Evening Shades”, live works-in-progress that underline the album’s dual role as research documentation. While underpinned by the same technology, the pieces are like negatives of each other: the first, stripped of instrumentation, quite lovely; the second, an otherworldly choir of human voices trapped somewhere between evensong and a nightmarish feedback loop.

You can take the same principle, multiply it tenfold and apply it to the fully-rounded compositions that make up the rest of the album. “Alienation” delivers Herndon’s main vocal line in staccato chunks, over heavy bass and a choral AI accompaniment that approaches the uncanny valley. “Eternal” is frantic, desperate, beautiful, a love song by way of Black Mirror; while “Frontier” updates oral tradition for the technological age by melding human and AI voices. At the other end of the spectrum: “Godmother”, a purposefully ugly piece in which the technology reimagines the beats of Herndon collaborator Jlin as computerised spit and spite. As proof of concept, it is undoubtedly a wonder, but as audio it is practically unlistenable.

Below: watch Spawn in action on Holly Herndon's "Eternal"

The results aren’t always beautiful but that, perhaps, is what makes them human

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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