Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Holly Herndon – Eternal

Our first time covering her; extremely not our first time having thoughts about AI…


Alfred Soto: A manipulation of vocalese and sampled percussion that will keep Grimes fans happy, albeit not danceable or catchy enough.

Tim de Reuse: I like the lack of any discernible song structure. I like the scratchiness of the vocal harmonies that loop throughout. I like the jittery percussion that flings noisy chirps indiscriminately across the stereo field. I even like the rapid-fire orchestra hits, if only for their sheer audacity. I don’t like how all of these elements fight for attention; how nearly every line is punctuated by dramatic, descending timpani rolls; how the tune is so eager to show off every mind-bending trick it has up its sleeve that it stuffs them all into the first two minutes and then doesn’t have anywhere left to go. Technically impressive, aesthetically admirable, bursting with interesting ideas — absolutely! I just don’t really enjoy listening to it.

Katherine St Asaph: Proto, Holly Herndon’s upcoming album, is being heavily touted as a “collaboration with AI,” specifically a machine learning suite called Spawn. I usually have two reactions to this sort of thing. The first, generally a grumbled “have none of you ever heard of Vocaloid,” is petty. The second is less, I’d hope: there’s a whole field of artists collaborating with machines, whose insights can be pulled in. In Emily Short’s The Annals of the Parrigues, explicitly billed as “collaborating with a machine,” she outlines five principles of procedurally generated writing: salt (systems for systems’ sake; perfectible code over perfectible output), mushroom (repetition, scads of data, Markov chains, bowls of oatmeal), beeswax (homespun/hand-crafted elements), venom (tight editing, surprise, connotation; a fish hook, an open eye), and egg (coherence, authorial intent, human curation). She applied the principles to prose, but they could easily be applied to music. Sampling is beeswax. MIDI may be salt. “Soundscapes” are mushroomy. Choruses are venom or egg (compare “Smells Like Teen Spirit” vs. “…Baby One More Time”). None of these are value judgments, or if they are, they only are because of what you value. I gravitate toward venom and egg — thrilling music with a purpose — but so much experimental/”AI-enhanced” music doesn’t seem to. “Eternal” gets closer than most, the beats thrill, the vocals stab. There does seem to be a point, albeit one that is mostly “this exists.” Mostly it just sounds like Miriam Stockley (who herself has a Vocaloid), but is anything really ever new?

Edward Okulicz: As proof of concept, yes, as a sketchbook of impressive ideas, yes, as a little song-as-manifesto of what’s possible with some daring, yes. As something that gives me any pleasure at all to listen to? Absolutely not.

Ian Mathers: “I don’t want to live in a world in which humans are automated off stage. I want an A.I. to be raised to appreciate and interact with that beauty.” Part of being genuinely avant-garde is that Herndon isn’t quite there yet, probably, but equally part is that you can hear and appreciate how this and her other work is moving us closer. I’m not sure how many others here will have been coincidentally listening to Sacred Harp singing just before playing “Eternal”, but try looking some up just after playing this song (and maybe throw, I don’t know, some Glasser or some of Julianna Barwick’s more outre moments in the mix) and see what kind of connections you start forming.

Alex Clifton: I’m reminded of some of Sufjan’s cluttered backing vocals from Age of Adz, but his voice can anchor down those arrangements. “Eternal” becomes too ethereal for my liking. A bonus point added because the beginning of the music video made me think of these foxes.

Ryo Miyauchi: “Eternal” is driven by an overwhelm of the senses. The grand harmony of screams feels so immense in volume, it’s blinding as it is loud. Hearing Herndon’s voice feels psychedelic from all of the post-production effects doctored to it. All of that noise is essential to properly express what’s at the core: an undying love bigger than one can physically contain. It feels this overpowering to be faced with it, and it can also feel this impossible to suppress when it starts to grow inside you.

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2 Responses to “Holly Herndon – Eternal”

  1. This is probably my favorite song of the year so far. :’/

  2. This is catchy and super listenable tho