With a laptop as her primary instrument, Holly Herndon’s music is often a composite of computer noise, electronic instrumentation, her own vocals, and sounds drawn from the domestic world of refrigerators and Skype calls. “Unequal,” from her latest album Platform (released May 2015 via 4AD/RVNG Intl), sees Herndon continuing to push the boundaries of what technology can accomplish as a creative medium.
Creating memorable work in the crowded genre of electronic music isn’t easy. Yet Herndon, a doctoral student in composition at Stanford University, has already managed to do just that. In 2014, Pitchfork named her single “Chorus” the year’s Best New Track. Currently based out of San Francisco, she regularly tours both nationally and internationally, exhibiting and performing new work. She has also collaborated with artists outside of music such as Iranian writer Reza Negarestani and Conrad Shawcross, a British artist specializing in mechanical sculptures.
“Unequal,” following the trend of Herndon’s previous work, is among other things, an exploration of our complex relationship with technology. Sounds of machines come together with the human voice in abstract harmony. The song, even in its most difficult and experimental moments, is deeply intimate. Its triumph lies not in some elaborate mixture of sounds, but in its muscular sparsity.
With an opening reminiscent of Gregorian chant, “Unequal” never abandons its dramatic core. The single female voice soon splices, multiplies, mixes, and layers over itself. Interwoven are noises of shattering glass, of a near-silent tapping, of a strange rustling and drifting and breaking. The lone voice and its accompanying noise, their irresolvable tension, their fraught progress to a final and inevitable collapse, make this song one of the year’s most compelling yet.
Listen: “Unequal” – Holly Herndon