When musician Holly Herndon “plays the laptop,” she fuses her Tennessee vocal roots with an unlikely collaborator: an AI machine she calls “Spawn.” She created her 2019 album, Proto, with her partner, Mat Dryhurst, after recording “a shitload of stuff” with a group of vocalists in Berlin and feeding it into the computer. The 13 resulting tracks feature ghostly echoes, hypnotizing synth beats, and haunting vocals reminiscent of Florence and the Machine, all meeting harmonic chants that sound more like age-old spirituals than the works of 21st Century technology. Proto is considered the first mainstream album to be composed with AI, and has garnered praise from such outlets as Pitchfork, The Guardian, Vulture, and Vogue.
Fast Company: Where do you view your work within the context of musical history?
Holly Herndon: I think about early singing methods that developed in disparate, rural areas that are tied to hunting and survival, and the way that the voice helped us formulate our brain and toolmaking and entertainment. And all that stuff is really, really old technology that we use to coordinate as human beings together. Using Spawn is maybe the newest.
FC: If the point of the project was to have Spawn compose, why did you write new music to feed into it, rather than using existing work?
HH: You could feed a neural network Mozart, and then a computer could understand that if this note happens, what the next note would be, and write songs in the style of Mozart. Which is pretty crazy and amazing for research purposes, but for art making, maybe not so much. We have a whole canon of Mozart; we don’t need, in 2020, to be rewriting Mozart. I believe composition is a vital art form. It comes from a community, from conversations between people, from musicians in actual physical space. It’s important that we don’t forget the context of where music came from.
FC: What effect would you like your music to have on artists in the future?
HH: I wanted to create a counter-narrative around what AI can be used for. Instead of this thing that just replaces everyone, the kind of ’80s narrative of AI taking everyone’s jobs, it could be a more beautiful, symbiotic relationship. I hope that people will consider the context in which music is made a little bit more. I think we’re going to see a lot of Muzak, a lot of automated compositions. Who cares? There’s so much crappy music out there; there just will be way more of it. That doesn’t scare me. I want people to come up with new ideas [and] be celebrated for that.