Holly Herndon – who needs the bespoke AI when the humans make a show this good?

Barbican Centre, London, October 16, 2019

Seven moving bodies onstage is a lot more than you get at your usual arty electronic music show – no single figure nodding behind a laptop here – but there’s still one notable absence at the debut London gig for Holly Herndon’s third album, ‘Proto’.

“Spawn couldn’t make it,” Herndon apologises. It turns out her “AI baby”, the neural network she created to collaborate with on ‘Proto’, isn’t quite well enough potty trained to play live yet.

In the meantime, though, we get to feast our ears on the community of voices that raised Spawn: the five singers onstage with Herndon and her musical partner Mat Dryhurst tonight helped her train the AI on call-and-response vocals, the sort that characterise both the church singing of Herndon’s childhood and folk musics around the world. The songs they and Spawn created together are a rich blend of free-floating, transcendent choral music and stately sci-fi techno: this isn’t gimmicky composition by algorithm but a kind of future folk that slots artificial intelligence into an evolutionary line of instruments stretching right back to the larynx.

On paper, it could be a very cerebral, gallery-style project, but Herndon, a professor now but a club kid by origin, takes the Barbican bodily with her in this backwards-forwards musical leap. During ‘Frontier’, a song of survival and escape inspired by the climate crisis, she and her crew are suddenly joined by singers rising to their feet around the auditorium: plants from the London Sacred Harp choral group. Later, even the novices among us get a chance to join in, singing the track Evening Shades line by line back to ensemble member Colin Self (“Colin Response, get it?”)”: “Oh keep us safe/Safe in life/Secure from all our fears… emergent life appears”.

Herndon and her singers, dressed in uniformly neutral-toned clothing that’s both clearly modern and subtly evocative of a peasanty previous era – a wimple here, a pinny there – perform in front of visuals by Dario Alva: landscapes that shift uneasily between animated and static, cities in the far distance, vaulted cathedrals that could be in ruins or in the making; the thick, starliner-engine throb of Alienation soundtracks the progress of shadowy figures through a scarred landscape. One of ‘Proto’’s many inspirations was Always Coming Home, author Ursula Le Guin’s invented anthropological study of a future primitive people (and its accompanying soundtrack), and ‘Proto’ has its own proto-plot, a science fiction epic left impressionistic for the listener to sketch in as they please.

It’s clear, though, that it’s no easy utopia, with as much dark as light, and its future-folk music feels at once sacred, cosmic in scale, and warmly, passionately human, with Herndon’s “dream ensemble” at its heart. The room is stilled by ‘Canaan’, an adaptation of a traditional folk hymn in which Evelyn Saylor and Franziska Aigner separate themselves from the rest of the group, stepping behind the gauze on which Alva’s images are projected, their voices now seeming to soar, raw and wild, from the middle distance of the pastoral vista.

Herndon’s own voice takes on many filtered forms tonight: faceted and flickering in ‘Crawler’, rippling and glimmering in ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’, which she sings alone from atop a table, sending her supplication out into the void. But always, ultimately, the voices connect, finding each other with clear, strong calls through Herndon’s soaring, scissoring storms of sound.

The heady evening closes with a peak of highbrow bang, a one-two of ‘Proto’’s pulsing, stately SWIM followed by ‘Fade’, from Herndon’s 2012 album ‘Platform’. “Feel free to stand up!” cries Herndon, and the hall obliges, tipping over the edge into ecstasy, Herndon’s trusty crew gurning and leaping around the stage like it’s 3am in some Berlin basement as the beats and harmonies hover on the edge of disintegration before beautifully coalescing. It’s a sweaty vision of joy and human potential to take away into an increasingly dark night.

IMAGE: Mark Allan/Barbican

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