Looking back on the little-known cassette that launched a forward-thinking artist's career.
Holly Herndon was arguing for laptop music while it was still a taboo. As her career as a producer reached new heights with her second album, Movement, released on RVNG Intl. in 2012, press concentrated on her relationship to technology. "I finally had a moment where I decided that my instrument was the laptop because I was fighting that for a while," Herndon said at the time. "That's when I started really working with the voice as a way to bring something really immediate and physical into my laptop that the audience could see." That focus on "embodied electronic music performance" has remained constant since, heard in the way Herndon uses live vocal processing, feedback and FM synthesis in her sets.
The two albums that followed Movement covered the human-machine relationship, mostly exploring how to make it work for good—not evil. Platform, released in 2015, was a more optimistic take on a growing culture of surveillance and control through new technologies. It aimed to resist its effects by promoting alternative networks and community while foregrounding Herndon's collaborators. These included Claire Tolan and Amnesia Scanner, along with partner and collaborator Mat Dryhurst, who turned her live set into an audiovisual event with additional vocals and interactive glitch visuals. This year's Proto enlisted a team of human singers, as well as AI software.
Given how progressive Herndon's music is, it might come as a surprise that her first album, Car, was released as a limited cassette. Responding to the format offered by Chicago label THIRDSEX, she produced a "site-specific," mostly ambient work for her Toyota Matrix after it was decided that people were more likely to listen to a cassette tape in their own car. Around 100 copies of the the 48-minute musique concrète composition were pressed, released in March 2011.
Car's continuous flow captured the motion of a moving vehicle. Sine sweeps, synthesisers, field recordings and samples ebbed and flowed through dissonant moments of harsh distortion and reverb. Herndon's signature cut-ups and stuttering singing were present, but nowhere near as substantial as it would become on future recordings
On SoundCloud, Car's description suggests that it's "best enjoyed while driving." When doing so, it's hard to distinguish between what's happening in the real world and what's part of the recording. Police sirens, muted bass lines and the sound of rain on the windshield appear and drop out into waves of distortion and noise. The recording also surfs through radio stations. We hear a news report and a Volvo advertisement emerge from static, and the 1984 pop hit "Meeting In The Ladies Room" by Klymaxx plays in fragments. It's followed by a public service announcement warning against the dangers of driving without a seatbelt. Herndon's voice then interjects: "That is if you have seatbelts in your car, considering you still have a cassette-player. What is it, 1980? Loser! Why don't you join the 21st century already?"
After Car's release, a Swedish tech company recruited Herndon to help create sounds alerting pedestrians to nearby electric and hybrid vehicles. That project intended to capture, filter and synthesize the sounds of the environment with sounds from the car. By then, Herndon's interest in the disembodiment of the human voice through electronics was already central to her work. Her 2010 Master Of Fine Arts thesis at Oakland's Mills College included a performance called "195" that explored timbre and the tonal qualities of the voice through electronic manipulation, where six performers stood singing with and without amplification through multichannel audio.
"I didn't know how to do anything with computers all through college and I was a very slow adapter," Herndon said, also in 2012 while she was a PhD candidate at the Center For Computer Research in Music And Acoustics at San Francisco's Stanford University. "I think I was just scared, frankly. Then when I got to Mills I actually learned how to program some and I was like, 'Oh wow, this is incredibly powerful. I can do so much more with this than the really limited signal pads of my pedals.'" After singing in church choirs in Tennessee and doing a stint with Berlin electroclash band Electrocute, Herndon began accessing some of the world's most advanced technology. It might seem ironic that Car was released on cassette. Even so, it marks the beginning of a career full of boundless curiosity.