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Holly Herndon: Movement

January 3, 2013

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I suppose a common prejudice against computer music – proper, fully digitally made electronic music – is that it’s not made to move, in any sense of the word: see the clichés about laptop performances as profoundly unbodily experiences; about the unfeeling, unmoved logic of unsentimental software; about the non-living, not-live character of the computer. Add to this the sense that digital sound is unmovable, non-degradable: while hauntologists, cassette-cults, dusty stylus lovers prize analog electronic sound for its ability to decay over time, digital sound becomes conversely a matter of ecological crisis, refusing to molder or delight with its dying.

Holly Herndon’s album Movement is, I think, a hugely important record, responding to the question of the relationship between body and software, rightly showing up these prejudices as antiquated. More importantly still, the album is a real delight, its pleasures visceral as well as intellectual.

Herndon’s music insists on the human form, whether that be the body in movement (the rhythmic, beat-based, fully danceable title track, for example) or the body in crisis – this is the sense I get from the more abstract, voice-and-breath based compositions like Breathe and Dilato, which seem to unsettle with their microscopic intrusion into anatomical pulses, interrupted or strained or stretched bodily rhythms.

Admittedly, Herndon claimed in a recent Quietus interview that Breathe, with its drawn-out gasps and magnificent long pause just a few seconds in, isn’t necessarily intended to be an unsettling piece, but there’s surely an ambiguity here which in itself is stimulating (and ultimately more challenging than unremittingly dystopian, doom-bellowing electronic music). What are we hearing? Relaxation (and breathe…) or panic (breathlessly)? Claustrophobia (breathing down your neck) or an erotic thrill (breathing on your neck) or a turning inside-out (breathing down your own neck)? I hear the closeness of these sensations, all cased in the same flesh.

Above all, I take Breathe and Dilato as abstract songs; the former is especially welcome after a couple of years where the signature sound of TV advertising has been a faux-ksy strum of string and a standard-issue “breathy” female vocal. This is what a breathy vocal really sounds like.

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