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A Magazine for Sheffield

Live review: Holly Herndon, Sensoria, 3 October

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Holly Herndon's PROTO was one of the standout albums of this year. Blitzing together traditional choral techniques with ambitious AI experimentation, it was in equal parts awesome and abrasive, magnificent and baffling.

But the problem with these electronic masterpieces is how to translate that energy to the stage. Much of the stuff that blows your mind between headphones seems - well, boring, in a live setting. Even the most intricate sonic wizardry can seem a little dead when it manifests as a silhouette bobbing earnestly behind a laptop while light projections have a nervous breakdown in the background. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Luckily for us - and reassuring for my own sense of incumbent decrepitude - Herndon's ahead of the curve here too. The bristling brilliance of studio PROTO becomes in its live incarnation something joyous and almost transcendent. Along with pioneering artists like Gazelle Twin and Lone Taxidermist, Herndon must surely feature as part of a new constellation of electronic performance artists.

She does not use effects so much as inhabit them

She emerges in a long white dress twinned with sturdy worker boots. The effect is rustic priestess ready to either till the fields or do a wickerman on you. With her are a chorus of three, clad in an accoutrement of beige tunics and unlovely headscarves. This is the peasants' revolt of the future, Greek tragedy meets Blade Runner.

When I interviewed Herndon earlier this year, she spoke of the epiphanic moment when she realised the computer could not simply augment her voice but make it something other, a tool to move her beyond her physical body. Seeing her perform live, I understand the depth of this symbiosis. She does not use effects so much as inhabit them. The multifarious sounds emanating from the mic are not mere add-ons - they are a new instrument entirely.

She opens her mouth and a lion's roar comes out. Harmonies fan open and multiply, every song is a new entity, entirely its own. This digital artistry is no crutch however: the raw vocal talent of the performers onstage is undeniable. The ensemble is a small army of sound, threading melodies around the AI voice they helped to train exactly through this mode of shared singing.

'Spawn' - the AI 'baby' whose voice we are hearing - is not quite ready for the logistics of singing live yet. "She's shy", jokes Herndon affectionately. But there's a special moment where we as the audience are directed in a call and response by one of the ensemble. They record a version of this at each gig, banking the sound of more and more human voices to take back to Spawn as a new learning tool. It's a nice touch, making you feel part of the music in a way that has more in common with folk circles than electronica.

In creating Spawn and PROTO, Herndon said she was influenced by the Appalachian choral singing of her childhood: the idea of music-making as communal, something to be shared and experienced together. For her, the computer was not anathema to this. It's a way to augment rather than alienate.

This duality comes into its own in live performance. We move from a capella duets to the bright blistering choir of 'Eternal', where it's impossible to tell what's human and what's not, what's live and raw or what's recorded, or being manipulated in real time.

It's a completely unique show, full of light and shade, the intimate and the enormous. It brings to bear the full ambition of what Herndon is setting out to achieve, and she does achieve it. We come away smiling with a sense of joy. This truly is the sound of the future.

Sarah Sharp

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