Review Summary: We are completely outside ourselves, and the world is completely inside us.
Artificial intelligence is a fascinating branch of computer science, albeit still in its infancy. In video games, business programs and most other applications, it’s clear that AI still has a long way to go. Chess engines are a sobering reminder of this: calculating anywhere between 70k and 80 million moves per second, they still draw and even sometimes lose games against the reigning World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen. That seems impossible, but indeed machines are only as good as their human-programmed algorithms. They still lack the intuitiveness and abstract nature of the human brain. There still exists no AI with the capacity for self-awareness or theory of mind. Yet their steadily growing presence in popular culture and reliance in everyday life is undeniable, and with the release of PROTO, Holly Herndon finds creative new ways to challenge the capabilities of AI.
What makes PROTO so interesting and unique is Spawn, an AI created by Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst. Spawn is two years old now and has been learning a lot in that time. This works in a similar way to a chess engine being fed several games from a database and improving with each subsequent performance. This makes for complete tedium in the chess world, producing cut-and-dry theory that’s boring to watch, but when applied to music, the effect is far more unpredictable and, well, frankly strange as hell. Spawn is the driving force behind this album, taking bits and pieces from choral recordings and fitting them into a pop aesthetic.
In a way, listening to PROTO is like hearing James Blake’s self-titled album for the first time. Despite PROTO being far more abstract, both illustrate how you can utilize machines to produce something intimately human-sounding, despite all the contradictions. The stark contrast, however, is in the application. James Blake’s approach was more of a man-meets-machine, where the machine itself had no creative input and acted more as a vehicle for Blake. On PROTO, the machine takes on a performance role, almost as if it has its own creative consciousness. This is especially apparent on “Godmother”, a track composed by Spawn using only the scraps of Herndon and Jlin. The result is a whirring of disembodied vocals and dark sound effects, seemingly incoherent but structured. It’s perplexing how well it works. Spawn’s presence is felt throughout the album, in songs like “Evening Shades”, a call-and-response track where the AI is trained to generate its rendition of the choral vocals. It can’t be known for sure just how much of the album’s creativity is owed to Spawn, but that ambiguity is part of its charm, allowing subsequent plays to coax out further speculation.
PROTO isn’t just a one-trick pony though. As Herndon herself has said, she isn’t trying to write herself out of the creative process, but rather have a symbiotic relationship with Spawn. Allowing Spawn to bring so many ideas to the table, Herndon and her collaborators were free to work on some of the loveliest choral arrangements in recent memory. She left a few of the live training sessions as short tracks on the album to help provide further insights to her creative process. These choral works are processed and repurposed to produce songs like “Frontier”, one of the album’s highlights. Starting like an uplifting, warped tribal version of an Eric Whitacre song, it eventually evolves from a layered hymn into a melodious pop song with an utterly triumphant conclusion. There’s so much to dissect in any given track, so many layers of voices, both human and inhuman, field recordings and other such samples. It’s a heady experience to say the least.
In an interview with Stereogum that provides important context on PROTO, Herndon elucidates her approach to creating music: “I have a really weird practice. I basically have a research-oriented art practice that manifests itself through pop albums. There’s always this fine balance of getting the concepts across but also just allowing the music to be music and just letting people enjoy it viscerally.”
” That kind of description might turn some away. PROTO is certainly a challenging album, and some of these tracks come across as somewhat improvisational. But it has to be said that for how alien it appears, it’s still very tethered to the earth, rooted in tangible human emotions. It speaks to Herndon’s ideology that humans and machines can collaborate together to produce the best of both worlds. This is something we might see more and more in the future as technology continues to accelerate at a rapid rate, but for the time being, PROTO sounds ahead of its time.
“Language is a voice. It’s like this shared cultural thing that we learn through mimicking one another. So that’s kind of what the process has been with Spawn. It’s this process of mimesis where I’m training her on my speech and she’s mimicking me and trying to make sense of what I’m doing, kind of like a baby. But that’s also how we as a culture develop language and this human intellectual project we have.