The star of the show was missing from Holly Herndon’s performance: not the American electronic musician herself, but Spawn, an artificially intelligent machine that played a major role in her extraordinary recent album, PROTO.
Still just a toddler of two, it seems Spawn wasn’t quite developed enough for a live show, but its evolution sounds fascinating. Herndon, who recently earned a PhD from Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, has been teaching it through mimicry. It learns by repeating the speech and song it is fed and trying to add to it. Here she got the audience to sing something en masse for her to bring home for it.
We tend towards a dystopian fear of AI taking over from humans. In music, while dead musicians are already being reanimated on stage as holograms, it could even mean computers composing new songs to be sung in their faked voices. Herndon, in contrast, welcomes the unexpected item in the bagging area. Her AI baby is one more collaborator that could work in union with her, the five additional singers and a laptop prodder who joined her on stage this evening.
The sound she came up with felt both ancient and ultramodern – stuttering, awkward drum beats topped with choral voices interweaving in a style close to folk tradition. Meanwhile she sang into a microphone that processed her voice in real time. Performing alone, kneeling on a desk for Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, it babbled like a stream of liquid mercury. During Crawler it rumbled like Godzilla.
Big screen visuals that were also processed with AI added to the mix of real and unnervingly fake. At the close, it was clear that one concert thrill would be much harder for machines to replicate: the joy of a whole audience dancing as one.