Holly Herndon and the Fortress of Music

11 Jun 2015 — Henry Schiller

Last Thursday, June 4 I saw Holly Herndon perform at Brooklyn's The Wick in support of her fantastic sophmore album Platform. Below, I've provided something of a play-by-play of my experience. 

Herndon has five more dates on her current tour, including one at Berghain tonight.

I’m a few days late (or at least a few days behind the New York Times) but it will be a dark day indeed when a No Fear of Pop writer goes to a Holly Herndon show and can’t think of anything to write about it.
I showed up to Bushwick’s cleverly(?) named The Wick at around 8:50. Doors had, one day earlier, been moved from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m., which disappointed me because I had assumed that the show’s surprisingly late start time (this was a weeknight, after all) was something of a nod to the Berlin club scene to which Herndon owes allegiance.

Is Brooklyn finished? I ask myself.

Does music at hip indie venues like Bushwick’s hilariously(?) named The Wick have a curfew because owners must now live in fear of being shut down by wealthier neighbors?

Who’s to say.

A bit about Bushwick’s terribly(?) named The Wick: The venue occupies the ground floor of a shuttered brewery, and comes pretty close to earning its self-appointed title of “music fortress”. The Wick is cavernous – I count at least four separate “spaces”, including an outdoors – and the performance area is remarkably beautiful-- a razed-looking brick foundation with a wooden pyramid of a ceiling. The stage itself looks like it was very much built for rock music, with stacks of speakers and amps lined up at the front. I feel as though the owners of The Wick have set the room up to blast people in the face with music. I worry that this is a place for “rocking out” to music that Pitchfork approved of in 2001, and not really the place to “vibe out” to music that Pitchfork approves of in 2015. I worry that this is a good venue to see Spoon.

That said, I really like The Wick, and it pulls of the impressive task of feeling like both intimate and spacious. I am sad that it will be closing this December to make room for an apartment building with a Whole Foods in the lobby.

I worry that sound at The Wick will be bad, because the place reminds me of a run-down Scottish farmhouse and I have never seen electronic music performed in one of those. I move as close to the front of the stage as I possibly can (note: I’m an idiot.)

I could dedicate the next 2,000 words of this review to my experience as an audience member at The Wick. I could describe, in painstaking detail, the feeling that appeared in my gut every one of the six hundred times I heard the word “tech” or “startup” or “south by southwest” while I was an audience member at The Wick. I could try to determine the amount, in billions of dollars, of student loan money paid to Oberlin College by the collective audience members at The Wick.

But music.

Around 9 p.m. Evan Caminiti took the stage and performed a mesmerizing ambient piece that lasts roughly 40 minutes. At one point Caminiti earns the derision (and, I think, respect) of everyone in the audience by issuing forth a sharp blast of sound that is not so much heard as it is felt. Painfully; in the throat and chest.

Are you still paying attention? It almost asks.

Next was a downright immense performance from experimental composer and vocalist GABI (nee Gabrielle Herbst). Herbst was joined on stage by an ensemble of percussion, guitar, violin, viola and laptop.

Herndon was joined on stage by Mat Dryhurst and Brian Rogers, who typed out audience questions (texted to a number that had been projected behind Herndon as she set up) and answered them on a word processor projected behind Herndon.

The following exchange received a loud smattering of deserved applause:

“What should I say to the girls next to me?"

"A: Respect their space”

While a request to pit Berlin against New York received a response of visceral anger from a man standing near me who I am 100% certain was not born in New York. The answer: “Kingston”.

It was fun to watch the questions and answers be typed out in real time, and also fun to see how much Dryhurst and Rogers seemed to enjoy it, especially when they came up with a particularly cutting jib. Herndon kept turning away from her laptop to read the exchanges, and I always find a little pleasure in any indication that a performer is still having fun, still excited about what they’re doing even after months on tour.

Meanwhile, I receive a text from my friend Chris telling me that he forgot to come to the venue and instead went home.

“We’ll have to go back” I respond, and I mean it at the time.

But I may never go back to The Wick, which will probably be a Trader Joe’s wine outlet by the end of next week.

All of these text exchanges occurred in the simmering ambience before (and between) Herndon’s actual songs, where she really cut into things.

There was a feeling of loose improvisation to Herndon’s performance, though this was possibly artifice (who knows what’s going on behind that laptop?). Nevertheless, the wonderful clatter of electronics gave the performance a feeling of malleability. It felt as though the crowd’s reaction to the music – much like our text messages – might by Herndon be consumed, considered, and responded to: the black “A:” replaced by a particularly hefty beat or a dazzling slurp of distorted vocals.

As she whipped the air of The Wick along her furious carnival of synthesized sound, there was a lot going on behind Herndon as well. Namely, a crazy, reactive video program (this is the kind of thing that Max was designed for) created by Akihiko Taniguchi that resembled this Windows 95 screensaver and was filled with flattened images of human beings (Herndon and a Lidl-bag toting individual stood out to me) which toppled as they neared the “viewer”, and also oblong three-dimensional shapes with photos of fruit skin mapped to their virtual skin. If all of this sounds crazy and incomprehensible, it is only because I am a terrible writer. In the moment, surrendered to the safari of sonic structures through which Herndon’s music was pulling me, it all made perfect sense.

But it was also something else: It was fun. For a performance so concerned with the troubling link between humans and technology – a performance that explicitly addressed, in its text message game, our need for immediate gratification and constant interaction – this was a difficult thing to pull off.

It is difficult at live performances of “laptop music” to really gauge how much is actually being generated in front of you versus how much of a song is pre-programmed. Herndon’s performance seemed to engage directly with this issue. In fact I realize, looking back on the show, that at no point was I entirely sure of who was controlling what: was the video’s wild interactivity in fact determined by the shifts in the music? Were the audience’s text messages contributing in any way?

It’s hard to find the controller amidst the mounting chaos, and Herndon’s performance reminded me of a sort of performance art ventriloquism piece. A good ventriloquist doesn’t just disguise the fact that she’s talking: She creates a sense of interaction between herself and her dummy, such that you aren’t even watching to see how she’s doing it anymore; you’re just watching a conversation between two people. You forget that the whole thing is being manipulated by one person, let alone how that person is doing it.

Holly Herndon is a great ventriloquist.