Review: Holly Herndon “Movement”

13 Nov 2012 — Warren O'Neill

Holly Herndon attempts to tackle the club on her first full-length release Movement on Rvng Intl.

Having just one previous release, the concept-heavy experimental tape Car, Holly Herndon has made a conscious decision to embrace dance music in an attempt to engage an audience far removed from the academic circles in which she is comfortable. As a result, Movement is a mixture of club and classroom which is a reflection on both Holly's current position as a PhD student in composition at Stanford and her time spent DJing while living in Berlin.

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For me it is the classroom side which fails to impress and which, unfortunately, is the more dominant part of the record. The excessively long vocal manipulation tracks "Terminal" and "Dilato" contain little to hold the listener and sound more like the testing of new tools rather than a finished product. I have read that Holly codes a lot of the effects from scratch and I'm sure there is a lot of complexity behind the sounds but in this case the complexity is not enough to sustain interest for the entire song length.

Thankfully, this is more than made of for on the club-friendly tracks “Fade” (one of the songs of the year in my opinion) and the title track “Movement”. The same unique tools are employed as in the more academic tracks but now they must bend to the functionality demanded by the dancefloor and are all the better for it. The aimlessness felt on the previously mentioned “Terminal” and “Dilato” is now replaced by strong sense of immediacy and, somewhat contradictory, it is these beat-heavy tracks which also carry the most emotional weight.

Listening to Movement brought to mind two similar releases from early this year, Laurel Halo's Quarantine and Actress's R.I.P. These albums also attempt to blend the cerebral with the physical, but with much greater success I feel. Unlike on Movement, the lines between the avant-garde and the dancefloor are more blurred, with the more experimental tracks not feeling the least bit out of place next to the four-to-the-floor.

The way in which one uses a computer for live performance is a very important topic for Holly (she is currently writing a book on embodiment in electronic music), and in a recent Electronic Beats interview she stated that a computer is “the most intimate instrument you can have, you can have a conversation with your boyfriend on Skype or you can find out your grandmother died on email – all of your life is happening there”. The challenge to make laptop performance an interesting spectacle is not an easy one and for many concert attendees the computer represents not just private life but work life too. However, in her recent Unsound performance she went a long way in attempting to address this issue by instilling her laptop with the malleability of a traditional instrument. Using an induction loop mic she was able to literally “play” her computer, bowing her processors like a violin and creating rich textures from her laptop’s electromagnetic waves. The result of this technique also depended on how hard the computer was working at the time mirroring the way the sound of a real violin will depend on the humidity and temperature of the room in which it is played.

All in all, Movement is a very unique work from an artist who cares deeply about her field and the dialogue around it. Importantly, Holly Herndon is determined to reach beyond the college walls and attempt generate interest in her work with more general audience while (hopefully) sending interest in club culture back to academics. This is no easy task but there are moments where she certainly succeeds.

Movement is out today on RVNG Intl. Order it over here.