“I might not have access to this anymore,” Holly Herndon says in a whisper as she waves a glossy key card past a scanner. It’s two days before a holiday break, and Herndon — in a black jumper, black leggings, and black Nike cross-trainers — has made the weekly journey from her home in San Francisco’s Mission District to Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), a laboratory for some of electronic music’s most innovative minds, located in the palatial rooms of a former president’s mansion. Palo Alto is largely free of undergraduates for the moment, but Herndon, a third-year Ph.D. student in composition at CCRMA (pronounced “karma”), plans to work on a piece she’ll go on to perform at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. “This,” she says as the heavy door swings open, “is the listening room.”
Inside, a stool sits atop grated flooring in a shallow, polygonal depression at the center of the room. Speakers stare from a pit below, from the ceiling and the walls. “If you sit in the sweet spot in the middle,” Herndon says, motioning to the stool, “you have perfect spherical sound.” A few semesters ago, Herndon took a class in this room that asked students to listen to and analyze repertoire written specifically for the space, one of a few on the planet that allow for true, unfettered surround sound. Movies can be viewed here, and parties were once staged here as well, before the university put a stop to them when it found vomit and beer bottles below the grating. “The wonderful thing about this stuff is how incredibly forward it is,” she says of the facilities at CCRMA. “The bad thing is, it’s usually limited to an institutional space or a very hypercurated audience. I don’t want my output to just be accessible to a wealthy few. I’m not comfortable with that, so I like to do both.”
Over the past three years, Herndon has become one of the most significant voices in experimental electronic music by doing both: applying academic thinking to more populist urges. In striking a balance between the conceptual and the club-ready, Herndon’s music glides easily between worlds. Her 2012 debut album, Movement, was at once esoteric and approachable, a torrent of pop melodies, shape-shifting vocal samples, and haunting rhythms. In the spring she will unveil her as-yet-untitled follow-up, which she finished recording while touring Europe over the summer. Both “political in feeling” and home to what Herndon calls “her country song,” the album, she says, is her most fluid combination of ideas yet.
Herndon is from northeastern Tennessee and grew up playing acoustic instruments like piano and guitar in a family of “music appreciators” fond of the Carter Family. After discovering electronic music as a high school exchange student in Berlin, Herndon went back to Germany anytime she could. “I was a club kid,” she says of her time abroad. “I worked in clubs. All of my friends worked in clubs. I could get in for free anywhere. I could get free drinks anywhere. I was deep into it.” She was also writing her own music and playing in a number of bands, experimenting with samplers, sequencers, and whatever she could find. But after feeling like she’d hit a creative ceiling (“I was having a really hard time getting access to institutional knowledge”), she began to consider academic programs back in the U.S. She landed at Mills College in Oakland, the country’s foremost incubator of avant-garde musicians, and then Stanford. The move resulted in a change of instrument. “Before I came here,” she says, “I wasn’t working with a computer.”
Now that she is, Herndon is exploring society’s relationship to technology, as she did on her recent single, “Home,” a commentary on the NSA and privacy rights, on which she collaborated with Metahaven, the politically radical Dutch graphic design group. In the 1990s, she says, the thinking among many musicians and academics was that computers were inhuman, inorganic, and inflexible. “That’s not really how people view technology anymore, especially not in the Bay Area,” she says. “It’s way more fleshy, and it’s way more embedded, and it’s way more a part of you and a part of your normal activity. It’s not this weird mechanical thing. I don’t think people feel that way anymore. They don’t feel that way about their phones or their relationships online.”
Herndon leads me to a cavernous upstairs performance hall in the east wing of the mansion, where she moves eight wheeled speakers to mirror the sonic dimensions of the Guggenheim. She began writing one of the pieces she’s planning to perform, “Body Sound,” in 2013. Part of a stand-alone suite, it’s built around the steps and thuds of a dancer whose circular movements Herndon chases in real time with prerecorded sounds of the dancer, using an iPad app she made herself. It is as much a multimedia installation as it is live music. “I’m magnifying intimate moments, mundane moments, from a concert, from a performance,” she says, trying to describe the piece, “to create a hyperintimate experience. Instead of a mediated experience causing a barrier — which it does for some people — it’s actually creating more intimacy than would normally be possible.”
Sitting at her laptop in the center of the room, she plays a short snippet, using her computer to send the sound around us and then through us. The effect is often suffocating, as though we’re trapped in a room within a room, in the dancer’s body and mind. When she presents the piece before an audience, she’ll need the help of more than one laptop. “As the week progresses, I’ll get everything dialed in and finished,” Herndon says, her face cast in the pale light of her screen. “Then I need to rehearse, moving through the sections and executing all the millions of notes I’ll have in my head.”