Being a cynic isn’t easy. On one hand, you may be the closest thing to a “voice of reason” in many situations. On the other hand, few people will want to hear you out, favoring instead the power of positive thinking. Holly Herndon is a San Francisco-based sound architect who is keen on having it both ways. The laptop, her weapon of choice, is the double-edged sword on display for Platform, “celebrating its capacity for memory-storage and lamenting its vulnerability in light of revelations of mass surveillance.” Herndon has adopted a highly original slant to creating dance music, but how and where her political views impact the music is obscured at best. Evaluating Platform as a purely listening experience proves just as patchy since it feels like “scattershot” is Herndon’s default mode. That’s likely intentional, but the album still plays out like a high-minded concept pointing to an illusory part of the sky.
Platform makes it its mission to “tackle a host of topics ranging from system inequality, surveillance states, and neo-feudalism.” It’s also “a rupture, a paradisic [sic] gesture.” Sometimes it’s tough to tell where the inequality stops and the rupture starts when the few vocal performances of the album include lines like, “I begin the fall into your arms” and “be the first of your friends to like Greek yogurt this summer”. Musically, Herndon’s electronic quilt of noise recalls Aphex Twin, Amnesiac-era Radiohead, post-Kraftwerk Karl Bartos, and just about anyone else who has managed to successfully create musique concrète from a wide array of highly-processed sounds.
The most unique parts of the single “Chorus” are assembled from samples of (presumably) her voice, uttering sounds cryptic enough to avoid commitment. “Unequal” and opener “Interference” seem less musically-motivated as they are sound-motivated, which goes a long way in creating atmosphere. “Home” may be one of the moments where surveillance paranoia explicitly enters the picture, but it’s difficult to tell. “I want you to show your face”, she sings timidly, as if she’s afraid to return the favor should the opportunity arise. Sounds, voices, clicks, and beeps bounce back and forth. The message is shoved to the back — or the side — or perhaps it’s right in front of you. Declaring its location feels like an imposition.
One track that needs to be mentioned is “Lonely At The Top” because it baffles. It’s a four-plus minute monologue of an important person getting a massage. The receptionist, I think, greets the person in a breathy, mousey voice. “Yeah, I know how busy you are.” The small nuggets of bland praise and encouragment tumble out of the receptionist’s mouth so frequently that you can almost hear her switching to autopilot. The small voice follows the narrative to the massage room where the masseuse continues to dribble out warm fuzzies like “you’re giving the world your ideas and from what you’ve told me they’re incredible.” There is no “music” per se, just awkwardly hushed speaking and various foley sounds. I don’t know if this is Herndon’s voice and I don’t know what her intention was, but I don’t feel like its out of line to say that it mildly disrupts the listening experience. It could be satire, the ass-kissing of those who are “Lonely At the Top”, or it could be sincere.
Or it could be an exercise. Holly Herndon is currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford’ Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. In its least engaging moments, Platform feels more like a homework assignment geared to some equivocal set than an album. In its better moments, it’s electronic music for the fourth-dimension. The sooner Herndon wraps up her candidacy, the sooner she can get back to not splitting the difference.