Holly Herndon's 'PROTO' Thoughtfully Challenges Our Conceptions of AI, Tradition, and Progression

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

On her third full-length PROTO, electronic experimentalist Holly Herndon wonders how AI can contribute to the longstanding human tradition of shape-note hymnals, exploring the possibilities and ethics of present and especially future AI protocols in art.

Holly Herndon


10 May 2019

Spawn is a two-year-old choir singer, that is, she is an AI agent that has learned to mimic human vocals. For her third full-length PROTO, Holly Herndon features what she refers to as her "AI baby" as a part of her ensemble of vocalists, developers, and guest contributors. The result of this human-inhuman collaboration is a project that not only humanizes the discourse of AI but also uses AI to understand humanity better. PROTO wonders how AI can contribute to the longstanding human tradition of shape-note hymnals, exploring the possibilities and ethics of present and especially future AI protocols in art.

For the past two years, Herndon, the digital artist Mat Dryhurst, and the developer Jules LaPlace have trained Spawn to replicate human voices, but their results are not exactly replications. While AI music is typically trained upon fixed, existing datasets, Herndon experimented with what she refers to as "live training ceremonies". That is, Spawn's dataset was composed of varying performances from hundreds of volunteers in Berlin. Moreover, the album's given live training sessions exemplify data that is far from the typical MIDI inputs that train most AI composers. As Herndon tells Vice, "We wanted to approach Spawn as a performer rather than a composer, and use sound as material rather than midi data scores."

As such, Herndon inundated Spawn with live shape-note congregations. Shape-note singing uses an alternative notational system that places shapes on note heads to simplify pitch indications. This system was first developed for communal, sacred singing in 18th-century New England, but the tradition became especially popular in the American South. Perhaps, for Herndon, who grew up singing for a church choir in East Tennessee, shape-note singing is a very familiar practice.

On "Canaan (Live Training)", Evelyn Saylor and Annie Gårlid sing a rendition of the Irish shape-note hymnal "Parting Friends". For Spawn, the powerful duet rings raw, sonorous. Their live session expresses what was first etched in the song's early 19th-century shape-note tune books. The AI receives the traditional hymnal as it should, maintaining its origins as an intimate, communal practice. PROTO, then, develops Spawn as a new participant of such longstanding rituals, introducing new forms of inhuman intelligence to old human traditions.

Yet, Spawn is still an "AI baby", as Herndon explains. And, "Evening Shades (Live Training)" demonstrates her limited capabilities for hymnal mimicry. On this live session, a choir and Spawn engage in a call-and-response to produce pulsating, clipping echoes. Even more, "Godmother" shares Spawn's inability to truly replicate track stems from the electronic experimentalist Jlin. While Spawn can capture the heavily percussive form of Jlin's compositions aesthetically, she sonically fails to reproduce any drum sounds.

However, true mimicry is not Spawn's purpose. Herndon explains, "I don't want to live in a world in which humans are automated off stage. I want an AI to be raised to appreciate and interact with that beauty." Thus, Spawn's mimicry entails imperfections, and that is Herndon's desired effect. These imperfections can even be understood as acts of creativity and improvisation. It is her variable nature, then, that allows one to explore every possibility of human-inhuman collaboration. For, Spawn's contribution to PROTO and shape-note singing is not her ability to replicate human vocals but rather her uncertain potentials for adding to them.

As such, the division between human and inhuman contributions becomes quite indistinguishable for the rest of PROTO. While the aforementioned pieces clearly demonstrate live training sessions or attempted replications, the remaining songs inconspicuously feature Spawn. After all, PROTO explores the possibilities of AI in art, but it is certainly not a product of AI. Rather, Spawn is just another agent of Herndon's ensemble, simply contributing to and by the composer's vision.

PROTO truly finds human-inhuman harmony as intersected and guided by Herndon. For instance, "Eternal" opens with the ensemble's folk wailings, but only to underlie Herndon's leading, gliding voice. Thrusting along with anthemic drums and symphonic stabs, there is no moment to discern the human vocal processing from the inhuman replications. Rather, the ensemble becomes just that, a communal voice that is uninterested in its individual sources, faithfully following Herndon's conceptual direction.

Even more, on "Frontier", Herndon better develops the human-inhuman harmony, not only sonically but in practice. This piece is Herndon's reinterpretation of Appalachian Sacred Harp music, that is, the traditionally scared, a cappella music is glitched to Herndon's composition of AI mimicry, live vocal processing, and digital percussions. Of course, her vastly different mode of production does not misconstrue the tradition of shape note singing. Rather, it reimagines this centuries-old practice of congregation and singing to adapt to the presently emerging forms of intelligence. Herndon tells 4AD that her experience of a Sacred Harp meetup "felt like a rare union", and it is exactly this feeling of community that she recreates by gathering human and AI, thoughtfully challenging our conceptions of tradition and progression.

The spoken word piece "Extreme Love", which features the multimedia artist Jenna Sutela and Herndon's niece Lilly Anna Haynes recites, "We are not a collection of individuals / But a macro-organism, living as an ecosystem." PROTO is a project that deeply cares for this developing ecosystem of varying species and intelligences. Certainly, it is an ecosystem that is being twisted to naturalize the evolution of feudalism, to the present racial capitalism, and finally to a centralized AI power of surveillance capitalism. Yet, it is also an ecosystem that holds the imagination for something better. Perhaps then, the discourse and development of AI should not only project the oppressive systems of our past and present but rather, it should be open to a decentralized future. For, PROTO demonstrates that small data and machine learning can be used to evolve our practices of art, community, and tradition, using AI to enhance our most human practices.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.