The Golden Records of Holly Herndon and Laurie Spiegel
Holly Herndon

Holly Herndon. Photo: Suzy Poling

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

In 1977, NASA launched Voyagers 1 & 2 into space, carrying on-board an audio document of life on Earth. Carl Sagan, who helped compile these sounds, deemed it “the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean.’” Within these golden grooves could be found the sounds of human greetings spoken in 55 different languages, the music of Beethoven, Chinese guqin master Guan Pinghu and Mozart, Javanese gamelan, bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark Was the Night,” Navajo Indian night chants, Chuck Berry and classical Indian singer Kesarbai Kerkar. (Both Voyagers have left our solar system’s gravitational pull, but you can still listen to it here)

One of the very first sounds you hear on this Golden Record (after greetings from the UN and whales) is a noisy, shrill electronic drone, the realization of Johannes Kepler’s theorized (yet never actualized) “Harmony of the Spheres.” With the aid of some of the first still-room-sized computers, it was a 360-year-old piece realized by young composer Laurie Spiegel, though she received no credit on the actual record, nor even at the Voyager website. And unless you’ve been hanging about the Kuiper Belt, it’s been relatively difficult to hear Spiegel’s composition for the past three decades (though strangely enough, her music scored a bloody battle scene in The Hunger Games earlier this year).

That was thankfully rectified with the recent reissue of Spiegel’s 1980 album, The Expanding Universe (on Unseen Worlds), which dilated the original with nearly 90 minutes of additional material dating from the ‘70s. Spiegel was a pioneering artist at the dawn of the computing age, realizing early on that these machines were the next vanguard of musical instrumentation: “There were all of these negative images of computers as giant machines that would take over the world and had no sense of anything warm and fuzzy or affectionate,” she recently told the Wall St. Journal, and Spiegel’s compositions –some three decades on– continue to emanate warmth, her analog sounds are by turns gurgling, beatific, and intimate, even when she’s contemplating distant planets, the chill of galaxies, and our own expanding universe.

Laurie Spiegel

Laurie Spiegel in her home studio, circa 1976. Photo: Lewis Forsdale

Earlier this month, another golden record was released, though this time on terra firma. San Francisco-based composer/academic Holly Herndon’s astounding debut album Movement (on RVNG), was pressed onto gold wax, which makes a poetic sort of sense. Movement begins with a blast of white noise –not wholly dissimilar from Spiegel’s opening salvo of “Harmony of the Worlds”—before Herndon begins whipping it about in space, carefully adding black hole hits of bass that would appeal both to laptop musicians but to fans of extreme sound conjurers like Sunn O))).

Assured in its mix of abstract electronics and more body-friendly dance moments, Movement announces the arrival of a major new electronic music composer. “The laptop can do things that no other instrument has ever been able to do,” Herndon recently told FACT Magazine. “I also think that it’s the most personal instrument that the world has ever seen.” It’s a quote that echoes Spiegel’s own sentiments regarding personal computing. And if Spiegel’s insight presaged the introduction of such monstrosities into homes and our daily lives, then Herndon anticipates and embraces its protean ability to mimic and reflect our multiplicities. Though in Herndon’s hands, she manipulates that reflection as well, twisting familiar things (like breath and words) as well as beats into flummoxing yet luminous new shapes.

As brusque and nonfigurative as the frequencies can get on Movement, it’s counterbalanced by an uncanny sense of intimacy; the blurry images on the cover, after some contemplation, reveal the contours of a woman’s profile, the human body. (It’s expert handling of electronics and voice also reminds me of Laurel Halo’s similarly brilliant full-length Quarantine release earlier this year on Hyperdub.) Herndon razors the rhythmic sound of a breathing meditation to slivers on pieces like “Breathe” and “Control And,” turning them into a flickering, mesmeric, dream machine-like piece, evoking her academic sonic forebearers, from Maggi Payne and Laurie Anderson to Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley.

But she’s just as likely to drop a beat perfect for Berlin’s Berghain. On the title track, there’s an acid squelch that evokes the twisted sound world of Aphex Twin while delirious album highlight “Fade” takes The Knife’s obsidian electro and weaves innumerable layers of her voice about it. It’s one of 2012’s most feverish electronic tracks and I hope it one day gets launched into another galaxy.

Holly Herndon plays a benefit for Hurricane Sandy at New York’s MoMA PS 1 on December 2. Get tickets here.

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