Holly Herndon: the musician who birthed an AI baby

The experimental composer has built an AI recording system called Spawn to help with her new album – should we worry that the robots are taking over?

‘I’m used to strange in the studio,” says Holly Herndon. Even so, the experimental electronic composer has never ventured anywhere quite this strange before. For her forthcoming third album, Proto, she has teamed up not just with fellow musicians, programmers and members of the public, but a “baby” called Spawn.

Spawn is quite advanced for a newborn. She can mimic, interpret and develop musical ideas, often revealing elements in Herndon’s compositions that she was unaware of. That’s because Spawn has actually been built from artificial intelligence – Herndon collaborated with the AI expert Jules LaPlace in her endless quest to find fresh new sounds. But don’t fret that the robots are taking over just yet.

“I know I’m known as ‘laptop girl’,” she says, laughing, “but I’m always asking myself: where does the human performer fit in to this? How do we continue to develop without automating us off the stage? This frees us up to be more human together.”

It turns out that this technological tamperer is, at heart, a people person. Born in Tennessee, Herndon is now based between Berlin (where she is rooted in the city’s restless music scene) and California (where she has just completed a PhD in composition at Stanford University). After her 2015 breakthrough, Platform, and a stint supporting Radiohead on tour, Proto is her next step into the unknown.

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