It takes a village to raise a child; Holly Herndon’s third proper studio LP, PROTO, holds that the same is true for an artificial intelligence, or AI. The Berlin-based electronic musician’s 2015 album Platform explored the intersection of community and technological utopia, and so does its follow-up—only this time, one of her collaborators is a programmed entity, a virtual being named Spawn. Arguing that technology should be embraced, not feared, Herndon and her human collaborators, including a choral ensemble and hundreds of volunteer vocal coaches, set about “teaching” their AI via call-and-response singing sessions inspired by Herndon’s religious upbringing in East Tennessee. The results harness Platform’s richly synthetic palette and jagged percussive force and join them with choral music of almost overwhelming beauty.
The massed voices of “Frontier” suggest a combination of Appalachian revival meetings and Bulgarian folk that’s been cut up over Hollywood-blockbuster drums; in “Godmother,” a collaboration with the experimental footwork producer Jlin, Spawn “sings” a dense, hyperkinetic fugue based on Jlin’s polyrhythmic signature. The crux of the whole album might be “Extreme Love,” in which a narrator recounts the story of a future post-human generation: “We are not a collection of individuals but a macro-organism living as an ecosystem. We are completely outside ourselves and the world is completely inside us.” A loosely synchronized choir chirps in the background as she asks, in a voice full of childlike wonder, “Is this how it feels to become the mother of the next species—to love them more than we love ourselves?” It’s a moving encapsulation of the album’s radical optimism.