Credit: Mark Allan/Barbican Centre
On the 16th of October, 2019, the Barbican Centre hosted a truly remarkable performance – the presentation of PROTO, Holly Herndon’s latest album. As the opening act, Aya gave a fabulous and quirky performance that bravely set the tone for the night’s experimentalism. With no doubt Life Rewired, the latest project by the Barbican Centre about how artists interact with the technology which surrounds them, is doing its job remarkably well.
The fact of the matter is the following: I have been actively preaching the music of Holly Herndon as gospel to a number of friends for a couple of years now. In 2015, during Jardins Efémeros, I lost the chance to see her by arriving late to what was justifiably a fairly crowded event. As such, the mystery around what Holly Herndon sounds like live and in colour had built up inside of me for what felt like a small eternity. The actualisation of this was nothing short of phenomenal, with a performance that rings of an uncanny futurism and that still echoes within me – Holly Herndon, without ever hearing about my expectation and anticipation, delivered whatever it was that I could have expected from any live performance from her. But before we talk about it, we need to talk about the opening act – the brutal intimacy of Aya Sinclair.
Aya Sinclair – Aya as she was mentioned in the programme, who is also behind Tri Angle’s own LOFT – delivers a performance that is hard to come to terms with. In fact, if it were not for the blanket deconstructed club genre, it would be nearly impossible to encompass all of it within a single, low attention span media-worthy article. Nonetheless, there are some key points which have to be mentioned about what I, naively, was not prepared to witness.
The first presence of Aya in the stage is almost amorphic: both baggy pants and hoody cast a shadow of a human that quickly solves a faulty cable in her setup – this is not part of the performance, she mentions in the microphone. While this impromptu issue is solved, we can hear a glitched out Aphex Twin-like ambient club music – at this point I am already thinking how on nearth can I describe this? – and soon it settles in all that Aya encompasses. Casually, after this first tune fades away, she mentions that she’s going to watch a video with us on the massive screen prepared for Holly Herndon’s performance later – I have never seen it on a screen this big!, she tells us. The video begins and the music that goes with it is a weirdly captivating pastiche of syncopated club music à laAutechre, gabber and bass. The screen displayed a fit representation of all of this – a massive projection of glitched out skaters is being distorted and corrupted while riding around to match the beat.
The rest of Aya’s show never fails to maintain this luscious feeling of curiosity while being weirdly accessible and catchy – what I had heard about the Manchester-based producer and how she is better known for her kitsch-incorporating sets featuring twisted versions of Destiny’s Child and Carly Rae Jepsen certainly came to mind. Apart from this, the chopped and screwed vocal tinkering on some of the musics presented by Aya was sublime, with definite echoes of Machine Girl and Blanck Mass if both were mashed together with half of Tri Angle’s catalogue into a glorious new sound, while the mish mash of UK club scene’s canonical sounds – from UK bass to gabber – created a truly remarkable soundscape for the Barbican Centre’s seemingly tranquil room.
Among the many references to pop culture – including one to the cult classic Pulp Fiction (think Samuel L. Jackson being recreated to ask if Aya Sinclair looks like a bitch to an individual which can only say, among other minor speech connectors, deconstructed club) – Aya redesigned herself. The baggy outfit was stripped slowly and revealed a beacon of independence and dance – Aya was, both in her own intimate space and to the public, herself. This is indeed a key aspect of her show – the voguing, the performative queerness, the melting of the deeply rooted gender-normative stereotypes, the repurposing and appropriation of convention as a weapon to dismistify canons. All of this contributed to what was, in the end, a truly powerful and memorable performance.
Before ending her show, Aya asked if it was O.K. for her to read us a poem. Obviously, even if for curiosity’s sake, this would have been allowed by anyone in the crowd, but that was a big part of her playful interaction with the audience that lasted throughout the show and brought us all together in club/rave harmony while still sitting on our comfortable theater chairs (only a few people dared to stand up dance). The poem told us all, with nothing but silence as background, while criticising the way pride is appropriated by several enterprises for aesthetic purposes, about the quarrels of being out of the gender normativity, how the two bathroom icons are dated and not that useful anymore. It closed with an unwillfully accepting outcry: in all forms calling me mate/and insisting it would do the same regardless. Aya left the stage, proudly, having left her stamp in the Barbican Centre, which warmly and greatly welcomed and thanked her for her performance.
After this, I was in awe. Not only because my ignorance about the act drove my little expectations, but also because Aya had already made it worth it for me to travel to London to see Holly Herndon. Certainly, Holly Herndon cannot be this surprising, I was thinking to myself, twiddling my thumbs while I waited for her show to begin. While everything was completely dark, their shadows appeared en suite – 5 ensemble members divide themselves between both sides, two on the left and three on the right, while Holly Herndon and her husband, Mat Dryhurst, take over the electronics. Holly has a microphone before her, she is ready to proclaim the word of PROTO, her A.I. baby-assisted album.
Credit: Mark Allan/Barbican
Adequately, the entry song is Birth, which also opens the album, and immediately we are surrounded and envoloped in this magical world that Holly Herndon has created with the assistance of her ensemble and her husband. The projections are a surreal and procedurally generated scenery of idyll coupled with barren landscapes, serving as the perfect setting for Alienation, when the chorus of voices becomes not only a phenomenon per si, but also an incredibly sensitive choice by Herndon for her new album, where the more traditional harp ensemble and futuristic production create a sound that overlaps both what has long been over and what is soon to come. The American producer created a performance which looks at the past – such as was the beautiful rendition of Canaan by Evelyn Saylor and Franziska Aigner, two of the ensemble members – and draws with a steady hand the future.
The great classics from Holly’s curriculum played on, including Eternal, which has certainly gained momentum as a quintessential 2019 track, and a rendition for ensemble of Chorus (from her 2015 album Platform), making the creation of an ensemble for these performances, as I cannot at any point grow tired of saying, a key step in making sense of this futuristic sound. We were also confronted with truly unique moments, such as the performance of Crawler, orchestrated by Colin Self, with Herndon’s growling distorted voice enhancing what is the backdrop for PROTO – the divide and integration of man and the illusive concept of modern artificiality. Frontier, which can be debated as one of the big tunes for this year, had the ensemble in the front of the stage, unamplified, singing the introductory sacred harp, with members from the London Sacred Harp joininig in from random places in the audience. As soon as the beat enters, Holly joins in with the main vocals and shares the protagonism with Evelyn Sailor, which shines on her own with a powerful and distinctive vocal performance.
The arpeggiated voice of Herndon during Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt also created one of the most beautiful moments of the show, with Holly kneeling down on an electronics-filled table as the rest of the ensemble and Mat Dryhurst rest, almost immobile, together painting a truly peaceful picture. Before SWIM the public was invited to participate in a sing and response session with Colin Self. It was because of the absence of SPAWN, Holly and Mat’s A.I. baby, we were explained, and how we were to be part of its training dataset. While I am still brimming with curiosity to seeing SPAWN live, I have to admit that a certain paternal glow shines in me as I participate in this small construction of her learning experience.
Credit: Mark Allan/Barbican
The end of the show – the encore (which, as Holly had announced, given enough clapping, would happen) – was a powerful rendition of Fade, which to this day holds as an absolute banger with its steady drum beat, off-beat snares and drum machine sample stravaganza. With Herndon, the entire ensemble and a fairly large part of the audience danced and sung with Mat Dryhurst leading the beat into the end of a well spent night. As a family, they, on stage, danced happily and with extravagance. We – the audience – could only try to match their harmony with our own dancing, creating a lovely environment to close yet another successful Life Rewired event.