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Inside Holly Herndon's Immersive Audio Experience at the Guggenheim

Composer and sound artist Holly Herndon brought a "hyper-intimate" five-part performance to New York City.
December 15, 2014, 10:30pm

ICant. So read the hastily scrawled amendment to the program for composer and sound artist Holly Herndon’s performance Expanding Intimacy at the Guggenheim Museum earlier this month. The addition appeared above the listing for her piece, Breathe, in honor of Eric Garner. It was fitting for an artist deeply attuned to breath and voice, who explores the ways in which disembodying these through computer intervention or modulation can add, not detract, from their immediacy.

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Herndon, who in the past few years has released two albums and an EPbroken up with the NSA via music video, and appeared on tour with artists including St. Vincent, createdthe five-part showcase to explore how technology can mediate natural sounds to create a “hyper-intimate” experience.

The performance space, an eight-channel ambisonic room which was later opened to the public, featured plush fabric cubes and mats spread out inside and in front of the eight-speaker arrangement for the small audience of about 25. From behind a table of computers, mixers and microphones, Herdon calmly eyed us as we trickled in. In the middle of the floor, dancer Cuauhtemoc Peranda, a collaborator on the piece BodySound, lay face down and silent.

In contrast to Herndon’s unintimidated demeanor, audience members looked fazed upon entering, unsure of how to situate themselves. How many people to a cube? Were we allowed to make noise? Should we look at the dancer?

By the last piece, it seemed worries over decorum had faded. Mats and cubes had been rearranged, and the audience was in a range of different listening poses: from stiffly seated to fully reclined; from eyes manically open to eyelids tightly shut.

BodySound, the opening piece, is an arrangement made from the sounds of Peranda’s dancing—heavy respiration, nails and hands grazing the floor, the thump and patter of feet. When layered, resynchronized, and multiplied, they form a dramatic composition. Peranda got up from his pose and began dancing a minute or two into the composition; his breathing, the dripping of his perspiration, the clap of his hands against his thighs, and his heavy steps punctuated the music.

Breathe and the two voice-centric pieces that followed it—Solo Voice and Dilato—were the performance’s highlights. Solo Voice was, ironically, a duet performed with David Adam Moore. Moore is a baritone, although you might not initially know it. Herndon’s experimentation with the human voice can radically alter its tone and timbre, and strip it of recognizable markers like range and, interestingly, gender.

Parts of this, and the sweeping composition Dilato, felt almost religious, with ecstatic chants and melodies repeating, echoing, and filling the small, speaker-lined circle. The performers wore long robes, and Moore reverently held his iPad (presumably displaying the score) like a stone tablet.

When the performance ended after Crossing the Interface—a piece featuring a remote reader and singer—the audience applauded enthusiastically. With a smirk, Herndon looked down at her table of equipment, and, after a few flicks of her wrist, the sound of clapping began emanating from the speakers, too.

Holly Herndon's Expanding Intimacy took place at the Guggenheim over December 5-7, 2014. Click here to learn more.

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