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Holly Herndon renders 1s and 0s in ways that feel as personal and internal as heartbeats, and makes her laptop's sounds fit as comfortably as a second skin. That intimacy amid electronics is amply captured on her debut album, Movement, due out Nov. 12.
Educated at Mills College — and in Berlin clubs, where she worked as a DJ for five years — Herndon lands somewhere between "academic" computer music for the mind and techno-driven beats for the body. But Movement erases the line between the classroom and the club. For her, the laptop is an instrument of performance, not something to hide under a table. She processes her own voice live to create alien sounds, as in the goosebump-good "Breathe," while pressing a human fingertip against the digital tissue in ways that feel both welcoming and unnerving.
"Fade" is the most deceptively accessible track here. With its head-bobbing beat, it's fodder for reflective subway rides with a good pair of headphones (the best way to hear Movement), but it's also a slowly building club banger that, by the time it gets to its plaintively sung "I'll be there" chorus, evokes pure dance ecstasy. It's as if vocal composer Meredith Monk discovered acid house and went dancing down the rabbit hole with a strobe light.
Herndon is in good company these days. The electronic scene has reinvented itself as the new mainstream dance music, but because "electronic" is a vague umbrella, some producers and composers have rebuilt the concept from the ground up. There's Andy Stott's foggy and angelic bass notion, Demdike Stare's next-level long-form ambient sounds, and the future jamz (yes, with a "z," thank you very much) of Washington, D.C.'s Maxmillion Dunbar and Protect-U, to name just a few. It's as if they'd looked at these cables and wires and said, "Let's start over." As Herndon continues her doctoral study in electronic music at Stanford University — and expands her late-night repertoire — expect the circuitry to expand.