Interview: complex patterns 001 - HOLLY HERNDON
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
A short series of interviews from Liam McCartan with the avant-gardists of electronica regarding the use of complexity and pattern in their music and how. Complex Patterns 001 is with the experimental composer, musician and sound artist Holly Herndon.
Wednesday 13th September, 2017
"I will set a process in motion and am often surprised by the outcome. This keeps the studio exciting for me, but also allows me to build a complexity into the work that is beyond anything that I could plan meticulously."
How and why do you use complexity in your music?
Much of my work is process based, so I will set a process in motion and am often surprised by the outcome. This keeps the studio exciting for me, but also allows me to build a complexity into the work that is beyond anything that I could plan meticulously. I don’t use complexity explicitly in all aspects though. Some pieces have very simple harmonic/melodic structures, but complex timbre. I prefer a combination of simplicity and complexity, so that there is something to immediately latch onto, but there is enough complexity to keep the ear’s interest. John Bischoff once told me that a sound should always develop even if very subtly, otherwise the ear will tire and it will lose its impact. In minimalism, sometimes repetition is used to change our perception of a sound over time, which can be quite effective, but I tend to lean toward Bischoff’s approach. So, if there is a simple structure, like a 4/4 kick pattern, then the kick can have a subtle process on its timbre that allows it to breath and be alive within that very simple grid. I’m also a little uncertain on how to define complexity in this context, the Overton window has expanded greatly with regards to how much information people are able to process in a piece of media, and when the realm of possibilities expands, any decision one makes is complex. It becomes complex to make the simplest decision in lieu of all available options.
How and why do you use pattern (i.e. rhythm and repetition) in your music, and what is the relationship (if any) between your use of pattern and complexity?
My above answer touched on this quite a bit. I’m interested in communicating with my audience. That doesn’t mean that I have to pander to them, but I like to allow entry points. I might have an abstract or challenging sound that I want to present them, so I sometimes use rhythm/repetition to prime the ear for the reception of something more abstract. I also really love playing with syncopation, which is the most dramatic when one feels a pulse as a counterpoint. I like it when the audience is moved, emotionally and physically, and rhythm is a big part of this. Different rhythms and drum timbres have a powerful memetic quality - they change everything that is happening around them, and need to be treated with caution. Introducing a 909 kick or a 707 snare, to take a basic example, is a big gesture in conversation with a history. That kind of shared language between audience and artist is very complex. You also, in performing, develop meta rhythms with an audience over longer time spans. People become more accustomed to what to expect from performances, and so you insert complexity to attempt to keep the experience fresh and challenging - quite like John Bischoff’s point you have to be constantly evolving aspects to further the conversation.
"...it’s also political. I’ve been asked to not play a pulse in certain very stuffy settings (and declined). Somehow a pulse is considered vulgar in certain circles, which is outdated and problematic. I’ve also been told in club situations that I need to have a more regular beat, which is equally absurd. I think this is changing..."
How does your use of pattern and complexity impact on the accessibility of your music with different audiences?
I think it plays a big role, but it’s also political. I’ve been asked to not play a pulse in certain very stuffy settings (and declined). Somehow a pulse is considered vulgar in certain circles, which is outdated and problematic. I’ve also been told in club situations that I need to have a more regular beat, which is equally absurd. I think this is changing, but it was a struggle for a long time. I don’t believe in these arbitrary distinctions. One could also say that using the human voice impacts the accessibility of my music, or using text, etc. It’s not about trying to be as accessible as possible, it’s about having an idea that I want to communicate, and communicating that with the audience effectively. This means not putting up arbitrary walls or barriers for entry out of fear of judgment. I just try and have the music be true to its concept and narrative, ultimately, and work freely. When it becomes more simplistic, it’s because that is what the concept or the music itself was calling for. Increasingly I am just doing what feels right, and what interests me. It is a privileged position, but I figure if nobody has told me to reign it in so far, I almost have a mandate to disregard any formal expectations of the music I produce. That being said, it is sometimes just undeniably fun to play a heavy, simple beat on a big sound system.
Holly Herndon’s latest album Platform is out now on 4AD.