From Eartheater to Holly Herndon, this is the soundtrack to the technological Eden of our dreams
Ever since Frankenstein built his monster, people have been telling stories about how human technology releases unnatural and malevolent forces. Now more than ever, in a world sweating out the effects of human-made climate change, our media portrays technology as a complicated system strangling us and our world. In the recent film Underwater, drilling for fossil fuel on the sea bottom frees a gigantic tentacled Lovecraftian horror. In the Netflix series V Wars, melting polar icecaps unleash a terrifying plague. New inventions are transforming the planet, and what they’re transforming it into is a grave.
There are other ways to think about the relationship between technology and ecology, though. Contemporary musicians, in particular, often have a more positive vision of technology as part of organic processes, rather than as a disruption of them. Richard Brautigan’s famous 1967 poem, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” serves as a spiritual blueprint for many of these musical cyber-utopias:
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
In his new album New Topographies, electronic musician Matt Evans takes Brautigan’s text and manipulates and digitizes it to create ambient, pulsing soundscapes, and/or cybernetic meadows. For the song “Full Squid” he translated the poem into Braille, and then used that as an electronic music score. “Spinning Blossoms” is a manipulated recording of typing the poem on a keyboard. “An Infinite Cybernetic Meadow” turns the poem into Morse code. Evans trims Brautigan’s language into new musical shapes and poetry, like a cyborg bonsai tree. Machines and bytes and a guiding human mind together give “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” a new, fruitful life.
Other musicians don’t reference Brautigan directly, but share his interest in what he calls “cybernetic ecology.” Alexandra Drewchin (aka Eartheater) integrates electronic music and effects with folk and classical elements. Songs like “Utterfly FX” from 2015’s RIP Chrysalis sound like dreamy scores for nature documentaries about the life-cycle of android frogs and dragon-flies. On “Humyn Hymn” from the same album Drewchin mutters, “Chemical computer syringe / Memories are fading away” as a harp plucks and electronic effects vibrate and pulse. Analog and electronic coming together to create a new cyborg sound, fluttering and delicately awkward.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Ka Baird started her career with the band Spires That in the Sunset Rise, a quartet and later duo that created spooky, fractured psychedelic folk rituals using a wide array of acoustic instruments. Her recent solo works add electronic sounds and loops to the mix. “Pulse” from her 2019 album Respires is an epistle from the future Neolithic—it’s what you hum while carving spaceships on the cave wall. Computers and electronics, for Baird, don’t feel like new technology, but like ancient truths creeping out of the primordial past in a riot of bright reds and greens.
Holly Herndon‘s 2019 album Proto is a collaboration with an A.I. named Spawn which she developed in a gaming PC. “Eternal” is a processed choral group pushed out onto a dance floor—cyberpunk Enya. Another standout track is “Godmother,” a collaboration with Chicago footwork electronica genius Jlin; the ‘music’ sounds like a bucket of rapidly agitated bees.
How exactly human composition fits together with the computer brain on these performances is unclear. That’s part of the fun. Herndon and her electronic brain are indistinguishable. Robots and music are both built by people, as natural and unnatural as the satellites circling the planet. “Is this how it feels to become the mother of the next species? To love them more than we love ourselves, like an extremophile?” Herndon and collaborators Lily Anna Hayes, Jenna Sutela, and, of course, Spawn ask on the song “Extreme Love.”
“There’s a pervasive narrative of technology as dehumanizing,” Herndon has said about Spawn. “We stand in contrast to that…. I don’t want to live in a world in which humans are automated off stage. I want an A.I. to be raised to appreciate and interact with that beauty.” Herndon, like other musicians exploring machines of loving grace, isn’t exactly predicting a tech utopia. Rather, she’s asking listeners to rethink their presuppositions about what’s artificial and what isn’t. If a beaver dam is part of the natural world, then why isn’t a computer? Every Frankenstein monster we build is a potential collaborator in a new, weird song. Tech won’t save us because tech is us, the mammal stapled to a computer brain, and singing about it.