Holly Herndon Ensemble Lights Up the Volksbuhne

On Friday, Holly Herndon and a selection of her ensemble, along with Matthew Dryhurst, took the stage at Berlin’s historic Volksbuehne theater, where they performed her new album PROTO.

“Playing the Volksbuehne has always been a dream of mine,” Herndon said between songs, “so this is a real dream come true for me.”

Personally, I don’t think the Volksbuehne is a particularly interesting performance space. The lobby is elegant, and there’s the cute little wheel man out front, and there’s really nothing wrong with the interior, but it’s all so yawn-inducingly nondescript. The central chandelier is eye-catching, but isn’t that also so normal, to have an interesting chandelier? I’d take the Berliner Ensemble or Funkhaus Berlin over it any day.

Herndon and her crew did well in there, though. The ensemble stood in an open semicircle at the back of the stage, with Dryhurst and Herndon in the center, the rest of them swaying around microphones. They all had on outfits that were somewhere between Mad Max and Yeezy Season 4, i.e., cool and beige and slightly rag-inspired. The fashion thematic helped reinforce the sense that there was something bigger than just the music being delivered – that we were being given a look at the future, maybe.

On the rounded wall behind the stage, there was a big projection of a different animated space for each of the songs. One was a dust storm in a field of animated waste, with huge figures wrestling in the background, another was something like a forest that turned into a cathedral, another of what I assume was an exact 3D scan of someone’s actual bedroom, where the “camera” pans through the scan – through a table, through a Pikachu mug, through and then behind a flatscreen TV.

Right as the performance was kicking off, there was almost a fight between two guys on my left. I didn’t see how it started, but all of a sudden one guy was shoving the guy in front of him, and the one in front got up and stared at the other guy with a look that was split between confusion and anger and fear. The one in the back was laughing and looked like the type who would start a fight in a theater, so I’m pretty sure it was his fault. After exchanging words with a woman next to the shover, the guy in front sat down. But yikes, what an awful thing to do, pushing someone in a playhouse.

The thing I appreciate most about Holly Herndon as a performer is that she is transparently brilliant, by which I mean that not only is she fucking with the boundaries of sound and articulation, but she also sounds really good. You don’t feel like you have to work hard to access the new spaces of feeling that her music creates. That’s not to say that if you do put in that work you won’t be able to get even more out of it. You will, but the fact that the complexity can be so visible and also fun is a rare and thrilling thing.

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