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Interview: Robert Henke, Monolake
A long chat with one of the single most influential figures in contemporary electronic music before his performance in Beijing this Saturday.
By Jul 18, 2013 Nightlife


Robert Henke is one of the single most influential figures in contemporary electronic music. His primary recording and live performance project, Monolake, has been a Berlin techno institution since the mid-90s, but Henke has exerted a much deeper and more systematic influence on the form through his work as a software engineer and hardware designer. As an outgrowth of writing his own software instruments and effects in the Max programming language, Henke was one of the original developers of Ableton Live, a massively popular commercial software program that is now somewhat of an industry standard for producers and DJs across the world. Henke has also innovated in the field of hardware controllers: features of his self-made Monodeck interfaces have been incorporated into commercially-produced devices like Akai's APC40 controller.

As a student at a technical university in Berlin and a denizen of that city's fist florescence of techno culture, Henke has always had a simultaneous interest in the technical and structural advancements made in academic computer music circles and the raw, visceral impact of the club PA. When he makes his Beijing debut on Saturday, he will reflect both lines of his heritage, converting 751 D-Park's cavernous, club-like space into a highly structured, surround-sound, audio-visual submersion tank.

Ahead of this performance, I asked Robert a few questions about the dialectic between research-based composition and club-ready performance, hardware and software, and his experience working with source material from Beijing-based duo FM3, with whom he'll perform on Saturday:

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SmartBeijing: From early in your career, you were exposed to two different poles of electronic music culture: early '90s Berlin techno culture, as well as the culture of academic, research-based computer music at Berlin Technical University. The dialectic between these two influences seems to inform your work to this day. Now a professor yourself, do you feel that your work has moved more to the conceptual, installation-based projects meant for academic and art world contexts? Or is the club still equally as important?

Robert Henke: Well, in my opinion, the club culture is such an interesting and diverse culture that it deserves [the same] academic access as classical academic music. I don't see this separation so much between popular culture and serious culture. At some point, everything you do with dedication becomes serious. You spend time researching, getting knowledge, and getting better at what you do, and it's just that the goals or the output is different. But the methodology at some point becomes the same. So if you're making club music for several years, of course you start building your own theory about it. You start doing your homework in terms of researching what other people do. You try to understand why things work the way they do. So it's not different from any academic research. It's just that your goal is to make people enjoy your music in a club context. And the other goal is making people enjoy your music in a different listening environment. For me, this strong separation was always a questionable thing. I always felt that there are good reasons why club music is influenced by a lot of things which come from academic music, and also there is a certain degree of academic computer music which is of course influenced by club music. So for me the separation is a very artificial boundary.

SmBJ: On the Monolake website, you describe your live shows as "electronic dance music at the edge of club culture" and specify that "it is not suitable for a seated audience." Given the immersive nature of the audio and video systems, what is the most suitable way for an audience to react? Is it dancing, or does it affect the body in ways that change the basic behavioral assumptions of "club culture?"

RH: First of all, I find it very important to consider music together with the space in which the music is perceived. A club environment is a physical space with acoustic properties, with a certain volume, with a certain impact of the sound on a physical basis. It's a social space where people come with a certain expectation. Only then is it a musical space. And all these three things need to work together. A concert situation at a computer music conference is a different acoustic situation, a different social situation, and a different listening situation. In order to do something that works for either one, you have to consider this whole mode of operation. So when I work on club music, I consider not only the music itself, but I consider the perception. So I play a different show if I know that it's in a huge club at 3 in the morning, and I also look at the lineup, who else is playing. This influences the way I play my music.

I guess the "edge" comes from the fact that my main interest is always a little bit off from delivering, let's say, a "classical" dance track. That was never my main interest. I like to present music in a club context which works in a club context but still points to other possible ways of perceiving music and experiencing it. So for instance, working with surround sound in a club is something which is unusual and which enforces a different mode of listening, because it basically encourages spatial awareness, which is usually not a topic in a club situation. The music is just there. People don't ask where the music is coming from. But for me, as someone who is completely fascinated by sound itself as a phenomenon, I think clubs are tremendous instruments. So I look at the club and I think, "Ok, there's speakers here and here, and potentially I could place speakers there and there. What does this do with the sound? What does this do with the space?" And I play with this. I enjoy the fact that I am capable of playing with it. And that's how it extends from a normal club situation.

SmBJ: This weekend you'll be performing Ghosts in Surround, a live show based on your 2012 album, Ghosts. As with most Monolake albums, you use the live performance to simultaneously reflect and transmute your recorded output. What different objectives do you have when composing and recording music versus performing it live? How do the two processes interact?

RH: There is no general rule. As far as Ghosts is concerned, this was completely created as a studio situation with a CD in mind as a result. The process of bringing this back into a live situation was a secondary step. Currently I'm working on a project where the performance is the initial impulse. So there won't be a recording in the first place. There will be a performance, and the recording is something which will come as a result of a few successful performances. There's no general working method of mine really. It depends. But for Ghosts, the aim at the beginning was, "I have this material for the CD, so what can I do to put this in a live situation in an interesting way?" The longer I perform it, the more I'm moving away from the initial recording, and the more freedom I find to change things and try out new things and alter things.



SmBJ: You've been performing Ghosts in Surround for over a year now. Presumably the live performance is quite refined by now. At this point, how big of a role does improvisation play?

RH: Improvisation is extremely important for me because I just notice that I'm good if I can improvise. It helps me deliver a convincing performance. Because a lot of things just happen with the interaction with the audience, with the space. So I take great care in building a technical framework which actually allows me to improvise.

SmBJ: You started collaborating with the visual artist and programmer Tarik Barri on Monoalake shows in 2009. Since then, you've also collaborated with Tarik outside of the club context. How does your collaborative dynamic differ between Monolake and work that is done under your own name?

RH: Well there's one work I did with [Tarik] called Fundamental Forces, and that's basically a museum installation piece. It's a loop and it's really meant to be experienced as something where you walk in at any time and walk out at any time and experience it in the context of a museum, with this type of focus and context. Therefore, since it's not a concert, there's nothing improvised, nothing spontaneous. This is really composed, every detail is composed there. The Monolake stuff is really based on a setup which allows [Tarik] as well as me to actually improvise. We have a loose concept and a certain technical framework which allows synchronicity at some points, which is important, but not very important. It's also important that we can act freely and can influence each other in a performance that we play together. I can look at what he's doing visually, and he's obviously hearing what I'm doing. If we have really good concerts, then there's really a dialogue going on.


Tarik Barri (left) and Robert Henke (right) performing Monolake Live Surround at WMF Berlin, 2009

SmBJ: You are a co-developer of Ableton Live, one of the most popular commercial music software applications in existence. Live is used by a huge percentage of contemporary producers, and some elements of hardware controllers you've developed have been adapted in Akai's APC40 controller. As one of its major proponents, how do you feel about the democratization of electronic music via the wide availability of tools to produce it? How has this changed the music itself?

RH: That's a tough question to answer, because we don't know how electronic music would sound without those tools. Therefore it's just guesswork. What certainly changes, probably due to Ableton Live but also partly due to other companies and other people, is that electronic music is something which allows people to participate at a very low entry level. Everyone can just start making electronic music. And that's a very different situation from how it was 10 years earlier. It's a very different situation from playing a violin. You can just start exploring things. I personally strongly believe that this is a great thing, because it allows a lot more people to figure out [that] creating sound with electronics is an interesting thing to do. As a cultural optimist, I don't think there's any problem with that. There are people saying there's this flood of mediocre music. But then again, everyone can take their laptop or a pen and write a text or draw a picture. Doesn't mean that there's not fantastic novels or great paintings. It just needs different ways of sorting and finding.

This whole topic of sorting and finding, that's pretty much in general the big issue of the current computer age. The flood of information, and music and art, which are just another type of information. How can we sort out what is relevant and what is irrelevant? How can I find the interesting stuff? This is the big change with filesharing these days. In the old days record labels were actually the gatekeepers. They were basically the quality assurance. You knew that if something comes out on a certain record label, it's good. Now, if record labels are bypassed and everyone's just uploading stuff, you need to find new ways to discover music, find new ways to rate music. But that's happening. I'm feeling very good about the development, because I feel that [the more] electronic music is getting rid of this novelty aspect, the more we can focus on, "Is it actually really good or not?" It's not, "Is it interesting? Is it complicated? Is it technically demanding?" That doesn't matter any more. The only question is, "Do I like it?"

SmBJ: You've commented before that aspiring electronic musicians today "struggle tremendously with the abundance of possibilities." How do you instruct young artists to navigate all these possibilities?

RH: By reducing. This reduction is something that can happen in multiple ways. You can say, "Ok, I only use a specific, very limited tool." You can say, "I'm only interested in a specific palette of sounds or rhythms or gestures or structures." Or you can come from another constraint and say, "I only do things which deal with a certain topic." Just finding ways around this feeling of, "It doesn't matter what I do because I can do everything anyway." As soon as you're focusing on one thing, it starts becoming interesting. You start learning what to explore within such a limitation. But this limitation can really be everything. For instance, for the upcoming work I'm preparing, the visual side is created by lasers. That's in a funny way a very strong limitation, because drawing stuff with lasers is limited, technically. This means I really have to think a lot about what, of all these possible things, do I like to do and in which order. Since I can't draw complex shapes, the order of shapes or the visual rhythm becomes extremely important. And this of course then reflects back on the music. So deciding that I'd like to do a performance with lasers as the base for a visual has suddenly introduced a lot of constraints which force me to think differently about the music that I want to do. These are the things I use as helpers to decide what to do and what not to do.

SmBJ: You've also commented that in order for computer music performance and composition to develop, "the tools of the future need to feel right." To this end you've developed your own hardware devices, the Monodeck and Monodeck II. There has also been a huge surge in third-party hardware development aimed at live performances and studio work with Ableton Live and other software. What interfaces have caught your attention recently? Where do you see the evolution of hardware interfaces and controllers going?

RH: I personally always am back and forth between very traditional interfaces, like faders, and everything which can be done on an iPad or touchscreen interface. The beauty of these software-based touchscreen interfaces is that you have all the freedom to create new interfaces on the fly, to switch between various interfaces during a performance, to have visual feedback. So there's a tremendous amount of benefits. But the big drawback for me is that with the current technology, you don't feel it. I can easily move five or six physical faders at the same time while talking to you and still create something meaningful. I can't move a single fader on the iPad while I talk to you. So as a matter of fact, for the preparation for the upcoming performance, this laser project, that's a big question mark still. On one side, I'd like to have the ability to change my interfaces and to have all the freedom the touchscreens offer me, so part of me says, "Let's just use three or four iPads on stage and nothing else as an interface." And the other part of me says, "Well, actually I like physical objects and faders. So maybe don't use the iPad at all, [but] a lot of physical faders and knobs, just to have the tactile feeling." I guess it comes down to a hybrid solution.


detail of Henke's custom-built Monodeck II controller

For the future, I expect that touchscreen interfaces will have tactile feedback. It's so obvious. Try typing a text on the iPad… it's hard. I don't know how often I hit the space bar when I just want to type a "v." This will immediately be much better if there's a physical gap between the space bar and the rest. This is in the making. I guess two or three years from now this will be part of what those touchscreen interfaces offer, and then I might reconsider using only software interfaces.

SmBJ: A few years ago, you moved from your position at Ableton to the Berlin University of Arts as a professor. In a way, it seems that you are still equipping future musicians with skills and technical means to create electronic music, albeit in a much more intimate and direct context. How do your ideas resonate differently in a classroom setting as opposed to as a developer of software patches available for wide public consumption?

RH: I never really thought about it. I came to Ableton for the fascination of technology and for the idea to do something which I would find useful. And obviously other people find useful too, much more than we anticipated. It's of course nice to share ideas and knowledge. I like that. I just feel comfortable when I can create something and have other people participate in one way or another. Teaching is of course, as you said, a much more intimate and different way to spread knowledge. But in a way you are right, they're both valid methods to get people to become creative and to focus and channel their creativity. I like to consider making art as something that is always a community effort. I strongly disbelieve the myth of the single, individual genius. Of course there's a few exceptions to that, but there's always an evolution, there's always a chain of events which needs to happen for something great to come out. The more I can either facilitate the production of something by simplifying tools, or by sharing knowledge, the better for the whole community because we get more interesting results. That's important.

SmBJ: How much of your curriculum is directed to engineering or programming, and how much to composing music and creating art?

RH: I try of course to work in the gray area in between. Because a lot of engineering demands creative decisions, and a lot of composition is just good craftsmanship. By giving creative people access to both creative ideas as well as technical understanding, I try to achieve something that is an artist who is really able to express themselves. There's of course good and bad sides to this scenario. I personally come from an engineering background, obviously, so for me the art of engineering is important. I like to really dive deeply into my tools and understand how they work, and I get a lot of creative ideas out of that. But there are other artists who deliberately shut themselves from technology. [These artists are] making technological art, but enjoying the fact that they have people doing the detail work, and therefore being able to step back and have a bigger overview, and saying, "I don't like that, let's have more of this here…" That's a different model of working. Both models lead to different results. When I teach, I try to engage in a discussion with the students about which model is better for which results, what are the pros and cons. At the end of the day, every artist has for themselves to find an appropriate working style. Maybe for one artist it's important to really dive into the code. What Tarik is doing is impossible without himself writing all the stuff. So he's as much an engineer as an artist. For other people, the fact that they can delegate all the low-level hardware and software work is essential in order to get an overview of what they actually want. The most important thing is that if you're interested in doing art, you're aware of the fact that there are those extremes, and everything in between is possible.

SmBJ: Where do you stand in your own art practice? You've said that you see yourself "as someone who is writing a structure, and the structure then creates the music." Would you say this approach is comparable to that of conceptual artists who provide "instructions" or "blueprints" that could then be used by anyone to create the artwork? Or are you creating structures for generative music that theoretically would have no need of a human operator?

RH: Yes, I don't need the human operator there at all. But there's a similarity in approach as far as uncertainty is concerned. I program structures where random processes play an important role, so I can be surprised by my own machine. And the same goes of course if I write a score which other people play, then there's also a surprise when people might interpret my program code in a different way. Here's the score, you play it, but might play it slightly different, or much more different than I would have expected. And the result in both ways is that I get something interesting back, a different perspective. So I like the point that I can do things which rely on the fact that I create means to achieve distance. I am working alone, by myself most of the time, and it's very easy to get so close to the details that I don't see the big picture any more. By building machines that run by themselves, this allows me to step back and say, "Let's look at this whole thing from a distance. Let's look at the thing, why it makes suggestions." It's not that I look at the thing when it's finished, I look at it in the process of creating and think, "Stop stop stop, this is interesting. Why is this interesting? What's happening right now?" And then I try to learn from this. I try to refine the parameters in order to enforce more of what I find interesting. So I build setups which put me in a dialogue with this machine. That's something which I find really beautiful and poetic.

SmBJ: So you view yourself as in a sense collaborating with the automated response of the thing that you initially programmed?

RH: In a way, yes. Which is of course not the same as collaborating with human beings. But it's definitely a workflow which provides me with better results than if I would just define, "Let's do it like this, this, this, or this," with no option that things are different than what I programmed.

SmBJ: This is your first time in China, but you have a connection with Beijing-based musicians FM3, whose Buddha Machine music devices you sample on your 2006 release Layering Buddha. You first came across the Buddha Machine at an FM3 performance in 2004, right?

RH: I didn't even see the performance at the beginning, I just saw the machines. I remember it very clearly. There was this box of the machines on the table, and they of course looked interesting, like strange mutated versions of the early iPod. I turned it on and I liked the roughness of the sound, and then I turned on a second one and I noticed, "Ok, it's slightly different." Then I turned on six or seven, and I immediately thought, "Wow, that's great. This is rich, it's spatial, this is interesting." Really my reaction after ten minutes was, "I want to do something with that." And I told [FM3's] Christiaan [Virant], "Hey, I'd like to do a remix of this." After ten minutes it was immediately clear.

SmBJ: On a fundamental level, would you say that the compositional or musical aspect of Layering Buddha is inherent in the Buddha Machine itself? Is it a remix or a composition?

RH: There's no clear distinction. Some of the pieces on the Layering Buddha CD are very closely related to the original material. Some of the pieces are really, really, really strong departures from the original, which are almost only connected in a homeopathic [sense]. There's just so much processing going on that at the end it doesn't matter any more what the source was, apart from the fact that I needed it in order to achieve my goals. So it's in the middle ground between remix and original work.


Layering Buddha performance at Mutek Montreal, 2007

SmBJ: You released Layering Buddha on CD as well as a 5-disk box set of vinyl singles. Why use vinyl for this release? Do you have strong feelings about analog versus digital media?

RH: The vinyl edition had several reasons why I wanted to do it. First of all, I felt that since the Buddha Machine itself is a physical object, I wanted to have a distinct physical object, which is this box. But I also like the idea that the vinyl itself works as material, simply by DJ culture. So I took the Buddha Machine as material, to create material, which others can use to create material. For instance, I know that the FM3 guys are using the Buddha Machine vinyl in their performances sometimes, so the circle closes. And that's really beautiful. The other aspect is the one you mentioned, about the specifics of the analog medium. There is a magic connected to the fact that there's sound on this wax plate, and it's engraved, you can feel it and see it. And there's this needle tracing it, and you have the imperfections of the tracing, and you can experiment with that in different way. So vinyl's just a very beautiful, interesting medium. I like it as part of my club culture heritage, but I like it also on an abstract level as an interesting, ancient technology.

SmBJ: Your career has in large part been defined by the software and hardware that you invented for the specific purpose of composing and performing your own music. How did your process differ when you were in effect using an "instrument" or "samples" created by other musicians? How is you interacting with a Buddha Machine different from someone interacting with a patch you've made for Max for Live?

RH: I never thought of it in this perspective. I look at the Buddha Machines pretty much how I look at my own field recordings. I use field recordings sometimes, and transform them. I pretended that the Buddha Machine is a natural phenomenon I recorded. So that's more the connection. People using my Max patches to create stuff, it's a different thing. Buddha Machines are a found object for me, and the other thing is a tool. They demand very different processes. And of course, it was nice that I was able to process the Buddha Machine with my own tools. But even this wouldn't be necessary. I could have done the Layering Buddha album with commercially available programs, apart from the ones where I contributed.

SmBJ: You mentioned that you're working on a new project with laser visuals. What is the name of that project? When do you plan to start performing it live?

RH: Well, I have a deadline, which always helps. The premiere is in Krakow at Unsound Festival on October the 18th. The title is Lumière, like the inventors of cinema, because I paint with moving light. To me, the essence of cinema is moving light.


demo of Lumière's laser visuals

SmBJ: Is it a solo project, or will you work with someone else for the visuals?

RH: No, that's a project which is completely based on my own technical impulses and artistic impulses. So that's really a solo project, which makes it a pretty tough thing to do in this short period of time. But then again, that's another constraint, and this is a constraint which will certainly lead to minimalistic results. Which is good if it's done in the right way. I don't know yet. I'm working on it. I mean, of course I hope it's going to be gorgeous, but for now I don't know. I have a lot of ideas, a lot of sketches, a lot of tests, and they all look promising and sound promising, but I'm far from seeing the big picture.

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Monolake performs "Ghosts in Surround" live on Saturday, July 20 at 751 D-Space along with FM3, Dead J, Wang Meng, FAR/∞, SU, and Lupen. Details here.
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