Interview: Robert Henke - Computer Love

Interview: Robert Henke - Computer Love

February 24, 2016

Written by:

Beatrice Sommer & Simona Mantarlian

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Complexity and Repetition

Robert Henke is a German computer music artist working in the fields of audiovisual installation, music and performance living in Berlin. Coming from an engineering background, Henke is fascinated by the beauty of technical objects. Developing his own instruments and algorithms is an integral part of his creative process.

Henke is also a co-developer of the music software Ableton Live, alongside Gerhard Behles. Since 1995 he has produced electronic music under the name of Monolake, originally founded in collaboration with Behles.

Robert writes and lectures about sound and the creative use of computers at the Berlin University of the Arts., the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University, and the Studio National des Arts Contemporains - Le Fresnoy in Lille, France. His installations, performances and concerts have been presented at the Tate Modern London, the Centre Pompidou Paris, Le Lieu Unique Nantes, PS-1 New York, MUDAM Luxembourg, MAK Vienna, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

We met Robert Henke in Berlin, during the CTM festival, where he presented Deep Web, made together with Christopher Bauder. 'Deep Web' is an installation using 12 high precision lasers and a matrix of 175 moving balloons to create a dramatic three dimensional sculpture of lines and dots floating in space above the audience. The choreography is synced to a musical score played back in 8 channel surround sound.

Which are your expectations regarding increased availability of Virtual Reality devices? For example, some already established Internet 3D artists like LaTurbo Avedon are expressing thoughts on how the new medium poses great limitation for Internet artists as we know them, at least in trying to convert their virtual realities to the industry standard new format.

I didn't have much time to think of the implications of virtual reality, but I once experienced it and it was very convincing already. I'm pretty sure it has the potential to change things and to become an interesting part of artistic expression.

Would you turn to this format?

Not at the moment. I still have enough ideas which I didn't do with the technology I have already, so I'm not interested in being the first one to explore a new technology, I'm more interested in finding my own language which I can do with very old machines or old technologies, apart from the lasers maybe, but I can see potential and great things to come from there. Maybe some day I will have a great idea and the technology will be there and I'm going to use it.

Do you perceive your music as deconstructive in any way to club music? In which sense?

'Deconstructing' sounds too much like ''destruction'' to me and that's not my intention. I like complexity and I like repetition. These things sometimes exclude each other and I try to find my own way to deal with it. I like to do things that have a lot of detail and I like to do things, which are repetitive at the same time. There is no big philosophical concept around that. It's just that I try to achieve something, which is personal, which is not generic, which is something that can be recognized as something done by a human being with a special idea, which works in the club context, but could also be experienced in another context. And that's it. So it's more about my personal idea of music than anything else.

How do you think we can treat feelings in the technologized context of machine-made music? The "Code Love" syntagm is recurrent and somewhat subliminal throughout your Lumiere project.

I think artistic expression always has something to do with emotions and in a way a piano is a complex machine, a laser is a complex machine too and both machines can be used to do something which touches people and I'm looking for that. I'm looking for ways to touch people. I don't want to demonstrate technology. I want to do something, which reaches people on an emotional level, and there are a few moments here at the Deep Web installation where it really works for me. I'm happy when that special moment happens because it touches me and I hope it touches everyone else too. When I compose I try things and most of the things don't work for me, so I throw them away. Other things do touch me and the emotion is there. It's the same thing working with lasers. There is a moment when I think 'This is beautiful!'. I don't know why it's beautiful, but it is. I know from other composers that this is exactly how it works. You try a lot of things, you play harmonics, you play melodies, you play chord progressions and suddenly there's something. You don't know why, but if you play certain things, it's there and this is what makes a great piece of music or a great painting or a great laser piece.

So would you describe your process more as intuitive?

I can be intuitive because I know my tools. I know the technology inside out, I know exactly what lasers can do which brings me in the position where I can play with them and by playing I discover which things actually work artistically.

I want to do something, which reaches people on an emotional level, and there are a few moments here at the Deep Web installation where it really works for me. I'm happy when that special moment happens because it touches me and I hope it touches everyone else too.
Robert Henke
Robert Henke

Music and machines

Did you follow the new machines that were launched at NAMM Show? Which ones grabbed your attention?

I know a few of the American synthesizer manufacturers like Tom Oberheim and Dave Smith and they've been friends for a lot of time, so I was amused to see that Dave Smith is now producing a synthesizer, which conceptually has been built by Tom Oberheim which is the OB-6. I think this is a very conservative, very old machine, but very beautifully done and I like this kind of machines, so I was excited about this. Arturia released a monophonic synthesizer, which looks like a lot of fun. There are a lot of interesting things going on. If I'll have the time, I'll try them.

What do you think about analog synthesizers becoming more and more popular?

It doesn't change the music, it just changes the way people approach music and that's good. If you spend all your life staring at a computer screen you don't want to stare at a computer screen when making music; tt least not all the time. This is why people are so happy now if they have machines without computer screens. When I started making electronic music looking at a computer screen was exciting because no one else did. laughs

Which are your favorite new geographies in music at the moment?

I'm just curious how this whole American EDM thing is developing because there are some things in it, which I find really interesting and there are a lot of things, which I really don't like. I'm curious about how pop music evolves. How much of all the fantastic underground will become part of major music these days? It's an interesting mix of rock 'n' roll culture and electronic dance music culture. Sometimes this mix is totally annoying and sometimes it's quite interesting because there is intersection, there is crossroads. If you think about Nine Inch Nails for instance, that's industrial, rock 'n' roll music, but at the same time it's highly advanced electronic music. There are so many cross roads between what you can do with guitar pedals and what people do in drone culture and what people do in electronic music, so let's just be open and see what comes out.

How do we discern on value considering this might be the most decentralized age of production, which music has seen so far?

I think local communities play important roles, friends play important roles, and the rest doesn't. If you have a good friend you can talk with, you can listen to music from wherever nowadays and get to a common idea of liking something or not. So local communities will be important because they provide the framework for people to discuss things and no Internet forum can replace a personal discussion. You have to meet people. I think it's important to go to concerts not just to see the artist, but also the people who are there. If you come to a concert, there's two hundred people there enjoying it and you enjoy it more because you feel you are part of a community and that's important.

Robert Henke - Deep Web
Robert Henke - Deep Web


How would you define quality in art, especially in music?

I think this is an extremely difficult question. I would say that the point is intention. I want to feel the intention of the artist. That's everything, which counts. I want to feel that the artist put some thought and energy into what he or she is doing... that's quality. The result, you know... you can do amazing things with very little effort and if you ever discuss music with your best friend you'll notice you can have completely different opinions about things which seem to be very obvious for you or you like music and a few years later you listen to the same music and you don't like it anymore and fifteen years later you like it a lot. So, quality is very subjective.

Do you think that intention is the message in music that people talk about?

As an artist I don't care because I don't do things for other people, I do things because I feel the need to do it. Of course I am happy that other people like what I'm doing, but that isn't why I'm doing it. Therefore this discussion about what the point of art is, for me personally it's that I like to do it and art has many important functions in society. It brings people together and it allows people to experience something together and to think. It can work politically because of not having a message, which is also something important. If people can just dance and forget about the war that's also important and political. If people can be in Serbia when the bombs are falling and they can still dance this is political.

How did you turn to the concept of a web?

Well, Christopher developed this fantastic kinetic system which allows to move lights, or in this case white plastic balls. His work is all about light and movement, and since a few years he’s also working with lasers. What’s new with Deep Web is to combine the lasers and the moving objects and also the pure size and scale of the project. What you get if you point a laser to a white ball is a line ending with a dot. Use multiple of those and it immediately looks like those diagrams and data flows, so the association was very clear... that this is a web. So it was just playing with this association and turning it into quite a big thing.

Did you create this especially for CTM?

No, this was created for Fête des Lumières in Lyon as a commissioned work and it was supposed to be shown there last November, but Fête des Lumières got cancelled because of the ISIS attack in Paris. We've almost finished the project, but didn't have a place to show it anymore and then we approached CTM and told them ''hey, guys, we have this fantastic project, it must be shown here''. It was such a good match.

I feel that you're somehow trying to make people aware of the marketing strategies that go in the music industry as well as in the underground culture. Are you purposely doing that?

I don't know... I mean I like that people understand things, which is why I was teaching for a long time. I like people having knowledge. If people have knowledge about the technical side behind an installation they perhaps can judge it in a different way. If people know about why things happen in the art world and why other things don't happen than they can judge it differently, so it's all-important. In general I like the idea that people know things because I believe knowledge is power and then we are back to politics.

Have you thought about making instrumental music and releasing something? Is there a music instrument you are good at playing?

Nope. Computer... I'm good at playing the computer.

Would you invest time in something instrumental?

I would rather like to work with an orchestra, with a composer who knows how to write for orchestra and collaborate with this person and see if the collaboration makes sense because if I would try to do something for orchestra it would be very stupid. It would be as stupid as if someone who has written orchestra music suddenly decides to make techno.

Do you have someone in mind for that?

Yes, but I can't talk about it.

Okay, but can you at least tell me some composers or players you appreciate in contemporary classical music?

Nope. I don't talk about that.


Because there's a lot of thinking in this regard. I'm talking with a few people and that's why I don't want to talk about it now.

Robert Henke
Robert Henke

Monolake Live Surround

What is your advise to young producers using Ableton?

The biggest advise is to try out whatever you want. That's important... don't try the things everyone does, try everything you can.

What are the latest findings in the Monolake Live Surround research project? Are you collaborating with a venue in order to implement a sound system at the moment?

I would not call it a research project, since I feel the word research in an artistic content is overused and often misleading. I started experimenting with surround sound in a club context almost ten years ago, and my findings were quite obvious and can be summarized quite simply: the most essential questions are not technical but artistic. Having the ability to move sounds around the audience is one thing, having an idea why you want to do that, and for which types of sound and in which context is a completely different story. The space becomes a parameter of the composition just as much as rhythm or melody or sound. And it needs the same attention and reasoning or it becomes shallow. If there is no reason to move a snare drum around the heads of the audience, perhaps it is better to not move it at all. If there is one sound coming from the back of the room, and the next one from the front, why is this the case? To make things even more complex, not everyone in the audience is able to perceive the surround stuff the same way. If you place a bass drum in one corner of the club, than as a result you have a loud bass drum for a few people and a too quiet one for the rest, and not a spatial statement. The trick is subtle jet noticeable interactions that are happening at specific moments.
I do not need to work with clubs to implement a system since I work with a setup that is a quite simple quadrophonic situation with subwoofers. That is something that can be easily done in a lot of spaces and this is essential if I want to perform it often. Also most clubs have such a speaker setup already and it only requires additional amps or a simple rerouting at the mixing console.

Do you feel that there is something missing in clubs and the culture related to them nowadays? 

No. Especially since there is no such thing as a unified club culture or a standard club. Clubs in 2016 can be huge commercial dance temples with boring music and bouncers or small basements with exciting new artists - or sometimes surprisingly vice versa. There is something for everyone and I feel there is on a global scale more diversity than ever.

How did Berlin evolve through your eyes as a place dedicated to electronic music?

It became more international and more commercial but that’s a side effect of globalization and of a more mature music culture. One could complain about that, but there is also amazing festivals like CTM, clubs that for a reason are known worldwide and small independent places where sometimes the magic happens right next to you. There are places like Schneidersladen, where enthusiastic people buy parts for their modular synthesizers, the Hardwax record store which has been a essential starting point for a whole new type of electronic club music, and companies like Native Instruments or Ableton, defining how music is produced worldwide. I think that’s pretty exciting and it is all strongly linked to the electronic music culture in this city.

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement in life?

That’s hard to say. The fact that I became an artist who can make a living of it, my contributions to Ableton Live, and that I generally found a good balance between my wishes, desires and reality, and that I became a mostly happy and open minded person.

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