Robert Henke (Monolake): “The complexity of today is the standard of tomorrow.” Interview by Innerversitysound


Robert Henke is a German electronic musician who is noted for his co-development of the Ableton Live software. Trained in electrical engineering and software development Henke also developed the the Monodeck 2 desk for use with Ableton Live for his own personal performance needs. Henke is also a key developer of the MaxForLive software that is integrating MaxMSP into Ableton Live. Henke has released 11 albums under his own name and in the Monolake project (with Gerhard Behles until 1999). Henke is coming to Melbourne as part of Melbourne Music Week.

Innerversitysound: Lumiere two – the gestation of this immersive laser and electronics project seems to have started sometime before your 2012 installation Fragile Territories. Can you try to convey the origins of the inclination of combining elementary symbolic elements with sound?

Robert Henke: The great thing about this project is that I don’t know how far I can push it and I don’t know where it’s going to end. In its’ current incarnation it is still something that is very rough and very new. Both from the technical side and from the artistic exploration I can achieve from it. And this is for me a very liberating state. It brings me little bit back into a position of someone who has something very new to occupy himself with and which is similar to how I explored electronic music twenty five years ago. I am confronted with a medium that demands a very different kind of thinking with its own limitations and challenges and it puts me back in a position where every detail matters again. And on this background what I try to do is actually very simple, I try to improve it in such a way that I can achieve more complexity. That’s always the case when you work with something that is very limited you try to push the boundaries. So that’s great.

As far as the artistic side is concerned I am still trying to find out what I can express with this medium which is not just illustrative. This is the big danger and the inherent danger of something like a laser show which is immediately considered as cheesy or pure effect, unless you find ways to something that works on a very different way with the medium. So that sounds very abstract but on a more concrete side I still try to figure out what type of sounds or shapes I can marry in such a way that the results are different enough from my normal musical output to be justified as something different. Something that is so strongly connected that no one would assume that the laser is just a visualisation of the music or that someone would say that someone added sounds to a visual installation. These are the interesting topics how to create something with sounds and lasers in such a way that the sum of the parts is more than just one part added to another.

Innerversitysound: Watching segments of Lumiere two conveys both the sense of the primitive nature of symbols as being foregrounded in a complex technical display. Some of this is primarily limitations of lasers ability to represent overly complex forms, but there are obviously other concerns you have with a reduced symbolic language emerging from a complex form?

Robert Henke: Well it’s hard to answer this question in a general way but for me personally one thing I like to avoid in my work is that despite the necessary complexity of my programming I don’t want the complexity to be the main focus of the resulting work. Because the complexity of today is the standard of tomorrow. So I cannot do a body of work that relies on showing off the complexity for the reason that its novelty value will diminish very soon. So what I try to do is I try to do instead is, I try to hide the complexity and try to find very simple things which are technically complex to achieve but I don’t tell this complexity to the audience I just make sure the simple things that I do are as precise as possible. On the topic of language, when I present a piece of art I am already I am already engaging in a communication with the audience. So that there is an underlying language there anyway and since it is there why not make it a topic in itself.

So there are parts of Lumiere where I show symbols and those symbols are basically just very primitive graphic elements aligned next to each other and you immediately have a sensation of written text. It immediately reminds you of the great care and art that goes into making movie titles. It’s there, it’s centered its large and it’s obviously symbols and a combination of symbols. But at the same time it’s completely impossible to comprehend the meaning, because there is no meaning. But the fact that they are symbols immediately invokes the desire to see a meaning where there is no meaning. And that’s a very playful take on language but I am obviously very fascinated by the fact that we want to find meaning in symbols, and we are obviously looking for a narrative and every single clue we can get to make sense we are happy to take on. This is fascinating because what it also means that even the most abstract things one can imagine in the imagination of the audience will form a narrative. So my task is to provide something that in one way is so open that it allows for many different interpretations and at the same time has so much underlying structure that whatever narrative you come up with you can have some sort of consistency in there. But I don’t want to suggest what kind of narrative it is. I use my own narrative, my own stories in the background to tell my story but for me this is the beauty of doing something that is so non-figurative and so non explicit as electronic art, that I don’t need to force my own narration on the people. I have strong objections to song lyrics for this reason. There are many great songs that I love but if I listen to the song lyrics they make no sense whatsoever any more. So I avoid them.

Innerversitysound: I think it was you: who once mentioned about exploring the mac chip from the grounds of its basic instructions and seeing how the structure and design of the form flowed from the structural foundations of the basic unit. Can you talk about either this or the tension between the base of communication forms and advanced forms having to hold to some form of foundational structure so as to be able to convey meaning.

Robert Henke: Well first of all I believe this question is connected to novelty in the arts or in music and the relation between the foundation and heritage and the novelty. Because one cannot exist without the other. What I mean by this is that even the most advanced and far out artistic endeavour is based on things below that, is based on things below that and what comes down to is the very same foundations of physics on one side and perception on the other side. And to make this a little bit less abstract, for instance, when we talk about my compositional practice, there is of course strong foundations in terms of rhythm for instance. The rhythmical structure is in comparison to what could be done is very basic, very simple. And is relying on established ideas of how rhythm works. There is a clear repetition there, there is a deliberate rigid grid which I became more and more a friend of the more I worked, because I found more and more freedom within the grid than trying to avoid the grid at all. So I kind of made use of the precision and the stupidity of machines and from there onwards tried to find ways to overcome it perceptually. But this is only possible because I used those foundations. So the only way to extend the language, or the only way to overcome the foundations is by actually using them. So as an example, when we go back to rhythm I have a very strict grid. Which could be seen as mechanical, inhuman, all these things that teachers threw on me 30 years ago when I said I am interested in electronic music. But by apply this rigid grid to machines that can actually add motion to it, by applying random variations, by applying slight lags in time, by applying all sorts of things that actually shape the sonic result I overcome the rigidness of the grid I achieve something which is very fluid which is very much oscillating on longer scales. So on one side I have a very basic foundation which is very old and I add something on top which with the aid of technology brings me back into a scenario which is much closer to how human beings would actually deal with rhythm. At the end of the day there is actually a human being involved and this is me, who is designing all these structures.

So I put my perception of how much motion within a rhythm I want to have, I put it in there and this is driven by nothing but my personal taste and completely irrational judgement. So what is fascinating for me in electronic music and digital arts is that I can marry the precision and the heritage of what we know with something that goes beyond that. And I can do this by two means, I can do this in a very formal very descriptive technical way, by even throwing theoretical concepts on it. Or I can do this in a completely different way that is purely intuitive by simply saying well I don’t know how those five faders on my desk interact exactly, but I know enough of it to make intuitive sense out of them. Then afterwards I can go back to a state where I can analyse what is going on. So that is a bit of a detour to the question but it brings us back to the relationship between a very rigid core foundation of things we know and ways to overcome it to do something new. I believe the beauty of artistic creation is that we can create results that are surprising, or in fact we have to create results that are surprising. That’s the great thing, it is our duty. We have to use existing structures to come up with something that doesn’t follow established rules, because that is the only way how we can extend the set of rules. That is a fantastic position to be in, but you can only extend the set of rules if you are familiar with what the rules are. This brings us back immediately to the question of foundations and heritage.

Innerversitysound: You have talked before of the helpfulness of limitations and boundaries in possibilities as helping in being decisive in terms of the creative decisions. Also of the problems of infinite versions and the question of choice. Would you mind telling us the latest iteration of your thoughts on these issues in terms of your creative output?

Robert Henke: Well it’s an old story meanwhile, we have the scenario now of very fast computers and comparably cheap tools to make electronic music which puts in the position of permanent availability of much more tools than we can handle. And we have to get used to it or maybe it is my generation who has to get used to it. Because someone who is becoming an artist and is now in their early twenties that’s all they know, the abundance of tools. So they don’t have to get used to it, they just work with it. And I am pretty sure they found different ways to cope with that. But for my generation it is still an interesting novelty that suddenly everything is possible. This leads to the interesting question of artistic decision making for which we need answers. There is indicators that even the generation of people who grew up with the abundance are struggling with that for it feels that there is a lot of very generic music out there. And this seems to be a contradiction to the vast options we have nowadays. So how come in a time where the production of electronic music allows the most elaborate things, the actual results are more formalised than it seems to have been in earlier days. So for me this seems to an indicator that people are actually struggling with the abundance, and they are struggling with all these options. Because it is hard to come to terms with finding your own voice within these amazing set of possibilities.

I don’t have a general answer for all this. I am not sure that there could be something like a general answer. But I have a personal one and this is that I more and more create my artistic practice around creating systems that deliberately reduce the palette. The laser thing is one obvious scenario where I use a limited medium but also within the studio I tend to focus on machines that are very dumb by nowadays standards and I use them for creation and only afterwards I move the material I created with these machines into, let’s say my laptop where I have all the possibilities of processing those things into whatever I like. But there is already a seed in there and this seed comes from a limited medium. So I don’t start from this white page where everything is possible, but I start from a very well defined, palette of structures, colours, shapes, whatever – in a sonic way – and use that as a starting point so that there is something which I can use as a core foundation. So for me personally this works out very well.

Innerversitysound: Briefly the sequencing of both the sound and the lasers are co-ordinated a further combinatorial piece of software which you built yourself. Can you describe the current setup that you use for Lumiere two?

Robert Henke: Well there is one very essential part that makes it all work conceptually. And normally the scenario works like this; you either have music and you create a visual scenario on top of it that would be the classical I do a visualisation for a piece scenario; or I have a visual piece and I create a sound for it and that would be the cinema scenario. For Lumiere I didn’t want to do either one or the other and instead of I decided that I create visual shapes, similar to a visual alphabet, to give an example I say here is a combination of three circles which are interacting with each other in a certain way. This is one shape and I can recall this shape. Now how does this shape sound like? I come up with a conclusion about how this shape has to sound and then I have another technical system in place which allows me to create such a sound.

So what happens is I have a shape and this shape has properties which can change and I have a sonic shape and once I have those two things I basically combine them into a new type of event which for me is an audio-visual shape. So the initial decision of which shape and which sound to combine is purely arbitrary. I mean not entirely of course, because there are some thoughts behind that but you could argue about that. You could say well the circle doesn’t sound like that the circle sounds like something else. But once the decision is made I don’t question it anymore. So it means that I end up with one single sign, one single symbol, and it is an audio visual symbol and I create a lot of those symbols. My task as a composer at the end is combining those symbols. Creating meaning out of those symbols and those symbols are sonically and visually present at the same time. And this is an absolutely fascinating way to work because it doesn’t separate the visual and the sonic side anymore. It treats it as a unity and then we are back to language.

Innerversitysound: So you could be writing a new musical sound language to branch off from the existing forms in some way. A further iteration of a foundational musical language.

Robert Henke: As a matter of fact the working process now is working on two sides at the same time. Actually it has three layers: it is working on the technical foundations of the language which would allow me in the future to have more complex symbols; then I work on the language itself which means what kinds of sounds and what kind of symbols can I come up with, this is a process which has nothing to do with programming on the software level it has to do with programing in terms of using the software to create and then there is the layer on top which is the composition layer which tries to make sense out of all these symbols. It’s very fascinating because it is a complex set of hierarchies where the boundaries between those hierarchies are very clearly defined. It’s a very computer nerdy way of thinking but these boundaries make it possible that within each of these layers the tasks are very clearly defined and that means that for when for instance I start composing with all these shapes I can liberate myself from the knowledge of the layers below. I can just pretend that what is there is how it has to be and this brings me into the position where I can actually make pieces.

Innerversitysound: In the making of your project with the logic structure
moving through different levels and sometimes you might get to one level and the logical form becomes unruly and chaotic in some form and you have to trace your way back through the levels to actually change the base foundational structures. Do you find that happening with what you are doing?

Robert Henke: I avoid it because the biggest danger of structures like the ones I have in place in combination with my knowledge is of course that all the layers are transparent. I can at one moment say let’s forget about composing, let’s find new combinations of sounds and shapes. Oh the sound isn’t right let’s go into the engine which creates the sounds. Oh there is a bug in the software I am using for creating the engine, let’s get in touch with the Cycling ‘74 guys to solve this back. There is a lot of room for getting nothing done. So what I need to do is I have to basically force myself to pretend that within each of those layers I don’t see the transparency. If I am composing I assume that everything below that stage is a given. If I program I don’t think about composing at the same time. So I try to put very solid boundaries there. But of course it doesn’t entirely work like this so what happens is I always make notes. So whilst composing I already think about how to improve the instrument but I only think about it, I don’t do it and this is a very different scenario.

So there are versions of Lumiere, not just version one versus version two which is a very different story. But within version two I am now at the third iteration and those iterations are entirely iterations where I worked on the compositions. So not one hundred percent, I worked mostly on the compositions and I worked a little bit on the creation of the symbols so I stayed ninety per cent on the first layer and ten percent on the layer below which is defining which sound and which shape to combine. But I didn’t touch the layer below that which is working on the engine which creates all these things. I still make notes and I am going to use these notes to at some point make an update of the engine below which will at some point allow me to create more complex behaviour of shapes than what I do now. But as a matter of fact it is good that I cannot do this now because it forces me to come to artistic conclusions with my limited set of shapes first and once I have mastered that I move forward to put in more complex shapes. And this is what is so great about this project, there are so many limits, but at the same time there is such a clear pathway into overcoming limits step by step. For me this project is the best thing that has happened to me in the last five years.

Innerversitysound: This form of performance is evolving for you. What can people expect from further iterations of this idea in the future? What do you see Lumiere 3 becoming?

Robert Henke: I am not sure yet. There are some desires of mine on the technical side to incorporate some things that I cannot incorporate now. And I am not really sure how much of my desires I can actually get to run software wise. But as much as I embrace the simplicity I also like to be able to push the drawing capabilities of my system much further. So being able to create much more visual complexity. And then from there being able to have this nice dynamics from going from simple shapes to high complexity. The old desire of the musician to control the big orchestra. It doesn’t mean that it has to be always fortissimo on everyone playing but it is nice to have the ability to go all the way up to have all the machine run full speed and then have a nice counterpoint of the piccolo flute. I would like to be able to do this, to get this dynamic range, sonically and visually.

What to do with that from a composers perspective that is a different story and I don’t have an answer for that yet. Finally what I want to do is to create something that has an impact on people on an emotional level and I want to do something that goes beyond the technology, because as I said before I don’t trust the novelty value that much. Because the novelty value of today is the boredom level of tomorrow. It has to stand as an artistic expression even in a day when technology used for this became so ubiquitous that no one cares about lasers anymore because they are just there. If we enjoy, let’s say, Gymnopédies, from Erik Satie we don’t enjoy it because it so complex musically. We enjoy it because actually it is beautiful. It wouldn’t be more beautiful if it had ten times the amount of notes playing at the same time. Just the opposite.

Wed 18th Nov – Monolake + Echo Inspectors + Spilt Silo – Melbourne Music Week – Former Royal Women’s Hospital
Cnr Swanston and Grattan Streets, Melbourne

Thurs 19th Nov – Robert Henke – Lumière II – Melbourne Recital Centre

Fri 20th Nov – Robert Henke Examines Lumière II – Melbourne Recital Centre


About Author