Chasing ghosts in the machines - the exclusive interview with Robert Henke
Robert Henke is a man who probably needs no introduction. His art merges two separate, sometimes even conflicting concepts - technology and emotion. Being a renowned sound engineer and software architect introducing cutting-edge concepts, he is also the man behind the Monolake project, which mesmerized many sonic travelers with its cold, intense and futuristic musical narratives of unexplored spaces and forms, where ghost chasing takes place in polygon cities, where monolithic minimal techno scapes form unseen utopian landscapes. No wonder Monolake's last two albums are based on his own novel, which introduces even more existential sense to his sound.
Meeting Robert Henke at Unsound Festival was something between seeing a good friend you have never met before and extremely exciting academic consultation. Artist, sound engineer, lecturer and one of the main creators of Ableton Live simply shines with positivity.
In this exclusive interview Robert Henke talks about the key changes in music making and technology in the last few decades, brings out the profound reason of the analog revival and reveals the status of the third part of his trilogy.
Your music is very technologically based. How do you find the balance between technology and emotion? Do you feel that they sometimes contradict each other?
No. I come from a strong engineering background and for me there's a lot of beauty in machines. There's beautiful machines and not so beautiful machines, but if you look at an old clockwork or at a steam engine, or at an amazing supercomputer or some optic instruments, a great watch - all these things are really, really beautiful pieces of engineering and engineering is not just logic. There are so many artistic decisions to be made: which materials to choose, which colours to choose. You always have questions of design in there, too. A beautiful music instrument is as much a piece of engineering as a piece of art. For me, working with computers or technology is not just a rational process. I find this a very strange construction, this whole idea that technology has nothing to do with emotions – that's not true. An organ pipe is technology, a guitar string is technology, a grand piano is technology, that's all technology, research and science. Mixing colours for painting – that's science, that's chemistry. There's so much science in art anyway. So we are constantly using science to create beauty, it's a normal part of a process.
The last two albums by Monolake were concept pieces based on your evolving novel having some post-apocalyptic and dystopian undertones. What is the status of the story at the moment? Are you going to publish it? And when can we expect the third part of the trilogy?
Currently, I'm working on a different project, but I didn't forget to finish the trilogy. I don't know when I'm going to do it, but I definitely plan to do it. The text exists, so I pretty much know how the third part is supposed to be. I'm not sure anymore if I will publish the big text. I decided it's not good enough to be published as a whole, but it's nice to have it for my own. At present, I'm just too much focused on my new work and I don't know when I will find time to do the last piece of these three albums. But I want to do that, so someday it will appear.
Could you tell us more about this new work?
It’s my Lumière project. A mad attempt to create a new type of audiovisual performance show based on using laser for the generation of moving images and deriving most of the sonic aspects from the very same processes that also create the visual side. I am working very hard on it, and it seems that this will keep me busy for the next few years. There is a lot to discover and I am just at the very beginning.
Looking from an experienced sound and software engineer perspective, what is your opinion on all the analog revival these days? Is it a recurring short time trend or a turning point in sound making history?
Neither. The fact that everything gets smaller and smaller and more invisible inside the computer is something that is great. But I think we human beings, we have bodies, we like to touch things, we like to use all our senses when working with something. And just using a mouse or a touchscreen is not really satisfying as a medium of expression. I don't think it's a question of analog or digital, it's a question of do you have something you can actually touch. Is it possible for you to get a relationship between the sound and your body? If you play the piano and you want to play loud you have to press keys hard, if you want to play fast you have to have strong muscles and that's important. If you have a lot of little boxes with knobs you get a little bit back this intuitive way of working with technology. You can do things without looking at the screen and you can do things without thinking this number 7.5 now should go down to 3.9 and you just move something. So I believe the reason why a lot of people like those analog machines is because they can touch them.
The other thing is that software is potentially endless. For making art, limitations are always important. If you decide to use a specific piece of hardware you are limited. You need to work with what this specific box offers you. In software you can always get more and more. And this is often not good for creating. For being creative, it is much more helpful to say "OK, this is what I can do and I need to become as good as possible with this little thing" than saying "Oh, I was playing with this little thing, then I throw it away and use another little thing". Computers are like an infinite collection of possibilities. And for creating, this is often not really helpful.
I grew up when technology was still so expensive that limitations were completely normal. But people who are now in their early twenties and start making music they don't have limitations anymore, they can do whatever they like. And this is a quite horrible situation, actually. If they buy a little hardware box suddenly there's a limit and this limit is interesting. This is the reason why a piano has 88 keys and not an infinite number of keys. It tells you what to do with it.
You've been teaching 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 in Le Fresnoy in Lille, France. So what do you think about your students? Does technology make them smarter?
I think good students always have been smart and will always be smart. Technology for them is just as normal as the pocket calculator was normal for my generation and as the existence of a pen and a piece of paper for the generation before.
But maybe you see the difference between ten years ago and now?
People work differently with technology because technology evolves. Concurrently, they also forget about things they don't need to know. So it's not that they are smarter, their knowledge just shifts. For instance, 25 years ago it was possible to build your own computer. I mean, what Steve Jobs and his partner did was building their own computer from scratch. Our generation is fluent in using 20 different programming languages, but at the same time the computers became so complicated that it's impossible to build your own computer, you won't do this anymore. The overall amount of active knowledge stays the same. The students are not smarter, it's just the tools which evolve. They know how to use tools that are currently available. No one has the skill anymore to start fire with a flint stone, but there was a time when it was just a normal knowledge, everyone could do it.
You have been teaching sound and creative use of technology. Why did you stop doing that?
I like to do things right and teaching is hard work. If you take your students seriously then you have to spend a lot of time and a lot of thoughts. And I figured out that teaching every week means I have a class one day per week, but it costs me at least three days just to get into it and to get out of it again. I need more time for my music and the other things I do. So I decided to better stop teaching and focus on music for a while. It doesn't mean that I'm not coming back to it. I can see that I go back to teaching at some point because I liked it. It's just that I currently feel like I have to focus on the art.
Do you listen to music? How does the listening process influence you and your art?
Sometimes I listen to a lot of music, sometimes when I work on things I try to actually not listen to other music at all because it confuses me. Sometimes I'm very nervous about what I'm doing and then I need to live a life of a monk in the middle of nowhere, shut down every external input.
You are traveling a lot, so tell us are there any countries or regions breaking through in the electronic music scene at the moment?
To me it always comes down to people. Nevertheless, there are developments in countries. Suddenly the USA discovers EDM, suddenly electronic dance music raves with people doing electronic rave music is the big thing. But that's something that has no meaning to me, because there were always people in the States who liked my music and I'm not sure if the growing rave culture in the USA is anything that relates to me. So I see developments in countries, but I don't think it's relevant, because this small scene (Unsound) is more experimental. More adventurous electronic music has always been international. There are always people from very different countries including people living in Vietnam or South Africa. It has always been an international community and therefore I don't see many regional changes. Of course, there was, at the beginning of the 1990's, this amazingly special situation in Berlin, an amazing new club culture emerged there, and this was a special moment. But that Berlin moment just happened because suddenly there was a space, it could have taken place somewhere else too, with the same unlikely external conditions of having cheap, vast spaces in the middle of a big city full of young people. All you need to be creative is free space. It is impossible to come together, do noncommercial things and find new ways of expression if there is no space.
What is happening now in Berlin?
Well, everything became more normal. Electronic dance music is not new anymore, clubs are not new anymore, they just became a normal part of nightlife. You go to clubs just the same way you go to bars, it doesn't have anything to do with explorations anymore. The new things happen in small places all over the world. I don't see anything coming specifically from Berlin that is newer and more exciting than from potentially any other city. But there is still an extraordinarily high number of places to listen to experimental electronic music.
Nowadays everybody can make music, can buy a computer, can listen to music from all around the world. So what do you think of it, is it good or bad to live in that mess?
That's a very complex question and it has two parts. One part - is it good or bad that everyone can make electronic music now? I believe it's good because also everyone can write a book or play a guitar and only a few people are really good at books and playing very well guitar. Or everyone can play football, only a few people are really good at it. So I think the fact that electronic music is available to everyone is completely fine.
The second important factor is that in the earlier days record labels were the instances that took care of quality or at least a certain consistency. There was a strong aesthetic idea behind the whole Hardwax, Basic Channel and Chain Reaction labels, for example. People bought records of unknown artists like me because it was released on a label which they trusted to provide quality. The record label was a barrier. You make music and you go to a record label and the big question was will the record label like it and sponsor it. Nowadays the record labels are gone more or less. You can publish your stuff by yourself. So that means this function of selecting music, which the record label had, is not so much present anymore. And what needs to come up is new ways to judge and find music, but it's already happening. Who gets more likes, who has most plays on SoundCloud and all these recommendations systems. This is pretty much an equivalent to record labels. So in a way I still believe it will be possible to find quality music and ignore the stuff of shitty quality just as much as you can ignore all the shitty books, which are published every year, and just read the good ones
What kind of books do you like to read? Do you have your favorites? What role literature plays in your life?
I spent a lot of time reading when I was younger, but nowadays I rarely find the time. I read books about work related stuff, texts about synthesis and composition but almost never read a novel, which is a bit of a loss.
Back to music, how to feel comfortable with picking music, how to build your own limits?
It will just happen naturally. A friend tells you that this guy or lady makes good music, you just type her name on your Last.fm or Spotify account and you get it. I think this is very cool what's happening there. Because it also means you can discover music you would never find by yourself. For instance, I listen to a lot of different musical styles, but I'm interested in a few common elements. I like a specific type of rhythm, I like specific types of timbre, but I can like this in jazz, classical music, in 80's pop or whatever. And a clever computer program could figure out what all these things have in common and suggest other music, which might be a flute quartet by an unknown composer from the Middle Ages which has exactly the same properties as the other music I like. Something that sounds almost like Steve Reich, but it is from the 17th century. Wow, is it just that one piece, and the other pieces from this composer are completely different? But he made this one piece, which seems to fit perfectly well in between Steve Reich and Phillip Glass. This could be possible and I would never find it.
Excitement of discovery?
Yes, so I believe there's a lot of good things coming. I'm not worried about that part of the world.
You seem a very positive and optimistic person.
Well, I'm very negative in a lot of political questions.
I think everybody does.
But as far as the art is concerned I'm positive.
Could you elaborate on what makes you happy in your life in general?
The usual things of course: being amongst friends, love, sex, relationships, being healthy, having enough financial resources to afford a nice place to stay and good things to eat. One a more specific note, I am very happy that some of the most important aspects of who I am, my creative side, is the main source of income and is also a source of appreciation and recognition. I can do things other people enjoy, and that gives me a lot of pleasure. As long as I have enough money to do what I want to do, the recognition and the happiness or excitement I can create amongst other people is a far bigger reward than anything else.
In times in which companies pay billions of dollars to buy other companies that offer a small piece of software, money becomes totally meaningless unless you don’t have enough to survive. There is no connection anymore between the value of things and what people pay for. But a person dancing to my music has a value that I can directly relate to what I am doing.
The first Monolake vinyl came out in 1996, but the first long play on vinyl format came out in 2009. What caused such a long wait for a vinyl LP? Almost all project's singles were released within the limit of 1000 copies in white vinyls. Do you plan to release an album of limited vinyl format in the future?
There was no strategy behind that. It was common practice at the Chain Reaction label to release vinyls and then later compile albums. When I started releasing on my own label I decided that not every track of an album deserves to be on the 12”. So I released the album and a bunch of 12”es with selected tracks. There was a limited white or clear run, but there were re-pressings of several records in black vinyl, too. My current strategy is to release albums in different formats and that’s it. This implies having it out on CD and as double gatefold vinyl LP. And, for simple financial reasons, that vinyl edition will be limited to the initial run unless the demand is much higher. I simply cannot afford to store a few hundred of unsold vinyls of every release.
You seem a very positive, communicative and lively personality. Do you feel that you are getting old at all? What does it mean to you? Could you agree with Albert Einstein's words that "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile" or it is too unrealistic and illogical declaration? What do you think is the most important thing in life to be a better man?
Of course, I feel I am getting old, and it bothers me. On the other side, I am much less insecure than when I was younger, so I am not missing that part. I don’t think in categories of being ‘good’ or being ‘better’. There is enough competition out there in every possible aspect of life, I don’t need more of that. I try to be myself and that implies being nice to other people because being around nice people is essential and you get back what you radiate. Being an asshole does not pay off.
Aside from the developments in technology, digital and interactive art installations, audiovisual art and moving image has made art more interactive and involving for its audiences. How do you think it is changing the way we experience art and perceive the space around us?
Mainly all these media expose us to a very broad idea of possible spaces and that’s quite cool. We are able to think of spaces in many dimensions now and not just as some air inside six walls in a room. I just hope that city planning is learning from that more than they seem to do currently. There is a contradiction between the vast data architectures of social networks, narrative outer space in the likes of ‘Gravity’, the complex worlds of computer games, twisted sonic spaces in music and the quite conservative and boring typical space that we have to deal with when looking out of the window. Is building more luxury condos and highways really the only thing we can come up with to organize physical space for people to life and work?
Hyperreality and video projection are generating a lot of interest right now. How do you think they may affect the art scene in general? And how do you see the future of arts?
Ask me again in 50 years!