Shaping Sound in Time: Robert Henke on the future of music and machines

Robert Henke moved from Munich to Berlin in 1990.

The Wall had just come down and the newly reunified city was about to become the epicentre of the European techno scene. In 1996 the first Monolake records started coming out on Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald’s legendary Chain Reaction/Basic Channel label.

Taking their name from a body of water in the Sierra Nevada, Henke and his musical partner Gerhard Behles produced a series of propulsive minimal techno 12”s quite different to the dubbier sounds that characterised many other Basic Channel artists. They would cut their tracks in secret, working late into the night in the Elektronische Studio at Berlin’s technical university where Behles was a teacher.

Not long afterwards, in 1999, they founded Ableton together with Bernd Roggendorf. Soon Ableton Live became the leading software for performing electronic music. The list of artist-users on the company’s website goes from Pete Tong to Pete Townshend via Nine Inch Nails, Richie Hawtin, Daft Punk, Diplo, and Del the Funky Homosapien.

More recently, Henke has stepped back to a more informal role at the company while he works on Monolake and the more conceptual projects he produces under his own name – the most spectacular of which, audiovisual laser show Lumière, has been performed at venues from the Barbican Centre in London to the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels and the Centre Cinema Imperial in Montreal.

As Henke readies both a new Monolake EP DEC, the third in a series of five collectively titled VLSI, and a newly remastered edition of his 1997 solo album Floating.Point, we spoke about music, machines, and the future for both.

Firstly, tell me about VLSI – how do these five EPs link together?

Sonically, I try to focus on a specific set of timbres created with a bunch of early 1980s digital synthesizers. I like that certain grittiness I can get out of them, and the more I have endless options in software, the more I can appreciate the technical adventure of making those machines back in the days. They are all very limited but [they] make the most out of it. That’s really inspiring.

Musically, I am very interested in grooves beyond a straight techno beat, which still work within the boundaries of club music – and of course textures, reverbs, drones. And than there is a more abstract theme, which is linked in many ways to the digital synthesizers I adore.

Two years ago I spent a semester as Artist in Residence at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). I took the chance to dive deeply into the history of Silicon Valley, and everything I can do these days in the studio would have been unthinkable without the advances in computer technology that had their origins right there. [So] the artwork on the records are abstract details of so-called ‘very large scale integrated circuits’, the very first electronic parts that could only be created with the help of computers.

And how does DEC stand out from the others in the series?

I hope it does not stand out too much, since they should all form a nice consistent shape. I’d like to achieve a balance between each of the records being unique and still feel like part of a bigger whole. The track ‘Dystopia’ features a transformation of a sound I recently found buried on a floppy disk of my Synclavier – the ‘Beat It’ gong from Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.

The track ‘Crash’ has a nice double meaning for me – of course the computer crash, but also the sound of a crash cymbal, in this case the one from a LinnDrum. Both, the Synclavier and the LinnDrum were made possible via Very Large Scale Integration [VLSI] and in the case of the Linn, of Microprocessors.

What made you decided to release VLSI as a series of EPs before collating them as an album? Were all the tracks produced at the same time or did you finish each EP before moving on to the next?

I have a lot of sketches and a rough idea of where they will go, but I like to change things a lot. I am usually done the day before the mastering. For the VLSI album I plan to take the material but re-arrange it all completely – perhaps even in one big mix. And perhaps with more focus on timbre and space than on rhythm, but I am not sure about this yet.

I recently interviewed another Robert – Robert Hampson from Loop and Main – and he’s doing the same thing with the new Loop material. I wonder if the fact that two such different artists have chosen a similar tack suggests something here about changing patterns of consumption. Were you influenced in your thinking here by the different way that music is distributed now compared to, say, 20 years ago?

Absolutely! It has a lot to do with my current distribution situation. I basically have no distribution for CDs anymore, and most of my sales come from downloads. Releasing an EP digitally and as a limited vinyl run just works better for me.

However, I love albums. When I listen to music I still prefer to sit down and listen to a whole album of an artist and not to a stream of tracks. So I will make albums – and I insist on wanting them also on CD. I like that outdated digital medium. I like that 74-minute length. I like the booklets and the whole format.

“Hardware is not necessary. Grab a laptop, any kind of audio software and some headphones and you are good to go.”

You’ve announced a remastered version of Floating.Point. What made you return to that record now? And how has it felt to listen again to those tracks?

My music is now also available on the download portal of the Hardwax record store, the place where it all began for me. I took that occasion to go through my digital catalogue and decided there are a few things which are missing, for example some of the EP versions of my tracks. I plan to reissue those step by step now, if I find my old master tapes and if they still play.

Fifteen years old DAT tapes, that makes it a challenge. Floating.Point was out on CD, that made it easy. I was surprised by some of the tracks, it was a great pleasure to rediscover them. With all their greatness, with all their flaws. It was like meeting an old friend.

With the increasing move towards streaming services instead of purchased music, can you imagine a situation in which tracks are never really considered finished – they get released, people stream them, but the artist may choose to continually rework them with the new version simply replacing the old in the catalogues of the various streaming services? Is that a situation that appeals to you in any way?

It does not appeal to me. It is hard enough to cope with that in the studio. I really like the fact that at some point there is a decision and that’s it. If I would feel inclined to rework old material, I would probably release it together with the original. Because if the material is interesting enough to be reworked, I am sure the original version is interesting too and having both versions would be nice. I need to consider this for the future.

How does your role as an artist feed into your role at Ableton and vice versa?

When my former musical partner and now Ableton CEO Gerhard Behles and myself were working on music in the early 1990s, we had to write our own software because there was no commercial tool that did what we wanted. The development of Ableton’s Live software was driven by our own experience with the software. One of my essential roles in the company was to verify if the concepts actually worked out in real life. Also, by playing shows with Live and producing records, new ideas and desires for adding features were born which eventually found their way in the product.

The Operator synthesizer is a good example. I designed it because I wanted an FM synthesizer which is easy to program but still powerful and expressive. All my experience with hardware FM synthesizers went into it and a lot of ideas on top. If you look at the initial feature set, or the GUI, it does not seem to be something special. What makes it such a classic is how it is done in the details.

My obsession with details is another aspect where what I do artistically and at Ableton matches. I have a tendency to get stuck with small things. Sometimes this is in the way of the big gesture, but often enough, this is what makes the difference between okay and outstanding. What I learned from Ableton is a lot of management skills and that pays off in many ways. I became quite organized and that helps not only with book keeping but also for the creative process.

As an artist, the creative part is one side, but for getting your ideas out in the world, the management side is equally important. My experience at Ableton also helped me becoming a decent programmer. My more recent projects involve a lot of coding and I strongly benefit from my skills here. The main challenge was always to find the right balance between working as an artist and spending time with Ableton. In 2010, I finally decided to depart from Ableton to focus more on my artistic career, but I am still involved in a more informal way and that’s something I will never entirely give up.

How important has a facility for coding been for you as a musician? And do you think these are skills of increasing or decreasing importance for a creative music-maker in 2015 and beyond?

For me the ability to code my own things is essential, it is just my way of exploring artistic ideas. I have a lot of friends whose work is similar in this regard – artists whose work highly depends and benefits from coding and the process shapes the results and is integral. Tarik Barri’s visual engine Versum comes to my mind, or what Tristan Perich does with his micro controllers.

Others come to their results by delegating the coding work to other – often non-credited – people. And then there are those who are just using what is there and never have the necessity to expand beyond that. With the abundance of tools there is no need to dive into coding. It really depends on what results one is looking for. For creating music coding is not at all necessary. Hardware is not necessary either. Grab a laptop, any kind of audio software and some headphones and you are good to go.

Has your familiarity with the machines that music is made on changed not just your practice as a musician, but also the way you listen to other people’s music?

I became very bored by a lot of generic electronic club music these days. I know how it is made and it does not impress me. But that’s more a general problem and not connected to a deeper understanding of the process. It has more to do with a lack of vision. Music as a commodity for getting drunk in a club. A certain audience demands a certain ‘standard’ and that’s the death of music as a creative process. On the other side, it is still possible to make a fresh groove with nothing but a TR-808. The new often happens where you’d expect it the least.

“It is still possible to make a fresh groove with nothing but a TR-808. The New often happens where you’d expect it the least.”

Do you feel that the creative role of programmers and instrument designers gets unfairly neglected by the press and public?

Sure, but was it ever different? It is amazing how much cool music of the 1980s is based on preset sounds. That’s fine with me – what counts is the result. What bothers me much more is how much the fine art world is neglecting the fact that most of the contemporary digital media art is the result of a lot of people working in the background for some of the big names. And there the process is completely non-transparent to the outside world, and that’s very deliberate. The single genius sells better than the collective of programmers behind the works.

Could there be a parallel to be drawn between the importance of being proficient with a computer in 2015 and proficient with a piano in 1815?

It is possible to create great music and art with very limited knowledge of computers. One just has to know how to operate the right piece of software to a degree which is necessary to get the job done. Playing the cembalo is still a helpful skill, it allows you to experience the musical literature of the past in a different way. I wish I had more time to practice playing. That would help my computer generated ideas more than diving into another software.

Do you remember when you first felt inclined to make music – what was it that inspired you to do so? Are you still inspired to make music today for the same reasons?

What got me forever hooked was the sound of electronic music. It made me listen differently and it made me also appreciate non-electronic music in a new way. I started hearing the timbres of an orchestra, the details of the reverb in a cathedral or an empty warehouse, and the rigid grooves made me aware of the complex phrasings of virtuoso players. The ability to shape sound in time just never stops to amaze me. That moment in the studio or during a performance when it starts to just sound right creates pure happiness.

What innovations would you like to see in music that are perhaps not possible now but may become so in the future?

I am very happy with music as it is. I still discover pieces from last year, the last decades, or from a few centuries ago which knock me off my feet.



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