Interview: Robert Henke (Monolake) and the art of symbolism


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Robert Henke aka Monolake is an underground music profile who most likely needs no introduction. His work merges two separate, sometimes even conflicting concepts – technology and emotion. Being a renowned musician, sound engineer and software architect introducing cutting-edge concepts, he is also the man behind the Monolake project, which has enchanted many sonic explorers with its cold, intense and futuristic musical narratives of unexplored spaces and forms. This is a man on a journey to re-define techno music, with the introduction of new beats and exploration of new sonic capabilities we are treated with songs that knows their roots, but tends to drift apart into new territiories and unseen utopian landscapes.

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The new Monolake product VLSI is an idiosyncratic full range Electronic Music album which emphasizes history & evolution of digital sound synthesis & design. Most of the signature sounds on the VLSI album were programmed using early digital synthesisers; machines built by individuals or small teams of adventurous engineers and music enthusiasts during the 1980s, stretching the imagination of what could be done with a handful of chips and a good idea.

When you listen to Monolake´s new album you are immediately dragged into his world of atmospheres, solid rhythms, staggering and unpredicatble beats, paired with slick dystopic pads in wast digital spaces. Cymbals, minimal clicks and noises add to the intriguing soundscapes charactersizing the world of Henke. Is it techno? According to Robert it is, in either way it is an enchanting journey from the minimal to the expressionist emotions that evolve when low-bass synths meat high-pitched noise pads. Robert is on VLSI making an impressive job in driving the rhythms forward and in doing so bringing colors to the more experimental sides of techno. VLSI is perhaps not a dance floor filler as it leans more towards performance art than the standard clubbing scene – however it is quite likely that this has never been the ultimate goal of this album either, rather it is a sonic endavour into the unknown and a nice evolution of the Berlin underground scene completely in line with the objectives set forth by founders like Jeff Mills.

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As stated by Robert Henke when talking about the new album: The VLSI album is sonic archeology. Tiny artefacts of the instruments used have been carefully excavated and brought to new light. What was once perceived as limitation and dirt can now be experienced as character, colour and patina. The interaction with these machines guided a minimalist and structural approach to sound and rhythm, expanded and re-contextualised into a futuristic soundtrack, utilising the recording technology of 2016. The result is inspired by early techno, UK breakbeat and dubstep, african dance rhythms, future glitch, ambient and a variety of amazing academic computer music.

Robert explains: “the concept for VLSI emerged during an artist residency at the Center for Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University in 2013, which helped me understand not only some deeper technical aspects of my trade, but also the social and cultural peculiarities of Silicon Valley.”

If the album concept look back at the computer history the sounds are only in some way looking back with some resemblence of the sound on 00-albums. The physical modelling sounds and samples processing are less apparent compared to Ghosts and Silence.

In order to more fully understand VLSI and all other running projects we contacted Robert for an interview.

It appears that we have now seen the final output of the VLSI quest, which started with XIE in 2014 and ended with GMO in 2016, do you feel that you have achieved what you were hoping for now when VLSI is out and looking backwards?

That’s always difficult to say. I learned a lot whilst doing it, especially as far as the mix is concerned, and I believe I achieved some remarkable moments in almost every piece on it. How well it turned out is something that I can only judge after a longer time.

Would you say that you were having a thematic approach to VLSI and are there any specific emotions or responses you want to convey with this album, and how would you say that VLSI has evolved compared with previous Monolake productions?

I like to use a topic of sorts as a guideline for my flow of associations. That helps achieving an overall shape. I am thinking very much in albums, and I want the pieces on it to be connected by more than just the fact that they all were made till the last album. Creating music is a very personal process and the VLSI album is definitely inspired by my stay at Stanford’s CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustic) in 2013 and my first hand experiences of life in Silicon Valley. It made me very curious about its history, and the VLSI album reflects that. Also I noticed that the machines I use to make music where unthinkable without Silicon Valley. That’s a very untold story and a very interesting one too. Even connects defence technology and sound. So that provides quite a extensive backdrop for creative output.

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Stanfords CCRMA

How come you are fascinated by early computers and digital technology? Is that related to you long time use of digital synthesizers?

I am an engineer by heart. It is a family tradition. And in engineering there is so much beauty, so much love for detail and so much ‘form follows function’. Computers are very elegant machines, conceptually and as products. And whilst the current ones are so complex  that no human being can understand them in all details, early machines were still  at a level that made it possible to design them with a pen and paper. A 6502 CPU from 1975 contains 3510 transistors. A current one up to several billions.

What have you learned from the process of writing VLSI (as we understand it you set out to use mainly hardware instruments to produce the album) has it had an impact on your relation to software based instruments and VSTs, but also in the relation to the exploration of the machines you used on the album?

I never used many software synthesizers, with the exception of the ones I wrote by myself (Operator, Simpler in Live, Granulator for Max4Live, other non-public Max devices). I assembled a nice small collection of early digital synths in my studio and I enjoy also their user interfaces. The designers of these machines did a great job to overcome the limitations. When working with them I feel I am in a dialog with their creators. And since I had the chance to meet most of them during the last few years, they make even more sense to me. There is a lot of Roger Linn in the Linndrum and the FM synthesis from Yamaha has John Chowning written all over it. I like that. What changed in my relationship with my old machines is how I perceive their sonic character. The more perfect recording technology gets and the more polished things sound, the more one can start appreciating the dirt and grit of the old machines. A perfect sine wave is just that. There is not much you can do with it in terms of filtering. However, a jittery 8 bit ‘sine wave’ with all its aliasing overtones that fold back all over the spectrum is a rich source for further manipulation.

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You regularly tend to step a bit outside of the main stream formula of techno music – is this a deliberate strategy to push the envelope in contemporary underground techno music or are you simply pushing your music legacy into new territories?

I am in Berlin since 26 years, and I am located in what became the hipster techno party neighbourhood. I am exposed to straight bass drum patterns and c-minor chords with cheesy preset sounds all day long, I just need to open a window. The last thing I’d like to do is add more of that sonic rubbish. If I were based on a remote island I might perceive it differently. At the same time, I do like the idea of techno. Thus, I try to create my own version of it. And I insist in calling it techno. Because that genre once was varied, colourful, experimental and eclectic before it became supermarket background noise.

You are sometimes referring to the “rigid grid” and that it has almost become a friend rather something that restrains you in your rhythmic production. Is this still the case or have you found any flaws in the grid that may limit you going forward?

Rigid grids are awesome. The groove in my music comes from the volume, spectral relationships and the envelopes of the sounds. The rigid grid makes it tight, the envelopes make it groovy. I like the sound of machines and I leave the swing to people from warmer countries.

You have mentioned previously that you have used coding a lot in your music profession, can you give us some concrete examples on how you have utilized this in your music production process? Is this also related to a statement you made earlier; “my music is never really about melodies or song structures.

I always find my work closer to sculpture than to songwriting”. I did not do much coding deliberately for the VLSI album, but I wrote some effects and synths which I used on it. I try to be very strickt these days, and separate instrument design, coding, soldering hardware etc. from the actual artistic process of working with the tools. For the Monolake stuff I have a great studio and enough tools to be happy. Where coding is an essential part of the work is for my laser performance ‘Lumiére’. There simply are no tools out there that can do what I need, thus I have to write my own.

During the creation of VLSI I wrote several plug ins, including a little tool that allows me to layer up to 250 detuned loops of the same sample. The results can be heard in the background of the track ‘Geometry Engine’ and on the soundtrack for my ‘Fall’ laser installation. Writing that thing took me two days, that payed off. I also started developing a classic 8 bit sampler emulation device, think Emulator II, but never managed to finish it, which is high on my todo list.

Layering of sounds we see as a main component in your music creation process – what emotions do you want to convey with surprises like the one used in Layering Buddha and Monolake Live, and how important in general is sound sculpting in techno style music, including yours?

For me it is all about sound and rhythm in music, and color and shape in visual arts. That’s why I enjoy electronic music and abstract painting and sculpture. It can be discussed what ‘good sound’ is, but a piece of music with no attention to sound does not work for me. Then we are back to supermarket techno. 808 kit? check. 303 baseline? check. NI Razor wobble bass preset? check. Thank you but no.

Spatial awareness is something that we know is of great importance to you – would you say that you are quite alone in this quest or is this a growing trend as a musician? How appreciative do you believe your listeners are of this, both on the dance floor and in your installations?

Everyone is doing surround these days, no?  It became quite trendy with all those nice new speaker setup touring the festivals. The listeners do appreciate it if it makes sense. If you do a circular panning on a high hat for the whole duration of your set, its quite annoying. If the composer has a vision and concept of what to do with spatial sound it can be super satisfying and noticeable for the audience. For my installations it is a must. If I am not bound to a specific setup or format, I can do what I like and I can decide which speakers I want to place in what locations to achieve the best effect. I enjoy this a lot.

When performing live how much of your performance is improvisation, what parts are key for improvisation and what tools do you use for this? You have mentioned that Monodeck II has a key role in your set up can you explain what it does that is not available from off-the-shelf products?

When I built the Monodeck II in 2005, there simply were no commercial alternatives. It was simply the only MIDI controller with a clip launch matrix with full RBG LEDs and tons of buttons and knobs. The Akai APC40 and later Push were inspired by that design.

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For my Monolake shows it is very essential that I can improvise. For me, a proper live techno set must be improvised. There must be room for interaction with the audience, that’s a huge part of the fun. For other performances like Lumière there is a different focus, but I could never play a set where I just press play. That would kill me. I need to be able to react in a spontaneous way, or it would not be good.

Your laser performances has become quite legendary; e.g. Lumiere for one, and the use of audio-visual symbolism, what role would you say symbolism has in music in general and in your genre in particular?

Not sure about ‘symbolism’ but language is the key to my audio visual works. In Lumière it is all about that. I wrote code when I program the routines that control the lasers. I use text messages to describe the visual shapes, I display successions of symbols as part of the visual elements of the show. Thus it is all very much based on the idea of communication.

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Symbols are the building blocks of that. And, as far as the visual side is concerned, there is magic in symbols. Very old, very archaic magic. We see symbols and we try to make sense out of them. The whole idea of identifying extraterrestrial intelligence is based on looking for symbols in a stream of noise. Symbols, patterns, repetition, all that cool stuff.

What are your plans going forward – what happens in late 2016 and 2017 going forward, any new material or performances in the pipe?

There are several very big projects in the pipeline. In February I am going to have the premiere of Lumière III in London, and then hopefully a lot of gigs all over the globe.

I am almost done with the technical infrastructure for it, I pimped the visual engine to allow me doing more complex things, and as a next step will work on the audio synthesis part. After that I have two months of actually working on the content.

The project which will most likely keep me busy for the whole 2017, is working on a performance project involving several outdated computers from 1980. Green text on black CRT screens. I am going to use these machines for things they were never meant to do: real time sound and video. In order to make that possible, I have to become an expert in 6502 assembler programming. That’s by far the nerdiest project I ever attempted. It is a bit insane, but there are some good composer friends like Tristan Perich, who strongly support the idea. That helps. There will be no shortage of work for the years to come.

LISTEN IN FULL TO VLSI ON SPOTIFY

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Robert Henke is an artist working in the fields of audiovisual installation, music and performance. He was born 1969 in Munich, Germany, and lives in Berlin.

Coming from a strong engineering background, Henke is fascinated by the beauty of technical objects and developing his own instruments and algorithms is an integral part of his creative process.

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His materials are computer generated sound and images, field recordings, photography and light; transformed, re-arranged and modulated by mathematical rules, real time interaction and controlled random operations. Robert Henke’s work has a particular focus on the exploration of spaces, both virtual and physical. Many of his works use multiple channels of audio or are specifically conceived for unique locations and their individual properties. For the past few years, he has been exploring the artistic usage of high power lasers in his installations and performances.

The results include music on the edge of contemporary club culture, surround sound concerts, compositions in the tradition of academic computer music, photography, audiovisual installations, sound art and publicly available software. His long term musical project Monolake, founded in 1995, became one of the key icons of a new electronic club music culture emerging in Berlin after the fall of the Wall.

Robert Henke is also one of the main creators of the music software Ableton Live, which since its invention in 1999 became the standard tool for electronic music production and completely redefined the performance practice of electronic music.

He writes and lectures about sound and the creative use of computers and held teaching positions 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 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, STRP Biennale Eindhoven, and on countless festivals.

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