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Robert Henke (Monolake): “Could you see a pencil disabling creative writing because it is so simple to write with it? On the contrary, it is fantastic that the tools are available for everyone”
18 years have passed since the electronic music world first heard the name Monolake. Even Lithuanians have had the pleasure of seeing the project a few times – first as a duo, then as Robert Henke’s solo performance. He will be back on November 7th with his new – and probably most complex so far - project called Lumière. I tried not to ask about it too much during the interview as I believe it will be more interesting to explore it live. But there is so much I’d like to know when talking to the artist – and I’d definitely like to become Robert Henke’s student, if there was a chance.
Foto: Andreas Gockel
You’ve stated in your biography that ‘Oxygene’ was the music you couldn’t stop listening to in the young days. Could Jean Michel Jarre be the main reason you chose the path you are in?
I am not sure he was ‘the reason’, but ‘Oxygene’ definitely triggered it. If that would not have been the case, then later other electronic music would have done it. I did not feel the urge to do the same thing as Jean Michel Jarre, it was more the discovery of a whole new world for me: The idea that music can be something else than either a pop song or a symphony and it can be done with machines.
Is your music the result of your experiments and explorations, or rather an ongoing project left for your listeners to evaluate and maybe continue?
My music and all the other things mainly exist because I like doing them. It feels good to be in the studio and to find some new detail in a known structure or to finally track down a bug that keeps things from running. I like the process to get from an idea to a result and of course at some point I'd like to share my findings and get feedback from the outside world. Some of the things I have been doing became highly influential for a lot of people, like my contributions to Ableton Live, others are only essential for a few fans of my work, and some of the things I do never leave my studio because they are not ready yet.
Your music is as scientific as it is artistic – at least that’s what I feel about it. Is the balance equal in your mind as well?
I tend to be careful with the terms ‘scientific’ or ‘research’. Too many artists put that label on their work, and I have too much respect for real scientific work to do the same.
I did consider studying physics and I know enough about the process of scientific work. I'd rather like to link my art to engineering. Good engineering involves a lot of aesthetic decisions and that reflects back to the outcome. I build my own tools, because it is essential for me to play with things that I find appealing, because if my tools are good I find joy and inspiration using them.
As far as the results are concerned, I do what everyone else does, I try things out, I make mistakes, discover new things and, in general, I try to become more refined in what I do. At the same time, I stay adventurous enough to explore new ideas.
Your music has been performed and played in all sorts of venues and locations all around the world. Some tend to be more academic and serious, some laid back and nightlife-ish. Does it matter for you as an artist? Do you care if the audience is sober or high; if they are sitting on chairs or dancing barefoot on the grass? Do you think about the time and place of the future performances when writing music in the first place?
Some of my performances or installations require specific locations and I think a lot about that aspect when working on them. But also when I make music I consider the possible playback situation. I sit in the studio and wonder about how that track will sound over a very large PA. Or if the other piece works nice in a theater with a lot of loudspeakers all over the place. And those questions also involve what kind of audience I imagine to be there to experience what I do.
What is the biggest – and maybe smallest as well? – audience you’ve performed for? Are you conscious about the size of the audience?
Biggest is hard to tell, perhaps 20.000 people. Smallest is equally hard, but I remember a concert in the early 1990's in Switzerland where there was an amazing mismatch between the size of the venue (huge) and the amount of people (5 including bar staff).
More important than the size is for me the quality of the audience. Playing in front of a few highly critical people can be hard, playing for 10.000 people who just want to party can be easy.
What are you thoughts towards musicians working with commercial brands? For example, U2 and iTunes, Lady Gaga and Doritos, and many more.
I can't judge as I am not in their position. I don't think it's cool, but who knows what I would do if I were in their place. I am already having serious issues with the fact that a soft drink company seems to take over pretty much all major party events. I don't think this is serving the scene well on a long run. It makes it all feel the same, and hipness it not everything.
As you were (or are again?) a lecturer, I assume you believe in the power of systematic education. But where have you learned the most essential things in your life? Was it school, university or rather continuous experiments outside of the traditional borders of education system?
I had very mixed experiences with teachers, from total sadists to amazingly supportive persons who helped me figuring out who I am. So I very much see the power of good education and I strongly believe in education as a key to success on many levels. I also learned a lot from a few close friends and most from the ones with whom I did not agree all the time.
Why do some people – actually, a lot of people – simply grow out of music? I mean, they leave their favourite bands and albums to gather dust and concentrate on money, family or other things, as if listening to music and enjoying it is immature. Another question connected to this one – do your listeners grow together with you, or is the crowd getting younger?
I learned that I have a very broad age distribution amongst my fans. Some could be my grand fathers, some my daughters or sons, so that's quite cool.
I feel there is perhaps a general loss of significance of music for some people, since there are so many other competing things: games, social networks, which take a lot of attention away. When I was a teenager, music was a huge part of what defined who I am and to which people I belong. And perhaps this is not so much the case anymore, I don't really know. I am not talking about ‘stars’, I talk about the music itself.
Does getting older and accumulating all the experience make you smarter, faster and more intuitive at your work?
No, because the more I know the more I hesitate to do what has been done a hundred times before. Yes, because I know exactly what to do to achieve a certain result. I'd say it takes all slightly longer, but also because I do much bigger things.
It has been a few years since you stopped working with Ableton Live, right? I have read it was because you wanted to dedicate on art. Looking back, however, what were your personal reasons to work with the project and have you fulfilled your aims?
Ableton was founded by my former Monolake partner Gerhard Behles, and since we share so many ideas about how music can be made with computers, it was quite clear that I have to get involved. Officially I am out, but, as usual, some of the most important ideas are discussed late at night in a bar anyway. I still have those regular meetings with Gerhard, and on a informal level I am still part of it all. It is way more than a business for all of us. It is part of our history and part of what we believe in.
I saw a tshirt once saying 'Disableton' and mocking Ableton’s logo. I can see where it came from, and I want to ask – could one see Ableton Live as a way of blocking artistic creativity, just because it’s relatively simple to use?
Could you see a pencil disabling creative writing because it is so simple to write with it? On the contrary, it is fantastic that the tools are available for everyone. Who says you have to be rich or know the right people just to be able to record a tune? I am very happy we are beyond that elitist music industry thinking.
Lumière’s framework was rewritten after its premiere in Unsound. Why? Is the project always under sorts of construction?
Lumière was a bold move for me, a decision to start an audiovisual project where every detail is my own work. I had to learn a lot about what I want to do and how. It is an ongoing process and there are even bigger and more radical changes in the making. After performing it almost 20 times in the past year I get a much better idea about what I want it to be, and this requires unfortunately a lot of new programming work. But I am confident it will pay off! Planned premiere of Lumière II is in March 2015 in Paris at Centre Pompidou.
Do you read or listen to the reviews of your art? Are you looking forward for reactions?
I am of course interested, but I also learned that you cannot please everyone. More important than reviews are comments from good friends.
There are quite a few performances that you have presented in the past few years. Are all of them available to book and bring elsewhere, or were some site and time-specific?
A lot of the performances are potentially still available. Some would need to be adapted, but in general I like the idea that those are 'performative works' and can be shown again even after a long period of time. They are all listed on my website.
How is the Monolake project doing – I’ve seen some live dates, too? Might there be a new album on its way?
I have been working on tracks all the time, and I will step by step release a few 12" vinyls. And then later an album, indeed. But equally or even more important for me at the moment is Lumière II.
Do you believe music – and other forms of art – might be left for robots and computers to create in the near future, as soon as machines are programmed with the right emotional algorithms? Or is the human touch inevitable?
Complex topic. As far as the current state of artificial intelligence is concerned: It is not a problem anymore to build a system that can produce a good generic track in any genre. But who needs that? The beauty in art always comes from the violation of rules. And finding a good violation is the magic no machine can do so far since it involves much more than just musical knowledge. It has to be seen in a social, historic, political, subcultural, ethnic, religious and sexual context. Before machines can deal with all that they will not be able to produce the next big thing in art.
D.D. 2004 - 2016
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