Give Robert Henke a computer, some lasers, and some time to make his own tools as well as his own music, and wonderful things result. In a new video (German, with English subtitles), he gives a master class not so much in technology as the philosophy of using that technology.

Robert Henke – now increasingly in the public eye under his full name and not “co-founder, Monolake” or “co-founder, Ableton” attached with it – has for years gone way beyond the club floor. Even apart from experimental club music or elaborate multichannel audio experiments, you see his work accompanied by dancing arrays of balloons, or animated visualization, or gyrating bars of light. In Lumière, the audience is treated to frickin’ lasers.

But in the tight duet of sight and sound, Robert is playing with structure, focusing his intense compositional discipline like a … well, okay, like a laser beam.

Immersive audiovisual artwork is often seen as some kind of end in itself – it has commercial value, of course; it gets you programmed on festivals. It’s dazzling and spectacular, and the ritual of spectacle is its own cultural signifier. But it’s also clear that this isn’t want drives Robert when you hear him talk about his work.

And Robert, perhaps like the rest of us, has to deal with the greatest artistic demon of all: choice. From the video:

The problem with electronic music is you have too many options.
And that those many options often make it hard for you to make a decision.
My feeling is the fact that so much of electronic club music sounds the same stems from this fear.
You have all these options and what do you do? You just do what you know works.

30dez13 – Robert Henke (english subtitles) from 6sept13 on Vimeo.

Having come from classical acoustic composition and other creative endeavors, I would almost replace the words “electronic music” in the above sentence with “creating art.” (Composers, even bound by the peculiar limitations of the French Horn and its player, still agonize similarly over the question of choice.)

What these lasers and such do, then, is to provide limiting structure. And structure of some sort, Robert says in the video, is what drives him:

I try to find a context of some sort into which I can put my own creation while I’m creating it. This context then becomes an auxiliary construction which excludes certain things. To say, no, I won’t go this way, I’ll take another direction.

Robert rebels in the video against “intuition” and the danger of arbitrary sounds. But I don’t know that these are mutually exclusive aims. I’d even argue the free exercise of musical intuition requires constraints, which may be what Robert is indirectly getting at. A jazz pianist’s freedom comes partly from being able to constrain performance with rigid harmonic structure, with a specific scale – and then against those boundaries, anything goes. In electronic music, this can be as simple as improvising on (or composing with) a knob or parameter. “Intuition” in the above video perhaps simply means responding to open-ended choices with random, impulsive work.

In other words, different artists might frame “structure” and “intuition” very differently than Robert does in this video, but partly having to do with where they set up the bounds of their output. And a great deal of what I hear in Robert’s music, at least, is deeply intuitive – maybe benefiting from the structures he creates. Having too many choices, paradoxically, is the enemy of intuition. With limited choice, our intuition thrives.

This all matters, because much of the video is spent talking about the act of programming, of creating custom tools and musical and visual structures. And for that to be “relaxing” as Robert says is not so much about technical expertise as it is about the comfort with the creative process that results. Programming is nothing if not active decision-making.

CDM and Resident Advisor host Robert tomorrow in the MusicMakers Hacklab – that’s 17h at Kunstquartier Bethanien if you’re in Berlin for CTM. We’ll have audio of that conversation for everyone shortly thereafter.

MusicMakers Hacklab Conversations, Wednesday 29 January

I’m pleased Robert agreed to come along. He’s doing a lot of talking these days, but I’m glad he’s doing a little more, as I know we’ll enjoy it.

Lumière is part of the CTM programming Sunday night. We’ll have documentation of that soon.

CTM Closing Concert


Robert Henke.

Robert Henke.

  • foosnark

    Interesting. I expect a lot of artists don’t often consciously think about where the structure is in their work.

    This is making me think the reason my creative output multiplied when I switched to using Maschine is only partially due to smoother workflow and somewhat re-emphasizing performance over dropping notes on a grid — and partially because it’s pointing me toward particular structures.

    It may also be why a lot of people seem to want to move away from the DAW being the center of things, and use standalone drum machines, step sequencers, etc. Hmm.

    • http://vrpr.org/ Henry

      I am just now (re)discovering some of my hardware – about a year ago, I sold my Tempest at the time, because it didn’t seem to inspire me. I did everything in the box, mainly using Reason. A few months ago, I repurchased a Tempest, and right now, I am sitting with this machine, a synth and a Moogerfooger delay and that keeps me busy for many, many nights…

    • a

      yeah, i feel like this is true. the way DAWs frame the things as 1 big overview perhaps isn’t so useful, if you don’t have a background with hardware.

      i mean, back when people were using hardware and software you’d generally record MIDI in, do some editing, reference the overall view and go back to adding more in. then you’d record audio in and work the mixer, do filter sweeps, and so on.

      performance maybe came into part of it, but stuff got naturally broken down into steps. maybe now people get overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? because it’s absolutely possible to work with a DAW like this, but it’s not necessarily immediately intuitive.

  • ino-01

    Why I work with Ableton Live:
    • reduced design
    • simple workflow
    • extendible (Max4Live)

    I guess, it is substantial due to Robert Henke.

  • http://melodiefabriek.com/ Marco Raaphorst

    I once did a workshop with him in Amsterdam at Steim. 3 days. he’s a great and funny guy. discovering new things when talking. he’s pushing the boundaries of electronic music and also tries to intellectualise it, to explain the “why” and “how”.

  • http://melodiefabriek.com/ Marco Raaphorst

    Have only started using Max for Live. It seems that using Max you can send video to a secondary screen while running Live for audio parts. I think this is what Henke is doing. Right? I am learning Max, but very slowly. Have only programmed a very basic mono synth yet 😀

    • Chase Dobson

      My guess is that he is sending DMX 512 messages from MAX to control those lasers. but yes, same idea. Audio from Ableton laser control from MAX via any number of the available USB to DMX boxes out there.

    • http://melodiefabriek.com/ Marco Raaphorst

      aha, thanks!

  • heinrichz

    Since the amount of options is a problem for electronic musicians today, as has been stated many time before, (i already wrote about it in the dubspot blog years ago) why going on stuffing more options into DAWs? We all know that less can be more. The goal now should be to simplify things to develop a real playable instrument, learning from the amount of variables that make up conventional instruments. In that sense NI has done a great job with Maschine initially and Ableton did the same in the beginning with the Audio clips and of course now it seems like it also might become very complex and loaded with tons of options, particualarly with the addition of M4L. For those who have learned how to customize things for themselves that might work out well, but lt porbably would not be an instrument anybody else can pick up an play as is the case with conventional instruments. What sells as innovative improvement right now also has a lot to do with product marketing of competing companies. The question is if there will be ever a standartized electronic instrument of sorts that gets us beyond having to relearn new controllers, interfaces and functions every other year. For the moment that seems to be the name of the game and in the end it might get in the way of mastering anything at all.

    • foljs

      “””Since the amount of options is a problem for electronic musicians today, as has been stated many time before, (i already wrote about it in the dubspot blog years ago) why going on stuffing more options into DAWs? “””

      a) Because people buying DAWs want them. (Notice e.g. how everyone feared Apple will make Logic X “Garageband Pro”, ie remove features from it).

      b) Because people using DAWs aren’t necessarily artists trying to compose. They are also professional part programmers, studio editors, sound designers etc, who have something specific to do and want all the tools available to them.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Because “real playable instruments” imply the requirement to develop virtuosic performance skills and to use technologies vastly capabale of way more resolution than banks of buttons and knobs represent.

  • Alexandra Sendy

    I have a theory that those of us who grew up creating stuff with very limited technology (in my case, a Commodore 64 computer, then an Amiga with a cheap MIDI keyboard, then I got a tape deck and a crappy disco mixer), are used to and have been unknowingly trained in the art of working a small set of options and finding and pushing at it’s percieved barriers and limitations. Because I have a DAW full of allsorts of stuff and yet I can tune most of it out and say “today I’ll work with emulations of classic Roland boxes and these samples” – it’s like a game you play with yourself – set the limitations and play within them.

    • a

      yeah, i started with fast tracker 2 and editing in sound forge.

      i think it was discovering that it wasn’t even pushing barriers, it was realizing that there aren’t any. within a relatively small feature set it’s infinitely deep. (well, higher than i can count. :) )

      i don’t like framing it as limitations, as that feels negative to me. by making a choice to go deep in certain features you give yourself freedom to fully explore, be present and open yourself up to the possible.

      i think we also learned that it’s the sequencer/sequencing, not the synths or effects that make a wicked track. nowadays people are sold the idea that X feature in a daw or a certain synth is vitally important to making a good track. i imagine the idea that they have more than enough already might be hard for people to believe, if they aren’t making good tracks with what they currently have.

      techno and sample based hip-hop started as these things that re-purposed trash, i.e. worthless records and “obsolete” technology and the humanity came through. now people worship the technology and argue over which is superior. it’s an interesting state of affairs.

  • Alexandra Sendy

    Another thing, I think the massive mediocrity that engulfs most modern dance music is simply that everyone wants to copy the “hot new sound”, and isn’t really in it for the love of sound so much as a love of the DJ culture and the status they feel they might earn within it.

    • a

      yeah, there’s a different set of people involved when you bring in the fantasy of becoming a global rock star. maybe i’m being naive, but i think people used to be interested in making people dance first and now for some that’s more a means to an end.

      i just watched this documentary on gabber and it’s interesting the big names were stars within their own scene and country, but it’s still relatively weird to an outsider.

      the more universal you try to be the more generic, i think. so people hear all “the best” online and copy really surface elements of each. the surface being the easiest to copy is also the most boring. “failed” copies is what makes good, personal music. (plus, there are all those depressing “tutorial” videos to help copy that are really just paint by numbers)

      in a hyper connected world, where universality is almost enforced i think you have to take the opposite stance and really guard and protect your music. i mean, it’s the whole idea of people making synth “demos” (it’s cop out for deciding if it’s a good track or not) or uploading random half finished tracks to sound cloud with it’s generic waveform view, that gives away the dynamics.

  • http://website.coma/ DAE Error 7002

    A rarity…Monolake using new hardware. http://www.monolake.de/technology/studio.html

  • fluffy

    a great example of a TOTAL artist