A very strong urge from deep within

Robert Henke
Robert Henke | © Andreas Gockel

Monolake – real name Robert Henke – is one of the key icons of contemporary electronic club music in Berlin. In addition, Robert Henke is one of the main creators of the hugely successful music software Ableton Live, which was invented in 1999 and has since then redefined performance practice in electronic music worldwide. Robert Henke never stops experimenting with music, surround sound concerts, photography, audio-visual installations, sound art and publicly available software. He writes and lectures about sound and the creative use of computers, and has held teaching positions in Germany, USA and France.

At Melbourne Recital Centre, you will be performing Lumière II.2. Please tell us more about this work.

Lumière II.2 is an audio-visual composition for lasers and sound. The lasers project from different angles on a large screen, partially obscured by a wall of fog. The fog makes intensive beams of light visible in the air and expands the shapes from the screen in to the whole auditorium. Overall, it is a highly synchronised immersive experience, with surround sound and fragile temporary objects above the audience. The special quality of the laser light allows combining complete darkness with moments of extreme brightness, pure white with intense saturated colours and precise movements with complex organic shapes.

Creativity and production

Music software such as Ableton Live has made it easier and more affordable to produce music of a high technical standard. While some see a democratisation of production materials, others claim it has resulted in a mass of recordings that all sound the same. Where do you stand?

It is a common misconception about the nature of creativity. It has nothing to do with the difficulty of the production process; it is all about the intention and the idea behind it. A guitar makes it much easier to play a simple chord progression than a violin, but no one keeps a guitar player from inventing fantastic melodies or complex harmonic progressions. A computer based text editor makes it much easier to write a novel, but is certainly not to blame for bad results either.

Most tools for artistic expression are inexpensive and available for most people on this planet. Think of a pen and a piece of paper. The fact that creating electronic music had been the privilege of a small minority of potentially creative people is a historic anomaly, nothing more. If anyone is to blame for music that sounds exactly the same as millions of other pieces before, it is not the tools, it is actually the audiences.

As long as people are willing to dance to or buy such things, people will keep making them. As long as people are watching cheesy soap operas on TV they will be produced. It is a simple as this. From an artist's perspective I could not care less about it. I do what I want to do, and as long as there are enough people who are interested in what I am doing, I have a motivation to move on.

Secret of success

You have taught at prestigious institutions such as Stanford University. Is there one key message you have for students and emerging artists?

Success in the arts has to do with many factors, and a big one is simply luck. Which means: being at the right time at the right place, meeting the right people, and so on. And, that's something which only becomes clear after the fact and is hard to plan, if at all. The rest is patience, persistence and actually a huge tolerance for frustration. Because a lot of development is the result of overcoming failure, of continuing what you do despite a hostile environment. And to survive in that, one has to have a very strong urge from deep within to do those things.

The whole point of the arts is to be innovative, to attempt to go your own personal - and hopefully new - route. And that certainly will alienate people. Everything else is just repeating what has already been done millions of times before. It does not harm but it will be forgotten soon. 

Your professional career includes many international performances, music production, audio-visual installations, your academic career, and software development. Does this kind of schedule demand compromise in your private life?

If one sees a contradiction between such a schedule and a private life, one will probably never make it as an artist. I cannot separate my artistic life from the rest, and as everything in life it is about finding the right people and accepting compromises to achieve what I want to achieve.

The key issue is the same as for every self-employed person: the only one who can decide whether a job is important enough to skip a planned holiday or not is me. And, if there are three job offers at the same time, I have to figure out which one is the best. But that's part of the game. Most artists I know are very absorbed by their work. It is a challenge to stay a social person under such conditions, but I feel I manage quite well so far.

You are based in Berlin.  Much of your work appears to be either studio-based or connected to travelling. Could you do the same kind of work elsewhere, or do you feel the need to have this particular city around you?

In theory I could do most of my work anywhere on the planet, but there are quite a lot of practical considerations which keep me in Berlin, although I would not say it is my dream city.  It was extremely important to be in Berlin in the 1990s, because the environment shaped a lot of my ideas, I was part of an emerging group of artists who defined whole new genres and that was special and amazing. However, now I do not really need that input anymore, and I could work anywhere. But of course I have lots of personal ties and a nice affordable flat. Those things are important, too.


Monolake/Robert Henke

Robert Henke is an electronic music pioneer, academic and Ableton Live software developer. Lumière II.2 is an audio-visual composition for lasers and sound, while Monolake is modern techno music.