photo: Justine Lera, 2008

Ever since a string of seminal releases on Chain Reaction, Monolake has been synonomous with atmospheric minimal techno. I recently caught up with Monolake mainstay Robert Henke to discuss a number of his current projects.

This interview was conducted by Corina in 2006 for
Vague Terrain 05: Minimalism

Corina MacDonald: Minimalist music can embody repetition as both a linear continuum and a transitory state. Do you see the music of Monolake in these terms?

Robert Henke: It’s both. The linear continuum provides the repetitive static skeleton for the tracks but the slight changes over time define the overall shape. In some pieces the static element is more dominant and in others there is more transition. But the term minimalist doesn’t apply to all Monolake tracks necessarily. In some ways a good work of art is always minimalist since the creation of art involves many more decisions against one thing in favour of another. Art is reducing possibilities to focus on some well defined details.

CM: Is this idea of reducing possibilities what interested you about theBuddha Machine?

RH: What initially caught me was their sound. The more conceptual side of the project reached my brain some seconds later. For the creation of my Layering Buddha mixes the reduced material was of course a very important factor.

CM: How does your new album Layering Buddha compare to your other work with drones in Signal to Noise

RH: Layering Buddha is the most conceptual Robert Henke album so far. From the very beginning I knew how it should be, while Signal to Noise was more driven by a specific mood rather than a strict musical concept.

CM: A drone is as minimal as one can get sound-wise, why do you think these sounds captivate our imagination so much?

RH: A good drone is highly complex under the surface. It is like a view over a city, which can be perceived as just a grey mass of buildings or as a very complex set of small parts where each part is complex in itself again. A good drone offers lots of depth and takes an appropriate effort to create but allows the listener to dive in as deep as he wants and leaves room for interpretation. The lack of dominant elements on the surface is an invitation to open your senses.

CM: In your music there seems to be a tension between sound and structure that creates a tactile quality. You’ve talked in other interviews about your interest in the idea of music as sculpture in time. In the Atlantic Waves project, does this idea create a connection between the aural and visual space in some way?

RH: Atlantic Waves has seen many revisions over the past five years. At the beginning the visual side only provided the interface for the audience and the performer to understand and manage the musical process. In its incarnation in theAtlantic Waves project the visual aspect became more and more important and now indeed the visual and the aural component represent two equally important parts of one single artwork.

[Robert Henke / Atlantic Waves – screenshot / 2006]

CM: Minimalist art of all varieties calls for engagement by listeners/spectators – how do you think the audio/visual dimensions of an Atlantic Waves performance affect your audience’s involvement?

RH: The visual aspect makes it easier to access the artwork since each change creates an immediate response while the sonic implication of that visual change might be more difficult to decode. Some interactive sound installations without visual feedback are not very satisfying for the audience since it is either nearly impossible to figure out which part of the sonic experience is controlled by which action or, in order to overcome this issue, the interaction is so simplified that the installation becomes boring. The visual part allows me to create complex yet controllable environments.

CM: How does communication happen between the remote collaborators to influence the evolution of the work? Do you think there is any narrative aspect that comes out of these performances?

RH: Atlantic Waves starts as an empty canvas. The remote performer and I know what we can do with the given structure but we do not know the result before the end of the performance. With the same set of sounds we are able to create anything from very quiet and sparse movements to building up a club track or ending up with a massive mess of sound. What evolves during the performance depends on our mood and on the situation. The Atlantic Waves software includes a little chat window, also projected during the performance. Once Deadbeat and I performedAtlantic Waves between a festival in Italy and his studio in Montreal and we played very quietly. After twenty minutes someone from the audience wrote me a message: “Can you play harder?” I told Scott that the audience in Italy wanted it harder and everyone could read this on the screen. Scott replied “sure” and filled up the grid with Bassdrum sounds and Hihats. Everyone was freaking out in the audience, because they really understood that there was an interaction between them, me and Scott on the other side of the world at this moment.

CM: How is an Atlantic Waves performance similar to your experiences playing solo?

RH: When I perform as Monolake I want to entertain and present either existing works in a new light or improvise with as much freedom as possible. This can become very eclectic at times. The Atlantic Waves setup is much more reduced and conceptual, it is more minimalistic, with all the positive and negative aspects of minimalism.

CM: How does developing your own tools influence your art? Is there an iterative relationship between your development work and your creative process?

RH: Sometimes I create software because I want to achieve a specific task. Atlantic Waves is a good example. First came the idea, then I wrote the software. Sometimes I have a good idea for an interesting tool and while trying to build it I come up with musical ideas. Studies for Thunder is a good example of this. I wanted to build a system to simulate thunder. Later I actually started to make a piece with the results of my research.

CM: I’m interested in the interaction between the visual interface (i.e.Atlantic Waves or Ableton Live) and musical creation. How do you think the evolution of sound creation tools from aural to visual has changed our relationship to sound? For example, sound editing has shifted from a primary reliance on our ears (i.e. tape splicing) towards visual representations of sound (i.e. waveform editors). How do you think this changes our perception of sound?

RH: Visual representation of sound is evil. A waveform editor is an enormous help when editing sound but at the same time it has the potential to keep the composer effectively from listening. The visualization by nature stresses the abstract formal quality of a work but makes no statement about its content. The result is obvious, a lot of music these days works correctly according to a formal scheme but lacks beauty within. It takes quite some courage to work against the visual scheme, because oddly structured parts look so wrong. The timeline always tells us how long a piece is in bars or seconds but it knows nothing about our perception of time. We might think a part is too long because it looks long on screen but in fact it is interesting enough to be much longer and we would not shorten it if we could not see it but just listened. I often turn off the screen or close my eyes when listening to my edits because the visual representation is a false friend.

CM: How do you think the Atlantic Waves project will continue to evolve?

RH: I have plans to further enhance both the musical as well as the visual side of the project. In earlier versions the visual aspect was just a projection of a graphical user interface, and with each iteration of the software it became more abstract. Future versions will offer much more sophistication here. The fact that computers are getting faster and faster helps me a lot, since all visual structures have to be created in real time together with the audio. Maybe some day I will create a version where one can fly thru a 3D representation of the music while it is created, who knows….