in 2007, a berlin-based producer, composer, sound engineer, and installation artist named robert henke wrote an essay entitled live performance in the age of supercomputing. it was a two-part piece that detailed the subtleties of live performance, and the different ways to move your audience. and henke should know. he has more than two decades of experience in the electronic music industry under his belt, not only as a producer and artist but likewise as the co-founder and developer of ableton.
his live performances — whether under his own name or as part of cutting-edge electronic act, monolake — have brought him everywhere from the stages of mutek montreal or unsound poland, to the jagged rock cliffs of mexico or the empty airport hangars of france, to the dripping concrete walled nightclubs of his native germany. he works with anything and everything; lasers, kinetic light objects, field recordings, drum kits, helium balloons, computers, networking software. there is no limit to what henke can turn into music.
a few years after live performance in the age of supercomputing, henke rewrote the essay as a hitch hiker’s guide. the age of supercomputing, it seemed, had caught up with him. digital publication began calling for short, punctuated pieces; so henke obliged. written with a wink of irony, henke broke the essay down into accessible, easy to understand sections with titles like “play stuff the audience knows,” and “make sure it sounds great.” for our littlecity exclusive interview, i took a leaf from henke’s book: herewith you’ll find the hitch hiker’s guide to robert henke, an exploration of his work and values using the same sections as his pervasive essay.
in your hitchhiker’s guide to live performance, you wrote, “if what we deliver as performers shall be perceived as good, we first need to find out what that highly subjective notion of good could stand for.” what does “good” mean to you?
i’d like to do things that touch people on an emotional level. i can appreciate great conceptual pieces of art, but when it comes to my own works i want to achieve a mental state that is decoupled from a rational or technical perspective.
so, does the meaning of “good” change depending on whether you’re the listener or the performer?
when performing i am much more critical about details. as a listener i am way more forgiving, experiencing more at the overall picture and judging the work by that overall experience.
play stuff the audience knows
how does “fandom” benefit or hinder your live performances? is it harder to play for an audience that is completely new to your work?
quite the opposite! if there are no expectations there is a much more open minded starting point. if you do not know an artist there is no history, no context, no comparison. all that counts is the now. some of the most precious moments i’ve had with music, cinema, art, literature took place when being confronted with something i did not choose, and had no idea what to expect of it. i once played in madrid at a museum on a sunday afternoon, and after the concert and old lady came to me and talked to me very agitated in spanish. i was worried that she would complain about the horrible noises i made, but then someone started translating and it turned out the lady was totally amazed and wanted to know where to buy my music! (laughs)
expect the unexpected! does live performance have a recipe?
it depends very much on the specific type of performance. i have a different strategy for a monolake club set, a robert henke drone piece or the lumière project.
but does that idea of a strategy contradict the meaning of “live?”
in general, “live” implies to me that something special happens at a given moment together with the audience. coming back to the question about ‘good’ performance, this means for me that something has to happen during the performance which makes it a unique and remarkable experience. this can absolutely include such extremes as a perfect playback of a pre-recorded show under acoustic and technical conditions that exceed what i can experience at home, or a totally improvised anarchist wall of noise created by ten people with modular synthesizers or guitars.
in hitchhiker, you wrote that, “nothing can go wrong with playing stuff the audience knows.” do you still believe that?
(laughs) that was already ironic when i wrote it! i wrote that the best strategy is to play songs the audience knows, but in reality that only works if there is some add on value which creates the sensation of uniqueness and ideally of interaction between audience and performer.
only play hits
i spoke with a friend recently who made a point about the perfect live act being different enough from the artist’s album that it remains interesting, but similar enough that it feels familiar. how do you strike that balance in your live shows?
i always run in a circle, starting with the attempt to reproduce existing tracks and then during the evolution of my sets, move away from that into more improvised structures. seems to be a natural process for me; the more familiar i get with my own material the more i have the confidence to question the existing structures and come up with new way to arrange the same basic building blocks. my best live performances usually happen when i am already almost bored by my own material. then there is that flow of confidence from which i can depart at any time into more radical territory.
in hitchhiker, you make a similar point about exceeding expectations. is the threat of underperforming a motivator for you, creatively — as in, do you still feel like you have something to prove?
i am very often ridiculously insecure about my work, and as much as i dislike this notion of myself, it definitely forces me to move on constantly to get better. it only works on a long run because there are moments in between where i am surprised by the quality of what i can achieve, too. without the positive feedback i would not find the energy to do anything.
are the expectations you set for yourself sometimes more important than the ones set by your listeners?
yes. it also depends on who exactly states expectations and for what reason. at the end of the day, it matters that i do what i feel is the right thing, and not what a promoter or journalist or drunken raver asks for. however, input from friends or people whose intelligence and artistic integrity impresses me is valuable and might have an influence on what i do.
in this conversation that i mentioned, the topic of legacy came up; the idea that a popular pioneering artist’s legacy as world-changing or life-altering often makes it so that he can’t live up to that standard. would you agree? as an artist, does that worry you?
that question is as old as art itself! of course it bothers every single creative person. the topic would be worth a whole book in itself! the best strategy to cope with this is to understand that creating something that has meaning beyond the time of creation is an extraordinary gift and nothing to take for granted. thus, instead of being frustrated about not delivering a revolution with every single song, one should be happy about the previous achievement and simply do what one likes to do most.
that’s great advice.
the biggest danger comes here again from trying too hard to fulfill expectations. the reason for my own initial success very often was the complete ignorance of expectations: “yeah, i know what i am doing is not music, but i like it!” oh, twenty years later every former rock ‘n roll guitar player is including elements of that stuff in their music — great! that’s the state of mind i’d like to suggest for dealing with such questions. only from such a perspective is there a chance to achieve something unique. and this is reflected back in so many artists’ careers: initial success, period of less successful attempts to keep up with the expectations, doing something more personal again and often enough becoming recognized for that, too. and sometimes only post-mortem, unfortunately.
surprise your audience
should every show be different, or is that a sign of inconsistency? where do we draw the line?
every show is different even if you play back a tape! every show should be an attempt to make it as good as possible, that’s what counts. inconsistency, on the other hand, doesn’t worry me. after all, if what i do as an artist is personal, what ever i do will shine through. i think for me the keyword would be integrity.
does that change depending on whether you’re the performer or the listener?
no. do i feel as an audience member, that someone tried the best to give me an experience, or is it all done lukewarm? if i get the impression that no one cared about essential details of a performance, i feel betrayed. but what these details are can be so different from situation to situation. if i go to a basement club listening to a hardcore noise act, that essential detail can be as simple as the deliberate absence of soft drink company branded fridges in the bar.
what’s been the most unexpected surprise you’ve encountered during a live performance, whether your own or someone else’s?
too many to count, but one which will stick forever did happen during the very first monolake live set in the mid 1990s. we played at a small club in berlin, with our equipment set up right at the bar. gerhard behles was operating a synthesizer, completely focused, and i was working with some other gear. suddenly a person approaches gerhard, requesting two beers. gerhard, who used to work in a bar himself, completely on autopilot just turned back, opened the fridge, grabbed the beers and handed them over to the guy, then continued playing! one day i want to see this as a movie scene…
that’s hilarious. with live performance i’m sure there are a lot of surprises like those, but how does this rule work with things like sound installations?
very often a substitute for time in music is space in installation art. you come to a museum and get one angle on a work, then you continue walking around and perceive the same work from a different perspective and it changes the experience completely. that’s one of the things i love about installations, that the the visitor can create their own compositions by simply walking around with their eyes and ears open.
as someone who has been involved in dance music for so long, do you find that you’ve become completely jaded or is it still possible for you to be surprised or blown-away?
it takes more to surprise me, but it still happens and that will never change. there are just too many people out there doing amazing stuff!
do you believe in humour in electronic music? i found that your lumière II show had a lot of lighthearted or playful moments in terms of how the visuals and lasers interacted.
i have been told i am a humorous person, so i guess it is important for me. the most serious people i know are also the ones who usually have a good sense of humor. how could i make something that is not at times lighthearted? it would not make me happy! after all, and despite the technical effort, at the end it is just sound waves and lasers with no other purpose than entertaining my audience. a lumière show does not change the world: it does not help fight poverty, it does not have a political message. however, if it can make people happy, there is a chance that those people go out of it, with more energy to fight what ever they need to fight for. and suddenly it becomes essential again.
choose a good space
how does space affect sound? does our understanding of music change depending on where we hear it?
it totally does. the separation of music and space is artificial and only a development since the invention of storage media. thousands of years before that music always did happen is specific spaces that suited the purpose. churches, living rooms, theatres, ritual spaces, outdoors, etc. a proper techno event has to happen in an environment that is rough and reverberant, not in a classical concert hall with a seated audience. and a morton feldman piano piece is not the ideal music for a beach bar.
what about for sound installations? how would, for example, your studies for thunder installation change if the audience was (hypothetically) in a cloud instead of sitting on rocks in mexico?
(laughs) i would love to perform in a cloud! i usually try to get as much information about a performance space beforehand and then decide based on this knowledge how to perform best. the mexico scenario is a good example, though. i was scheduled to play a monolake set there. but when i arrived i decided that i have a far more exciting offer to make than just a club set, and with the help of the super nice PA person, nicolas klau, we managed to set up a surround sound system in a few hours before the show. that effort totally paid off for everyone. one of the most remarkable shows i’ve had in the last 25 years.
is space something you consider when you’re building or creating a track, or is it only relevant when you’re playing live?
it depends. some of my works are created with specific types of concert situations in mind, and when ever i make a monolake track i envision how it would feel like to listen to it at a space like berghain.
the performance is not just about the music
what can you tell me about the use of silence in dance music or live performance? it can be quite effective. i’m thinking of john cage’s 4’33”, for example…
one thing that bothers me with a lot of commercial music is that it is always happening a full scale. it is short attention span music, that also works if you zap in for ten seconds and then switch to the next channel. i prefer to listen to music with more dynamics. and silence is of course the extreme of that. on my monolake records, i am still not where i would like to be in this regard, i am still searching for ways to create club music with more dynamics, but during my performances i am slowly getting there.
of course, with projects like your lumière series, lighting and visuals play a huge role. can you share a bit about the creation or planning for these types of projects?
lumière is a special case, my first project where the composition of visual shapes and sounds happen at the same time, and not one after another as in visualization of music or in cinema. it is a true audiovisual project in that regard. first i developed the software to drive the lasers, then i wrote a synthesizer to create the sounds which are connected to the laser shapes. afterwards i started composing with this framework in a very classic way, by moving events around in time, till things started to groove, but unlike with music, that groove is an audiovisual experience. i am still working a lot on the project, it is something that i want to refine more in future versions. i really created an instrument with it, and now i need to learn how to write beautiful compositions with it and this takes time. but it is very rewarding, and every iteration of lumière has its own charm. at the moment it is still quite rough, and it will become more refined in the future but i hope to find a way to keep the edges and not make it too perfect and clean. perfection is easy with technology these days. its the fractions which makes things interesting.
what can we say about physicality and music? in terms of live shows or sound installations, how does physically feeling sound vibrations work with this type of performance?
i love bass! i love the experience of being literally moved by sound, but at the same time i became very annoyed by the volume war in recent times. playing super loud is not a challenge, it is just a question of the size of the PA and the input level to the amps. i am more impressed if an artist can deliver a great performance with a small system.
make sure it sounds great
in terms of live shows, how much depends on a good soundsystem?
a fantastic sound system is still not guarantee for a good show, but it helps if the input is good too. with bad music or shitty sound, a good PA might even make this more obvious. but far more important than the perfect PA is the overall situation in a space.
could a talented artist make their set sound amazing regardless of the soundsystem?
a good electronic artist should be able to work with a small or difficult sound system and still get decent results, yes. i had this one single time in my career that the sound system was in such a bad shape that i had to cancel a show — after a twelve hour flight to go there!
what is the most important thing to consider when preparing for a live show?
understanding the context. the best intricate ambient drone set is lost at the rave club on a saturday morning at 5 o’clock. everything else comes secondary. for me personally, it is important that i create a scenario which allows me to improvise and to react to the audience. some of the best things often happen when i make last second changes to my performances right at the venue or move in a different direction during a performance. building systems that allow for such freedom is difficult but essential for me. the spontaneous moments where unexpected magic happens, that’s what i am looking for.
and finally, in your opinion, what is the best sound in world?
the sound of my synclavier II when it is booting up! the voice boards create a low level buzz before they get initialized. the sound itself is not so special, but the context: this is right before the beast becomes alive, and since the synclavier is an old and fragile machine i only turn it on when i feel that i am going to achieve something at that point in the studio. it’s the sound of great things to come.
robert henke performs an updated version of his lumière II show this friday june 19th at unsound festival in toronto, presented by luminato. tickets are still available; buy yours here.