Robert Henke is many different things to many different people – performer, lecturer, software developer, technician. In truth, the Berlin-based artist busily juggles all four descriptions, but when he gets on the phone you can understand why he does so well in front of a bunch of university students: the man loves to chat and has a strong grasp on the English language, to the point where he stumbles to keep up with the ideas pouring out of his head. Henke is best known for his role in the rise of Ableton, but a tour to Australia provided an opportunity to pick his brains about a variety of things, from the leading part he played in the development of the now ubiquitous Live software to the Monodeck performance controller that he built and used for many years. Originally interviewed for Scene, our full chat is reproduced below. – Matt Shea
I guess the thing that you’re most often tagged with is your hand in creating Ableton Live. How did it the whole Ableton thing come about originally? You were coming at it from a musical perspective first, yeah?
The important thing to demystify is that the initial impulse to start the company came from my former Monolake collaborator, Gerhard Behles, and I just came into the game when the company decided to do some software that was more aimed towards live performance. This is where I started building ideas together with Gerhard. I’m not an official founder – that’s just a myth because at the point where the company started I decided that if I became a board member and all these things I would probably not make music anymore. My prediction became very true for Gerhard, who didn’t make any music since he started Ableton. However, I couldn’t resist when he asked me to join the company for actually creating the product. So, basically the idea for Live came out of a personal need, and this personal need was that there was software for working in the studio, there was editing software, but their were no commercial products to actually perform music, and Gerhard and me always used software for situations where something is just running and we wanted to change what’s running in real time, and therefore get some kind of conductor perspective on your own work, on our own work. This was the basic idea behind Live, to create something to interact with the computer in playful way in real time.
It’s been over ten years now. Why do you think Ableton flourished compared to its competition?
Honestly, we don’t know (laughs). What surprised us is that no competitor took up the idea we had. When we showed it at a show in 2001 – okay it was very esoteric and the other big companies came to our little booth and said, ‘Oh, you guys must be crazy. This is absurd.’ A year later, we were still in business and a lot of people really loved what we were doing, and still no competitor came up. Then we came back to the show three years later and we were extremely sure now that one of the big players would have a competitive product, and they still didn’t do anything. And I really believe that all the big players in the game completely underestimated the market of us freaks, you know? People with laptops on stage. When they realised that a lot of people liked what we were doing, it was already so mature that it would have been a big effort to catch up.
Did those companies underestimate how much digital music would come to play a part in live performance?
Definitely. Really, ten years ago they were totally focused on studio, and the idea that some blokes with their computers would go on stage really was not on their plate at all. I guess one advantage that we always had was that it’s relatively easy to create a good product if you work with it yourself, so I mean I’m using Live as we’re developing it, and tons of other people working on it are using it as well, and we’d have tons of internal conversations about details. But I also believe that those exact conversations about details make sure that the software works for a lot of people.
You play experimental electronic music, Robert. Has Ableton led to the rise of more experimental electronic music?
Well, that’s hard to judge but it certainly made it possible for a lot of people to make music that they couldn’t do without it. It played an important role as a facilitator for those people. In this regard I certainly believed that life changed for a lot of people. [It illustrated] how to make music and enabled them to make music in the first place, but I’m not sure how genre specific this is. From the public perspective it seems that Live is mainly used by club music people doing dance orientated stuff. If we look at our own statistics we can see that Live is used by a large group of people who never show up in the clubs and play club gigs. The range of users ranges from theatre people to experimental to music to bands to film scoring, whatever, and the group of actual dance music is small in comparison to the overall user base. It’s still a huge group, but it’s not the one major group that is using the software.
You’ve stepped back a little from Ableton, is that right?
Yeah, definitely, and for two reasons: first of all, the company now has over 100 people working there and there’s a lot of intelligence in the company so my input is not needed every day. The second thing is that as much as my heart belongs to Ableton, there’s another part of my heart that belongs to my music career. I will never give up talking with Gerhard about details of the software and reading company emails and thinking about that stuff, but when it comes to day-by-day business I’m very happy to step back.
Tell me about Monodeck and Monodeck 2. What was the inspiration behind that project? Do you still use it to play live?
Well, computers are fine in the studio environment, but if it comes to performing, a mouse and a screen seems to be the wrong interface, and so I tried to come up with something that feels a little bit more like hardware, and the Monodeck is pretty much a very advanced attempt at getting something like a hardware feel for Live. As a matter of fact, it worked very well for me for maybe four years, but just recently I decided that I need to abandon it. I kind of grew out of it: it became too rigid – it’s layout, its structure, it’s very much aimed at a specific purpose and my music developed further so I’m not using it anymore.
So no plans to create a Monodeck 3?
Well, I totally underestimated the work involved in creating a Monodeck 2 (laughs), so I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.
You never commercialized it, did you?
Well, the whole point of it is that it’s an individual instrument tailored to my needs, or the strangeness of my needs. In order to make a commercial product out of it I would need to get rid of the oddities, but then it wouldn’t be interesting anymore. I mean, as a matter of fact, the Akai APC40 is highly inspired by my controller, and I was even part of the decision team at the beginning, but at some point I just found that dealing with Akai was not my cup of tea. What happens if you water down a strange, slightly odd concept of a personal controller into a commercial product? You get the APC40.
Looking at your recent career, Robert, there seems to be this constant tension between your technical work and your music…
Is it a case of what you want to achieve in music constantly pushing you back to the work desk to create a product that will allow you to get there?
I guess it comes more from a very personal satisfaction with creating tools. I like tools, you know? It’s a funny thing, I’m in good company there: for instance, the Basic Channel guys, especially Mark Ernestus, he was from the very beginning building his own hardware also. His own hardware shaped his music and I’m just a classic do-it-yourself person and take that approach to building my own instruments. Computer technology allowed me to do that, but sometimes I think it’s a problem because it keeps me from composing, but on the other side, if I spend half a year on developing my own synthesiser, I will really use it excessively afterwards. For example, [the synthesiser] Operator: I would say that 80 per cent of my sound design is Operator and this is the one single synthesiser that I use all the time, so every second of development work I put into this instrument paid off.
Talking specifically about your music now. You’re currently touring under your own name. What’s the difference between the Monolake stuff and the music you produce under your own name?
It’s a bit of a difficult question as a matter of fact, and one that I ask myself quite often. I see Monolake as a more open and collaborative project, like for instance Monolake as a project which is definitely aimed towards rhythmical music and Monolake live is aimed at an audience that can move live. With Robert Henke I’d rather look a little bit more inward and explore soundscapes, computer music, but not explicit danceable music. Robert Henke could conceivably include rhythmical music, but then it might be rhythmical music that’s more informed by complex African rhythms and things like this and music that’s not so immediately danceable.
I’ve heard you described as Michael Mann through the headphones – do you think that’s a good summing up of what you try to achieve musically?
I’m fine with that (laughs). You know, if you look at things from the outside, it’s always much easier to describe anyway. I really can’t say so much about my own work. I have a few ideas, I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, but the overall shape I only recognise when I look at it from a distance. I can look back at things and say, ‘Ahh, I’m obviously interested in this or that.’ I like textures, I like harmonic relationships that are a little bit complex and which have a tendency to vary from classic harmonic scales to enharmonic elements. I like enharmonic sounds, I like a definition of space. But, you know, to find a really fitting description, I guess this is up to other people.
You’re currently performing some surround sound gigs. How do you approach one of those? What kind of equipment are you using to create this sound?
There are basically two possible concepts when you talk about performing with surround sound. One concept is that you say, ‘I’d really like to have the sounds always coming from the left front and moving to the right back.’ This is a concept that clearly deals with the localisation of sound sources. The other concept would be to say, ‘I have a lot of sound sources and they’re just distributed equally somewhere.’ Think of a crickets or the sound of the ocean. It doesn’t matter where cricket is located or where each wave breaks – what gives you the sensation of a lot of things is just the fact that they’re distributed in space. For the concert in Brisbane I take the latter approach, which means all that I do is create a lot of little sounds at the same time and sew them in the space and experiment with two channels, so if you have something you want to have in four channels, you just basically two times two channels with slightly different signals and then you have what you want to achieve. So, that’s basically what I’m doing. One thing comes out of the left speaker, a similar but not exactly same thing comes out of the right speaker, and then again I have two slightly different signals coming from the back speakers and the result is that you close your eyes and have the sensation of something really big.
Do you find crowds in different parts of the world react differently to your live performances?
Well, you see, generalisations for me never work for me anyway. Because you can go to a club in Berlin, and depending on which night you go to which club you can have very different crowds, and I see the same pretty much everywhere.