LISTENING POST WITH: ROBERT HENKE (MONOLAKE)
Robert Henke's work has been justly celebrated since Hong Kong's 1996 release brought Monolake international recognition; subsequent albums like Interstate, Cinemascope, Momentum, and Polygon_Cities and performances like the 8-channel “Studies for Thunder” and Monolake sets at MUTEK 2005 have further solidified Henke's stature. He's currently promoting Plumbicon Versions I and II (the vinyl material to be issued on CD in March), creating new Monolake material, and preparing two new releases: a Henke solo disc (working title: Layering Buddha) of drones based on sounds from FM3's 'Buddha Machines' and a reworked version of Hong Kong.
At MUTEK 2002, Monolake performed Atlantic Waves in real time over the internet with Deadbeat in Montreal and Henke in Berlin. That particular project suggested he would be the perfect candidate to inaugurate textura's 'Listening Post,' given the similar format: unidentified mp3s were sent to Henke in Berlin, and after listening to each, he immediately submitted his impressions via e-mail, which prompted further discussion about the selection in question. We thank Mr. Henke for being such an accommodating and generous participant.
Porter Ricks: “Nautical Dub” (Biokinetics, Chain Reaction)
After 10 seconds, this struck me as very much like a Porter Ricks-influenced track. I wasn't sure if it would be Andi and Thomas (because the sound lacks depth, probably attributable to laptop speakers) but once the sequence came in, it was immediately obvious. No one else creates this kind of bass line with this synthesizer (Oberheim Matrix 12) and those nasal, manic melodies with their added noise. And while I am writing this, the track fades out—not fair; I need to listen to Porter Ricks right now. Why is no one making this kind of music anymore? We need it.
What are your thoughts and impressions when you look back upon the Chain Reaction period (especially considering your direct involvement)? On the one hand, it's a shame the era ended so quickly (specifically, the period where Porter Ricks, Various Artists, Substance, Hallucinator, Vladislav Delay, and Fluxion issued their albums) yet on the other hand its brief tenure gives it a mystique it wouldn't possess otherwise.
The situation during the first Chain Reaction period was quite unique. A bunch of artists, with very different musical backgrounds, were able to agree on some basic ideas about music. What resulted was a special sound which shines through all the releases. Surely this also had to do with the fact that we found the scene in Berlin quite exiting and had been influenced by this experience. Plus we were young and not yet known. From the outside, it must have looked like a sudden outbreak of something very new; from the inside, it was different, as we had all been experimenting for years before the first releases.
Why did Porter Ricks only issue two albums, considering how marvelous the two discs are, and were you influenced by the group's sound?
Thomas Köner and Andi Mellwig live on very different planets, musically and in general. There was only a short period of time where these two planets were close enough for things to happen together but at least the project will remain in history as something unique. The influence was omni-directional, which was the most amazing part of the situation. We actually discussed our works and, as everyone was listening to the others' releases, we discussed technical and aesthetic issues too.
How does Hong Kong sound to you today, given how different it is to the 2006 Monolake model? Of course the technology has advanced incredibly, but how does your compositional approach differ? With respect to the intended re-release of Hong Kong, what prompted the decision to revise it and how will this version differ from the current one?
Hong Kong came out of a tradition of endless improvisations, and was later edited and recombined into its final form. Now I work much more conceptually and think of structure at a very early stage in the production process. In an ideal world, my sound would be as structured as it is now but with the lush depth of the older material, something I'm working on and am confident I will realize. Musical Evolution is always an oscillating, a going-back and going-forth movement.
The original release on Chain Reaction is not available anymore and I still like the record and want it to be available. But if I listen carefully to the material now, I'm sure I will find parts which I would want to be slightly different. The re-release presents a perfect opportunity to do this, and I am confident that new mastering will add more depth.
Deadbeat: “Rock of Ages” (New World Observer, ~scape)
After two seconds: hmmm, Biosphere? Ten seconds later: no, the beats are different. Sounds like a band. Dubby. Deadbeat-like but not really. But the sound is Deadbeatish... the break sounds very Deadbeat, but not the mix. I hear sounds which could have been done in Live—another hint for Deadbeat. Hmmm, it is not changing enough to give more hints. Conclusion: It could be Deadbeat, but it could also be someone else. I am not very much into reggae...
You've developed a simpatico relationship with Scott Monteith despite your stylistic differences. How did the relationship develop? Did it come about due to your shared Ableton focus or was it something else?
I don't remember exactly how long we've known each other, but our Atlantic Waves project began as a conversation we had during a coffee break at a NAMM show in 2001. Scott was there for Applied Acoustics and I was there for Ableton and, while surrounded by all that trade-show madness, we came up with an idea about how we could communicate musically.
The latest Deadbeat album includes a political dimension that's more pronounced than before. Monolake recordings, on the other hand, suggest a spatial dimension, one of physical expanse and geographical breadth (even titles like Hong Kong and Polygon_Cities suggest as much). Is this spatial dimension something you actively pursue or does the music suggest that dimension?
Electronic music offers lots of tools to manipulate sound in a spatial way and I like exploring this space. I think pretty much in three dimensions, and I really like to transform this aspect into music. Part of my (European) fascination for the United States derives from the experience of endless space—the same goes for Asia in this regard. I am overwhelmed by gigantic cities, by endless views over deserts, and if my music can capture a little bit of this I am very happy.
How well do you believe electronic music sustains such programmatic (political or geographical) content?
Politics is a complicated area. I recently had a long talk with Scott while on tour in South America. While walking through the richer areas of Buenos Aires, we felt a bit strange in our techno music bubble. We are traveling around the world, but what we experience is everywhere the same: clubs, good food, and the poorer the country, the more we are trapped in this kind of upper class party culture. Given this, every political statement emanates from a very elite position and one has to reflect this.
On a personal level, I am quite interested in politics, but selling a record with a political statement always seems too easy to me. How could any thinking person not be against torture, how could we not want less pollution, but this is as boring as writing a love song. The topics are too serious and too complex to end up in a twenty-word review in a dance magazine, ending with the conclusion that the last 12-inch was more slamming on the dance floor (2 of 5 points).
I included Deadbeat purposefully, not only because of your collaborative relationship with him, but because of the special work he's produced. No doubt he could have created straightforward digi-dub tracks but instead he's gone further into ambitious and dynamic compositions. You also have created material that has an epic scope and that extends beyond loop-based tracks. In addition, you both devote considerable attention to the sequencing of your albums so that there's a strong sense of a travelogue experience.
I want to answer with an observation. Once T++ [who worked with Henke on Polygon_Cities] and I were at an after-hour party at a lovely open air space here in Berlin, the Club der Visionäre. The music was typical minimal techno. A lot of people were dancing, others were drinking and talking. Suddenly a track caught my attention: it sounded different, had a really well-constructed groove, and an interesting musical structure. While we both reached the same conclusion: “Wow, great track,” the audience reaction was: “Okay.” When afterwards the DJ played a very boring, very uninspired track with a bass line heard ten million times before, the audience was freaking out.
Does this change my way of making music? No. Scott and I are selling approximately the same amount of records and we have our reputations and we have our fan bases. I would not want to make a different kind of music and as far as I know Scott feels the same way. Maybe here we are back to politics; the most popular decisions are not necessarily the best ones.
Greg Davis: “Furnace” (Somnia, kranky)
No idea... organ... a drone piece... a bit exhausting... not my preferred frequency range. Now it's getting nicer. It has a strange tuning; C is around 450 Hz, but this is maybe an mp3 conversion issue. I have no idea who it is. It's none of the organ drone pieces I know. Who is it?
It's Greg Davis's “Furnace” and is from his 2004 drones album Somnia. One of the album's distinguishing characteristics is that each of the album's six pieces is based on a particular instrument: a punchcard music box, bowed psaltery, acoustic guitar, harmonica, Fender Rhodes, Magnus chord organ. Another thing that makes the album interesting is that some pieces are 20 minutes and more while others—rare for the drone genre—are short, 4 minutes or so.
“Studies for Thunder” came to life as a byproduct of my Signal to Noise CD. At the beginning, I discovered this technique for creating the thunder-like sounds and took a while to realize the full potential and beauty of this. Of course, it was obvious that such a soundscape would make sense as a multi-channel environment. But before MUTEK Mexico, I never really tried it. In Mexico it was honestly more a public rehearsal, more a way to test the concept, than a well-prepared show. But the amazing setting and the fantastic sound system made it quite easy for me to have fun and to explore the possibilities of the material.
After the Mexico concert, it was obvious to me that the piece had to be developed further so I got in contact with Folkmar Hein, studio supervisor of the electronic studio of the technical university in Berlin, who has a long history of being one of the guys for electroacoustic multi-channel works. I was not sure if he would want to support me because he is strictly non-techno and non-beats, but he allowed me to use the studio for a week where I created the eight-channel version. On one of the last days, I asked him to listen and give me his thoughts. He did, and after listening to it for one time, he gave me an exact description of the musical structure, the dramatic development, and the structural problems of the piece. His basic statement was: get rid of the second part there, focus more on that highlight here, make the overall mix much more dramatic, etc. I was very impressed and did as he suggested.
When I listened to the PA in Montreal, I almost freaked out. It was terrible in comparison to what I had had in Mexico and at the studio in Berlin. I spent a day adjusting it to get it into an acceptable condition, but I did not expect too much from the concert. As it turned out, it was as immersive an experience for me as for the audience. I did two things during the performance: I adjusted and manipulated the balance of the frequencies very precisely and sometimes very dramatically. With material like this, the effect of filtering or boosting specific frequencies can prove amazing since the whole perception of distance is based on frequency distribution of known events. This allowed me to really bring the audience 'inside' the thunder to create that dramatic intensity.
Portable: “All Eject” (Version, ~scape)
Hmm, interesting. The string part is a sample from another source I assume. The track gets better at the end, but I'm not sure if I like it. It's maybe the percussion sounds, or maybe the sound in general; it sounds a bit—grey. The melody is the problem; without that low, repeating pling-plong it would be much nicer.
I included Portable (Alan Abrahams) because, like Monteith, Abrahams also is attempting to create something new and unique—in his case, by merging African elements with techno and house. I also included it as an excuse to ask about your own listening.
I do not listen to much music at all and, in fact, when I'm working on new material, I try to minimize input from the outside world as I can become easily fascinated by something and my work will then move in a completely new direction. As long as I do not need to be focused this is fine, but when I'm in the middle of an album it would probably be best for me to be on a small island in the middle of nowhere, waking up, eating, drinking, going swimming, and then going back to work, and repeating this process until I'm done. Then there are periods where I am open to lots of input.
Do you listen to music made by colleagues with whom you are musically kin, or do you listen to material 'outside' the type of music you create?
Much more. I really enjoy going to concerts of 'serious' music. My classical training and my knowledge of counterpoint and harmonics is weak, but this is exactly why I enjoy listening to music which makes extensive use of these techniques. It's also music I can enjoy without analyzing it too much and without trying to put it into a relationship with my own work.
Kraftwerk: “Titanium” (Tour de France Soundtracks, Astralwerks)
Ah, Kraftwerk. It's always a pleasure. I still really enjoy their music. One of the great examples of a project which has managed to not get completely uninteresting over the years. There is nothing wrong with this track; it does not sound like some old guys trying to be modern. Respect.
I've heard people argue that Monolake has extended Kraftwerk's sound, and there are similarities between Kraftwerk's sound and Monolake's that seem evident in this song. Are there connections in your opinion?
Yes, people mention this to me quite often. There are connections: we both prefer percussion sounds made via synthesis instead of 'real' drums, and I hear similarities in the way we construct grooves. But that's it: they write songs, I make tracks.
How much of an influence was Kraftwerk on you?
Sylvain Chauveau: “Policy of Truth” (Down To the Bone, DSA)
Lyrics!? Piano?! Depeche Mode?!?
This one is Sylvain Chauveau's “Policy of Truth” cover and comes from a very strong album of 'chamber group' versions of Depeche Mode songs. Didn't you recently do a Depeche Mode remake of your own? What song did you do and how did the opportunity arise?
In fact, I thought the composition was very Depeche Mode-like but couldn't associate the sound of the vocals with them, so even though I didn't volunteer it my initial guess was accurate. I was asked by the group's management over a year ago to do a remix for them but had no time. A few months ago they asked again, and two days later I had the parts of “Darkest Star” from the latest album (Playing the Angel) in my hands. I found it difficult to make something with this track since it's a very slow song and impossible to mutate into a techno track and, due to its sad and slow nature, also impossible to treat it as a double-speed track that could be morphed into drum & bass. But finally I found a way to deal with it and am quite happy with the result (which will be out soon on Novamute on vinyl).
Steve Reich: “Clapping Music (1972) (Early Works, Nonesuch)
Okay. This is not electronic. If this is done manually: wow, great timing. I'm really curious to know what this is.
It's an early piece of Reich's called “Clapping Music.” While his Music for 18 Musicians is regarded deservedly as a landmark, his earlier pieces are striking too for being marvelous exercises in economy. Have you listened to much of Reich's music?
Probably I have listened to all of his works except for this one. Music for 18 Musicians was the first minimal music record I bought, twenty years ago. Steve Reich's music—Different Trains, Drumming, parts of New York Counterpoint—is truly amazing.
Michael Mayer: “Speaker” (Total 5, Kompakt)
Tack tack tack tack. Techno, German accent on the voice? I don't know this track. The sound and the structure is not my cup of tea, but it would work in a club.
Ricardo Villalobos: “Forallseasons” (Thé Au Harem D'archimède, Perlon)
This is way more interesting than the previous one.
You played with Villalobos (at MUTEK 2003 in the Narod Niki ensemble) and I'm assuming that you've played with Mayer too. What was the Narod experience like? I seem to recall that you weren't a scheduled participant but that you couldn't help but join in once the set began.
I really enjoy Ricardo as one of the most musical DJs I've ever heard and as a very nice person. He lives not too far away from my apartment and sometimes we meet at the Hardwax Record store. He asked me before MUTEK's Narod Niki about some technical issues and I helped the guys a bit with the setup. Once it started, I felt extremely energized but was unhappy with the sound. I could not resist, entered the stage, told Ricardo my perception, and offered to change some details in the mix. He was fine with this, I was fine, and we all had great fun.
I've actually never done anything with Mayer. I've met him a few times, since he is the head of Kompakt and I've had some record distribution talks with him. I've heard him DJ a few times and liked it a lot, but as a music producer, I prefer Ricardo. As far as I know, Ricardo invested a lot more time into his recent records than did Michael. So basically, it's more a question of how deep you want to dive into something than of talent.