Last April, at the music festival Rewire 2022, Robert Henke played his work CBM 8032 AV, in a packed Royal Theatre in The Hague. On stage, there were five computers from the 1980’s. A large screen was hanging above the stage, displaying visual art and code that Henke used to start or stop music compositions on the computers. So, who is this man, who sits behind a desk on stage while typing on his keyboard? Did we hear the result of digital craftsmanship or does it take more to create that kind of music? Klaartje Til interviewed the ever friendly Robert Henke to find out the answers to these questions
By Klaartje Til
Mr. Henke, how would you define your art?
I am a computer based artist. It is a label that describes the main instrument that is at the core of my work: the computer. I don’t really know how to play a musical instrument and I can’t move a laser beam fast enough to draw visual laser art by hand. I need technology to create music, audiovisual art or visual art. The computer is the essential counterpart for my ideas.
What triggered or inspired you to get into computer based art, like electronic music?
If I have to point one singular piece of music that inspired me, it was the album “Oxygene” by Jean- Michel Jarre. It was released in the mid-seventies, and I was deeply impressed by the music. It opened an emotional engagement with sound, that I hadn’t experienced before. It made me realize that electronic music with synthesizers was, to a certain degree, within reach for me. I realized, that if I worked hard enough, I would be able to afford a synthesizer and I could try to make electronic music. So that was pretty much the starting point.
What role does coding play in the process of creating your music?
I have always used coding. It is a natural part of my artistic expression. I started with simple things. If I wanted to create a melody that only slightly changes every time you play it, I would build a system that involves some randomness. So after, for example, 3 notes, I might either move on to another 3 notes. Or I might move to a different direction and play a completely different set of notes. Then again, after 5 notes, I would make the decision to either repeat the first note and return to the second one, or stop. That is an example of a very simple system that can be run automatically and creates variations of a melody, while I can focus on something else. So the computer becomes my play partner. It starts to improvise, on top of which I can improvise. That is an example of how to use a computer to do something that is musically inspiring and helpful. When the software company Ableton started, the programming became more organized and a straight-forward process.
How did the company Ableton start?
I was born and raised in Munich, but decided to move to Berlin to study computer science. Against all odds, I met a person in Berlin who I already knew from Munich. He was a friend of a friend and I didn’t really like him. During one of the lectures at the university I saw this guy. We both looked at each other in disbelieve that of all the people, it had to be this person being there as well. Gerhard Behles and I became best friends. We started making music together and Gerhard became the driving force behind the founding of Ableton. The birth of Ableton was based on the fact that we knew that something was missing, some sort of tool. We were quite certain that among the people who make electronic music, there would be enough interest for such a tool. Enough to found a small company. That is how Ableton was born.
What did Ableton have to offer that was missing back then?
In the 80’s and 90’s, the main role the computer played in making music was the role of a recorder. This meant that you still had to play an instrument in order to make music with a computer. We don’t know how to play an instrument, and we didn’t need to because computers can do this better than we could ever do. We built a system that allowed people to interact with the computer in a playful manner. That concept of real-time interaction with software to create music did not exist in a commercial product, the way we did it. Now it is a standard feature that a lot of other software products offer. But the initial idea that something like this could work, came from us, from Ableton. I still work for Ableton and I am still part of the company. I have no intention to ever quit, because it is also the product of my imagination. So much of ‘me’ can be found in the software.
What role does the city of Berlin play in your artistic life?
I was lucky to move to Berlin in 1990, right after the fall of the Berlin wall. There was this fantastic void in the city. Life in Berlin was incredibly cheap and there were empty spaces everywhere. A lot of people used the opportunity to become creative and I was part of that scene. The scene in Berlin was very small and I got in touch with a record label that was looking for new artists. So I didn’t need to do much to get my first record out. That is how I became an electronic music producer. It just happened very naturally, by being the right person at the right time, in the right place.
How did your creative work evolve from coding behind a desk, to live performing?
A lot of music was actually created during concerts. We always record our live performances and the best stuff ends up on records. So performing and releasing music have always been one and the same to us. What did change over time were the visuals shown during the performance. I started to create the visuals for my performances myself. I wasn’t very happy with the visuals that VJ’s created during my shows. Most of the time they had nothing to do with my music and it simply didn’t fit. I decided to write my own little video generator, to have something running in the background. But soon I realized that I reached my limits, so I moved away from doing my own visuals.
Why did you reach your limits, you think?
At the time, there were a few people who did really amazing stuff. It was clear to me that I couldn’t reach their level. I thought it would be pointless to try to compete with them and I gave up. I returned to visual arts via a backdoor, when I was asked by a small gallery to do an installation and came up with the idea to do something with laser. This was about 14 years ago, when there were only a few artists who worked with laser in a way that I found interesting. It was unchartered territory where I could make an impact and do something that people hadn’t seen before.
Is that your main goal, to show people something they haven’t seen before?
I wouldn’t say that it is my goal and on the larger scale of things it is impossible to show something that hasn’t been seen before. But even though my work is not unique at first glance, it has its own qualities. It has depth, it has details and complexity. It is rewarding to experience my work multiple times because there are so many details to discover. It is rich. What I do is always rich. As far as my laser-work is concerned, I have the feeling that a lot of people who work with laser nowadays, are at least to some degree also influenced by what I have done. Because I often see things that remind me of stuff I did 10 years ago.
So you are the inventor of the kind of work you do?
In science and art, the question of who is first with something is always difficult to answer. Ideas never fall from the sky, they are connected to cultural backdrop and social environment. So it is not uncommon in science and art, that similar ideas pop-up at completely different places and at almost the same time.
Do you consider yourself a scientist as well?
I know enough about science to understand how far away I am from what makes a good scientist. But, like artists, a good scientist must have imagination to discover things that are not clear yet. In order to come up with a new theory about how things work, a scientist needs to be bold and needs to question the existing conditions. For engineers it is even more obvious, because they build something that has a function. If something has a function, it also consists of physical objects that need to be arranged in a physical space. There are multiple options to arrange the objects and design can help you to discover these options. I come from a family of engineers and the biggest liberation from my family background was that I understood that engineering is art. My family didn’t make the connection between engineering and art, but once I understood it is the same way of thinking, I felt liberated to do whatever I wanted to do.
This realization that engineering and art have a lot in common, how does it reflect in your creative process?
My work is a combination of logic and intuition. Most of the things I do require programming, which means that I have to solve problems in an abstract way. A lot of strict engineering thinking is involved, but ultimately the result is sound or graphics, or both. However, the best code doesn’t guarantee that the end result has an emotional impact. Technically it may be doing exactly what I was hoping it would do, but artistically it just isn’t interesting. In those cases, I add something that I don’t consider very important technically, and suddenly the magic is there. I find it fascinating that I can use technology to create something that transcends from a machine into something emotional and magic.
You use old-school monitors as well in some of your performances. Why do you work with these old-school computers?
Those computers are from 1980. They are insanely limited and working with them is very tedious, but it also means I have to think before I work. I cannot just program something and see what comes out. It brings a completely different focus and that’s why I like to work with these computers. The whole notion of art is that there is always a balance between the known and the unknown. If I use these old computers to create something that feels contemporary, then I have this nice juxtaposition between glitch electronic art from this millennium, and technology that is cute, tangible and outdated. This combination is very interesting.
Are you planning on doing something similar in the future?
Well, I am still working on this old project with the old computers. It is an ongoing project. I am still creating new sounds and new video material. I am touring with it as much as possible. It is a challenge to get these large, heavy old computers on tour, because they are fragile and expensive to bring along. But they are part of my live repertoire that people can book. So if you want to have the show and you have the money and the space, you can contact me and I can say: ‘Let’s go, let’s do it!