Brain Stimulations In A Two Bar Loop — Monolake On Essentials For Artistic Beings
There is a common belief about producing electronic music — that you can do everything by yourself. Theoretically it is true. Although in practice it might not be the best way, because you will be missing out on essential feedback, as well as understanding of success and failure.
We talk to Robert Henke, the sound alchemist and founding member of the Monolake duo, about the fear of sharing achievements and knowledge, the beauty of exchanging ideas, and the importance of asking questions and having doubts.
Mariana: Often artists who achieve success want to keep it to themselves only. Your artistic career has always been about sharing knowledge with other people while exploring technology and producing your own music. This includes creating one of the most significant pieces of software in the industry - Ableton Live - as well as teaching at University. How do you feel about giving away your knowledge and sharing your achievements?
Robert: First of all I really enjoy explaining what I am doing and sharing things. Also, when teaching at the university [Blitzkickers: the Berlin University of the Arts - UdK Berlin], I figured out that teaching implies learning a lot by yourself. Because whenever you try to explain something to other people it is easy to figure out which other things you don't know exactly. By teaching for four years I learned much more about what I actually do than by just doing it. You can do things at the very intuitive level but at the moment when you have to explain how things work to other people and they ask questions - you need to find answers. And apart from that I believe that every kind of artistic and scientific advances are always the result of collaboration. The idea of a genius that suddenly creates something out of nothing is just not true, in my opinion.
Whatever you do is based on other people's work, so sharing is always a process when you give something away and receive something back . For me it is an essential part of what I am doing. I work on stuff and I communicate with people and this gives me new ideas. This exchange is very beautiful.
The whole development of the electronic dance music, especially in Berlin in the early 90s, was a collaborative effort. We did and explored things together, we found places for parties, we were making and discussing music together, and one person would never be able to do this alone. There was a lot of community and exchange from the very beginning. At it was very uncommon for people to be protective, they were really open.
And what I learned later at Ableton is that even if I give things away, such as an instrument or technology, other people use them to create sound that I myself would never make. So all my fear that somebody would copy my work was not true.
But did you have this fear at the beginning? Did you have a feeling that if you give something away you will also lose something?
I had some worries, especially when I made instruments. I thought: I spend so much time building those instruments and then I give them and other people make music that I should actually be doing. So I had this inner struggle about what other things I dedicate my time to: do I dedicate my time to making music or do I dedicate my time to engineering? At some point I understood that engineering is a part of the artistic process for me. So it is not a separation between an artist and an engineer. I am both. And whereas releasing a record is one way of expressing myself, doing a concert is another way, then creating an instrument and giving it away is actually the same thing as creating a record. So for me my instruments and my contribution to Ableton are the same things as my records. It is a part of my artistic expression.
Why are there people who hold on tight to what they have reached and do not want to share their knowledge?
It is always hard to judge other people but I believe that there is much fear involved. Fear of giving your secrets away or fear that others will judge your work differently if they know that there are ten other people involved in your creative process. This is a very new development though. Suddenly artists have become very concerned about their image and about how public sees them. It was never the case in the early techno culture. It was about your work and not about you as a person. Nowadays when somebody becomes more famous they become much more protective. For me it was never something that I wanted to do.
Teaching requires a lot of patience. Was this something that you needed to learn?
Yes, absolutely. The most striking experience I had was not about the patience though, but understanding that different people have different ideas and these ideas can be valid. I gave homework to my students and one of them made something which I found completely wrong. I was actually quite upset because I thought this guy was very smart and I could not understand why he did such bullshit work. And as I gave him a bad mark he was completely upset too. He came to me and spent two hours explaining me why his work was not crap. And as I came home I understood why everything he said made so much sense. I listened to his work again and came to a conclusion that it was actually brilliant. It was just a completely different way of thinking. So I changed his mark from 'very bad' to 'excellent'. I am still a very good friend with the student who completely changed my perspective. This was one of the most precious teaching experiences.
When being responsible for reorganising the Sound Design department at the UDK, was it easy for you to share responsibilities with other people and trust their decision regarding what needs to be taught and how it should be done?
This is something I totally learned with Ableton. It is a big company, there are a lot of people involved, and they have different ideas. You can't do everything by yourself. If you have smart people around you, their decisions may be different from yours but these decisions are still good. So at some point you have to accept the fact that people may do things slightly differently and trust them. This becomes a great liberation.
Why is it important to study?
I think it is important because it helps asking questions. If you want to develop as an artist you need to get a bigger picture which is beyond that what you are doing. It is helpful if you understand what other people did in the past and how they solved their problems, how they struggled and failed. If you don't know anyone who failed you will think that you are the only one failing. If you learn about artistic process of other people you understand that artists are unhappy, artists create crap, artists have a lot of doubts. It is important for students to come to classes in order to understand that you are not the only one fighting with problems. On the other hand, it is also necessary to learn about other people's success and to be inspired by other artists. I personally never studied at an art school and when I was teaching I realised that it would have been cool if I had taken such courses. But anyway I studied sound engineering and computer science and it was helpful too.
It is important for students to come to classes in order to understand that you are not the only one fighting with problems.
Another significant thing that I noticed while teaching is that a lot of my students found collaborations during their studies and that helped them a lot. And collaboration is an essential part of development. The big problem about electronic music is that in theory you can do everything by yourself. However, very often it is not the best way to do things because you are losing out a lot of feedback.
This is also the reason why I have a friend of mine [Blitzkickers: Rashad Becker] doing the mastering of my music: he has an opinion. We also have discussions beyond mastering sessions, and all this exchange provides essential information for me. And if you work together with other people you have this feedback all the time.
How do you perceive criticism?
It depends. There are two types of criticism: it can be either helpful or mean. One blogger managed to write twelve pages about my last album where he took apart every single track in the most mean way one can imagine. That was quite shocking to read but at the same time I thought: 'Wow! A person wrote 12 pages about this album. This is significant!' So I think that making one freak out for twelve pages is quite an achievement.
Although I am curious of what people write about my music, I am becoming less and less interested in the reviews. Because the most important feedback comes from people at the concerts and from my friends. It is another thing that you learn at some point: it is not important what a random blogger writes.
Not everybody can perceive the same music in the same way or even be able to listen to it. In order to listen to particular music one needs a kind of patience and sophistication. What do you think allows people to listen to different kinds of music and to be able to enjoy it?
I think it all comes down to openness. Sometimes when you are facing something new you need to bring yourself to the state that would allow you to experience it.
I remember my first techno club experience at Tresor: I was completely shocked. Because it was super loud, sweaty, and claustrophobic. Everyone was on drugs. I felt completely alienated and I could not relate to it at all. So I left after half an hour in a complete state of confusion. I thought it was hell. The next day I was back because something happened to me. Something that resonated and made me think: 'Wow, whatever that was, it was great and I want to see it again'.
And with music in general it is the same thing. Some kinds of music are difficult to listen to at the beginning. And you really have to be opened. And once you are opened, suddenly everything makes sense.
For example, many people with an academic music background have difficulties with the concept of repetition. For those people, repetitive music is seen as simple and stupid. So you have to point out the concept of repetition to them and explain what the beauty of it is. And once such people start understanding that repetitive music is more complex than it seems - they start appreciating it.
How can you explain the beauty of repetition?
Just repeating something is probably not very exciting. But finding something that can repeat for a long time and can still be satisfying is a great work of art. For instance, when I work on two bar rhythms I can work for two days or even longer. I work until every single note, every sound and articulation within this rhythm start making sense. So I spend a lot of time with those two bars and the amount of work dedicated to them is equal to what it takes to write 64 bars of non-repeating music. It is the same effort and this is what shines through in the end. You can listen to some two bar loops for two hours, and they are amazing. However, to some two bar loops you can only listen for two bars [laughs].
But finding something that can repeat for a long time and can still be satisfying is a great work of art.
The topic of repetition is much more complex because there are lot of things going on psychologically. If you listen to two bars of music in a large club while you are dancing, people and air are moving, and the rhythm of the building is changing - it is not a full repetition anymore, it is something extremely complex happening. And this is not complex in an esoteric way - you can actually measure it. And if one makes music keeping this in mind, then they incorporate the movement of dancers, and the sound of a club, and potentially even a different state of mind which comes from dancing for hours or/and taking drugs. And suddenly the result is much more complex in terms of the brain stimulation. Although it is a two bar loop at the beginning.
Why do you think people want to dance? Why don't we just stay at home and listen to music?
Dancing is obviously a very satisfying thing to do. It changes the perception of music and time as well as your understanding of music. When you dance you start to understand the rhythm. So dancing and rhythm is very connected. Creating rhythm by hand - is also a dance, because you move your body in a rhythmical way. So the rhythm is a result of a body movement and a body movement is a result of the rhythm. And it is also true when I play the piano. My body moves when I play music and the music is the result of the movement. It is the same too when I move knobs and faders - I dance on a microscopic scale, and nevertheless it is a physical interaction. This is why it is important to have knobs and faders when performing live. And this is also why it makes a difference whether I am sitting or standing while performing. Some of my music requires that I sit because I need to perform some movements very carefully.
Once you have mentioned that it is embarrassing for you to listen to your own stuff.
I think that many people relate to this statement. Where do you think this feeling comes from?
I think I need some distance. When I work I put much effort and dedication into what I do and I become very vulnerable. And whenever I listen to my music later I only see problems. But when I listen to the stuff that I made ten years ago I can see its beauty and accept its flaws because what counts in the end is the big picture.
This is also the reason why I still like buying albums and not just songs: if I listen to a whole album I enjoy weak tracks as much as I enjoy strong ones. The overall shape is interesting. I don't listen to the 90s hits compilations because it is exhausting. It is more interesting to listen to a track that may not be that strong separately, but in a full album you already anticipate the next one when listening to something that would be weak on its own.
How much time did it take you to learn to accept yourself and your art?
I am in my mid 40s now and I have reached this point where I feel comfortable as an artist and as a person in general. But it took me time till I at least became 40 to reach this mental state and to have a clear vision of myself and my achievements. Before that there was always a doubt. But doubt is also important because it initiates changes. If you never doubt, you never feel a need to change anything.
I rather like people who give me a valid feedback and criticise my work than people who say that everything is fantastic but they don't mean it. Being polite is nice, but being honest is more important.
Nachtdigital, Dresden (DE) 31.07
Dekmantel Festival, Amsterdam (NL) 02.08
Live Cinema Festival, Rio de Janeiro (BR) 08.08