Humble, unassuming and generously droll, Robert Henke has influenced the world of electronic music more than almost anyone else. The Berlin-based producer cofounded the pioneering dub-techno outfit Monolake and co-created Ableton, the world’s leading music production software.
He released his latest album, Archaeopteryx, in November. To hear more about the record, and tap into the mind of a true musical pioneer, music editor Damien Cummings gave him a call.
What would electronic music be without Robert Henke?
I am a strong believer in the concept of emergent ideas. Look at the history of art and science. There are so many moments when people who weren’t aware of each other came to the same conclusion serendipitously. It’s because the time they lived in, for whatever reason, was driving towards something that needed to happen. You can’t just give one person total ownership of any idea. It is more organic than that. Of course, Ableton Live had a tremendous impact on the development of electronic music. Still, at the end of the day, with all the people out there that were interested in program- ming, something else would have come out that allowed for that type of artistic expression. It’s just good luck that we got there first.
When you started making music, every technological advance seemed to unlock an unlimited sense of musical potential. Are you still excited technologically?
In the 1980s, and to a degree in the 1990s, every new instrument was a promise. Now, the interesting question is how much to rely on new instruments to be creative. It would be wrong to say that technology does not play a role, but technology alone is not enough to make a lasting artistic statement. I think to create something really interesting, it is helpful to have a certain level of mastery. Right now, it’s golden time for electronic music, because the foundations are already laid for whatever you want to do. This could be discouraging, but having the knowledge of how everything works means anyone can add their signature. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Do you see limitation as an important force in the creative process?
I’m easily distracted. I always have tonnes of ideas, so I find it intriguing to work with an instrument that is limited, because it forces me to be more focused. To build something in Ableton that really feels genuine, personal and different from what everyone else is doing is much harder and there’s a certain irony in that. Endless possibilities can be overwhelming. It’s perhaps a biased perception, but a lot of artists that I admire work with a very limited set of ideas.
If limitation can drive innovation, can you see any positives in what is happening in music right now?
I have found it refreshing to become more introspective. It has definitely changed my perspective on what I have to do. It is always difficult for me to say no, because I like to perform and I like to travel. Now, after a year off, I value having time at home, working on myself and my music, and I would prefer not to travel so much. I started to think about the environmental impact of what I do. In this aspect, the lockdown had an important impact on my interactions with the people who are important to me. It also gave me clarity about the people with whom I have a fruitful artistic connection.
Is the musician still imperative in the making of music?
What we call artificial intelligence at the moment lacks context. Imagine trying to explain techno to a classical musician. An open-minded person, but one who has no connection to contemporary musical expression. Play this person an eight-minute Basic Channel track and all they would hear is five notes and constant repetition. They would think that it could be written on one A4 sheet while sitting on the toilet. But if they heard it in Berghain at 5 AM, they would say, “Wow what an experience.”
Everything I do has some meaning, but I don’t feel the need to explain.
That context is everything. Context is volume, physicality, the movement of the air and the people. The sound changes. The reverberation of the room changes. There is so much more than just this one dimension. So, in order for artificial intelligence to create anything meaningful, it would rst need to know much more than just musical theory. It needs to create and experience context. When I can talk to my laptop and say “Yeah, I feel shitty”, and the laptop says “Yeah I feel shitty, too,” we can start talking about AI in music. Until then, the machines are just tools.
How would you contextualize your new album, Archaeopteryx?
I like to keep my music open and leave room for interpretation. Sure, it is full of little hints but it is vague enough for people to have their own thoughts. Everything I do has some meaning, but I don’t feel the need to explain. Those bridges are only important for me in the process of creation.
To some, Archaeopteryx is the first of the birds. To others, the last of the dinosaurs. What is it to you?
I like the ambiguity. It’s important to think about these things in polarising times. You could think of it as a political statement or a welcome gender discussion. But, truthfully, I saw an image of this bird when I was quite young and it stuck with me.
What are you most proud of on this record?
The album is a very diverse exploration of ideas and I feel that, because of the lockdown, I didn’t feel the need to inhibit my expectations. My only guidance was, “Do I like the music or not?” and after nearly 30 years that is a new feeling for me.
People who don’t create things don’t understand how fragile this whole process is. You are vulnerable when you create.
If someone was to ask me what I think is essential about listening to Archaeopteryx, I would say that whatever you do while listening to it is completely fine, but please listen to the album from start to finish. If you play it randomly, then you will lose something. One aspect that people who don’t create things do not understand is how fragile this whole process is. You are vulnerable when you create.
Will it ever stop being scary?
I know it will not stop for me. In a practical sense, I know my music is completely useless. When is a piece of music finished? What is it for? If you stop to think about it objectively, you will always wonder why you are doing this. How do you get the confidence as an artist that this utterly useless shit you’re doing is important?
I could try to come up with all these external verification schemes for the importance of my artistic work. Sure, I could sell 7000 albums, but Donald Trump can get 70 million votes. At the end of the day, the only important thing you can do is to find your drive from within and say I had fun making it, I had fun finishing it, and for whatever reason, it still feels necessary for me to do it.