Robert Henke heads stateside

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  • We speak to the German artist about his forthcoming US tour, which includes a stint teaching at Stanford University.
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  • German sound designer Robert Henke has a handful of live shows coming up in the US this spring. It should be a busy few months for Henke, the acclaimed artist (perhaps best known as Monolake), university professor and one of the original creators of the Ableton Live software. He's currently an Artist in Residence at Stanford University in California, and this week he began teaching a specialized course on computer music. He also has a few speaking appearances lined up, to go along with his schedule of live music performances. This Saturday and Sunday in San Francisco, Henke will link up with visual artist Tarik Barri for a pair of Monolake shows, headlining the annual Modulations event hosted by Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Those sets will be focused on material from Ghosts, the 2012 full-length produced as the middle piece of an as-yet unfinished album trilogy. The two-night Modulations program will also feature a set from Rvng Intl. artist Holly Herndon. Then in May, Henke will showcase the avant-garde improvisations of one of his other projects, Dust, at four gigs. The first will take place at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago, on Saturday the 4th. Two more are scheduled at Stanford, before Henke hits Denver on Friday, May 31st (details for that one are still TBA). RA recently caught up with Henke via email to talk about Monolake, Dust, Stanford, Ableton, and his next major undertaking.
    You've been playing plenty of Monolake shows in support of last year's Ghosts LP. How do you feel about the response to the album? Can you recall your favorite Ghosts performance, or a particularly memorable one? In general I am quite happy with the overall response to the album. Some people who are not very much into electronic music in general love it, and I get a lot of great feedback from very unexpected perspectives. Some folks are not satisfied because it is not the sound they used to like, it is "too clean." However, I am tired of repeating a sonic aesthetic that I hear everywhere else. I've reached a position where I feel free to do what ever I like artistically, and that's very important to me. If I don't try new things, I will never understand what works and what doesn't. I had the best and the most disastrous performance in Bergen, Norway. The first time we had a great soundcheck and right before the concert someone dropped the soundcard from my table and we were not able to get it to run again. The result was the first ever Monolake performance that had to be cancelled right before the show. We agreed with the promoter to repeat it a few months later, and that second show went extremely well. I made a lot of quite experimental decisions on the fly and the result was quite stunning. The other really remarkable highlight was the performance at Decibel Festival, in Seattle last year. We had a prototype of a new PA system from EAW available and it sounded incredibly good. I never had better sound on stage and on the dancefloor. There were a lot of folks from the manufacturer present and they were completely blown away by what I did with their system. What can US fans expect from your Monolake and Dust performances this spring? The Ghosts performance presents clearly recognizable material from the album, but presented in a different way, with different structure, and in surround sound, with amazing visualizations by Tarik Barri. [For these shows] I dedicated a lot of time to the changes and really revisited a few of the tracks. The differences might be subtle in parts, and in others I almost rebuild the tracks completely. Dust is a spectral piece, focusing on slow changes of complex sonic material. No beats, just massive layers—somewhere in between ambient, drone, musique concrète and noise. It is not really a single piece, rather a large set of potential elements that I merge and deconstruct in an improvised way during the performance. Tell us about your position at Stanford University. I am going to teach a class called Sound, Structure and Machines. It is about creating a group performance, or something in between performance and installation, with 20 students. We'll start by figuring out what we'd like the final outcome to be, and then try to find simple but effective ways to reach that goal. The students had to apply and we chose the ones we felt would fit in best. I am very curious to see how this will work out. Ableton recently released Live 9. What do you like most about the new workstation? Live is the central part of my studio, and every improvement that helps me work faster or manage larger projects with more ease is highly welcome. In this regard I am happy with a lot of the detail improvements that have been made for Live 9. The new audio to MIDI conversion tool is another highlight. I am amazed by how good it works, but it is nothing I missed having. Technically it is stunning, and time needs to show how useful it will become. What are you up to later on in 2013? Right after I come back from Stanford I am going to throw all my energy on a new project. It's an audiovisual project with a strong focus on beats, and it will have its premiere at Unsound festival in Krakow in October. But it will not be a Monolake set. I am not Monolake, I am Robert Henke, and Monolake is a project of mine, and I have done it excessively in the past and now there is time to present something new. The third part of the album trilogy is on hold but it will happen, I just don't know when. If the new project works out the way I hope it does, I am going to tour a lot with it and I will not do Monolake shows any more, but that new thing will certainly be enjoyable to people who like my Monolake stuff. The new project is technically a bit of an adventure and it will be expensive to set it up. Offering Monolake shows at the same time would probably not be wise. All focus needs to be on the new project once it is out. If the preparations go well, there will be a teaser for it out in September.
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