As one half of Monolake and as the inventor of the Ableton Live sequencer, Robert Henke has had a huge influence on electronic music. He plays in Cork tonight, writes Don O’Mahony.
Robert Henke can have little to complain about in his life. It’s as if the success he enjoyed as a musician, as one half of German electronic act Monolake, and as an architect of a music software programme that has become the industry standard, seemed destined to happen. If there is one regret he harbours it is in not finishing his computer science degree.
“That was stupid in retrospect,” he confesses, but the suggestion he could still return to it seems unfeasible.“No. No time anymore.”
“Things happened how things happen in life. Music making turned into a more serious hobby, turned from a more serious hobby to something that created income, to a major occupation of myself working on software together with Gerhard Behles, turned into something that became incredibly successful,” he outlines with a still can’t believe it chuckle.
“So things kind of fell in place without me ever forcing it.”
Even his relationship with Behles, his comrade in arms in Monolake and instigator of the Ableton Live digital audio sequencer, seems fated. (That piece of software is credited with revolutionising the performance of electronic music in a live setting).
Both left the conservative environment of late 1980s Munich for the wide-open possibilities of Berlin. Even so, it was far from a cause for joy when they realised they were both on the same computer science course.
“In Berlin we met at the university and we were both like ‘Who is that idiot? Why is he here?’ It came as a shock to both of us because we didn’t like each other,” he recalls.
Pragmatically realising the value of each other’s differences the pair bonded. “We discovered that being different was beneficial. We basically could fill the gaps of each other. Suddenly we realised the difference is what makes it interesting.”
As part of their course they attended an electronic music module and began exchanging musical ideas.
“When we started making music together we came to a record contract due to the fact it was a very small scene,” says Henke. “And we made music that we liked and was influenced by other people that we liked.”
At the head of the scene were Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, whose Imbalance and Basic Channel labels set the template for a minimal, Jamaican dub-influenced techno sound and it was they who offered Behles and Henke a contract.
When it came to Ableton, Behles and Bernd Roggendorf invited Henke to become part of the project.
“It became clear that our experience and our expertise lay in creating music in a kind of playful, performative situation, and there were no tools for that that would support this idea,” says Henke of the gap they identified, which fell broadly between composers who could write scores and instrumentalists who could play.
“For the type of technology-savvy people who need the interaction of a machine to express themselves there was no space. And we filled that gap out of a personal experience and we modelled the software after something that we found personally useful and of which we believe that we know enough people in a similar situation — non-classical music training background, no classic music composition background but interested in electronic music — who could benefit from a system that allows them to create.”
In Cork to deliver a keynote speech at the Irish Sound Science and Technology Conference (ISSTA), Henke will also perform a piece tonight titled ‘Dust’.
“Ideally it is a highly immersive acoustic journey that has these qualities of being very bold and very subtle at the same time,” he says.
“I like textures. I like slow, complicated semi-fractal surfaces where on a brief glance everything is clear and then the closer you look the more detail you discover.”
Perhaps that’s always been in his musical DNA. “I think so. Yeah. I just like details.”