Rave culture and Robert Henke: How Berlin gave birth to Ableton and Lumiere II

Published in Thump, 11 November 2015

When Robert Henke arrived in the city, the dust from the fall of the Berlin Wall was still drifting through the air. Berlin was experiencing a radical cultural shift, as the avant-garde artists from the West flooded the derelict spaces in the East, building a new underground scene on the bones of Soviet occupation. When Henke moved there in 1990, Berlin was giving birth to techno. He was a music lover, scientifically minded, on the cutting edge of a new frontier.

“Club culture wasn’t so much about vinyl as it was about taking a drum computer and a cheap synthesiser into a dark place and figuring out what could be done with it,” Henke says. “Since the genre was so undefined, you could get away with really simple things because everything you did had the chance to be radical and new.” By night, he was an enthusiastic player in the emerging rave scene. By day, he was a programmer. At the time, these two worlds did not converge.

Enrolled in a computer science degree at Berlin’s technical college, Henke had access to music composition software that didn’t exist outside of academic institutions. Home recording meant recording to tape in those days; editing meant physically cutting tape or using primitive sequencers. It was only academic researchers that could create and manipulate complex digital sounds, build synchronised layers of music and make microscopic changes. The objective was to develop software and demonstrate its capacity, not to make people dance, although Henke didn’t see those things as mutually exclusive.

“Computer generated sound and composition has a very different background and perspective than club culture,” he says. “My own music was basically an attempt to incorporate elements for both worlds that I liked most. I wanted to have complex evolutions of sounds and I wanted to have the rigid, rhythmical structure I learned to love when I went to clubs.”

Henke’s programming skills developed alongside his creative ambition. He studied sound engineering at the University of Film and Television in Potsdam where he made installations pieces and composed music for film soundtracks. At the same time, he began working with Gerhard Behles, another programmer from the Elektronische Studio at Berlin’s technical college. Together, Henke and Behles created an application called the PX-18, which allowed them to craft improvised, pattern-based electronic music in a live setting. They became fixtures of Berlin’s club scene, recording and performing as Monolake. Their minimalist, dub-influenced sound became synonymous with Berlin techno and through this movement the duo earned worldwide acclaim.

Henke has always been interested in performance. In the 2007 essay “Live Performance in the Age of Supercomputing” he reflects on those formative experiences at Berlin raves, watching musicians armed with Roland TR-808 drum machines and Atari computers. The simplicity of the technology meant the performance was intensely physical – you could see the musicians actually hammering out beats. As electronic music became more complicated and the technology became more sophisticated, the performance became less physical. In the mid-90s, as early techno evolved into drum and bass, it became too complicated to play live – ‘live performance’ suddenly meant clicking a mouse to set pre-prepared tracks in motion.

Both Henke and Behles wanted more from electronic music. They wanted intimacy and immediacy – art that was made live on stage, not just played back. Building on the concept of their PX-18 software, they founded Ableton in 1999 and created the now ubiquitous Ableton Live software. Ahead of the EDM curve, Henke and Behles’ work turned digital producers into credible live acts.

“The idea wasn’t exclusively about people needing to perform in front of an audience. It was also about bringing an element of performance into the production of electronic music, performance as a way of actually creating,” Henke says. “Ableton Live was an attempt – obviously a successful one – to reintroduce the idea of performance and playfulness into something that was more about bookkeeping.”

Henke worked at Ableton for a decade while continuing to record and perform his own music. He released techno albums as Monolake and created multi-channel sound art pieces under his own name – sound spatialisation works that could only be experienced live. Though this work was increasingly relegated to museums and art festivals, it was still strongly influenced by club culture. “For me, the perception of music is always something that involves so much more than just the music. It also involves the social interaction and the space. That brings me right back to Berlin in the early 1990s. The elements that made a fantastic club were the music in combination with likeminded individuals in a space that was deliberately chosen for that purpose.”

When Henke stepped back from Ableton in 2009, he focused his energy on his performance art. The live shows took on a powerful new dimension, inspired again by his formative rave experiences.

“I was involved in defining the visual elements of Monolake from the very beginning. ‘What kind of light? What kind of furniture?’ We had access to a lot of video technology because a lot of equipment from East German broadcast television stations was suddenly available for nothing, so people were bringing lots of cheap televisions to the club. So let’s make something cool with that. This led to the birth of audio-visual club culture. The next step was trying to evolve that. The connection between club culture and minimalistic visual expression came very naturally to me.”

In 2009, Henke began working with Tarik Barri, the Dutch audio-visual artist who produced visuals for Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes tour. Barri created immersive, multi-channel video works for Monolake’s live performances, including a 24-channel sound/six-channel video performance at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in New York. In 2012, Henke began to experiment with audio-synchronised lasers for a gallery installation called Fragile Territories. He returned a year later with Lumiere, an immersive three dimensional audio-visual performance that saw laser technology stretched to its capacity, driven by live improvisation software that Henke himself developed.

“From my perspective, we’re dealing with the same questions, questions of structure, meaning and emotions, regardless of whether I design a visual piece or music. The music composer and the visual artist are using computer technology, the same computer technology. The step from saying ‘I do image processing’ to ‘I do sound processing’ is one hot-key switch,” he says.

Henke will bring Lumiere II to Melbourne Music Week this month, the second iteration of his most ambitious creative work. “It is a much more pre-composed scenario than the original but much more complex, much more focused on the evolution of details and drama. These details have to do with sound, with the way I shape the sound, with the overall size and shape of the projections, and how I control the fog in the audience – which is hard because you never know how the fog is going to behave,” he explains. “The more I perform the piece, the more I find new and interesting details to manipulate. These subtle changes have great impact on the perception of the whole show.”

At the end of each Lumiere II performance, audience members gather around Henke’s production booth and he happily shows them how his software triggers the visual effects. “Everything I do technically as part of the performance is easy to explain,” he says. “For me, it’s essential that the technical framework, on the surface, is clear because I want to work with it.” Much like his days as a student programmer with a passion for rave culture, Henke doesn’t value the technology over the feeling it creates. “If art requires technological magic and secrecy, I’m always very sceptical,” he smiles. “What’s the secret of writing a great book? It’s not about the typewriter.”