Electronic Music Pioneer Robert Henke Brings The Laser Light Show Into The New Millennium

We talk to the German artist about his complex geometries and fantastic light displays.

Henke poses in from of Lumière.

Computer music composer, artist, and professor Robert Henke is never satisfied, but that’s okay with him. His ideas are large—take for instance the fact that Henke co-created the software platform Ableton Live, which is used by nearly every contemporary musician. It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that Henke has provided the tools that allow for modern music to exist. Yet this isn’t enough, nor is being a sound design professor at the Berlin University of the Arts, nor is touring the world with his electronic project Monolake. Robert Henke as an artist is constantly in awe of the progressions in technology and anxiously looks forward to what technology will do for us—as musicians, creators, humans—in the 21st century.

This past Sunday (2 Feb 2014) at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Robert Henke performed his mesmerizing sound and laser show Lumière for the closing concert of CTM 2014. Lumière departed from any preconceived notion of a “laser show” by the very fact that the shapes projected by the laser were scripted by Henke to connect with the same scripting language he wrote on his synthesizer. What Henke’s scripting language describes is a visual pattern and a sonic pattern, creating an intensely strong audio-visual connection. In this way (and during the performance) what was heard through the speakers were audio reactions to the transmorphic lasers melting and pulsating on stage.

Lumière at Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

Yet, Henke puts himself in the same position of the audience. “I need to experience the same sound and visual sides as the audience experiences, so I’m as much an audience member as anyone else. The only difference is that I’m the only one who’s controlling the overall experience.”

This isn’t the first time Henke has crafted a conceptual framework for his computer generated music performances. In 2007, Henke wrote an influential essay, Live Performance in the Age of Supercomputing, that contextualized what “journalists” term “laptop performances” within the context of music and performance history. The essay covers the technical and conceptual side of computer generated musical performances and Henke sets the justified precedent for how we are to understand them: “The laptop is not the instrument, the instrument is invisible...a showcase of the future on stage.”

The Creators Project recently sat with Robert Henke after his dress rehearsal for Lumière to discuss his history, influences, and how the disappearance of the laptop is the next step in our post-digital progression.

Creators Project: Was there one moment or experience when you were listening to music and thought: I can do this better, I want to change this, I want to go into music?

Robert Henke: There was this kind of teenage moment when I heard Jean Michel Jarre and I thought, “Wow, is this different from what music normally is! There are no vocals, just syntheticsounds, just a sense of space and I like this.” At some point I bought a synthesizer and played in a band. I moved to Berlin in the early 90s and I got exposed to the culture and became a part of it. I was studying computer science at the technical university where I discovered the academic side of computer music. I think what I still do these days derives from these early experiences: there’s techno, there’s rhythm, there’s intensity of volume, there’s shock transience and impact and getting lost in sound and repetition (which is something that changes your brain) to music that is very much concerned about detail about abundance and exploration of the farthest corners of what could possibly be done with computers.

What brought about Lumière?

It was simply a desire to explore the medium of lasers and that’s what drives me because you cannot imagine these shapes in a different media. They are genuinely created by using what makes lasers special: tiny little lines connect the shapes. This is just the mechanical movement of the mirrors when they move from one shape to the other. I embrace what the technology offers me. There’s a certain slowness to the laser’s movement that I use to create shapes which are precise on one hand and at the same time there’s a certain organicness to it.

Lumière at the 2013 edition of Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland.


In relation to Transmediale’s 2014 theme “Afterglow,” and being that Lumière is the closing concert for both transmediale and CTM, how do you view the digital revolution and the post-digital juncture that we find ourselves in today?

If you look at the general development of computer technology we are moving away from experiencing computers as computers. The laptop is on its way to die out. We are now talking about smart refrigerators and mobile phones that are faster than laptops 5 years ago. So, the idea that you have a computer that you have to program to interact with it is outdated...At some point everyone will have Google Glasses and the computer will become irrelevant. In the morning, you put on your Glasses and you’re connected to a computer and no one would even say “computer” anymore because its just normal and you will look at your list of friends and talk to them whether they are in Nigeria or Paris or just around the corner.

Henke in Berlin

So you are very excited for what’s ahead?

I mean, politically and socially I’m more on the pessimistic side of things. As far as advancements in technology are concerned, I’m just amazed. As an artist working in this field, I’m happy about developments. I can do things that are beautiful, interesting, and spectacular, at least for me, with amazing technology that I have access to. So yes I’m a strong believer in technology and happy about it. 

Below, catch Henke working behind the scenes on Lumière:

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