Read the unedited transcript from Derek Walmsley's interview with Monolake
Derek Walmsley: Tell me about your sabbatical.
Monolake: Well, as someone who is involved in the creation of Live since day zero, I felt at some point that I need a bit of distance, a distance to the actual development of the product. I wanted to reach a stage where I didn't feel responsible anymore, because sometimes it's tough to be in this position where you always feel you can change things. Since I'm also working with Live, it became stressful to me, it became stressful to work on music and at the same time also think, this detail of the software needs to be improved, and then stop making music, start writing down notes about the software. I really felt a strong need to stop that for a while, and just use it without thinking about the software itself.
D: So basically a psychological and creative need.
M: Yeah. And the same goes for the engagement with the company and everything that goes on there. Ableton grew very quickly the last 2-3 years. And suddenly all these people are in the office and I don't know them, or only very briefly, and so many things which happened on a very informal level suddenly (are) formalized, or had to become formalized. So I really felt that Ableton takes a lot of my energy away. And as much as I like to be part of that, I feel that I'm getting unhappy, and I'm getting stressed, and this reflects back to the tone of my emails... [laughs] I realized in discussions with my colleagues at Ableton, man, I am so stressed. It's not a pleasure anymore to talk with me about things. So I thought, OK, stop, let's step out here. And my idea at the beginning was that I dedicate the whole year 2009 for making music. In February I got an email from a person I only know very vaguely, a sound artist form Berlin, and he said, ‘do you want to become a professor at the academy of arts here?'. And I thought, uhmmm, I don't know, there's this Sound Studies thing as part of the university, and this whole faculty was in a pretty bad shape. So there was a strong urge from the head of department to get new people in, and just restructure the whole thing. So I became involved in this process. And as a matter of fact I did workshops all the years, and I do like teaching, and I like to explain things to people, and I found working with students a really interesting thing, as they have so many ideas you would never come up with by yourself... so I just ended up becoming professor. And that meant instead of making music I spent most of the year doing university stuff.
M: Maybe half of my week is teaching... and the other half I try to stay ahead of everything else, like touring, making music, doing the business side of the label, things like that. It feels to me that the teaching aspect of my life will stay there for the next few years at least, and I guess in maybe 3-4 years I will rethink what I'm doing, but it doesn't feel like I'm stopping teaching now, because I just started getting comfortable in my role there. But this of course has implications to my future at Ableton, because one thing is clear, I just cannot go back the way it was before.
D: Was it quite an informal role at Ableton?
M: Kind of free floating. I'm not an official founder, but to a very very high degree I'm a father of this software, and I still like to be involved in the evolution of it, and as a matter of fact 2-3 times a week I'm still involved in discussions with someone from the specifications team, by emails about details, so I'm still involved with it.
M: Yeah, I have a very strong personal relationship with this
thing, and I still have a lot of ideas how to continue with it in
the future. So a discussion we have to have very soon is actually
how I can contribute in the future. It might come down to a more
project-orientated working method.I say, there's this specific
thing I want to do for version nine/ten/eleven whatever, and
instead of trying to get an overview, where I really try to know
what every person in the development is doing, I focus on a few
aspects where I know I can really contribute something.
D: Does it feel like an end of an era?
M: No, actually not. I still feel close enough to the development process that it's all good for me.
D: What was your experience in working with electronics before Ableton and also Monolake? Where did all this knowledge come from?
M: I have this classical background of a family of engineers. Everyone in my family worked for Siemens. There's two main things which always caught my interest, and that was abstract art and electronics. From a very young age, I went to art museums in Munich where I came from, and I was always interested in abstract sculpture and paintings. I was never interested in landscapes. I saw a cubist sculpture and I found it cool. And electronics was just the normal thing to do when you are raised in a family of engineers.
M: No, because no-one in my family was somehow artistic. And when I felt I liked to have a synthesizer, there was a massive objection from my parents. No-one is musical in our family, and this is way too expensive, and you don't need that, if you think you really want to make music, buy a guitar. And that really was the last thing I wanted to do in the 80s.
M: It represented a culture which just was not mine. I knew I was not interested in Prog Rock, it was just not my world, I was listening to Philip Glass and stuff like that, Kraftwerk, other ideas of what to do musically
M: Doing stupid jobs like working in a music store and stuff
like this, to collect enough money to buy a used Juno 6. And from
there on, things started, I played in a pretty gothic band... 86,
87, we were listening to Depeche Mode and Sisters Of Mercy. ...
it's really good that it was pre-internet and there's no
D: Some people involved in Berlin electronic music, it's obvious what they've done since unification, but quite mysterious what they did before. Do you view your time before unification as a separate time musically?
M: Absolutely, because in spring 1990 I moved from Munich to Berlin. So my new life began right after the wall came down. I needed to be in Berlin to discover Techno music, and I also needed to be in Berlin to get exposed to electroacoustic music at the technical university, which has a fantastic studio for electronic music. The Elektronische Studio. This was always a very serious place for discovering electroacoustic music, so there I got exposed to Xenakis, and there I got exposed to Francois Bayle, and John Chowning.... Really the main reason [for studying at the Technical University] was the access to the studio.
M: Well they had a ring of twelve speakers, really good studio monitors, so you could do multichannel things, they had silicon graphics workstations for doing offline sound processing and a huge ProTools system. The first Monolake tracks were edited there secretly at night, because Gerhard worked there as a tutor. Because editing Techno at the studio was.... The last thing [laughs].
D: Were there other people who went there of any significance? It sounds like a unique place.
M: I don't think it's so unique... I think somehow, deep in my heart, I'm a happy academic, also a liberation from my parents who were not academics. I perceive the fact that I can study something as a precious gift, and I like the idea that I can sit there and listen to teachers tell me amazing things. It didn't even matter what they taught, it was just the fact that I could gather knowledge, I really like that, I guess that's part of what drives me when I'm teaching by myself. I enjoy this idea of sharing knowledge. You mention the openness of my website – I guess this reflects there too. I think good art is not the result of a secret thing. Good art is not something you can achieve by a miracle process you have to hide.
M: Inspiration. And in retrospect, good art is always understandable. Like the classical sentence you very often hear, ‘I could have done this myself'... well, the point is the other person did it. And this also reflects back to the current crisis of minimal techno. There's nothing wrong with making a minimal techno record these days, apart from the fact that, someone did it. [laughs]. If it had been 20 years ago, amazing.
D: Your website is kind of open source in a way. If people wanted to follow some of your areas of research, it tells what to use, what processes to use.
M: I perceive that the website is... I'm building a virtual city there, my website is my second life, so feel free to work through the streets there and find a nice bar.
D: The interview with Rashad Becker is really fantastic.
M: Well, he's a true artist. He has a very own style of doing things. His mastering is certainly not objective in any way, it has a very strong colour. But at the same time it has a colour I can totally relate to. And I can communicate with him about music, in a very interesting way. I can talk about sonic aspects of my music in a way which is enlightening to me too. Because the way he listens to music and how he's perceiving how elements work together is very interesting. So every time I go there for a mastering session, what I take home is an almost philosophical share of thoughts. So I'm not only paying for the mastering I'm paying for his thoughts.
D: What qualities of your music do you identify together?
M: Well... my music is never really about melodies or song structures. I always find my work closer to sculpture or songwriting. So I think about my music in terms of timbre a lot, in terms of the structure within a sound, or within a progression of sound, or placement of sounds of space. And these are all aspects which also strongly resonance with Rashad. So even if we have a difference taste of things, we both can agree on that this part of the track is interesting, this part has to be regarded as something which need to be more in the foreground.... A classical Rashad statement would be ‘this track feels grey to me'. And I'll say, yeah, I know what you mean. Perhaps we should try to get this high range thing here.... Try to give this part here a little bit more body. We talk in colours and we talk in shapes. And that very often helps.
D: Regarding modern art, was that ever something you were interested in doing?
M: I was drawing all the time, but none of my drawings are worth being shown, so I wouldn't consider them as important. I made a few of these LED objects, like this one... [points to wall] this is from 1988... The idea of being an artist as something one could seriously be never occurred to me. I always thought of myself as, I'd like to become a sound engineer. So, I'm in this middle ground between an engineering perspective and an artist perspective. And the fact that I ended up doing my own releases really came as a huge surprise. And I still feel I'm in this middle ground between engineering and development of software and art.
D: It's not a passive middleground, though. You're thinking about certain artistic problems and how to solve them...
M: A good technical product is also so much a piece of art. You can really feel the difference between a fantastic technical product and a shitty one. If you look at one of these 50s Braun stereo systems, they are true pieces of art. There's a reason why they are in every design collection, it's not just that you turn them on and they work, it's that the way everything is shaped there invites you to listen to music. And that's an important quality. Or a very well designed loudspeaker – it's beautiful, it sounds great, to me every aspect of a piece of art is in there. Or a good Japanese knife, craftsmanship. Something is done with dedication, with years and years, maybe hundreds of years of experience, and you can feel it. Or, all these classic synthesizers, which for a good reason became classic. The TR-808 art is a piece of art. It's engineering art, it's so beautifully made. If you have an idea of what is going on in the inside, if you look at the circuit diagram, and you see how the unknown Roland engineer was making the best out of super limited technology, it's unbelievable. You look at the circuit diagram like you look at an orchestral score, you think, how on earth did they come up with this idea. It's brilliant, it's a masterpiece.
D: What processes are they using? It's interesting how inspired you are by that example.
M: For instance for getting the cymbal sound, is a tricky process. The way they create the cymbal sound is really revealing. You look at the circuit diagram, and you think, ‘ah, that's how they did it'. Because it's not very complicated technically, it's just extremely well executed. It's the most elegant solution they could come up with. And you look at the circuit diagram, and it radiates elegance. And if you then think further, that's why the 808 became this classical machine.
D: To go back to the Electronic Studio, were you involved in installations at that time? Piercing Music was around that time?
M: Piercing Music started as an installation. Because at some point I'd stopped studying at the Technical University, and more seriously followed my path of becoming a sound engineer, and I continued studying film at the former GDR film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Which was a good thing, because it exposed me to thinking in sound in more film terms. That was very helpful, because sound in film comes from a totally different perspective then sound in music. Because when it comes to sound in film, you are always forced to think in a very result-orientated way. What's the emotional impact of something, how realistic can something be, how can you manage to get things realistic which aren't really good recordings, how do you create emotions out of something which is just abstract sound, etc etc. And during my time at the film school, I just made a lot of recordings of sounds of things. Like I needed a lot of water recordings for my film score, and I started messing around with those water recordings and processing them, and I felt that this is material which really has a lot to offer in terms of manipulation. You can do a lot of great things with water. More out of fun I made this installation at one of the office buildings of the film school, where I just placed a lot of speakers in the stairways, and created this artificial waterfall, dripping water from the fifth floor to the first.
M: Just my bathtub and things like that. And I recorded this at the last day, and I just played this recording to a few friends. And one of my friends who was very much into piercing and S&M, he wanted to get a few more piercings, which at this time was a really underground thing to do. And he wanted to get his piercings in a more ritualistic, more sexual situation, and he said, I'd like to have your music for that. And I said sure, that sounds like fun. Because I thought, hey, that sounds like something which it could be fun to watch and see. I won't go into details, but he got his piercings, and my music was playing there. On the way back home, I thought, hey, maybe I should make a few more edits of the piece, and burn some CDs, and sell some to piercing shops. And so I started to rework this whole thing, I made a score for it, and I really took it very seriously.
D: Could you describe the process of making it? Didn't you use some sort of distribution?
M: Well at this time I was totally into stochastic stuff. So I took a two metre long piece of paper, I marked a few points in time, and I used a Max patch to spray random over it, weighted random, so there's a few crystallization points. I recorded these random notes into a midi sequencer, and I applied these to a few parameters of the SY77 to change sounds. So it was in a weird way a very academic piece of music. It just happened that through friends of friends of friends, I got in touch with Moritz von Oswald, and he was interested in this thing as a release for his Imbalance Recordings label. The only thing was that he wasn't too happy with the title ‘Music For Piercing'. So we just changed it to 'Piercing Music', which was in retrospective the right thing to do.
M: Yeah. I was. I would make it differently these days as always. But it's not a total failure [laughs]. And the rest is history so to say.
D: I have a question regarding early releases. Was Wieland Samolak yourself?
M: No, no. Wieland is a key figure for many people. He was running a very famous store for synthesizers in Munich. And at his place I met Gerhard Behles. So without Wieland, I would never met Gerhard, never Monolake, and maybe never Ableton and what else not. Moritz knew Wieland because Moritz was buying synthesizers at his shop. So Wieland pretty much knew everyone in the studio scene, because Wieland sold the hot shit. When Moritz started the Imbalance Music label, he released Wielands music. At some point very early Moritz realised doing an ambient drone label was not his cup of tea, and I think also he just realised... he used to sell a lot of copies of Basic Channel, and selling 300 copies of a drone label is not really... so he kind of got frustrated and gave up. We agreed that I take over the label. So I own the rights for this recording now, and since Wieland is a good friend, we decided to make it available online.
D: there's a quote by him about liking sounds which transforms over time. Is that the kind of process you're interested in?
M: Yes, absolutely.... Everything which is static is boring to
me. Everything which is seemingly static, and then changes if you
look closely, immediately becomes extremely interesting. You
mentioned the experience of my BLOC concert, where I was basically
playing not a super-complex groove, but what kept the set going was
the subtle changes in sounds all the time. And that pretty much
nails down what I enjoy. It doesn't matter if it's rhythmical or
not. The rhythm is just a vehicle to transport something. The
details in sound, the subtle changes in sound are what I'm
interested in. From my own experience.. well, here comes an
experience I had not so long ago where I really thought I
understand the magic of things: As I said before, I'm pretty much
done with techno, I'm not interested in a straight bass drum
anymore. And I played at a pretty big festival in France, like a
year ago or something like that. And Jeff Mills DJed right after
me, and he played the banging techno, and I thought, yeah, of
course. But I was in a good mood, and I was still dancing, so I
thought, let's try and get in the mood. And I have to say, the way
Jeff was mixing and the way he created tension by slightly getting
two records out of sync, and slightly changing the EQing... how he
managed to get two simple techno records to interact with each
other, with his filtering, and his rhythmical shifts he applied on
a microscopic level, was so mindblowing. I was stunned, I really
thought, yes, that's the reason Jeff Mills is Jeff Mills. This
amazing attention to detail. Take two records on a record player,
not hard-synced, but sightly off beat, play with this off beat on a
level of milliseconds, and from one bar to the other, get them
completely locked in sync again, and melting a dancefloor with
those tracks... that's the real magic. Take two simple elements,
apply the right treatment, which is just a microscopic change, and
play with this microscopic new change, and something new shows up,
something totally unexpected.
D: Is it the organic-ness, that human error which makes it interesting?
M: The fact was, yes, human, but no error. You could clearly feel that there was a person who was an absolute master in what he's doing. It was the same experience as listening to someone playing the piano, he's just hitting the 88 keys on the piano, but the exact way this person is doing it makes all the difference.
D: Did this reinvigorate your faith in techno? You were saying you were done with techno.
M: No, no. I'm so happy that with Grime, UK Garage and dubstep, however you want to call it, a new groove found its way to a dancefloor. I just enjoy it so much more if I can listen to rhythmical structures which have no straight bass drum anymore.
D: It's been remarked upon, your stuff isn't dubstep, but it achieves something familiar. It's not a 4/4 beat. Are you done with 4/4?
M: You never should say 'completely done with something'... the more I feel comfortable for creating grooves for myself, the more I'm looking towards more complex grooves, that's just a natural development. The beauty of a straight bass drum is that it's something which carries you through a piece. But in a lot of music I'm listening nowadays, the same function is somehow provided by the snare. The snare is providing the pulse, and everything else is flexible around it. And that's an interesting shift. I feel a new freedom to place rhythmical elements. I don't feel that... from an objective perspective or a rational perspective, there might not be such a dramatical change in my rhythmical expression. But from my subjective perspective I feel more liberated than ever. I really feel I can place a bass drum in wherever a grid I like, and I can still make sense of it. It might sound strange, but it took me 15 years of Monolake to really get to a state where I really feel comfortable. And I never felt so comfortable with what I'm doing. I always had a lot of doubt. Maybe it has to do with getting older, maybe it has to do with (the fact that) I really achieved something, maybe it has to do with getting more public feedback, it's hard to judge. I reached a level where I feel much more confident with my own work than in previous years.
D: I have a couple of questions regarding that. First, you say you can put a bass drum anywhere on the gig. It's not like you have a bass drum as the centre of the piece... it's not phrased very well, but I'm interested...
M: I think I understand.... If you look at a normal 4/4 pattern, if you look at one bass drum, and move it away from 1, 5, 9, 13, if you just move one bass drum away, the whole thing falls apart. The only thing you can do is to add off-beat elements. But it's always the idea of the whole straight programming, that you need to add additional elements to make sense out of it. As soon as you look at these double time, half time, broken grooves, you realise, or I realised for myself, there's much more freedom. Because what constitutes the groove is not the bass drum itself, it's the interaction between the bass drum and the snare- for someone coming from a rock background, this is like, ‘wow, boy, tell me news' [laughs]. I guess someone from a rock background would now think ‘techno idiot'. Because it's so obvious from a drummers perspective. The whole groove, if you move yourself mentally away from a straight bass drum, you're looking at a groove as this kind of complex interaction of elements, and suddenly it all becomes elastic. And it's a little bit like a game of chess, you move the bass drum somewhere else, then you realise, that's cool, now I can add a clap at this part here, and it makes sense again. We're finally reaching this process of creating this beat sculpture again, you cut off a part at one part of the sculpture, then you realise it's not that the sculpture is falling apart, but you need to change something at a different part of the sculpture. And this means, OK, you change the bass drum pattern, and instead of saying now it doesn't work anymore, you think OK, which element do I need to shift somewhere else to get it back in balance. And suddenly something comes up which is really cool. And you realise it might be two bars, or four bars or eight bars to make sense. And that's just so much fun. I think that's the point. Suddenly the fun came back.
D: A lot of your recent tracks have been very vibrant... I have a question regarding method, is there any live process involved in making your music?
M: I'd say it's pretty much 50/50. At a very late stage in the
production process, it really comes down to sculpturing. I see
myself stepping back from the computer to get an overview of the
whole piece, and try to think, how is the structure, I try to deal
with time for instance, I think is this part too long, is this part
too short, is the variation too early, too late, whatever. And
there I really feel like a movie director or sculptor. But at the
very beginning, the genesis of the piece, I'm pretty much the
opposite, I very often record something, or just do something very
quick, before I can even think about it. So even if the process is
sculpturing, it's quick, quick, quick, don't stop, just do it. So
as quickly as possible I hack things together, to not lose the
gist, the original idea, the vibe, whatever. And then it takes
weeks, even months till I come up with the finished piece. And a
lot of those sketches of course are in some dark corners of a
backup hard disk.
D: You've described making your pieces as a hard process. Why do you think it's a hard process for you to make music?
M: Well, very generally, there's a lot of doubt involved all the time. I'm listening to other music, and I can see the brilliance of other people's work. I also see a lot of very generic music is released and produced. And I only want to release music which I would consider good. And I'm not considering so much music really good. So I'm strict with myself, and there's just a lot of doubt involved.
M: Yeah, but not only in regard to details, but also, ‘is this whole piece a great composition'? The detail is very often the result of craftsmanship. If you spend enough time, you can conglomerate enough detail. But you might end up some highly complex IDM record which nevertheless is arbitrary. It's an arbitrary collection of amazing details [laughs].
M: Yes... I want to make music which is simple and complex at the same time. And man, that's complex. That's the challenge, you know, create something which works on a dancefloor, and works on a surface level, and at the same time is providing you with great moments if you listen to it on headphones.
D: Were you involved in going to clubs much in the early days?
M: Ah, tremendously. First of all, the club culture in Berlin, at least the part I was interested in, was very closely related to alternative lifestyles, to squatted houses, and a lot of my friends used to live in this social context. It was real underground, and I totally enjoyed this. And of course I also enjoyed it musically. When the first drum and bass wave hit Berlin, there were just totally mindblowing drum and bass parties in the city. The way the drum and bass people were dealing with sound was just a huge inspiration to Monolake. Maybe not rhythmically at the first place, but the sonic richness and sophistication, all the time stretching things, all these natural percussion as samples, transposed, I just found this very inspiring. Gerhard and me always used to go to the 'Hard Edged' parties at WMF, which were the coolest drum and bass parties in the city.
D: Recently, you seem to have been doing installations and 12”s. Does it seem like two different paths?
M: That's a questions I ask myself a lot. My big problem and my
big 'unique selling point' at the same time is that I'm just
interested in so many things. Sometimes I have a hard time to
decide which path to follow, because there's so many great fruits
on all these trees. So it's not that I have a shortage of ideas,
it's much worse, I'm flooded with ideas, and sometimes I'm
struggling to decide where to go. I really don't have a good answer
for that. I enjoy both, and I just try to find a balance to keep me
mentally sane. But the more conceptual work I did for my more
artistic projects of course this as a working method reflects back
on how I work when I do my Monolake stuff. So there's always
connections. Take the Layering Buddha thing, which comes from this
very strong conceptual idea of using a single sound source and
transforming it, and from this transformation go to a live set....
For Layering Buddha I developed so much sound processing techniques
which found their way back to the Monolake Surround Set.
D: What particular process?
M: Overlapping a lot of very similar sounds. The whole idea of
Layering Buddha is that I'm layering (recordings of the sound of)
FM3 Buddha Machines which are all slightly different. For Monolake
Live Surround it is most the time not the obvious thing:
Snare from the left, snare from the back, snare from the right.
Because that's kind of a musical joke. You can do it once and then
D: Once you see the effect it's boring. Like 3D cinema, once you've seen it it becomes boring, like a cinema of spectacle.
M: Exactly, like the Imax experience. So I didn't want to do
Disneyland concerts. But I figured out if you have this club set
which is essentially mono, and then there's a string sound, where
almost the same sound comes out of four speakers around, the result
it that the whole club space opens up, and the walls disappear, and
you're standing, your bathing in this sound. Because they're all
slightly different, your head is not perceiving anymore that the
sound comes out of the speakers. It just opens up this whole big
world. It's the old natural thing, if you think about the sound of
crickets in the trees, or the sound of the ocean, it's almost the
same going on from all directions, but of course it's not all the
same, it's just similar. And as a result you close your eyes and
think, wow, that's big. Or, for the Atom performance, where I
forced myself to only use four tracks, because all the sounds had
to trigger LEDs in the balloons, and you have a limitation of the
complexity you can do with that.
D: Could you describe exactly how Atom worked?
M: There's this matrix of 64 balloons, a 8x8 grid. Christopher Bauder who built this matrix, he during the performance is controlling the vertical position of all the balloons. Therefore he can create shapes in space, like a roof kind of thing, or lines of balloons in many directions, or circles of balloons at different heights. I had control over the LEDs and I make the sound. And of course the one thing we wanted to have are that the LEDs and sound are in sync, to get this really strong audio visual impact. What we did during the rehearsals, at the very beginning when we started the project, we simply tried out which spatial patterns of the balloons could work with which LED patterns, and which sounds could go together with those. And from that we derived something like ten sketches or ten scenes, and then we work within those scenes. During the performance we work through these ten stages or whatever. But what's happening in those stages is quite free. So there is for instance one piece always that consists of these concentric rings of balloons, but it's not clear... Christopher is always moving these concentric rings all the time, this is the piece we can Metropol, of course it's a reference to this Metropolis like scene with the light rings around the body.. there's another piece where Christopher makes a shape, a letter is moving downwards, or a spaceship is just opening the entrance for the aliens... Christopher made this pattern and we both immediately thought, ‘that's an alien spaceship', so the sound design we created around it was aimed to match this experience.
D: On your website you described it as one of the most satisfying things you've done. What was the reason?
M: Because it's not arbitrary. Because there's a strong conceptual force behind it, and I had to execute it somehow, so it was a challenge. And given the complexity of the challenge, I'm satisfied with the result. I learned a lot. I guess I'm satisfied because I learned so much. To me, each good piece is also something which implies I did something new, I explore some new terrain, I find a new way to express myself. It doesn't necessarily have to be the best possible Monolake piece from the outside perspective. But it's important for me that I feel I achieve what I want to achieve with it. So very often the pieces I like most are the ones where I myself felt I reached the next step. And then the commercially more interesting pieces follows on that, because then I feel more secure in executing what I learnt.
M: I don't know yet. Christopher is building a new version of the mechanical structure, which would allow much more dynamic movements, I think of building a better way, on a hardware level, to access the LEDs, which would allow much faster refresh rates, so I could do things where all the LEDs are flashing 20 times a second.... This of course would then also has an impact on what kind of music I could do for that. I think even if the results of the Robert Henke versus the Monolake things might be different, there's always links in between them, each of those things inspires other things.
D: You rerecorded a lot of elements for Atom. What was the reason behind that?
M: In my experience the more improvised and live a live set is, the less convincing often is the recording. If you have a pre-prepared live set which is sounding perfectly find in the studio, then of course also the recording sounds good afterwards. I'm pretty sure if we would for instance listen to a recording of the BLOC performance, it wouldn't translate. It need the special moment to really work. I had this experience so often, that recordings of concerts I really like are just 'okay'. The problem is that your sense of time is completely screwed. During the performance, the audience, the dancing audience and you, it's extremely loud situation, a lot of people are at least drunk, all these things totally change your perception. If you create something which works perfectly in that environment, to assume that it also works nice if you're sitting at home with a cup of tea in front of your stereo, how could that be? It's like watching a theatre play on a little TV screen. I guess the idea [with Atom] is more reshaping it in a way that's a good transformation from the original performance into something new. But then on the other side, the fact that I did all these re-recordings for the Atom document reflected back on how I perform the performance thing. Actually I think I'm pretty much a friend of revisioning things. It's also partly because the software industry, you know, something is just never really finished, because you always find things you can improve. My live set is always changing, it's not a static thing, I play somewhere, I think this part worked well, this part worked well, these and these parts do not work well, next time we do it a little bit differently, it's a constant evolution. I recently listened back to a few of my older tracks, and I immediately came up with two or three little changes which I would find very essential. Next year is the 15th anniversary of the first Monolake release, so maybe for next year, I grab a few of my old pieces and make a director's cut. The problem is the old pieces, older than 2004, I only have them as stereo recordings. But everything I did exclusively within Live I have as individual elements.
D: I want to talk about Layering Buddha. That was made from 1000s on elements... how many recordings did you make? Was it several machines?
M: One. One single Buddha machine contains nine loops, and the longest loop is two minutes, and the shortest like thirty seconds. So the total material that is within a Buddha machine is around 15 minutes, and I recorded this. That's one single recording. Then I divided it into pieces, so that I have the original loops, and then I just started applying processes, like I take the whole loop, and put it in a sampler, and let it run as a loop. Than I take the whole loop again, put it in a second sampler, slightly change the pitch, slightly filter it, and let it run. Then I take a third loop, do the same thing, but slightly change the length of the loop. So that suddenly things are not repeating in the regular fashion anymore. You already start getting complex evolution in way.
M: In this first process, if you start with ten loops, then you
have ten loops running. You record the result for five minutes.
Then these five minutes are already quite complex, because they are
the equivalent of ten Buddha machines. So you take this, and you
bring it back in ten samplers, and apply the same process again.
And the you have 100 already. So if you do this for a few weeks you
end up with a lot of material. I ended up with a few hundred files.
And then biggest challenge is to choose the interesting ones. But
the conceptual idea behind it was, just create a lot of variation,
then recombine the variation.... It's like the Middle Ages, let's
create gold out of something. It's pretty much an alchemistic
D: It's a beautiful piece, but because there's so many layers, do you think it bears much resemblance to the original?
M: the surprising thing is that in almost all the pieces, there's a specific harsh noise of the original that is still present, even after all the processes. But of course this harsh noise is something I'm pretty much interested in. So I was trying to conserve it. But it shines through. There's a similar texture or colour shining through the hold record. That's the beauty of the whole thing.
D: I have a question regarding that. You have a micro level of the Buddha machines, and the macro level of you building up these enormous layers of sounds. And you often start with a sound form the TG77 or Synclavier and then build it up. What processes do use to negotiate between these micro levels and macro level?
M: I'm not sure if I understand the question. I don't see so much difference between these scales. It's this natural question of organising time. You start with this loop, or this very small piece of time. Then you combine a few elements and you create something which has a larger shape. Then you're arranging larger shapes, and you get another level of time. It's just like....it' a little bit like a fractal geometry, every structure resembles a similar structure in a similar timescale. The macro level is just the micro level a bit bigger. So for me.... if the piece is good, there's no structural difference between the two.
D: One thing I'm getting at is you have the quite interesting discussion on your site about live performance and you're describing there a ‘bottleneck' of the person on the laptop. Are there any particular processes you use to get round this bottleneck of everything going this one person, either live or in the studio?
M: In the studio situation, the main thing I do to avoid this bottleneck situation is exchange with other people, and giving things the necessary time. That's why it took quite a while for me to come up with the new Monolake album. Because I didn't want to rush anything, I didn't want to force myself to release something, I waited till what felt I could contribute makes sense. And the second thing is I'm constantly exchanging musical ideas with people on the same wavelengths. So in some regard, even if the current Monolake album is entirely 'produced by Robert Henke', it's of course the result of a lot of people involved in a secondary level. It's the result of (A) listening to a lot of music, (B) talking to a lot of people, and (C) getting a lot of direct feedback from very important friends while making it. Like Torsten, T++, who is one of my best friends, exchanging musical ideas with him is fantastic. Because on one level we have very similar ideas, but then we do very different things with those ideas. So we share the same ideas and our musical results are very different. We both tremendously enjoy listening to each other's music. A classical Torsten and Robert evening is sitting in front of a stereo for two hours listening to our music and to our sketches, and talk about our sketches. That helps a lot to overcome this ‘I'm living on our musical island' situation.
D: I have a direct question about this question of workload. Do you use any of the statistical processes that we discussed with reference to Piercing Music.
M: No. But I still use technology to come up with results which
surprise myself. You just put a few elements together and create
for instance an audio feedback loop. Make sure an output from
effect goes into another effect, and you have a few elements in
there which change over time, and things very quickly reach a level
of complexity where it starts becoming unpredictable. And to me
that's the beauty and power of electronic music. It's very simple
to create structures which are so complex that the result is not
predictable. But it's still very far away from being arbitrary. You
still are able to understand the result as a product of the
process, but only after the fact. You listening to the result, and
you say, yeah, that's obviously what comes out of this process. But
you wouldn't be able to predict the result beforehand. That's a
great thing to avoid the bottleneck, building a structure that
interacts with you. Thinking in processes is such a common way of
working in electronic arts, because it combines profound knowledge
about the nature of the process, but even whilst I know the process
inside it, it still can be overwhelming with a few tricks. And I
very often use this overwhelming switch. Very simple example: Take
a step sequencer. It has 16 steps, and you program a pattern. Now
you take a second step sequencer, each step of this sequencer is
triggered actually by a beat from the first sequencer, and this
sequencer maybe only has 15 steps. And you use it to transpose the
output from the first sequencer. Immediately you end up with a
sequence which repeats itself after something like 15x16 steps. And
with Max fror Live, a step sequencer inside Live,
you can do this in 15 seconds. It takes you 15 seconds to set up a
structure where you predict the beginning, but you cannot really
predict what will happen after one minute. And that's totally
D: Where did the impetus come from for Max For Live?
M: Live is a commercial product where the development
goal was to create a tool which was very straightforward and very
simple to use on the surface. The working process with
Live is very easy to understand once you're into it, and
it follows very clear rules, therefore it's obvious what you can do
with it, and what you can't do. Apart from the fact that since it's
a highly modular system you can already create much more complexity
than most people would assume. However there is a limit of
complexity if you think in terms of customisation. So on the other
side of the planet there is MAX, which is a programming language,
which follows complete own rules. If you just buy MAX and open it,
you basically have a blank piece of paper, and you need to write
your own things in order to make sense of it, or you need to use
things other people wrote. MAX can do amazing things if you look
for very special solutions for very special problems, or you look
for very personal solutions... so for instance for the Atom
performance, the way I talked to the LEDs inside the balloons...
its a way which actually makes sense when done by a MAX patch. I
use Live to generate the notes, but what creates the LED
patterns is the MAX patch. Live and Max are two programs
that are very nice counterparts to each other, they serve two very
different things, but these two very different things are things a
lot of musicians are interested in both of them. The problem in the
past was only that there was no real elegant way to hook up one
program to the other one. We Ableton know the [Cycling74] guys
since more than ten years. I'm a Max user since 1992, which is
already 17 years, unbelievable. So at some point we just thought
what could do we do to make the experience for a Max user and a
Live user better, if people want to use both programs at
the same time. What the Max for Live thing does is that it
makes it much easier to integrate little things you can do in Max,
and for the Max user who wants a more formal environment to run his
processors. As a good example, you can write a Max patch which
creates amazing algorithmic motifs. So there's just this little Max
patch, and you send it a ‘let's do it' signal, and it comes and
creates this algorithmic theme. ‘do do da do do'. And now the
problem is that little algorithmic theme is only part of a bigger
composition. For arranging the big composition you don't want to
use Max, because it's a tedious process. You want to use something
which has a timeline where you can just place things. And that's
where Max for Live comes in the game. You place this
algorithmic theme inside a Max patch inside Live, and you
use Live for triggering the cue points. And that's just a
very simple example. You can drag and drop your Max patches inside
Live, and they run just like Live's internal
D: how does that work software-wise?
M: If you drag in any Max for Live device, a special Max version is opening in the background, which has a lot of special interfaces to communicate with Live, so audio data can flow through Live to Max and backwards, Midi data and control data, all flow through. And this is something which is completely happening in the background, so the user doesn't even need to know all this. For the user, in an ideal world, it makes no difference if there's a Max patch running in Live, or a Live effect. The user can edit a Max patch while it's running in Live. And what happens then is actually technologically really amazing: a second copy of Max opens, and all the data is rerouted to the second copy of Max. Technically that's total madness, its a very demanding project, and that's why it took almost 2 years to finish it, or not even finish it, to put it in a state where you could release the first version. That's the one single project I was involved with, even during the sabattical, I couldn't resist being involved in the Max for Live specification. That's so important for me. And I'm mostly really happy with the result. And with the things I'm not happy, I understand they're very difficult to solve, and it's a question of a future release.
D: By the way, it's good that someone who is a creative person is involved in pushing the capabilities of an artform itself.
M: Well, as I said, I admire great engineering as an art form itself. Art involves so much engineering, and it's only the question if it's visible or not. I know a few big players in the art scene who are doing highly complicated things. And this myth of them being the one genius artist is such a marketing myth. If someone is doing something which is technologically advanced, you can be sure that there is people in the background who are doing a lot of work. It's always a team process, and there's always programmers involved, and there's always hardware engineers involved, so the piece of art is the result of technical engineering to a high degree too, and the technical engineering is part of the artwork. It's just that for some reason which I do not entirely appreciate, the art world still seems to work in a way that the public wants to have the single genius there. I dislike this approach.... When it comes to the music scene, with some people it's very clear what they're doing, and what their artistic input really consists of. And other people you really have no idea how much of what they're presenting to you is their work, and how much of what they present is work done by other people.
D: With Live, what do you put the success of it down to?
M: The initial success is very simple. When we started Live, there was already an underground laptop performance scene. People who on stage performed with laptops. And they were using Max Patches and Supercollider and all sorts of esoteric tools. At the same time, there was all the commercial software, which was totally aimed towards studio, and engineering. It was software for recording music, just a totally different mindset. All the commercial companies at this time, which was the end of the 1990s, all these companies looked only at the studio market. No one saw all these freaks. No one saw there was ten years of techno culture already. Most big companies in the music business completely didn't see it. When we started building Live we just created the tool we wanted to use. We were very certain already at the beginning that if we create a tool which solves our needs, then we know a lot of friends who would have exactly the same needs.
D: And the need was for something usable, with a good interface?
M: Yeah. I think the big difference between the big software
company and us at that point, we were driven by an idea. We were
not driven by ‘we have to come up with a product'. And that's the
best situation you can have, you have an idea, and you know
beforehand that this idea will solve a lot of problems for a lot of
people. So we were not surprised by the success at the beginning.
What came as a surprise to us was that no one from the big
companies after our success started to create a competition. When
we came back to the NAMM show, this very important music industry
trade show in Los Angeles, the second year, we really looked around
and thought, now we will see the big guns from the big companies
pointing at us. Nothing. Next year we came back, nothing. There's
still today no competitor, there's tons of studio sequencers, you
can buy Logic, you can buy Cubase, you can buy Sonar, you can buy
ProTools. There's just nothing that even comes close to
Live. There's DJ tools and studio tools. I guess at the
beginning they felt it was a niche market. I really believe the
other companies for a very long time just didn't take us seriously.
They were just laughing at us. Good for us!
D: What did Torsten bring to Monolake? And Gerhard before him?
M: It might sound strange, but I think one of their biggest contributions was confidence. With my background in engineering, I never had any doubt about my sound design. I always felt good about that. But I was questioning for a very long time my musical abilities. Gerhard is just on the sunny side of life, for him Monolake was just like a nice playground, and this freed him from any doubt, and that helped a lot. He was always like ‘ah, that's great. Let's do it, it's great'. I think that seriously this was his biggest contribution, creating an atmosphere where things could happen. And Torsten on a different level too. So they helped me to overcome my constant latent insecurities. And on a practical level, I owe Torsten a lot for the insights I gained into other rhythmical structures. I really enjoy his rhythms, and how he's dealing with rhythm. So Torsten has a large responsibility for my confidence in groove design. And I think that's the biggest impact, the most sustainable impact. Of course there's also an immediate impact on the work together, a specific sound in one track, a specific groove in another track, on a conceptual level it's more important ... this different perspective towards groove, and giving a lot of confidence.
D: I want to ask how your music differs to a lot of music on Chain Reaction. On your music there was much less reverb than a lot of other productions on the label. Was it something that seemed not as important as the rest?
M: Er, no. It was just as important. Really at this time there was not much thinking, it was not strategic in any way, things just happened.
D: I was wondering if you didn't like reverb [laughs]
M: Actually I love reverb, and I'm surprised that you think
there's not much reverb in it. I just use a different colour.
D: I guess what I'm saying is there's not the use of delay or echo as a chaotic element. There's spacious areas in your music, but there's not the use of delay or echo as a chaotic element that rumbles through the track.
M: I guess if you talk about similarities or influences, I would
agree that at the beginning of Chain Reaction there was a certain
common set of ideas about how to make music. And I think this is
what works as this big combining element which brings us all
together. And I think it's more how we all dealt with time. Basic
Channel tracks are in theory endless states. Early Monolake tracks
are more or less endless states, the Porter Ricks tracks, the
Vainquer tracks are endless states. It's the idea of tracks rather
than songs. And the absence of songs.
D: Let's talk about the Monolake Surround Sound project...
M: First of all I really like performing, and I enjoy the fact that at a festival or club, I can listen to music in a different environment, with a different kind of PA, different volume, different impact on the low frequencies. So I enjoy this a lot, and I think it's a unique experience, it's an experience you cannot get on a record. And from my film background, I'm used to work with a lot of multiple channels. The studio here is my laptop but I have all these speakers around, and I can have many more, if needed. [laughs]. I thought Ok let's make sure people when they come to a Monolake concert experience something which is a different experience from the record. And I built my own MIDI controller to really be able to perform, I really wanted to have an instrument. And I do the four channel thing because Monolake on four channels, you can only experience this in a concert. There's no way that a physical product or a download would ever provide a similar experience. My concept is really that if people see a Monolake show, they should afterwards feel they saw something that was done at this very moment, and it was created for them. And that it was done with dedication and effort and that they can feel this. Because then I believe that people will go home and say ‘it's good'. I also work with a visual artist these days. He wrote his own software for this, he is super-geek. [laughs]. He's a super-geek, I'm a geek. What he built was more or less like a visual game engine, so he can fly through these worlds he's creating, and these worlds are created by the sound. I think it's really cool. Unfortunately I never really see it, because whenever we play together I'm so focused on the sound. We place ourselves always in the centre, and ideally the visuals are all around, practically we need at least two projections next to each other on the main focus axis.
D: You say it's possible to direct sound very precisely. How precise is it?
M: With the classic club surround thing not at all. But with this wave field synthesis technique, which I present in this concert which comes up in two weeks in Berlin, with this technique in theory you can place sound very precisely, next to, in front of, behind people. But practically it only works in a very perfect acoustic environment, and in a club environment unfortunately it doesn't work so well.
D: Do you think it could ever work in practice?
M: Don't know yet. This is something where I am still in research. This whole club thing with surround is something I do now since a year. And that's not a long time to really understand what's going on. If you want to master anything it takes time. There's the idea that to master an instrument it takes seven years. After seven years you start becoming liberated from the instrument, and if you perceive working with multichannels of audio as an instrument, then it's obvious that you need a few years of experience, and a few years of really playing with it to understand what you really can and can't do.