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From the Archive: Robert Henke on Lumière I and III

Nothing Concrete text
12 Aug 2020

In an archive interview, Ben Eshmade talks to Robert Henke about his audiovisual project Lumiere with interviews from July 2014 and February 2017.


I'm fighting there with the limits of technology, and that's part of the fun the fight of the limit makes every decision very precious

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmeade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into our archive looking back to a series of interviews with Robert Henke about his audio visual project Lumiere with interviews from July 2014 and February 2017. Powerful, dramatic, minimalist, bright, loud and poetic, a ballet of lasers and sound.

Robert Henke: I'm fighting there with the limits of technology, and that's part of the fun the fight of the limit makes every decision very precious.

BE: First, a little background about Robert Henke. So he's a German sound artist who's recorded groundbreaking techno under the name Monolake and has also helped programme the much loved performance platform Ableton Live. In these performances in the Barbican Hall, he was able to help and challenge us to reimagine the relationship between lasers and sound. At the start of this project back in 2014 he joined me via Skype to explain: 'Where did this project start?'

RH:I started working with lasers a few years ago for an installation project. I was very happy with the results. But I also felt that I just that there was a lot of unexplored territory there. People were asking me if I planned to do lasers in concerts in the future, and I had no intention to do so. After a few more requests in this direction, I thought, well, actually, what keeps me from doing it? And this idea started to unfold.

BE: I'm interested to sort of talk about the idea of lasers.

RH: Well, you see, for me it's foremost an absolutely fascinating source of light. I just like the quality of light and of colour and the pureness and intensity. Then of course, it's a weird young adult experience of being in a discotheque and having a laser show there and finding it fascinating on one side, and kind of cheesy on the other side. In a way I felt there must be possibilities with this medium which are beyond the green tunnel, and they [UNCLEAR] music.

BE: What kind of lasers are you using, are these very specific kinds?

RH: They are specific in such a way that they allow me to create a very convincing white light, which is already a different impression than green, or red or all the other highly saturated colours. They allow me to do extremely precise movements. This is something which helps me to create something which is unique, I use the lasers to draw shapes on a screen, not to draw lines in space. In order to draw things on a screen with lasers, you need to have a lot of precision, I have one single dot of light, and I need to move this dot with mechanical mirrors in order to draw. A nd this means if I draw, let's say 20 circuits at the same time, that's the maximum of what I can do, and I cannot draw another shape at the same time. This means I need to force myself to work with very basic geometric shapes with very simple shapes and try to get complexity out of simple things.

BE: It sounds like the minimal approach that you've got to the lasers very much reflects that what you're doing musically. 

RH: I hope so I hope it makes sense together. The musical part is divided into two basic ideas. The One idea is that there is some sounds which technically and semantically very much connected to what the lazers are doing. So I sent a shape signal to the laser, and at the same time, this signal creates a specific sound. And then there's a second layer of mainly percussive sounds, which are not triggering a visual shape. And for me the omission of the synchronicity for those sounds is also part of what creates an audio visual rhythm.

BE: How much of the show is planned ahead and how much are you manipulating on the evening?

RH: The real time improvisation part is absolutely essential for what I'm doing. It's just my established performance practice. A lot of basic things are predefined, like I have a palette of shapes, I have a palette of sounds, but there is a lot of real time control, which allows me to change the order of shapes. Ideally, I have something which is a big machinery, which gives me a lot of freedom to improvise and to shape my things right there at the moment, but I see this piece as a constant evolution anyway. So every concert is just an exploration of the current state.

BE: Many other people will have done similar things, but they won't have done it from the ground up, is that sense of control across all aspects something that you enjoy? 

RH: I get ideas out of the fact that I do it all from from the ground on, I discover things which I might not discover if I had other people doing this. But at the same time, there's just two inherent dangers. The one danger is that I simply don't have enough time to work on the aesthetic decisions because I spent all my time programming. And the other thing is by programming things yourself, it has an influence on how you judge the outcome. You judge the outcome as a tendency by the effort it makes to programme it. That's not necessarily the right way to think. You could do something which is very simple to programme but looks very beautiful, and you wouldn't judge it very high because it was so simple. I spent a lot of time programming a font generator, including designing my own fonts. Technically, it's a great achievement that I'm able to draw letters. It's not the strongest part of my performance, but it's a part which took a significant amount of time to develop.

BE: It's interesting to think what's going through people's minds and how they're relating what they're seeing to images from their past.

RH: For me, the question of what do people experience and what do they take out of such a performance is, of course also very relevant one because I noticed that there's at least two modes of interpretation or perception of this performance. I find one mode is much superior, and this is if you treat this show as you're experiencing a visual effect in the sense of a phenomena which you best experience by letting go, you take most out of it. On a level where you stop analysing, stop trying to listen to every detail, in some way exposes more detail and more of the overall effect than if you try to really carefully focus. Because a concept to me is a situation where people experiencing music and visual stimulation in a group situation.

I like the fact that the laser show forces me to think about the space in so much detail beforehand. It improves the overall performance a lot, simply because I'm more careful about considering where for instance, I placed myself during the performance. All those details are essential for a good concert. The most significant difference to all the previous shows is that for the Barbican show, I'm going to use for the first time six lasers simply because it's a large space, but I'm not using the six lasers only to create more power, but also, at least in part, to achieve more visual complexity.

BE: Fast forward to three years later, I caught up once again with Robert to speak about the third iteration of Lumiere. Speaking from his studio in Berlin, he talked me through the project's developments, and it's returned to the Hall. I started by asking whether he still considered the laser similar to a musical instrument, one he maybe has now had time to master.

RH: I still believe the idea of an instrument turned out to be a really sensible metaphor for what the thing is, mastery is an interesting question. I'm not sure about this. I cannot estimate how good I could be if I do it for 10 more years. In this field, I am in this I guess, lucky position that I'm pretty much alone with this specific type of thing, and that makes it hard to compare.

BE: Going back to that sense of mastery, will there be as much improvisation as when you last performed?

RH: Well, the funny thing is, when I last performed, it was the first working of Lumiere, which was indeed completely based on improvisation. I took over this concept of improvisation from my Monolake shows. And at some point, I became incredibly frustrated with the results because I felt I spent more time trying to find things then actually exploring really good things. And I did a second version of Lumiere, which was very much the opposite, which was very, very pre-produced with only a few little points of interaction. But the second version allowed me to move away from the focus on performance and towards the focus on composition. My most important aim for Lumiere III is to make this the best possible composition. And a secondary aim is how much interaction do I desire in order to shape this composition in real time, because at the end of the day, what counts is the result. And since I'm not on stage anyway, I don't mind if this is only very little improvisation.

BE: You must benefit from returning to the Barbican though, you must have gained some knowledge in the pitfalls and the things that worked well within that space.

RH: Oh technically planning became quite easy. Usually it's always a big effort. And in the case of Barbican, it's just a question of did something change from last time? Er no, tech specs look the same. Oh, good. So that was that was a nice experience to go back to space which you know already.

BE: As you've been able to develop it, and maybe achieve more and plan more, is there a sense of narrative at all, within the the journey of the evening?

RH: Yeah, no, absolutely. There is a sense of drama in such a way that certain elements get introduced at certain points in time. That there is clear points which are marked as dramatic peaks. There's points where things are getting a little bit lower energy, quiet, less bright. And then there's points where everything is accumulating into complex, large shapes. That there is certainly a large gesture behind everything to make sure it's not arbitrary. The things I'm looking at now as challenges for Lumiere III is, for instance, transitions. If I have one part, which is very interesting to me, and I have a different part, which is very different, how do I contrast those two parts? Do I simply make a black out and start again? Do I make something where one part becomes really quiet and then I start with a very massive situation, do I do a soft blend where one part is merging into another? These are all very essential questions for the overall perception. That's something where I hope I find the time to fine tune those things very precisely for Lumiere III.

BE: That's really interesting, actually, I suddenly realised that if you if you're not careful, people will kind of think of the show pieces rather than being a complete sequence, I suppose.

RH: Absolutely. And this is why working on Lumiere takes so much time. It's really not just the individual pieces. It's how to get those things together in a meaningful context. I mean, the overall shape is so important in the arts, always in every art form. You know, because you can always assemble great elements. If you have great actors, you have great elements. If you have great sounds, you have great elements. If you have great pictures, you have great elements. What makes all the difference at the end of the day: is the sequence of events meaningful?

BE: We haven't talked about the music or sounds. How has that developed since Lumiere I, we spoke then about how the signal going to the lasers was also being repeated to the mixer.

RH: Yes. Well, you see, that was the very first obvious thing to do. But it led to a very difficult, unsolvable question. Certain signals to the lasers create sounds that make total sense. If you draw a circle, you get two sine waves. Your perception says yes, that makes sense. There's a lot of other shapes where the shapes you see and the sonic expression you hear do not match at all. So beautiful shapes can have horrible sounds, beautiful sounds can make horrible shapes. So our next step for Lumiere II was to decouple those two and only find a technical solution to combine specific sounds to specific shapes and that turns out to be very meaningful. And this is something I will continue with Lumiere III, but I want to increase the visual complexity in parts. And I also want to increase the sonic complexity in parts in a way again, something which is very natural if you look at it from an instrument perspective, now that I really know what the instrument can do, I can do more complex things.

BE: I think it's important to you though, that the visual and the sounds are intertwined in some way that they are linked is that true?

RH: Yes, absolutely. Because there's two scenarios which I want to avoid. The one scenario is that the lasers are seen as the visuals for a score. And I also want to avoid the other thing that the score is seen as that's the musical score for a film. I very deliberately want to have a third very unique, different thing that requires a very strong link between the sound and the image without one thing leading clearly the other.

BE: Does the technology literally change every day? Or is it slower than that?

RH: The funny thing with the lasers is that it doesn't change much at all. There was one huge step forward from big gas filled tubes - which made touring a complete nightmare - to semiconductor based lasers, which made it possible that I can travel with them. So that was the big step forward. But apart from that, the changes are very slow and incremental, very unlike video for instance, where every year you have higher frame rates, more pixels, better screens. When working with the lasers, I'm actually working with a very stable medium, a very limited, very stable medium. There's a source which creates the laser beams of different colours, they are mixed together. And then there's two mirrors which are moving very fast and actually make the laser beam draw something. Of course, there's detailed improvements, which signal to feed those mirrors how to connect them with the computer. Of course, there's a huge difference in the fact that laptops became fast enough that I can write a laser control software which runs on a laptop, that's of course a difference. But as far as lasers themselves are concerned, they're brighter because laser diodes became more more powerful, but the essence is the same.

BE: It sounds like you've written a programme that is your controller, or is it more complicated than that? Where you're sort of literally writing lines of code?

RH: Yes, that's exactly what I did: writing lots of lots of code to make this understandable for a broader audience, the classic concept for laser show is something that is pre programmed and it's very close to the idea of animation movies. So it's frame by frame animated. And this creates those cheesy looking strange laser shows which no one wants to see anymore, in my opinion. What I do is a very different approach, and without going into details, it is something that no commercial laser software package does. That allows me to do things with the lasers, which are completely impossible with other products. And that forced me to spend a lot of time coding. But this is really - my laser pattern generator- is really the core technically of what I do in my shows. So that had a huge impact. I'm very happy that the programming part is almost completely done. For Lumiere II  I spent half a year writing code. For Lumiere III, I am using a slightly updated version of that. But in principle, I have a framework now, which allows me to be creative. So I separate the programming process very much from the process of actually making something. When you saw Lumiere I at the Barbican, all the six lasers were mounted in close proximity, acting as one single projector. What I do these days is I spread out my four lasers in such a way that the laser beams are really hitting the screen from different angles, which together with the fork, makes a really beautiful three dimensional sculpture over the heads of the people. So that became an integral part of the show.

BE: It's really interesting that sense of... we're used to, with the space, we're used to staring at the stage at where you know, where the musicians are, and so I find that quite fascinating that idea, as you said, of the space being reprogrammed by you.

RH: Absolutely. And it changes the perception of the space also, very vividly, because you suddenly notice how high is it? How deep is it? and it becomes almost a tactile experience, you know, there's something you feel you could almost touch in the air. And that's cool.

BE: We talked last time about inspiration. Something else that struck me and again, following on that question is, how does architecture inspire you? Is that important in some regards?

RH: The easy answer is, of course, it inspires me. I'm very aware of architecture. I'm interested in architecture in general. I'm interested in spaces. And on a very practical hands on perspective, the very first thing we do when someone asks for a Lumiere show is we say we need photos and plans of the space. We need to find ways where where we can place the lasers in a meaningful way, where we can place the sound system in a meaningful way. So the architecture of the concert hall is always a very essential part of the planning and considerations. And there are certain types of spaces which work extremely favourable for Lumiere, and there's other spaces where things are difficult. So for instance, since Lumiere is not only focused on the screen, but also on the space around the screen, a scenario where there is a screen but a lot of distraction around it - for instance, bars on the left and right side of the screen, in the same concert venue - that's a problem unless you completely shut them down. Because the focus is not only on the screen, the focus is in the space and and the opposite - a fantastic Renaissance theatre in Italy starts to shine tremendously with this show because the contrast between these sharp laser beams and the 21st century art form, and the mastery of the old building is very strong in a positive way. So, bottom line is, the architecture of the space and architecture in general is something I'm very much interested in.

Something we spoke about again last time was there is this idea that you can give people too much visual input. Has that developed or you've got a maybe a more in tune sense of when to perhaps be a little bit more minimal with your approach?

RH: If you are starting something you always try to be bold. Later on you, you understand that you don't have to be all the time like that. So what happened already with Lumiere II, was that there's a lot of parts were not all lasers are running. There's a lot of parts where things are really dark. So I play much more with with detail and contrast. Instead of having it all the time completely in your face, there is certainly a more sensible space of how little you can do and how much you can work with. Slow changes and details, it doesn't always have to be fortissimo and maximum brightness. But then again, the other extreme is true too. So we're for certain mastery of what happens visually in certain ways, I became also more bold, exploring the maximum extreme. So there is one part in Lumiere II where a square is expanding, and expanding and expanding again and again, with a very appropriate harsh sound design. And this is such a trip. This only lasts for 10 seconds, and during the last few Lumiere II  shows I actually looped this segment so it lasted for a minute because your brain just starts really really becoming in an interesting positive way affected by that if you have a certain impact over time. So I've become more brave in both extremes, I believe.

BE: What's your workspace like? I think you're based in Berlin. You in there working nine to five. How does that work for you?

RH: If I'm not swamped by office work I try to start early in the morning, which for me means getting up at 8 and sitting on the desk at 10 and working a few hours then having a break working again. And then my work rhythm depends on if I do programming work or if I do artistic work, because with the programming work, it really depends if I'm smart enough and if I feel I'm too tired, I just don't see the problems and solutions anymore and I get slower and I make mistakes. With the artistic side, the rhythm is very different, it's also less predictable, because, well, it depends of course on inspiration, it depends on getting a feeling for what I'm doing. So I don't have really a fixed return for the artistic side. I feel it's much more fragile. So the bookkeeping process is simple, but the really process of coming to artistic decisions, sometimes I work long hours a day, sometimes I work one hour and I give up and have a walk or do my office stuff again and then I try again. I constantly negotiate with my inner artist, what's the best way to treat things?

BE: Maybe a theme for what you've been doing for a long time, is exploring beauty in technology, because at the end of the day, we don't always associate it as being a thing of wonder, I suppose.

RH: I mean, really, this was from a very, very early stage onward I perceived technology and the development of technology as an art form. And I had no language for that, and I had no means of expressing that. But over the years, this became so much more obvious to me that good engineering and good science, it always has something to do with inspiration, has something to do with artistic judgement on so many levels. The person who runs the laser company who is since 30 years building those laser show lasers, this person in marketing is an engineer, but at the same time also an artist. He's making decisions. There's so many decisions in engineering that have to do with taste, because there's millions of ways of solving something. If you build an enclosure for a machine, yes, the machine has to be in there. Sure. But how exactly does the enclosure look? What is the proportions of that box for instance? What's the arrangement of interface elements? What's the type of font on it? All these tiny little details, either make up something that at the end is an object of desire, or is just a machine which you have to use. For me the beauty of engineering, or also the beauty of elegant code, there is absolutely there's even some sexiness in that, you know, it's cool. If you find a simple, elegant solution for a complex problem, then this is just cool.

BE: Have you been really sort of surprised or pleased with how well your work has connected with an audience?

RH: Mostly, I mean, I'm an insecure person, it doesn't look like this from the outside, but I'd rather take on criticism to feel that what I'm doing is still not sufficient and will never be. Given all that, I'm, of course tremendously happy that such an ambitious project as Lumiere can exist and be sustainable in a way that it creates enough income to allow to continue doing it. I was not sure about that when I started it. And of course, I quite honestly I didn't expect it to be sold out at Barbican so quickly. Something in me says 'oh, that's only because I asked Tristan Perich to perform noise patterns, so it sold out because of Tristan not because of me'. So I always have ways to diminish my own work.

BE: Robert, as you'll have heard, was an absolute joy to interview. Having been in the Hall and experiences Lumiere, I think it's no exaggeration to say the lasers did dance with the sound wrapping itself around the shapes and lines. At times it was intense, scary, magical, a real mix of feelings. Thanks for listening to an archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, which is here to help inspire more people to discover and love the arts. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.



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