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MP3 Discussion Group: Monolake’s ‘Silence’

Every week or so, the MP3 Discussion Group gets together online to talk about a recent release. Monolake‘s new album, Silence, is the latest object of our collective, occasionally obsessive, close listening. The album’s 10 tracks are a resolutely percussive minimal techno from an individual with a unique vantage on the tools that generate his sounds. Monolake, aka Robert Henke, works on the development of Ableton Live, a popular music software suite. As a form of “production notes,” Henke included the following paragraph on his website, monolake.de, where brief snippets of the album’s tracks are all available for listening:

“Sound sources include field recordings of airport announcements, hammering on metal plates at the former Kabelwerk Oberspree, Berlin, several sounds captured inside the large radio antenna dome at Teufelsberg, Berlin, dripping water at the Botanical Garden Florence, air condition systems and turbines in Las Vegas, Frankfurt and Tokyo, walking on rocks in Joshua Tree National Park, wind from the Grand Canyon, a friends answering machine, a printer, conversations via mobile phones, typing on an old Macintosh keyboard and recordings from tunnel works in Switzerland. Synthetic sounds created with the software instruments Operator, Tension, Analog and the build in effects inside Ableton Live. Additional sound design and sequencing using MAXMSP / MaxForLive. Additional reverb: various impulse repsonses via Altiverb. Composed, edited and mixed in Live with a pair of Genelec 8040s. Mastering by Rashad Becker at Audioanwendungen September 2009. Field recordings captured with a Sony PCM D-50.”

Participating with me in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group are:

Colin Buttimer: “I publish Hard Format, a website dedicated to the sublime in music design. My writing archive and photography is at eleventhvolume.com.”

Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.”

Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on igloomag.com and furthernoise.org.”

Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.”

The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section.

A little note on MP3 Discussion Group format: This is by no means a closed conversation, so do feel free to join in. The initial posts by participants were all written before they had an opportunity to see each other’s take on the album in question, but after that it’s intended to play out in real time.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , , / Comments: 13 ]

13 Comments

  1. Alan Lockett
    [ Posted December 15, 2009, at 9:43 pm ]

    First of all, I was somewhat gobsmacked to realize that this is the 15th year of the Monolake project. This is the 7th album (I think), and I like it on first listen much more than the previous few (count ‘em: Polygon Window [2005], Momentum [2003] and Cinemascope [2001] – seems like 4 years have gone by, and the every-other-year sequence denied, with no album delivered in 2007…) . In fact, the last Monolake that really hit hard for me – after that great trio of Hongkong-Interstate-Gravity – was the Alaska_Melting 12″, around three years ago, so it was gratfying to uh… enjoy Silence.

    Henke has always distinguished himself from minimal-dub-techno peers in that he’s drawn from the start not only from given genre templates of the day – e.g. minimal techno and d’n’b in the late-mid 90s, and now, at a remove, from dubstep – but also from more sonically inquiring fields of academic computer music. But what strikes me, beyond the overall quality of sound – both found and synthesized – and the atmospheric heft, is the effectiveness of the rhythmic work here, which is more satisfying and less awkward than on some previous outings; the latest ish of The Wire (January 2010′s, which just landed here) has a Monolake feature in which RH attributes some of this to his involvement in the project of T++, and I imagine I can hear it (the influence, not Profrock the man) on a few tracks here (e.g. “Far Red”, “Avalanche” and “Shutdown”).

    As an interesting sidenote, RH highlights the fact that Silence was created without compression, and I like that he’s seeking to reclaim what’s been lost in the drive towards convenience/portability of music, and reasserting the aesthetic of pure listening pleasure over more functional imperatives (music as portable accessory for the everyday consumer bringing with it the differently configured requirements of MP3 players, cheap headphones, mobiles, tinny laptop speakers, etc). I believe there’s a vinyl release, but I’ll admit here to taking a shortcut to full audio quality: having listened to MP3 versions of tracks on my computer-based system, and thought it OK but not earth-shattering, I found the listening experience much enhanced when I acquired lossless files, burnt them to CD and played it on my hifi-with-subwoofer where focused listening enabled all the soundfield to be opened up to scrutiny – dense heavy sounds offset by spatial-spectral ones. Great depth to the production, as you’d expect from a bloke that’s spent a large part of his adult life as a sound technology developer.

  2. Julian Lewis
    [ Posted December 15, 2009, at 9:44 pm ]

    People have long treated ECM as the benchmark of sound recording quality. Robert Henke/Monolake (or his Imbalance Computer Music, if you prefer) merits the same hushed reverence – though with a bit less chin-stroking self-importance, ideally! Even if Silence weren’t exceptional for a host of other reasons (its conjuring of great depth out of a notably limited palette, its virtuoso use of found sounds, its vastness – implacable but not austere since too dynamic, its appealing array of ratchety/zithery colours, its poise…), its wonderful sound alone would make it so.

    It’s almost sound as pornography – so sumptuous, so plentiful, so much more than the everyday. Not for nothing is monolake.de studded with discussion & insight into sound recording & even mastering: Henke’s interview with Dubplates & Mastering’s Rashad Becker at http://www.monolake.de/interviews/mastering.html is highly illuminating (“The basic mistake is that people compress or limit without a musical vision”), as is a new piece linked from the front page on ‘Wave Field Synthesis’ & Monolake’s live set-up – http://www.monolake.de/concerts/wfs.html.

    In particular, though, the album’s production notes show the level of commitment & reflection here: “The music on this album has not been compressed, limited or maximized at any production stage. Why not? Once upon a time, music had dynamics. There were loud parts, and there were more quiet parts. Then came radio. In radio there is a technical limit for the transmittable maximum volume. As a consequence the average level of music with a high dynamic range is lower than the average level of music with a low dynamic range. The loudest possible music in radio is music where every element is constantly hitting the limit, music with no dynamics at all. Radio, and more recently mp3 players and laptop speakers influenced the way popular music is composed, produced and mastered: Every single event has to be at maximum level all the time. This works best with music that is sonically simple, and music in which only a few elements are interacting. A symphony does not sound convincing thru a mobile phone speaker, and a maximized symphony does not sound convincing at all.

    Monolake is about complexity, about details, about the elastic tension between beats in the foreground and textural elements in the background. We want to preserve that balance as much as possible in the final product and this is why the music on this album is produced without applying any compression.”

    More at http://earslend.blogspot.com/2009/11/elastic-tension.html (including Henke’s Silence samples knitted together into a convenient single file), by the way…

    So is Silence Henke’s masterpiece? I wonder. Its brilliance is clear, its coherence striking & its sound as noted. But it may not even be his best record this year – although smaller statements, the Atlas/Titan 12″ & the allied set of remixes by former Monolaker T++ each has a credible claim as well (again, the post above has samples in a single file…).

    Masterpiece is probably not even a useful term here. Henke has made many great records, all the way back to Chain Reaction days. This is written to the earlier (2004/05) Polygon Cities – perhaps its sound isn’t quite as obscenely fine as Silence’s, but the stunningly assured swing – Henke’s “elastic tension” – of a piece like Digitalis seems a match for anything on the newer piece.

  3. Joshua Maremont
    [ Posted December 15, 2009, at 9:45 pm ]

    Robert Henke has tiled in his page of releases rather densely since the days of Hongkong, and over the years I have come to expect a certain sound from his records, a sound refined, evolved, but still not unfamiliar from that early tinned Chain Reaction artifact. Hongkong was very much a creature of its time, and yet years later the sound of Monolake is timeless, due in part to Henke’s maturing artistry and in part to the presence of his Ableton Live software on many musicians’ laptops (including the one on which I am typing at the moment). Yet Silence is, if not completely surprising, then somewhat unexpected, with only three of the expansive thumpers I await on Monolake records, and quite a few of the hovering atmospheres found in the past on albums released under Henke’s own name, while the use of field recordings places Silence closer to Hongkong (or to Wieland Samolak’s Steady State Music, which Henke has graciously posted on his site -

    http://www.monolake.de/releases/ir-01.html

    • in downloadable form). Perhaps it is just the coincidence of my having heard Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 last night on a club sound system through earplugs while waiting to see Mew, but the reduced palette here reminds me of those early days of UK IDM, when simply a beat a warble and a whoosh could fill at least an imaginary dance floor for great grey monoliths of time. Rather intricate vertical layering, these pieces seem to focus on fewer sounds, fewer effects, fewer rhythms, carefully arrayed across the narrative horizon of the album. Infinite Clouds and Null Pointer point the way here – the arrangement of incidents across beats – yet the simplicity hides great variety in the ways the few elements continue to change their angles of collision, and where I am reminded of Brian Eno in Void it is of the more reductive installation works in The Shutov Assembly (or perhaps even of the austere simplicity of Anthony Manning’s first two albums -

    http://www.archive.org/details/ird054 http://www.archive.org/details/ird056

    • on Irdial). And it may be that I make too much of Henke’s criticism on this album’s web page -

    http://www.monolake.de/releases/ml-025.html

    • of overly compressed mastering, but the dynamics here are striking, with many of the found sounds leaping out of the mix and the level of the whole rising and falling with the album’s tides. Which is not to say that there is no place here for what I consider to be the classic Monolake sound, for in Far Red, Internal Clock, and Shutdown it is certainly on offer, but even here there is restraint, reduction, the little noises chattering around the margins of silence. And I must add that this album is quite a bit less immediate, at least for me, than what has gone before, but after a listen on speakers and two on headphones I am only beginning to notice its nuances and admire the flawlessness of its construction.
  4. [ Posted December 15, 2009, at 9:46 pm ]

    This is easily my favorite Monolake/Henke record since Cinemascope, and that’s saying something. His records are always an occasion — literally. They often as not accompany the release of some upgrade to Ableton Live, the software he helps program (the company was founded by Gerhard Behles, originally a member of Monolake when it was a duo).

    In this case, the occasion appears to be the release of Max for Live, the port of the Max/MSP software to the Live environment. What that means, precisely, for his music might be something for us to discuss here.

    Of course, software is a tool, even if it’s a tool he assists in forging. What’s essential is the resulting music, and from the crystalline patterns of the album’s “Void,” which sounds like a Calder sculpture being used as an instrument in a dank cave, to “Far Red,” which takes his penchant for minimal techno on a refreshingly varying journey, there is much here to listen to and into.

    Rhythm has often been the distinguishing factor between Monolake records and those that Henke records under his own name, the latter of which tend toward the atmospheric. On Silence, it’s less a matter of rhythm than percussion that I have found myself paying close attention to — which is to say, on Silence, percussion is atmosphere.

  5. [ Posted December 16, 2009, at 4:47 am ]

    I’m afraid I don’t share the group’s enthusiasm for Monolake’s music. From Hong Kong onwards, I’ve found the music curiously uninvolving. I’ve returned to it and subsequent releases (Momentum, Gravity, etc) over the years, but always come away with the same impression of music that lacks intensity, is at times fairly derivative and ultimately comes across as a little too serene/mundane. My doubts find their visual analogue in some of the cover designs: Momentum surely takes its inspiration from the inner sleeve of Autechre’s Tri Repetae, Silence is very Touch and so on.

    Julian’s comparison to latter-day ECM is apposite: both share a distanced coolness that I find unengaging, particularly when combined with the predominantly mid-paced rhythms and the relative lack of conceptual development. I find all of this particularly strange given the ongoing involvement of T++ whose 12″ odyssey since 2006′s Aquatic/Storm has had me enthralled.

    Having said that, I’m impressed by Silence. There’s a welcome sense of space and silence. Void is a case in point, it’s like a green lung in a city or negative space in a design. On the other hand, I suddenly wondered how different it was to FSOL’s Lifeforms. The answerphone messages on Reconnect remind me of Scanner’s early phone work. The lead sounds on Internal Clock and Infinite Snow are attractively dramatic: they have a physicality that’s very welcome in such a synthetic environment.

    I look for a sense of a given music’s significance, its wider context, even if it’s just at a personal level. Monolake’s non-musical aspects – the imagery/titles/texts communicate a relationship between nature/humanity and technology/industry. In that sense it relates to Kraftwerk’s oeuvre just as much of Mika Vainio’s work does, but it’s a big subject that provides a lot of potential territory to explore.

    I like the accompanying text – I’m a sucker for that kind of parallel medium; explored beautifully on Jon Hassell’s City: Works of Fiction and David Toop and Max Eastley’s Buried Dreams. Mixed feelings then for me: I’m finding Silence much more engaging after six or seven listens than previous releases, but am not yet confident that I’ll continue to listen to it. It seems like it’s a promising (re)start.

  6. [ Posted December 16, 2009, at 4:47 pm ]

    Marc, your “dank cave” couldn’t be more spot on! However austere/synthetic/austerely synthetic Silence is, it doesn’t sound dryly remote. That moist, even sometimes dripping quality is no doubt part of why I find the sound of Silence engaging – though I do recognise Colin’s charge of “distanced coolness”.

    In turn, that may be part of why I qualified my enthusiasm for Silence. Apart from Void, which is lushly lovely (& clearly the dripping sound’s exemplar), the album is less engaging than the year’s earlier 12″s – immediately anyway.

    I wonder how T++ would revved up Far Red, for example. Although others here cite it & its ratcheting/chattering colour is certainly enjoyable, it may be my least favourite track. The mid tempo that Colin complains of doesn’t help, agreed.

    I suspect that a Profock refix would sound more like the following Avalanche. Out of very similar ingredients (no ratchet, though) it generates significantly more dynamism & warmth. A slightly higher bpm, some somewhat portentous chording & a bit of percussion colour seem to explain the difference – clearly in such a reduced music, the judgement of just how much to leave out is very subtle…

    One highlight not mentioned yet is the percussive rain in Watching Clouds. It takes more than a minute before this wonderful, insistent clattering – like grit turning in a cylinder – even starts to hint at itself. Then it rattles off-kilter all the way through the track, right up to that almost languid start to Infinite Snow.

    It seems even to hang over that second track during its percussive staking-out up the first zithery noise starting up (the second, which sounds like the theme to a post-Cold War spy film set in the new Berlin, is another highlight for me…).

    Joshua, thanks – as ever – for the Anthony Manning tip. I’ll be following that up for sure.

  7. [ Posted December 16, 2009, at 6:20 pm ]

    Joshua – OK, found the first Manning: Monolake does IDM! Will have to listen a bit more to find

    All – seen Headphone Commute’s interview with Henke just published? Very illuminating…

    “The most important change for me is the fact that Silence is the first release with which I feel completely fine as far as the rhythmical side is concerned. And I am very much looking forward to follow this momentum further and see where I’ll land next.”

    http://reviews.headphonecommute.com/2009/12/16/two-and-a-half-questions-with-robert-henke/

    Accompanied by a review of Silence (http://reviews.headphonecommute.com/2009/12/16/monolake-silence-imbalance-computer-music/):

    “What I want to capture here is how this album made me feel. And that indescribable feeling is pretty close to what I felt for the first time when I heard Plastikman’s Sheet One back in 1993. Since then I’ve been jonesing for more. And Henke has finally hit that spot. His Silence is the answer.”

    I’ve suggested HC joins our discussion…

  8. [ Posted December 16, 2009, at 6:57 pm ]

    About the depth (per Alan and Julian) and the space (Colin) and the dynamics (Joshua), one thing I’m trying to sort out is how much the unique sonic flavor of this record, the seeming intense volume (in terms of size, not sonic amplitude), the gap, between low-end bass and the trebly percussive materials I mentioned earlier — how much is that gap the result of Henke’s decision to have not “compressed, limited or maximized” the recording in advance of commercial release?

    This may be a series of questions. To restate the first, How much is that gap the result of compression (etc.)? Then, how much of the resulting music was composed precisely with that sense of distance in mind? And then, finally, what would earlier Monolake records sound like without compression (etc.)?

    At times it isn’t just sound engineering; it’s sound design — the music uses the separation of these elements to make a narrative comment about their colocation, about the distance between percussion and rhythm. At others, the gap is so wide that I wonder whether the percussion is playing a role not unlike that of a lead vocal, or at least a lead guitar, so sharp and succint and in focus is it against a rich, dark, cloudy backdrop.

    Minimal techno, even at the abstract distance from genre that Monolake is attempting here, sounds all the more fresh and new because it doesn’t have that missive-from-the-bunker feel; dank cave it may be, but it’s a massive, massive cave.

  9. Joshua Maremont
    [ Posted December 17, 2009, at 2:44 am ]

    It has taken some distance from this album and indeed this page for me to bring something I think all of us are hearing – the depth or gap or space or what I want to name figureandgroundness – together with the title, but this evening I found myself staring at the cover of Silence by Monolake and thinking of Silence by John Cage, and more specifically of Cage’s sense of sound as calligraphy, of sounds surrounded by silence in the way a character is surrounded by the empty space of the paper on which it has been painted. For when Robert Henke and, yes, Rashad Becker (whose remastering of Interstate I am now even more curious to hear) speak of the importance of dynamics, they are speaking of that range between distorted overload and silence, the latter always at the very grounding of each sound, yet denied by the overcompressed mixing and mastering of all too much music in the post-Oasis/iPod/[insert bugbear of choice here] world of early 21st Century digital music. The feeling one gets here of sounds carefully arrayed or, as Mark notes, designed arises not only from Henke’s compositional and programming skill but from his subtle use of the enormous and often ignored dynamic range of the CD format, invoking the silence of his title at the lower extreme of the whole. It is not simply that this is an issue of mastering, for as Becker mentions the role of mastering has shifted in the era of the home studio, as “the race for volume” as he calls it has led people to so compress their mixes as to render them unsalvageable in the mastering room. By conjuring the silence between and beneath his sounds, Henke has allowed Becker to work his own further wonders while allowing us far more direct and visceral contact with these sounds than we would have were they punched-up for the dancefloor or the daily headphone commute. Perhaps this is the reason I found myself reminded of early 1990s IDM; it is not that this album sounds like music constructed by recording ancient analog synthesizers and drum machines live to DAT – Monolake is sonically very much up to date – but rather that in those days the mix was concerned more with space and had yet to become obsessed with apparent loudness, and that here again we have space – the space around the sounds – after being crushed for so long within the narrow dynamic range of that which can be heard above the roar. Henke and Becker are not alone in their lament; I was happy to see this link -

    http://www.turnmeup.org/

    • in the notes for the latest album by Elbow. This is after all music to be heard on a good stereo system (a what?) and to be experienced through careful listening; it is not just another square of the noise quilt designed to prevent one from hearing anything else. I recall in connection with this reading an interview with the members of Kraftwerk around the time of Man-Machine in which they revealed that they liked to cut elevator music speaker wires and carried pocket scissors for the purpose, the idea of music as background being offensive to them.
  10. [ Posted December 17, 2009, at 11:49 am ]

    Julian, yeah, the rhythm thing is what struck me, since I’d always been at home in the atmospheric conditions summoned up in terms of textural/timbral infusions of wash/field/atmos, but not always that convinced by the beat design. It’s clear that RH is comfier with this now, and the beat programming sounds either (i) less generic (e.g. 4/4 doofism denied), (ii) less clunky (quite a bit of ‘Cinemascope’ and ‘Polygon Cities’ bothered me on this parameter), and, above all, (iii) more integrated into the weave of the whole rather than sounding grafted on after the event, with its compositional history knickers showing, as it were.

    Mark, I reckon the space thing (Reviewer’s Bush disease setting in…?) is a combo of RH’s deliberate conceptual design and the software’s ability to provide for the kind of separation and spatiality sought – this being almost part of Ableton’s mission, as I understand it.

    Joshua, I picked up that ‘Interstate’ remaster when it came out (2008, wuzzit?), and can vouch for it being a notable improvement on the original (provided you don’t play it on a portable with earbuds or through the glorified airvents of your lappie chappie).

    And Colin, it’s odd how uncouth and wild at heart T++’s roughneck productions sound next to Monolake’s designer bumpscapes – as if one were the educated and articulate but slightly less interesting of a pair of twins, the other being the evil one who never learnt what a chord or harmonic was, and didn’t care, cos he’d mastered a variant of mutant technoid rhythm + tamed noise. I like ‘em both, but a genuine hybrid of the two, with RH’s glasses and pate getting a right and proper smudging up and bloodying at the hands of TP’s rude mechanicalism would be something to behold.

  11. [ Posted December 17, 2009, at 12:30 pm ]

    This is indeed an amazing discussion. I have yet to print it all out to read in my spare time. Meanwhile, forgive me if I just chime in with a snippet from my review of Silence, which summarizes my thoughts. [original on http://www.headphonecommute.com

    It goes like this. I wake up in my abandoned shelter made of found brick and metal scraps. It’s been raining for over a month now. But the water collecting in the corners is undrinkable. It is full of ash and oily fluid. There is only one way out of here. I step outside into the eternal darkness, and climb the nearby unrecognizable object. Far ahead is a column of rising smoke. The electrical storm rolls in the distance. I start walking towards the echo of a machine made rhythm. I feel sad for our abandoned planet. And I don’t have any hope for survival.

    The liner notes of Monolake’s seventh album, Silence, tell a different story. But in my mind, there is my own. Either way – the story is futuristic, full of tension, survival, and hope. The words are reflected in music, composed by Robert Henke during the last year leading up to September 2009. Henke’s staple sound has created a whole new branch of style springing off of minimal techno. This metallic, atonal, and rhythm driven mathematical progression captures your nerve endings, and sparks through your cells. The cavernous area of your head that was once possessed by thought is now a plausible site for transmission.

    On Silence, Henke moves further away from the four-to-the-floor pounding beat towards a dark, and groovy rolling pattern, that must be heavily influenced by dubstep. That’s not a surprise, considering that Monolake’s new partner in crime, Torsten Pröfrock, has recently bridged the gap between dubstep and techno by remixing Shackleton’s Death Is Not Final as T++. The influence is contagious. And in this chain reaction Henke creates his own style. And the production? It’s pristine!

    I’m not going to waste your time here, and tell you about Henke’s contribution towards the evolution of sound on more than one physical plane – you can read all about contributions towards Ableton or his own designed midi-controller Monodeck on Wikipedia. What I want to capture here is how this album made me feel. And that indescribable feeling is pretty close to what I felt for the first time when I heard Plastikman’s Sheet One back in 1993. Since then I’ve been jonesing for more. And Henke has finally hit that spot. His Silence is the answer.

    Silence is released on Monolake’s own label – [ml/i] (Monolake / Imbalance Computer Music), and is available in CD, digital, and 2xLP formats. This release follows Monolake’s recent two track EP, Atlas / Titan which was in turn remixed by T++. There is also a 60-minute single track, endlessly permutating atmospheric installation piece released by Robert Henke this summer, titled Indigo_Transform (Imbalance Computer Music, 2009).

  12. [ Posted December 17, 2009, at 2:25 pm ]

    “a genuine hybrid of the two, with RH’s glasses and pate getting a right and proper smudging up and bloodying at the hands of TP’s rude mechanicalism would be something to behold” – Alan, that’s exactly right: hence my enthusiasm for the T++ Atlas remixes (well, one remix & one piece [T++ Test#10Seed_Bit] “based on nothing”, according to Henke – who I guess is contrasting one vaguely conventional remix with another piece more inspired by Atlas & Titan than a direct rework of either…).

    HC – many thanks for joining us, even via your snippet!

  13. [ Posted December 18, 2009, at 12:51 pm ]

    Yes indeed. Good spot by the boy Lewis, whose “enthusiasm for the T++ Atlas remixes” I’m now able to share, having just managed to ear’ole ‘em. Especially thrilled with the off-kilter ‘Test#10Seed_Bit’, and its “sleek rhythm mechanics underpinned by swooping subbass depths.” Mind you, ‘Atlas (T++ Remix)’ is pretty mighty (boomkatese is infectious!) too, with its “febrile drum patterns surrounded by immense darkside drones.”

    Ref: http://www.boomkat.com/item.cfm?id=239779

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