Robert Henke: Atom / Document
Imbalance Computer Music

textura readers will already know how highly we regard Robert Henke's work, both the material he issues under his own name and under the Monolake guise. One of the primary reasons is that Henke's a true innovator who constantly seeks out new avenues of expression and, typically, finds them. Never content to crank out a yearly collection of tracks, Henke instead pursues his singular vision with his fecund imagination and technological expertise the primary guides. Though both impress on conceptual grounds, the justifiably-admired Monolake albums are more accessible than the Henke solo releases because they include a fundamental dance connection, no matter how tangential it might be in a given piece. His latest solo release, Atom / Document, “a performance for 64 illuminated helium balloons,” captures the uniqueness of his work, even if it is a collaborative project Henke developed in concert with Christopher Bauder.

During a given performance, Bauder controls the movements of the eight-by-eight balloon matrix (the height of each is adjusted with a computer-controlled cable winch) and Henke controls the music (presented via a four-channel sound system) and LED patterns. Dynamic visual patterns result, as balloons float in space, their movements synchronized to the sounds Henke produces (the CD material was composed, mixed and edited in Ableton Live 7 using the Operator synthesizer and recordings of a high-voltage transformer and piano). As the performance is based on a great deal of spontaneous interaction between the two creators, the tellingly-titled CD represents one possible document of the Atom performance, and as such is one variation of a theoretically countless number.

The album unfolds episodically, with each piece segueing into the next and occasional cross-references between them appearing too. Naturally, Monolake traces sometimes surface within Henke's solo material, and certain tracks wouldn't sound out of place on a Monolake recording, specifically the locomotive workouts and the ambient drone settings. The patiently unfolding “[crossing]” presents low-level burbling atmosphere of the type heard on Cinemascope while the most Monolake-like track is clearly “[metropol].” Here, synthetic beat patterns hammer and pulsate as aggressive tones ricochet and splatter across both channels, and the focus is similarly rhythm-centered in “[diagonal]” where hard-hitting snare thwacks punctuate pulsating patterns. On the drone front, the billowing swirls of vaporous emissions in “[_flicker]” mimic an immense machine coming to life, softly shimmering organ-like tones shoot “[_exit]” into deep space, and the windswept rumble of low-flying airplanes in “[_convex]” grows progressively more violent.

But while recognizable signatures emerge in some tracks, others reveal a clear advance in the Henke sound. “[quad_planar],” for example, features a knocking percussive weave that's like a roomful of metronomic timepieces, and “[first_contact]” develops into a syncopated mass of interlocking patterns. Most dramatically, the remarkable “[shift_register]” introduces a sound rarely encountered in the Henke universe: acoustic piano, here woven into staggered patterns. Elegant dancing phrases introduce the piece, after which the upper and lower registers function percussively, with insistent upper figures anchored by pounding low notes and the two melding into an aggressive funk rhythm while the screech of a low-flying jet briefly comes within earshot.

It bears noting that while Studies For Thunder quite literally demands that no visual accompaniment be provided—after all, the titular thunderstorms are intended to be visualized by the listener while listening to the piece—Atom cries out for the visual component to be present in order for one to experience it in its complete form (for example, each percussive element triggers an LED, something one can't get from the CD or by scanning the accompanying photos). Heard alone, the music is definitely engrossing but Atom, as much if not more than anything else encountered in recent memory, veritably demands that it be presented in a DVD format (or, obviously, experienced live) so that it can be experienced in its fullest form.

February 2009