Friday, March 20, 2009
If you’re interested in exploring Kraftwerk primarily for their historical importance, you’ll want to hear their classic 1974-1981 studio albums: Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World (and if you can, snag a copy of the apocryphal 1973 gem Ralf & Florian.) If your primary interest in Hütter, Schneider and The Other Two Guys is less academic and more musical, however, Minimum-Maximum, a compilation of live performances form a 2004 world tour, is a great overview, and as close as it comes to one-stop-shopping for Kraftwerk.
I don’t know how much of this music is actually “live” in the sense that it is performed in real-time by human beings, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe it IS the point. I know that audiences at this show were treated to an audio-visual experience masterminded by four identically-dressed Germans standing at four identical podiums, each with a laptop – the logical update from the punch-card synths used to make the famous studio versions of these songs – and I doubt that much of the show is improvised, even if these synched computers are under the complete control of their operators. It’s possible that the members of Kraftwerk would tell you that the opposite is true, that the operators are controlled by the machines. This is the group, after all, who designed robots to take their place during concerts. Kraftwerk, since the close of the group’s infancy (that is, since the release of Autobahn), has always been primarily conceptual, and their meditations on the union of machine and man have provided the framework for and drive behind all of the actual beats and melodies. The focus may be bicycles, spacelabs, pocket calculators or laptops, but the sentiment remains positive, embracing rather than retreating from this cybernetic coupling.
With the fresh timbres of more contemporary equipment, the close kinship between the music of Kraftwerk and Ralf and Florian’s Detroit lovechild is more apparent than ever – not that anyone needed a reminder that techno was born at some imaginary intersection of Cass Avenue and the Autobahn. The fact that bedroom producers from Belleville, growing up so close to George Clinton country, heard the funk in THIS is one of those electrifying miracles of modern music. Personally, I originally didn’t feel this music luring my hips into any kind of movement, much less the endless bodily hedonism of a warehouse dancefloor. In fact, while working at a Michigan video store one summer, I began to notice that the exploratory Kraftwerk binge I’d been on (I was working backwards from Aphex Twin, you see,) had rubbed off on me considerably by leaving me in a state of comfortable emotional numbness, speaking in short, efficient sentences and moving with slight, controlled motions. (As impressionable as I apparently was that summer, it’s a good thing I was listening to Kraftwerk and not NWA.) Subsequent exposure to techno, however, particularly that of the Derrick May variety, has opened my eyes to the funk, no matter how rigid and asexual, that thumps like clockwork in the Man-Machine’s chest cavity.
As for the emotional numbness, that view of Kraftwerk was deflated by a rush back to Trans-Europe Express after a classmate in college told me that “Some of Kraftwerk’s music is sooo sad…” The melancholy is there, but like the funk, you have to look for it, for that steel and wires heart that looks like gears in a watch.
Labels: electronic music