The Man Machine

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

In the fall of 2009, Capitol/EMI issued a lavish and long-awaited box set, collecting the catalogue of recordings of one of the world’s most beloved, and most important, pop music groups. The music this group made was not only great in its own right but revolutionary and hugely influential. Whole genres of popular music of the last forty years are impossible to imagine, and would have been impossible to create, without the legacy of this band, arguably the greatest of all that came out of the rise of pop culture and mass media. That band is, of course, Kraftwerk.

I find the most beautiful lyrics in all of pop music are:

“Radioactivity/It’s in the air for you and me”

I’m neither exaggerating nor being facetious. That brief phrase fills me with a blissful, joyous feeling. Because of all the things in my life, one of my great loves is Kraftwek. Ahhhh, Kraftwerk . . .

If you hit that last link, you saw a good depiction of the group’s aesthetic, and when I say I love them, I love the entire package, the vision that goes beyond just music and conveys what I feel is a vision of the future. Kraftwerk doesn’t offer predictions of the future – they are from the future, coming back to visit us and tell us that everything works, and everything is going to be fine.

So it is some sense of comfort that I find so wonderful in Kraftwerk. The music certainly conveys it. I’m not going to make an objective, critical argument that it is great, but it is great to me. The timbres of the electronic sounds they use please my ear, as do the rhythms, and so I find their music very warm – their sense of humor adds to that. And their is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming. You can see it in this early video for “Radioactivity,” which takes something sinister and gives it a bit of sweetness:

Almost 40 years later, they are perhaps wiser, certainly more sober and ‘professional’ in the way they present themselves. No longer time-travellers, they are technocrats, using technology to clean-up the messes made by misguided projects:

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still uplifting. Radiation is still something to be made beautiful, or around which beauty can grow. In Chernobyl itself, nature is returning, adapting to a new environment rapidly in the absence of human activity. This touches on another Kraftwerk aesthetic, the idea of the beauty of lasting technology. If they are truly visiting us from the future, perhaps they are robots, and what they are telling us is that although mankind no longer exists, the earth abides, and we have left behind beautiful examples of our technology that await rediscovery, perhaps the alien finger hitting the “Play” button. It’s “Wall-E” with a human facade.

Kraftwerk also mark the nexus between technology, engineering, communications and the creative and applied arts. They have always been as much engineers as musicians, engineers of beautiful machines for making music. That idea was not new when they appeared, but it was new in the realm of pop music. Their aesthetic forefathers were the Futurists and their idea of the Art of Noises, and especially the American composer George Antheil.

I think of Antheil as an inventor and a revolutionary, and although he was not a great composer, he was an important one who produced one far-seeing masterpiece. His Ballet mécanique was an idea so far ahead of his era that it is only in the past few years that it can be realized appropriately. It’s a piece for machines, and Antheil envisioned mechanical control of all the instruments, the pianos, xylophones and drums. That was not technically feasible 70 years ago – it’s only with the advent of MIDI sequencing that a good performance can even be ventured, and I had heard enough mediocre realizations to think that the piece was nothing but a mediocre imitation of Stravinsky, with a bit of Varese tossed in.

I’m glad to say that I’m wrong. I saw a performance in the spring of 2008 that finally produced the work as Antheil imagined. It was entirely mechanical. The vital added feature was a number of robotic beaters, built by LEMUR, used to play the xylophones and drums. This were extremely well designed and built, and so the piece could be performed via computer control with a degree of precision that the human ear heard as unvaryingly absolute. And it was stunning, thrilling. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible work. It’s also a nostalgic one, because the factories that the Futurists thought were the cathedrals of a new age are essentially gone. The ones that are left are more and more populated by . . . robots.

And from Antheil, via Kraftwerk, we get to . . . Hip-Hop. Indeed, Hip-Hop is impossible without Kraftwerk, and here’s the Rosetta Stone which proves it:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that is pioneering the use of technology in the means of production. To a great extent, it is manufactured music, put together with physical pieces of raw materials (which used to be tape splices and are now digital files). Musicians and producers use machinery to engineer beats, which they sell like tools or cars. Americans are still making things, it seems, adapting the aesthetic of fine German engineering. Now that’s free trade we can believe in, my friends.

Culturally, the affinity between a bunch of pale toningenieurs and a bunch of B-Boys from the Bronx is closer than the skin color and clothing styles might suggest. Kraftwerk carved, via sound, carved out space in the popular imagination that the nexus of music and science-fiction fit into neatly and warmly. And science-fiction, from proto form in the theology of the Nation of Islam and the concepts of Sun Ra, to Rammellzee and the Jonzun Crew, is an important part of African-American popular culture. Again, why not? Imagine that you are born and raised in a country that your forefathers were integral in building, not of their own desire but because that had been taken from their far-away homes and forced into labor, and that, while nominally free and equal, your were regarded in general with hostility and suspicion by the majority population, the ones who engineered your existence here, and most of whom had roots far younger and shallower than yours (yet who claimed to be the true and natural citizens of this land). Wouldn’t you feel like an alien from outer space, wouldn’t you look to someplace off the planet, or some technology that would get you there, as your home, your heaven?

But back to the future. The enduring legacy of Kraftwerk is a utopian one, that the future will be good. It just may not be a human utopia – it’s a place where everything works, and perhaps better because we may not be around anymore. Of all the worthy Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

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One comment

  • Sometimes, Darlin’, I sit in my office, listening to you listen to such puzzling things as Kraftwerk in your office, and I am — puzzled. But this morning, thinking thinking thinking about the history of the Law of Conservation of Energy, I stumbled upon this from Karl Friedrich Mohr: “besides the 54 known chemical elements there is in the physical world one agent only, and this is called Kraft . It may appear, according to circumstances, as motion, chemical affinity, cohesion, electricity, light and magnetism; and from any one of these forms it can be transformed into any of the others.”

    And now I get it. (Please not to be holding your breath for a like Eureka on XTC, though!)

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