The Big City

”The more susbtantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.."

Florian Schneider, one of the co-founders of Kraftwerk, passed away today at the age of 73. That’s a sad way to introduce both the revised and republishing of the below post (originally from September 30, 2008) and to once again wave the banner for Kraftwerk, the most important pop band since the rise of funk in the 1960s, and more important than The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Yeah, I said it. I’m not disputing the relative greatness of either of those two, nor the pleasure they give to listeners. But other than imitators, what have they begat? Meanwhile, out of Kraftwerk comes the enormous field of electronic dance music and hip hop, the two most important movements in popular music of the last 50 years. And to think Kraftwerk started as a noodling jazz fusion/prog-rock band, with Florian on the flute. Dank mein Herr.

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 Kraftwerk.

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—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, and their sense of humor adds to that. And there is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming.

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

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still up-lifting. 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 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, 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, building 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, along with 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. 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 lousy 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 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. These 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 absolute. And it was stunning. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible piece. 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:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that has always 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.

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 Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

“He gets it! He knows music!”

Alvin Singleton

“George Grella understood exactly.”

Robert Ashley
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