Thursday, April 12, 2012
Kraftwerk, the German group whose members were early adapters to the world of the computer, at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday. More Photos »
By JON PARELES [Published: April 11, 2012]
In fact Kraftwerk has been far more predictive than obedient. It can rightfully claim to have done some cultural reprogramming of its own. Back in the 1970s Kraftwerk conceptualized itself as the Man-Machine and started writing songs about what technology might do to — and with — the modern mind. It can now claim a direct influence on all sorts of electronic and computer-driven music, while its lyrics clearly envisioned our computer-mediated daily lives.
Tuesday’s concert was the beginning of Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, with Kraftwerk performing eight consecutive albums on eight nights for just 450 people per show. Only Mr. Hutter remains from Kraftwerk’s original lineup; the other current members are Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert and Stefan Pfaffe. Onstage the quartet stood at keyboards — playing some of the music’s components live — in front of a very active video screen with images that sometimes sandwiched the musicians between the planes of eye-popping three-dimensional geometry and typography. (Concertgoers were handed 3D glasses on the way to the museum’s atrium.)
The featured album on Tuesday was “Autobahn,” released in 1974. At the time Kraftwerk was just becoming an electropop band. “Autobahn” was the only song with lyrics, and the version of it that became an international hit single was edited down from a suitelike 22-minute track. But its repeating synthesizer lines, impassive vocals and recursive lyrics were already enmeshed with the technologies of transportation, media and music — recurring Kraftwerk subjects.
Mr. Hutter sang about “driving, driving, driving on the Autobahn,” while a song on the radio goes, “We’re driving, driving, driving on the Autobahn.” The screen showed scenes of a superhighway filled with Volkswagens and Mercedes-Benzes; one had KR 74 as a license plate.
Kraftwerk revisited the “Autobahn” album rather than reproducing its exact timbres and proportions. It held on to its instrumental passages and the generally somber melodic lines of the album’s other tracks but played them from a changed perspective — for instance, trading the album’s upbeat hints of 1950s and ’60s rock for something more steady-state. The most transformed track was “Morgenspaziergang” (“Morning Walk”), which in 1974 juxtaposed synthesized burbles and tweets — oscillator birdsong — with its tune played on a wooden flute. Now the tune came from a keyboard, true to the latter-day Kraftwerk.
The “Autobahn” album was only about one-third of the concert, which exulted in the Kraftwerk catalog up to 2003 (to up the album “Tour de France Soundtracks,” which ends the series on Tuesday). Songs from the 1970s and ’80s — “The Model,” “Computer World,” “Techno Pop” — have lyrics that could be from the 21st century. And Mr. Hutter’s vocals, which he has been feeding through various filters since the 1970s, were precursors of the deliberately robotic pop that blankets current Top 40 radio.
Meanwhile Kraftwerk has kept up with ever-advancing music gizmos, and with its ever-proliferating musical heirs, by enriching and retrofitting its old songs, rhythmically and occasionally verbally. “Radioactivity” named problematic nuclear power plants in Chernobyl; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Sellafield in Britain (though not, yet, Fukushima Daiichi). “Trans-Europe Express,” which would find its way into hip-hop via Afrika Bambaataa, now had ballooning bass; “Computer Love” had its original glimmers of disco pumped into a solid 4/4 club thump.
Kraftwerk’s reworkings don’t sound imposed on its songs or as if the band were playing catch-up. It’s more that the songs already held these implications, which were just awaiting notice and a savvy follow-through. Kraftwerk released “Computer World” in 1981, and it has been living in that world for three decades — a world of constant upgrades and updates. That leads to a retrospective that’s not satisfied just to look back.
Great Press continues. Check these out:
HIGH-DESIGN FANS COME PRIMED FOR A RETRO FUTURE (New York Times)
KRAFTWERK DIARY DAY ONE: ELECTRONIC PIONEERS PLAY 1974'S 'AUTOBAHN' (Rolling Stone)
KLAUS BIESENBACH ON KRAFTWERK'S PERFORMANCES AT MOMA (Huffington Post)
KRAFTWERK IN NYC: DECADES OF INFLUENCE ON DISPLAY (WBUR – NPR) YES! DO LISTEN TO THIS ARTICLE!
MAN, ALIVE TO MACHINE POSSIBILITIES (New York Times)