THE FOUR "sound chemists" of Germany's future-rock group Kraftwerk surround themselves with insturments of the future: amplified feedback machines, oscillators, rhythm machines, pre-programmed tapes, sequencers, computer-storage synthesizers. There are no guitars, basses or saxophones, though the group has invented an automatic electronic sequencer drum and a photocell instrument to make music with body movements.
"When we started in 1968, we decided you couldn't play the 20th century on the instruments of the 18th century," explains Ralf "Der Doktor" Hutter, who along with Florian "V-2" Schneider is the motivating force behind Kraftwerk, appearing at the Warner Theatre tonight. "When violins came about in a certain period, they were the latest state-of-the-art technology . . . at that time. For us, there was no way of turning back and working with outdated musical machines."
The music of Kraftwerk is streamlined for the future, to the point where it was once called Industrial Volksmusik. It pulsates with minimalist compositions and monochromatic new-age themes extolling machinery and a need for balanced relationships with our industrial environment, or as someone said, "a powerful, cool transmutation of a Geiger counter's crackle, a telegraph's melodic signaling, shortwave's sliding whines and quasar's exploding waaaooowaaas." The group's latest album, "Computer World," extends Kraftwerk's electronic pop soundscapes to new tensions and possibilities in their romance with science.
Hutter and Schneider met at the Dusseldorf Conservatory; each had pursued classical studies (piano and flute respectively) for almost a decade before discovering a mutual curiosity about electronic music. They began experiments with a single tape recorder and a radio, taking the name Kraftwerk (Electrical Power Plant). In 1970 they formed Kling Klang (Ringing Tone) Studio in the heart of Dusseldorf. It was less a studio than a scientific laboratory, much as they were not "musicians" but mathematicians and computer technicians "researching and systematizing sound," inventing, composing and recording sounds of the age of technology. They were the first to use a vocal synthesizer to pop music. Unlike many academics exploring the same territory, Kraftwerk shied away from the cloistered classical connotations of electronic music and brought it to the dance floor with such hits as "Trans-Europe Express," "Autobahn" and "Showroom Dummies."
One critic claimed that by moving electronic music from avant-garde obscurity to the dance floor, Kraftwerk had done for electronic music what Benny Goodman did for jazz. Others referred to it derisively as cold and lifeless "kraut rock," a description partly inspired by Kraftwerk's tendency to stern, sinister posing in a manner disquietingly similar to Hitler's New Order. The band paid little attention to either view, choosing instead to extend its "radical commitment" to electronic pop.
"We do tend to be more out on the streets than the academics," Hutter admits. "We are concerned with street life -- trains, cars, and now, computers." Indeed, there is a multi-faceted but pervasive thread running through Kraftwerk's music: establishing a sensible interface with inanimate muchinery and between man his urban environment; creating a harmony between the inexorable progress of technology and the inevitable reticence of nature; the wedding of art and technology.
Kraftwerk is part of a German cultural renaissance, its members being part of the first post-war generation to be original as well as productive. More attention has been paid to writers like Peter Handke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger and filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog nad Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who has used Kraftwerk music in two of his films). "Germany after the war was a cultural vacuum," Hutter says. "The only thing people were concerned with was building their houses and then, in the '50s, with consumer attitudes. We also grew up in the British sector," a reference to German youth's post-war tendency to identify either with the cultures of the occupying powers or to go back to historic institutions and structures.
Kraftwerk went the second route and during the early '70s found itself virtually banned from radio because they were not "Angle-American" enough. What they found in terms of inspiration from the past was the Bauhaus school, a '20s German fusion of practical art and technology, one whose central tenet was that there was no difference between the artist and the craftsman and that proficiency in one's craft was essential to the creative imagination. That tied in with the German sense of purpose and its tendency to highlight and accentuate order, perfection and discipline. It's a radical commitment that Hutter calls "gerade aus . . . go all the way."
Hutter admits there is a little of the stereotype of the mad scientist in Kraftwerk's methodology, "something very German. But sometimes out of these things come new ideas." The most interesting of the ideas revolves around the harmony of man and machine, or the Men Machines, as the group like to call itself. "We must cooperate and enter into a dialogue with machines," Hutter insists. "Mostly they are being exploited and when you no longer need them, especially in America, you have a throwaway attitude. yIt's wrong because the whole technological society is now entering a period of pollution. When you have a more friendly relationship with your environment and don't feel so disassociated from everything . . . or have the object-subject mentality . . . then you fare much better."
Asserting that pollution may be machines' way of revolting against mistreatment, Kraftwerk has started what it calls "a healing process" by building up a special relationship with its own hardware. "We take great care of [our equipment and instruments] and treat them very friendly; everything has been functioning quite well. And they are so sensitive when we touch them to produce that special sound that we fell we should talk about that relationship."
The more traditional relationship, Hutter explains, is the "minority complex," which is little more than a misguided and paranoid power struggle to dominate the machinery and technology. "We are not into establishing the machines as a new authority. In fact, we are opposed to people who submit to or try to dominate the environment of technology or applied science," Hutter continues. "People don't ralize how much machines have penetrated our lives." c
Kraftwerk obviously does. Their home base, Dusseldorf, is the industrial center of West Germany, the most advanced technological bureaucracy in the world. The;y have an awareness of how deeply society has become computerized and "penetrated by micro-electronics. We're store as a point of information." The computer, Hutter points out, "is called the Universal Machine and it reflects the thought of the person programming it, a majority of whom are into the 'minority complex,' people who are into control and domination." Hutter sees Kraftwerk taking computers out of their control context and using them with a softer sensibility and in unexpectedly creative ways.
For instance, their newest single, "Pocket Calculator," is built around the music that can be drawn from, what else, pocket calculators. Another song derives from toy instruments. "We were walking around a store in Dusseldorf and heard a 'beep, beep' from the toy department," Hutter recalls, "so we bought some and took them to the stuiod and wired them into our system." "On another song, "Numbers," "the music played itself. We set up a rhythm structure and programmed different languages into it." Kraftwerk's sense of humor extends back to its first big hit, "Autobahn," a delightful compendium of traffic noises and muchanical rhythms.
Hutter defends attacks on the group's narrow musical parameters by pointing to hi own classical training, in which the goal was to play very complicated pieces at the expense of spirit. The reaction was a programmed minimalism. "We can get different effects and situations, improvise. We don't have to remember how a piece went, so we can concentrate on how we play it. If we want it more complicated, it's just a matter of pressing a few more buttons."
For the pst three years, the group (which is rounded out by Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos) secluded itself in the electronic garden of Kling Klang, reconstructing the studio, interconnection everything with computers and portable component parts so that they could take the studio around the world with them. "We didn't expect it to take that long and of course it's very risky," Hutter says."When you break a regular instrument, you can just go to a shop and buy a new one. Most of the things we have are custom built by ourselves. We would be out of work."
Among the most fascinating components of Kraftwerk's show, which includes extensive use of video film and a certain amount of audience feedback, are the four life-size robot dummies who at one point join the group on stage. Since there is already an androidal quality to the living members, it becomes a game to guess who is real and who is not. "They do a lot of duplicatio;n work for us," Hutter laughs. "They can be a lot more patient with photographers. They just stand there for hours without blinking an eye."
Kraftwerk's influence is evident not only in the Futurist and New Romantic movements in England and in the works of David Bowie and Brian Eno, but in the Eurorock of Donna Summer, M and others. "I always said it was the music of today," Hutter asserts. "There was so much criticism in the past, it was so misunderstood. Now, in Europe, more people are working in electronic music, and so it will begin to go further. But there's a need for people to think how they can establish new forms of harmony with their surroundings and environment. The lack of a harmonic circle is where a lot of the problems of the world come from."