I saw the Kraftwerk concert at Disney Hall on Tuesday March 18th with my nephew Alexey. It was amazing! The sonics inside of the venue were possibly the best I’ve ever heard for loud, amplified music. Back in the old days there were stacks of speakers on the side of the stage, racks of amplifiers, large monitors obscuring the view. Now it’s all done with vertical line arrays flown above the stage. Since the amplifiers are built into the same enclosure, the only wiring is a slim line in from the PA console to the speaker. There is no on-stage amplification, so no phase incoherence or standing bass frequencies. All of the monitoring is in-ear. The house was wired for sound and echoes appeared from numerous locations within the hall; like the effect Pink Floyd always was trying to achieve, with mixed results.
There’s a problem, though, which is that the band’s presentation is static. It’s just the four of them standing behind consoles, very little in the way of movement. Other than for Herr Hütter, who visibly sings (chants, really) and plays keyboards, it isn’t even clear what the other members of the band do. The show is rigorously locked down to time code and all of the rhythms and bass are preprogrammed. At various times the others made motions with their hands. At best they were pushing buttons on a computer, making slithery slinky noises or adjusting filter frequencies/resonance. Something is lost without a wall of synthesizers, which at least they would be able to manipulate in real time. I saw a Morton Subotnick show at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which had the same problem. All Mort did was push a button on his computer, then everything unfolded from there. Arguably the sounds originally were generated by analog instruments, then transferred to digital for playback, which is what happens most of the time now. But where were the Buchla 100s?
What keeps the show from being totally boring is a very large, 3D projection screen behind the band (they handed out goggles to wear to experience the effect). The animations ranged from dull to shocking. There was a large proscenium in front of the stage and at various times I hoped it would be populated by dancers or at least robot-like figures. The band’s eight separate appearances at Disney Hall were advertised as playing each one of their eight albums, one per show, in sequence. It was hard to tell if they adhered to this plan. It’s possible they got through that night’s album, though after that they did play a variety of selections from their oeuvre. The quality of their material varies considerably. “Autobahn,” “Trans Europe Express” and “Tour de France” frankly are boring. “The Model,” on the other hand, is inspired; the band Berlin pretty much copied it in their equally excellent songs “Riding on the Metro” and “Pleasure Victim.” “Metal on Metal” reminds me of a ponderous, lumbering dinosaur.
Kraftwerk is something of a contradiction. Songs like “Computer World,” “Radioactivity,” “We Are the Robots” and “The Man Machine” are dark and foreboding. They are profoundly anti-technology and portray a dystopian future. In this the band is quintessentially German, straight out of late-period Heidegger. In contrast to Magma, another experimental group, which (for me) remains the essential French band of the period. More so than most other bands, though, Kraftwerk is radically and thus somewhat cynically dependent on technology. Furthermore, its members basically are faceless, substitutable cogs in the very machine they rebuke.
I had numerous interactions with Kraftwerk and its management when I worked for EMI in the 1980s-1990s and it’s awesome that they’re still around some 44 years later. Watching old videos of these guys is hilarious. Like the rest of us, they look a lot younger, and were taking themselves quite seriously in a Stockhausen-esque kind of way. Although they aren’t anywhere near as popular, I couldn’t help but thinking as I left that it would be great if Tangerine Dream would reunite for a tour! At least one of their videos on YouTube shows them using a hardware sequencer (Manikin Schrittmacher). If you are looking for a good representation of what Kraftwerk is doing now, by all means by their live record “Minimum Maximum.” It reconceptualizes their earlier material and is far more vigorous, probably an order of magnitude better.