Musique Non-Stop

Kraftwerk performs Autobahn at the Museum of Modern Art, April 10, 2012. (Photo: Peter Boettcher)

INTERRED IN FOUR BLACK CRATES leaning against the wall of the Museum of Modern Art’s lobby as I got in line for the opening performance of Kraftwerk’s career-spanning eight-night residency “Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” were life-size mannequins of the band’s members circa 2012, their heads twitching intermittently as if in the last throes of life. And while the influential Teutonic proto-techno outfit isn’t quite dead yet, the rigorous summary overseen by curator and countryman Klaus Biesenbach did cast a slight pall of last-chance-to-see over the proceedings.

Since the museum’s atrium, the venue for the event, holds a scant 450 people, it was clear from the get-go that the series would be an instant sellout. It was a predominantly grateful crowd indeed that, clutching 3-D glasses and souvenir programs, made their way past a makeshift bar and up the stairs to await the appearance of Ralf Hütter and friends (since the departure of Florian Schneider in 2008, the Krefeld-born cycling fanatic is the band’s sole founding member remaining). Tuesday’s performance was billed as a rendition of the 1974 album Autobahn, a meandering celebration of Germany’s highway network that yielded the band’s first hit, but an attendant instructed me that it would run just under two hours, roughly triple the length of said record. MoMA director Glenn Lowry, standing next to me a couple of rows from the stage, confirmed the report, mentioning that a run-through the night before had clocked in at an hour and forty-three minutes. What was the plan? The original plus a remix?

In the end, Autobahn was rendered unadulterated, and augmented with a full list of favorites including “The Robots,” “Radioactivity,” “The Model,” “The Man Machine,” “Tour de France,” and the sublime, hypnotic “Trans-Europe Express.” The quartet, clad in figure-hugging gridded jumpsuits, manned identical keyboards outlined in illuminated strips and, true to deadpan form, remained unspeaking and expressionless throughout. Doing the visual work for them was a set of simple digital projections transformed into something more immersive by the 3-D effect, which made slogans and graphics appear to hover in real space (all the more startling, perhaps, to those who have avoided the flurry of movies in the format). Thus during “Autobahn,” our heroes appeared to be constantly under threat of being mowed down by vintage Mercedes-Benzes and VW Beetles, while “Boing Boom Tschak” saw the track’s onomatopoeic title flying at us over their heads.

If this all sounds a bit kitschy, it should come as no great surprise. Kraftwerk have always tempered their utopian futurism with a large dose of campy fun. The electronic dance music that the band helped establish remains preoccupied with darkness (see dubstep and its offshoots for a recent, at times almost comically extreme example), but the calculator-operators themselves have never been interested in scaring the listener (“Radioactivity” being one of a very few exceptions). Autobahn in particular has an airy, even pastoral feel married to a childlike simplicity—the typically catchy chorus, “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn,” could almost belong to a commercial jingle.

“Retrospective: 1” was, then, seamlessly realized, and its setting unarguably apt, but I couldn’t help missing the rough-and-tumble of a less-practiced, lower-budget gig. The crowd, distinctive for its seniority and smartness, behaved for the most part like it was waiting for a bus, and I had to make a powerful effort not to allow the trustees, their kids, or Terence Koh to kill my buzz. This band is legendary and has been for decades, so I certainly don’t expect them to play my local, but is it weird that I also want to rescue them from the art world? One possible solution was Krautwerk 1-8 Condensed: Kraftwerk Covered, a concurrent show at Gowanus club Littlefield that featured a lineup of fans performing their own personal favorites. Camarades et amitie!