PRINT May 2012



Kraftwerk performing as part of “Kraftwerk–Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 10, 2012. Photo: Peter Boettcher.

WHEN KRAFTWERK SPEAKS, everything else suddenly gets a little louder: loud like your heartbeat in an anechoic chamber, or loud like a neon-lit wet suit on a robot in 3-D. The group’s laconic vocals only enhance the booming, anthemic extravagance of the aural world in which they envelop us. And that expansive sound is the sound of machines. In the early 1970s, in Düsseldorf, the group’s co-founders, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, famously began using synthesizers in hopes of covering the full range of human hearing, from “20 to 20,000 Hz,” as they have said.

So, too, the soft, precise voice of vocalist and keyboard “operator” Hütter attunes us to such a range: When he sat down with Artforum for a rare interview this past month, his typically muted tone seemed to call attention, by contrast, to the ambient frequencies around us—the buzz of the lights, the squeaking of chairs, breathing. This acoustic oscillation recalled Kraftwerk’s own hovering between high and low, between high camp and high seriousness, Eurovision and Stockhausen, Tangerine Dream and Head Hunters, Derrick May and musique concrète. In many ways, the group’s best-known work—from the ethereal, mechanomorphic “Autobahn” (1974) to the hilarious “The Robots” (1978)—is a brutal parody of aesthetic production. Kraftwerk’s compositions are, simply, pop. Stripped-down arrangements, funk-inflected rhythms, looping, and vocoder become deadpan echoes of the automation of life.

If this sounds familiar, it is because, like so many endeavors fusing art and technology in postwar Germany, Kraftwerk’s project reflects the common attempt, after an unthinkable catastrophe, to remake the subject as whole, to wipe the slate clean, to lapse into a historical amnesia that is yet suffused with both dream and dread. Kraftwerk seemed to cynically appropriate industrial and postindustrial futurisms even as they couldn’t help but produce their own kitsch euphoria. Their audiovisual deployments of pioneering music technologies such as the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey synthesizers mirrored late-’60s experiments in audio and video synthesis by the likes of Steina Vasulka and Otto Piene. The band’s secretive Kling Klang studio could be Stockhausen’s Westdeutscher Rundfunk radio lab reimagined by Pitchfork avant la lettre.

It’s this prolepsis, this foretelling of something past, that might also describe the particular trajectory of Kraftwerk’s brand of pop. Their fantasy of synesthesia, of a fusion of sight and sound that might bring an immersive, transformative experience, had once been an experimental hope. Now, of course, it is ripe for canonization in the museum. And, indeed, a 3-D installation by the group was mounted at the Kunstbau Lenbachhaus in Munich this past fall; last month, Hütter and his current crew—Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and Stefan Pfaffe—presented “Kraftwerk–Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” at the Museum of Modern in Art in New York, which included a series of eight buoyant yet sober performances and an installation that remains on view at MoMA PS1 through May 14. The shows are thus as discomfiting as they are fitting. But the beat, that intransigently danceable, sample-friendly beat, goes on.

Michelle Kuo

Kraftwerk, ca. 1977, Düsseldorf. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.


GERMANY IN THE LATE 1960S AND EARLY ’70S was neither interesting nor humorous nor open-minded nor futuristic. It was under occupation, supervision. We reacted to that—like a lot of people in Düsseldorf at the time. There was an atmosphere of play and liberation, Happenings, all of those Fluxus-type events—doing experimental things without a strict plan. We were much closer to that art scene than to the so-called music world. In the beginning we played at galleries such as Hans Mayer. We played museums, the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Cologne, everywhere. When we played for an after-party for the museum in Mönchengladbach, I had my first drum machine and feedback sounds playing, so we could just leave the stage to be part of the dance floor. Coming to MoMA is, for us, part of our return to the art world over the past couple of years.

At that time, nobody would book us in the music world because it was all blocked by either old German classical music or rock—there was no German-language living music. German bands would sing in English, which seemed strange to us. Our generation in Germany had to rediscover its own language through films like those of Fassbinder or through new literature. It had to do with redefining our everyday culture.

We wanted to bring electro into the art context, to make people move. At the same time—as the name Kraftwerk itself declared—we stood apart from electronic music of the ’50s and ’60s, which was a more intellectual, cerebral field. We wanted to try something different—not pop, really, but rather the music of everyday life, Alltagsmusik. It still took us about seven years and hundreds of thousands of kilometers on the autobahn to get there.

Kraftwerk performing at the Ritz, 1981, New York. Photo: Laura Levine/Corbis.

When Autobahn came out in 1974, we were criticized in Germany for using banal lyrics, our so-called Sound-Poetry. The German tour was canceled because there was no interest.

But America was very open to Kraftwerk when we went on our first tour, for Autobahn. That’s one of the wonders of America in the mid-’70s when we played even very small midwestern towns—people seeking us out. And through this whole process we were also finding Kraftwerk. In German, it’s called the Lehr- and Wanderjahre.

German radio and television were not taking too much notice of us in the beginning either. So we went to Italy, and we found out about underground radio stations. In Germany, it wasn’t allowed. You would never be able to get a frequency. We created our own little radio—you turn the dials with your hand until you find the shortwave band. These are the lyrics of the 1975 album Radio-Activity, so it’s also a program. The music is like a creative program or instructions, like secret messages.

Experimentation with video and sound was everywhere when we started in the late ’60s. It was central. We weren’t even thinking about making records; we worked with tapes and live music. We began calling the music “soundscapes,” and we used the word painting to describe what we did with color visuals and videos. Now we have computer graphics, of course, but in those days it meant working with a video recorder or feedback microphone, working with video and audio signals at the same time.

We were also using a lot of equipment that was standard for the time. I think it has more to do with the way we used it. We used synthesizers, which were very expensive. We had engineers helping us build sound instruments. But I think it was all really coming from language. You hear that in our use of the human voice and the vocoder.

The tools have changed, of course. Now we have the equipment that we were dreaming of in the ’70s, things we made drawings of. My first synthesizer was monophonic; it was the same price as my Volkswagen. Unimaginable today. Being a composer now, it’s a very lucky situation because you can afford the tools. And mobility—small equipment, affordable equipment. We can now translate dance movements into sounds.

New sounds are happening all the time. But the sounds don’t come from the instrument. An instrument is just an instrument. The sound of the world has changed as well; our ambient soundscape has changed. It’s a mix of both digital and analog. Outside, there is a lot of real—very loud—analog noise. Sounds are getting louder and louder and louder . . . our music comes after silence.

When you go to a rock concert, normally they give you half an hour or an hour of stimulating music beforehand, whereas we want silence or some electro buzz. Then we want to concentrate on one or two hours of our concert. So we are looking for silence.

We actually experienced complete silence when the faces for our robots were made. The artist put plaster on our faces to make a mask. You close your eyes and you’re sitting there like you’re in a dentist’s chair. It’s getting dark. Then he puts more plaster on and then it gets darker. Then the last thing they do is put the plaster on your ears—and then it gets very dark. The artist told me that half the people jump out of the chair at this point because they are scared. For me, it was OK. It’s like dying, in a way, but it’s nice. I like the idea that if you close your eyes, it gets dark, but closing your ears gets darker, much darker. It’s totally black. Suddenly, there is nothing.

FOR THE RETROSPECTIVE “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8,” we’re performing some compositions that we have never performed at all, some more ambient or situational, others like small film scripts. We’re doing “Ohm Sweet Ohm”; there are some fantastic, some comic moments.

Part of the visuals and sound from previous performances are here, but in 3-D. It’s a live process—Kraftwerk is a work in progress. Maybe when a painter gives a painting away or it’s sold, then it’s finished. You can’t touch it because it’s protected. But we have access to all our data—all our archives, old tapes, have been digitized—and we start fiddling with the old material, sometimes adding and upgrading new sounds.

On the first night of “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8,” we also played the composition “Computer World,” from the album of the same name that we did thirty-one years ago. You can hear that we still have the overall feeling that was there from the beginning. And we have changed the robots that we usually use here because the members of the group have changed—but we also kept the old ones. We filmed them in 3-D.

Our engineers traveled with us—we bring the sound system, of course adjusting it to the site and to the acoustics of the museum’s atrium. We’ve learned from our experience playing outdoors, or in classical concert halls such as Cité de la Musique in Paris, or industrial complexes, or a steel factory in Poland. Kraftwerk lands like a little space capsule, and then we try to absorb the environment. Here at MoMA it’s perfect because the atrium is an open space that has a certain height and uplifting quality. That’s the first thing I noticed when I visited the museum.

Kraftwerk performing as part of “Kraftwerk–Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 10, 2012. Photo: Peter Boettcher.

Our sound is not as composed as people might think. In classical music, there’s always some kind of principle of composition. We wanted to break out of that. Disciplines, specialists, idiots—the world is falling apart with specialists in different categories. Our idea was to introduce some communication between them. The same goes for politics. To my mind, music and art come even before politics. In the same way, I think humor can open doors and create space, freedom.

We can make music with everyday sounds, with pocket calculators or with bicycle noise or with human noise. We record heartbeats. We try to be very open. We improvise. So we’re not trying to install machines in the museum; it’s the man-machine working. We are there and the machines are there. I’m not a musician. I don’t practice piano. I found it very boring as a child. A Tour de France rider told us that the only music he ever plays in his headphones when he’s riding is Kraftwerk. From somebody who is really into it, receiving—or feeding us back his feelings—it’s a real compliment.

We want to create in other dimensions without being limited, whether it’s music, video, painting, scribbling, talk, lyrics. Or cycling, like in our Manchester Velodrome show. The word Happening goes in that direction, but it doesn’t really get there. Or Gesamtkunstwerk, but then again in the German language that term is very highly situated and maybe overdetermined, Wagnerian, old-fashioned.

We don’t think about length in a concert. In the old days, with vinyl, if you wanted high quality you could only record about twenty minutes per side. There was a technical constraint and the music developed accordingly. The three-minute single came from radio, not musicians, because stations want to play twenty songs per hour, which we always found very boring, so we had compositions that were endless, endless. “Autobahn” is twenty-two minutes, and now here in performance at MoMA we play it a little shorter. When we practice, it could be longer. It’s almost like chronological or clock time versus musical rhythm or meter—or like personal time, or what mood you are in, if you want to really listen or if you want to use the music to clean your apartment.

When we play those big festivals, we are always fighting because the contracts read “sixty minutes.” For us, it’s very short. By the time we’re warmed up, it is already finished. But you just want to continue . . . endless.

“Kraftwerk–Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” is organized by Klaus Biesenbach and remains on view at MoMA/PS1 Contemporary Art Center until May 14.