Hier spricht die Stimme der Energie
Ich bin ein riesiger elektrischer Generator
Ich liefere Ihnen Licht und Kraft
Und ermögliche es Ihnen Sprache, Musik und Bild
Durch den Äther auszusenden und zu empfangen
Ich bin Ihr Diener und Ihr Herr zugleich
Deshalb hütet mich gut
Mich, den Genius der Energie"Die Stimme der Energie," 1977
Table of Contents
Chapter One, Autobahn and the Mechanical Aspects of Life
Chapter Two, Radioaktivität and Elektronenklänge aus dem Radioland
Chapter Three, Trans Europa Express--Wirklichkeit und Postkarten Bilder
Chapter Four, Die Mensch Maschine, Halb-Wesen und Halb-Überding
Chapter Five, Computerwelt--Kontrollieren und Komponieren
Chapter Six, Electric Cafe and Techno Pop
Primary Works Cited
Secondary Works Cited
Welcome! This is an honors thesis I wrote as a senior at the University of Georgia in 1996. I hope you enjoy it. I decided to put it online in case anyone else might be interested in some critical perspectives on Kraftwerk; it should, at least, find a much wider audience on the web than it ever has in the Georgia Room of the Ilah Dunlap Little Memorial Library, collecting dust with the other honors theses. Also, there are several aspects of the original version that I've always wished I could change; now I'll have the chance. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts about my study--please feel free to drop me a line if you like. Thank you.
I would like to take this opportunity to offer my deepest appreciation to those who have so generously provided guidance and assistance both in the course of my college career and in the preparation of this study. These are without question three of the kindest and most capable scholars and teachers I have ever known.
Over the past four years Dr. Julie Greer Johnson of the Department of Romance Languages has been an abundant source of inspiration. In my time at the University I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from her in two Spanish Literature courses, both of which profoundly enhanced the ways in which I understand and experience poetry and prose. Two years ago she honored me greatly by nominating me for membership in Sigma Delta Pi, the Spanish Honor Society; her agreeing to evaluate this thesis and serve on the reading committee honors me yet again.
Dr. Lindsey Rogers of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages is alone responsible for much of the success I have enjoyed as a student in this Department. He very thoughtfully chose me to serve as the Department’s representative on two committees in the Franklin College--service which has enriched my time at UGA immeasurably. His accepting my invitation to serve on the reading committee is only the most recent favor he has done for me since we first met, and I am most grateful.
Finally, Dr. Ward Lewis of the German Department has for well over a year given selflessly of his time and knowledge in directing the course of study which led to this thesis. This work exists exclusively because of his faith in my abilities. I shall remember the privilege of working with him as one of the highlights of my academic career, and he has my sincerest thanks.
This is for my Mom.
In the entirety of twentieth century popular music, few musicians or composers have achieved a level of excellence and influence to rival that attained by Kraftwerk. Since their earliest, embryonic recordings as students of classical and experimental music at the Düsseldorf Conservatory in the late 1960s, the members of Kraftwerk--Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür and Emil Schult--have consistently and successfully produced provocative, engaging music, always on the cutting edge of current technologies and social movements. The broad range of topics they have chosen to explore (including mass transit, mass communication, nuclear power, modern industrialization, computerization, the worker in society, the concept of the model, etc.) have often been treated in compositions which not only mirrored and commented upon contemporary situations, but brilliantly foretold of future trends and lifestyles; their work is perhaps most impressive for the uncanny prescience it has demonstrated.
Kraftwerk are, furthermore, largely responsible for the rapid proliferation of (and general familiarization with) electronic musical instruments and synthetic composition. They effectively brought the progressive, highly stylized techniques and equipment of electronic music pioneers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, Herbert Eimert and Robert Beyer into the realm of the common musician, opening new avenues of artistic expression for countless songwriters and performers. As a student of German Literature and Art, I find Kraftwerk’s recordings to be among the most accomplished, innovative and thought-provoking works issued in any German-speaking nation in the past fifty years.
Though the many intricate facets of Kraftwerk’s body of work demand careful attention and study, examination of their work has been limited largely to album and performance reviews in the popular music press. Only one scholar, art historian O. K. Werckmeister of Northwestern University, has chosen to analyze formally Kraftwerk’s achievements and their place in contemporary art. For the purposes of this thesis, I wish to look critically at Kraftwerk’s Gesamtkunstwerk, offering my thoughts on its various aspects: Music, lyrics, imagery, performance and philosophy. Because analysis of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre is such a nascent area of academic inquiry, my hope is to integrate an exploration of the several primary themes that recur throughout their work into an overarching, chronological examination of their art. In so doing, I shall investigate how Kraftwerk have utilized the tools that tradition and history gave them--harmony, melody, percussion, rhythm, style, recording technology, etc.--to create a new and ingeniously unique art. I will also explore how Kraftwerk’s influence has manifested itself in the work of other prominent contemporary artists. I hope at least to do justice to a body of work which I have for years enjoyed and admired.
Because Kraftwerk’s early work, though noteworthy for its progressive musicality and experimentation, is in many ways so different in style and method from their later, more mature compositions, I will limit this analysis to their output after 1974, reserving examination of prior work (the recordings Tone Float, "Rückstoß Gondoloiere," Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, and Ralf und Florian) for a future study. I have also elected to discuss the group’s most recent album, a compilation called The Mix, very briefly in the Afterword to this thesis. My focus will therefore rest on Kraftwerk’s last six recordings of original music: Autobahn, Radioaktivität, Trans Europa Express, Die Mensch Maschine, Computerwelt, and Electric Cafe.
Autobahn and the Mechanical Aspects of Life
In many ways, the 1974 album Autobahn is Kraftwerk’s breakthrough piece; the recording’s twenty-two-minute title track set the stage for much of the group’s later work, and acted as a kind of thematic and methodological manifesto--a foundation upon which subsequent undertakings were based. When released in 1974, it rapidly became by far their most commercially successful release to that time (Petley 2311); Autobahn is to this day the only major success they have enjoyed in the United States (Nagel 129). The record as a whole served to introduce listeners worldwide to the mature Kraftwerk sound and style, built around inventive, mesmerizing electronic melodies and rhythms, human and synthetic vocals, and exploration of important themes in modern Western life. It’s influence on subsequent music can hardly be overestimated.
The album begins with "Autobahn," which on vinyl editions occupies the entire first side. The song opens with the sound of a slamming car door and the starting of the engine, both in the right stereo channel. The hum of the car is then shifted to the left channel where it fades away, accompanied and punctuated by the brief, synthesized sound of a car horn. Then the word "Autobahn" is spoken by a baritone, almost ominous synthetic voice (the first of many times a computerized vocal would be used in a Kraftwerk recording). The word becomes louder, rapidly filling both stereo channels, and resonates with plangent bass. The word is repeated four times, each repetition featuring an additional voice, until the final "Autobahn" is sung in an otherworldly, four-part machine harmony.
Human vocals then move to the fore with the regular, repeated intonation of the refrain, "Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn, wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn . . . " These lines, Kraftwerk’s first-ever use of singing as an element of their music, are delivered somewhat monotonously, reinforcing and complementing the constant rhythm of the engine. Though vaguely (and significantly) mechanical in its steadiness and intonation, this vocal delivery is not without feeling; on the contrary, these lines, in concert with those that follow, endow the song with a decidedly human warmth.
As the music progresses, the lyrics further describe the driver’s experience on the Autobahn, and focus on creating a general representation of the journey:Kraftwerk intentionally maintain an elegant simplicity in the music’s lyrical accompaniment, thus allowing the electronically generated music and language--and the almost symbiotic interplay between these sounds and their counterpart, the human vocal--to take center stage. Also significant is Kraftwerk’s use of exclusively German vocals at a time when, as Hütter recalls, ". . . seventy-five percent of our radio programs were in English," a phenomenon which emphasized the need for a new German cultural identity (Petley 2311-12). "After the war," Hütter explained in an interview following the release of Autobahn, "German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off, and know where . . . to feel ourselves" (Nagel 125).Vor uns liegt ein weites Tal
Die Sonne scheint mit Glitzerstrahl
Die Fahrbahn ist ein graues Band
Weiße Streifen, grüner Rand . . .
For inspiration, the members of Kraftwerk looked to the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s: "We all felt very lost. To be able to feel any bonds at all, we had to go back to the Bauhaus school. It sounds strange, but to be able to continue into the future, we had to take a step forty years backwards" (Dee WWW). Subsequent recordings reveal the the increasingly influential role that Bauhaus philosophy played in Kraftwerk’s development of their Gesamtkunstwerk. This juxtaposition of new and old ideas is reflected in the album’s cover, which depicts a bulky, aged Mercedes’ passing a then-current Volkswagen traveling in the opposite direction. The Käfer--a massively popular and important product of modern technology--is shown moving toward a brilliant horizon at dawn; similarly, Kraftwerk believed that the further evolution of machines would propel human society to promising, unseen levels of existence.
The music of "Autobahn" continues gradually to build, then suddenly dissipates into a momentary silence, immediately beginning again much as it did originally. This careful mounting, abrupt vanishing and direct resumption of sound is repeated three times; indeed, the song is fundamentally a constellation of four variations on a single musical and conceptual theme, which is first established in the base composition developed within the track’s opening six minutes. Each of these four segments begins as would a traditional piece of music, with pleasant melodies and an alternating, complementary vocal arrangement, only later metamorphosing into the effect-filled montages that make "Autobahn" so profoundly unlike other popular recordings of the time.
"Autobahn" is, perhaps more than anything else, a kind of latter-day symphony--a concise, intricate and compelling exploration of the evocative and expressive possibilities of synthetic music. Here, instead of employing numerous human musicians in woodwind, percussion and string sections, Kraftwerk fashion what they have called a "non-acoustic electronic loudspeaker orchestra" (Smaizys WWW) featuring synthetic representations of the sounds of machinery as the primary instruments. Thus they are able to compose a moving sonic portrait, both created from and reflecting a single aspect of the everyday environment in modern industrial societies. "Sometimes we listen to the radio and we also listen to life," Hütter has said, "to noise, or to what people normally regard as noise, which is of course the source for environmental music. If you walk down the street you can hear a symphony if you are open enough to listen to it (Smaizys WWW)."
In contrast to their previous work, which demonstrated the potential value of arrangements integrating both electronic and traditional instrumentation, "Autobahn" signals the start of Kraftwerk’s electronic engineering of modern sound--that is, with this track, they began to experiment with the synthetic creation of new sounds in musical composition, and with the manipulation and imitation of sounds culled from daily life. Here they underscore the many minute, quotidian sounds of driving, integrating this ‘noise’ into the composition. For instance, this sonic journey on the Autobahn is propelled throughout the song by a subtly changing synthetic bass drum, which at various times in the development of the piece resembles either a heartbeat or a diesel engine, a usage later to be assimilated and adapted by English electronic musicians Martin L. Gore and Alan Wilder in the group Depeche Mode (q.v., "Stripped," 0:00-0:21). Earlier composers such as Schaeffer had worked to develop a musique concrete--a kind of music in which tape manipulation is applied to mechanical and natural sounds (q.v. Schaeffer’s 1948 composition Etude aux chemin de fer). Kraftwerk modify this approach to their own ends by, in essence, creating the sounds of nature synthetically within the confines of the studio.
Hütter and Schneider also introduce a device which was to reappear several times in songs about travel and transit--the Doppler effect. In this technique, the movement of a vehicle is suggested by the changing pitch of a sound, moving from left stereo to right or vice versa, as though the listener is within a car or train passing slower horns, sirens and engines outside (9:15-9:37). This clever use of sonic illustration effectively creates a very realistic soundscape for the listener.
"Autobahn" also introduces a concept of inestimable importance in understanding the Kraftwerk Gesamtkunstwerk--the harmonious interaction of man and machine. In utilizing electronic musical instruments, Kraftwerk are able almost subliminally to emphasize the mechanical nature of the entity that makes the journey possible, the automobile itself; this usage also calls attention to the sheer wonder of the highway, a ubiquitous yet nevertheless prodigious example of man’s modern technical ingenuity. These two, seemingly opposite companions--creator and creation, organic and synthetic, living and lifeless--are juxtaposed, highlighting their close interdependence. The listener is encouraged to evaluate this dichotomy, and is challenged to consider the inextricable need one entity has for the other. When describing their roots as part of the "Industrial Generation," Schneider notes that the members of Kraftwerk grew up "very impressed by these machinery rhythms that we use in our music, the mechanical aspects of life. Technology is no enemy to us . . . We also like nature, but you cannot say that technology is any better or worse than nature" (Smaizys WWW). These ‘mechanical aspects of life’--and, conversely, the living aspects of machines--were to become an increasingly crucial part of Kraftwerk’s work.
The second, instrumental side of vinyl editions of Autobahn opens with "Kometenmelodie 1," which introduces themes of astronomy and space into Kraftwerk’s Gesamtkunstwerk. The song’s rising and falling bass synthesizer sounds, coupled with a high-pitched, synthetic whistling, seem to suggest movement through an area of great danger or solitude; rarely has Kraftwerk so effectively expressed dark emotion in their music. The track is immediately followed by "Kometenmelodie 2," which even more than the preceding song pulls the listener into a weightless, mellifluous melody, quite like a comet’s lonely sojourn through the interplanetary vacuum (it is indeed easy to see how Kraftwerk were for so long associated with a loosely defined genre of music dubbed ‘spacerock’). I believe these two songs were together strongly influenced by the attention paid to the passage of Comet Kahoutek in late 1973. Some editions of these songs when released as singles were actually retitled, variously, "Kahoutek Kometen Melodie" and "Kahoutek Melodie", though it is unclear who instigated these revisions (Longmire WWW). Furthermore, many aspects of "Kometenmelodie 2" (e.g., a sudden change in tone from heavy and dank to vibrant and ebullient, and the faint tinkling of chimes like movement through shimmering dust) seem specifically to lend themselves best to an interpretation involving the passage of a comet from behind a planet into the light of a star and the accompanying rush of its stellar wind. These songs continue Kraftwerk’s experimentation with the evocative possibilities of electronic music; they serve ultimately to highlight Kraftwerk’s acute sense of the intuitive beauty of sound. Using imaginative representations of the ‘sounds’ one might hear in space, Kraftwerk are able to bring the listener into an environment which otherwise would be impossible to explore.
The record’s final tracks, "Mitternacht" and "Morgenspaziergang", work in tandem to tell the story of the progression of the hours of the early morning, from the dark, eerie unknown of the night to the brightly lit vibrance of dawn, advancing the sonic depiction of nature initially conceived in the "Kometenmelodie" diptych. The first song features the plunk-plunk-plunk of water droplets as the leading rhythm (a technique that was modified slightly and used again for the percussion in "Spiegelsaal" on the album Trans Europa Express), and, particularly as it flows uninterrupted into the following song, beautifully connotes life in a jungle, with myriad electronically generated sounds of cascading water and bustling wildlife. This electronic splendor is subsequently (and surprisingly) overtaken by the music of traditional woodwinds and stringed instruments--the last time these sounds were to be included on any Kraftwerk release (though Schneider’s flute was retained for some time in live performances). On these tracks, Kraftwerk grapple with the problems inherent in synthetically conveying the feeling of nature, using electronic, and some acoustic, representations of ‘natural’ sounds.
It must be noted that, though intriguing in their innovative use of sonic expression, these two songs, along with the "Kometenmelodie" sequence, were at times given to an unfortunate strain of bombastic musicality--a somewhat histrionic force that at times works to weaken the compositions’ overall impact. It is clear that Kraftwerk were still finding their voice. Nevertheless, Autobahn succeeds as an album, and as a proving ground for future perspectives and techniques, its contribution is invaluable.
Radioaktivität and Elektronenklänge aus dem Radioland
The 1975 recording Radioaktivität was the first of two albums in the Kraftwerk Gesamtkunstwerk to be based around a single underlying concept--in this instance, an evaluation and celebration of the characteristics and potential of power generated by radioactivity and mass communication made possible through radio. Kraftwerk commingle their treatment of these ideas in a way that successfully highlights significant aspects of both phenomena. Today Radioaktivität remains one of the group’s finest musical and conceptual achievements. In its minimalist, often somewhat stylized and avant-garde presentation may be heard evidence of substantial growth within Kraftwerk’s art, and a further maturation of their artistic acumen.
The album opens with "Geigerzähler," a fitting one-minute introduction to the feel and purpose of Radioaktivität. The mechanical pulse of a synthesized geiger counter beats slowly at first, gradually quickening, and soon accompanied by high-pitched static and the faraway din of machinery (0:00-0:37). The rhythm continues to accelerate and is ultimately joined by a different rhythm of the same speed--the base rhythm of the following track, "Radioaktivität." With this aural prolegomenon Kraftwerk are able to intimate simultaneously the rhythmic, musical nature of the approaching work, and the conceptual basis that inspired the sounds--Kraftwerk’s exploration of the place of nuclear energy in modern life. Kraftwerk appropriate the peculiar percussive sounds of the geiger counter to their own expressive ends, endowing it with an innovative and intriguing musicality.
"Geigerzähler" might best be interpreted as the listener’s moving slowly into the realm of the album’s music and ideas--perhaps even into the Kraftwerk itself. The visitor, walking past machines and the sounds they make, is able to perceive through the rhythm of the handheld geiger counter that he is moving closer to an element of power. The growing rapidity of the beat reflects a commensurate quickening in his gait and serves to intensify the listener’s suspense. As this pulsation continues uninterrupted into the following track, it provides a clean, engaging transition from the cacophony and atonality of the outside world into the rigorously regulated composition of sound present within Radioaktivität.
The second track, "Radioaktivität," was tellingly chosen as the song to be released before the album as a single; it effectively encapsulates much of the album’s philosophy, and serves to showcase the artists’ views succinctly. The track opens with the now augmented rhythm from "Geigerzähler," coupling it with the airy whir of a gas jet or escape valve (0:00-0:13). A new rhythm is then added, a sound much like the industrial pound of a riveter. Kraftwerk then introduce the sound of a synthesized, angelic chorus--a singularly affecting assembly of synthetic voices, suggesting the haunting plainsong supplications of a thousand monks. This sonic device provides a clear indication of the reverence with which the artists view the song’s, and album’s, subjects, nuclear power and radio communication; the same sound was later used by English dance music pioneers New Order in their groundbreaking composition "Blue Monday." These disparate aspects of Western life--radioactivity and radio activity--are bound together nicely in the double entendre of the title. For the cover artwork, Kraftwerk chose to use photographs of the front and back of a small, German Kleinempfänger, which, coupled with the text of the album’s title, immediately serves evince the schizoid nature of the recording’s treatment.
Human vocals then begin, alternating with the lilting synthesized melody that carries the composition. This is the first Kraftwerk song to integrate lyrics in both English and German, a technique which emphasizes the universality of these concerns--and of this new music as a possible form of expression--among the peoples of the Western world. The lines which follow cleverly expound upon the two-fold significance of the subject at hand: Hütter sings that radioactivity (and, at the same time, radio activity), ". . . für dich und mich im All entsteht . . . [and] strahlt Wellen zum Empfangsgerät," and was ". . . discovered by Madame Curie." He encourages listeners to ". . . tune in to the melody"--signifying both joining in the collective celebration of radio music transmissions, and becoming more aware of the ‘music’ of radioactivity--the portentous, promising hum of machines powered by nuclear energy. Kraftwerk here focus at once upon the dichotomy of the song’s subjects, as well as their unifying beauty; radioactivity and radio activity are compared and contrasted in the same tolerant, understanding light.
In the course of the song Kraftwerk also extend their previous experimentation with synthetic vocals by delivering some of the lyrics through the uneven tones of morse code. Indeed, some of the first sounds heard are the morse representation of the letters in the English word ‘radioactivity.’ Sometime later an entire verse of the song, quite similar in content to preceding lines, is delivered in morse, which transcribed reads:The call of the last line more explicitly denotes the comparison of radio and power stations alluded to in earlier lines. This ‘morse singing’ expands near the end of the song into a kind of morse duet, in which alternating lines are delivered by slightly modulated morse tones in the left and right stereo channels. The electronic chorus used at the song’s inception is the final sound heard as the music proceeds, again uninterrupted, from "Radioaktivität" into the following track.Radioactivity
Is in the air for you and me
Discovered by Madame Curie
Tune in to the Kraftwerk
"Radioland" also features English and German vocals, both human and synthetic, suggesting the union and interrelation of speech and communication when carried through the ethereal territory of radio waves--this fantastic plane where sounds and voices (as described in the song, "Elektronenklänge aus dem Radioland"), are invisibly transmitted to distant receivers:The placement of this composition immediately after "Radioaktivität" emphasizes Kraftwerk’s dual thematic objective. Within the song, the group employs a synthetic string section to create the soundscape of aural travel within Radioland (0:15-0:39).Drehen wir am Radiophon
Vernehmen wir den Sendeton
Durch Tastendruck mit Blitzesschnelle
Erreichen wir die Kurzewelle . . .
"Ätherwellen," a pleasingly simple song, seems to express the beauty of sending and receiving music and words through the ether; it’s vigorous melody and animated, human repetition of the refrain, "Wenn Wellen schwingen / Ferne Stimmen singen . . . " makes this one of the most accessible and memorable songs in the Kraftwerk repertoire. The most notable sonic effect used in the track comes at the very end--a synthesized, high-pitched, quickly rising and descending tone which eventually fades, seeming to connote the endless passage of radio waves through the atmosphere and out into space. This is followed by the patterned tones of a brief "Sendepause," pointing up the similarities between the album and a live radio transmission (0:00-0:39).
Then begins a series of different, increasingly overlapping recordings of German "Nachrichten", each preceded by synthetic, familiarly generic jingles like those so common in radio broadcasts (0:00-0:41). Only the first lines of the first news story presented are completely intelligible:A swirling, tinkling sound reminiscent of feedback is gradually introduced in the background, a device later employed by Depeche Mode in their piece "Interlude Number Three" (1990). Kraftwerk’s brief, intriguing inclusion of a moment of radio activity about the power of radioactivity underscores at once the convention of the album’s presentation--that it is a radio transmission--and the topicality of the subject of the news, the then highly controversial proliferation of nuclear power plants. At a time when thousands of concerned European citizens were wearing decals and posting signs bearing one of many multilingual translations of a single concept--"Atomkraft? Nein Danke!"--Kraftwerk took the courageous step of handling and, to a minor extent, promoting atomic power in their art (Stubbs 40). Their treatment of the subject is thoughtful, engaging, and above all imbued with a profound respect for nuclear energy. Though in other countries Radioaktivität drew sharp criticism, Hütter noted in a 1991 interview that in Germany, "it was always clear what we were talking about." Germans understood that, rather than simply a glowing, propagandistic ode to radioactivity, their work was also a musical expression of the magic of radios, "radiating the population with information" (Stubbs 41).Hier ist der Westdeutsche Rundfunk mit Nachrichten. Fünfzig
Atomkraftwerke sollen in der Bundesrepublik in den nächsten zehn Jahren aufrichtet werden. Jedes einzelnen kann eine Millionenstadt mit Strom versorgen . . .
"Die Stimme der Energie" then roars in dramatically with the din of factory static and heavy machinery. This track has no music, instead focusing on the spoken words of the deep, almost godlike, synthetic "voice of energy." This delivery goes beyond anthropomorphization, further encompassing a strong affirmation of the power of the machine; Kraftwerk infuse this mechanical voice with a potent, vaguely threatening character, successfully conveying the sometimes preternatural hold mechanization can claim on human life and society. "Die Stimme der Energie" delineates explicitly the value and necessity of the reciprocal exchange of power in the relationship between man and machine.
The following song, "Antenne," revolves around the human-delivered couplet "I’m the antenna, catching vibration / You’re the transmitter, give information!" In these lines Kraftwerk create what is perhaps the first space-age love song--a metaphorical paean to the longing for genuine communication between individuals. It is also, more plainly, an affectionate personification of the equipment and processes involved in the transference of sound through radio waves. Much of the meaning in these words hinges on the fundamental definition of ‘information’: Literally, that which informs, makes whole, or gives being. In the closing lines of the song the couplet is modified slightly, becoming, "I’m the transmitter, I give information / You’re the antenna, catching vibration," indicating an ultimately satisfying union and mutual exchange. Kraftwerk pepper the song with occasional laser effects, maintaining a futuristic, somewhat technological atmosphere throughout the composition. This track, along with other selections from Radioaktivität, were to prove of special importance in the development of the English group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (q.v. "Radio Waves" and "Telegraph" from 1983).
The next track, "Radiosterne," features only human and synthetic vocals accompanied by a repeating, sharply ascending series of synthesized tones (0:00-0:17). The sole lyrics, "Aus des Weltalls Ferne / Funken Radiosterne / Pulsare und Quasare" are intoned hypnotically, the word ‘Sterne’ being continuously looped after it is first sung to provide the track’s only percussion. With this composition Kraftwerk resume the theme of space advanced initially in the "Kometenmelodie" series. With minimalist composition, baritone lyric delivery, and echo-laden voice recording, Kraftwerk in "Radiosterne" imaginatively express the unceasing pulsation through empty space of radio waves from pulsars and quasars.
The slowly fading repetition of ‘Ferne’ continues into "Uran," once again employing the synthetic chorus to impressive effect. This imposing thrust of synthesized sound and a computer voice riddled with static are the only sounds used (0:00-0:12). "Durch stetigen Zerfall / Entstehen radioaktive Stralen aus dem Urankristall," bellows the speaker, calling to mind the majesty and sheer power of radioactive materials both to advance man’s condition and to debilitate him physically.
The final two tracks, "Transistor" and "Ohm Sweet Ohm," act in unison to recall the best qualities of the instrumental pieces from Autobahn. The first begins with the sound of someone’s turning quickly through the stations on a radio dial. Then three synthesizers begin playing a pleasant tune, eventually echoing and seeming to multiply into several instruments, with a single, regular background tone throughout (0:00-0:30). This music fades and is replaced by a computer voice’s intoning the words "Ohm Sweet Ohm" tremulously, invoking an atmosphere of veneration suitable for a hymn. This final track is, quite simply, a work of pure beauty; it is a gorgeously appealing demonstration of the potential of synthetics as a conduit for the communication and exploration of emotion in recorded music.
Trans Europa Express--Wirklichkeit und Postkarten Bilder
As its title suggests, Trans Europa Express offers the listener a panoramic view of life in contemporary Europe (and, by extension, the industrialized West); its songs provide glimpses into several significant and disparate aspects of European society. This 1977 album remains Kraftwerk’s most comprehensive analysis to date of the Western culture and mind. Trans Europa Express is also responsible, perhaps more than any other Kraftwerk album, for creating what one music critic called "a new orthodoxy" in popular music--the almost universal acceptance and adoption of electronic instruments as a part of the modern musical group (Stubbs 40).
The recording opens with the waxing synthetic strain of "Europa Endlos," additional synthesizers being added gradually (0:00-0:24). Then the lyrics, human and synthetic, begin, in tandem working to fashion a general image in the mind of the listener of the European civilization and landscape:Here Kraftwerk seek to evoke an atmosphere of the ideal Europe, more a vague impression of the European experience than an authentic, realistic depiction. The percussion is very regular, unadorned, like the steady cadence of footsteps, perhaps representing the relentlessly progressive march of time. The rhythm, melody, length (over nine and a half minutes) and simple lyrical accompaniment lend the composition the feel of an almost endless music--a characteristic of the synthesizer-driven dance music which, in no small measure due to the influence of the music of Kraftwerk in general and Trans Europa Express in particular, was soon to become one of the most popular genres of contemporary music. This technique infuses the whole of Trans Europa Express with an aura of timelessness, both in that the work is a classic, permanently valid and valuable interpretation of European society, and in that it feels as thought the music might continue without ceasing. The hypnotic, regular pulsation of the rhythm induces a peculiar sensation in the listener--a feeling of introspective peace and serenity. Numerous artists have paid homage to Kraftwerk by integrating this atmosphere and sound engineering technique into their own work; among the best known synthetic musicians following Kraftwerk’s lead is Vince Clarke of the British group Erasure (q.v. their 1995 tribute "Chertsey Endlos").Europa Endlos
Das Leben ist zeitlos
Parks, Paläste und Hotels
Flüsse, Berge und Wälder
Wirklichkeit und Postkarten Bilder
Eleganz und Dekadenz
At the time of the release of Trans Europa Express, the recording’s second track, "Spiegelsaal," seemed somewhat out of place in the Kraftwerk Gesamtkunstwerk; it is only in retrospect, when taken in the context of the entirety of Kraftwerk’s art, that the song’s significance may be fully understood. It is a minimalist piece, carried rhythmically by the very realistic, electronically generated sound of footsteps--a sonic expression of the sojourn of the song’s only character through the hall of mirrors (0:00-0:22). Its lyrics, among the finest in the Kraftwerk oeuvre, establish for the first time a theme which was to prove of lasting importance within Kraftwerk’s art:This song is one of few Kraftwerk pieces which analyzes exclusively human psychology and behavior, avoiding treatment of man’s relationship with the machines he creates. This compelling, revealing discussion of image and its effect on behavior and the mind represents an unprecedented, very human exploration for Kraftwerk. Here they expose the psyche of a star, this person who is popularly perceived as a kind of model individual, plainly recognizing his imperfections and basic humanity. This idea of the importance of personal image was echoed in the album’s cover art, which featured two photographs of the members of Kraftwerk, so painstakingly composed that they resemble promotional shots of celebrities from Hollywood film studios.Der junge mann trat eines Tages in einen Spiegelsaal
Und entdeckte eine Spiegelung seines Selbst
Sogar die größten Stars
Entdecken sich selbst im Speigelglas
Manchmal sah er sein wirkliches Gesicht
Und manchmal einen Fremden, den kannte er nicht
Sogar die größten Stars
Finden ihr Gesicht im Spiegelglas
Manchmal verliebte er sich in seinem Speigelbild
Und dann wiederum sah er ein Wahnbild
Sogar die größten Stars
Mögen sich nicht im Spiegelglas
Er schuf die Person, die er sein wollte
Und wechselte in einer neuen Persönlichkeit
Sogar die größten Stars
Verändern sich selbst im Spiegelglas
Die Künstler lebt
Mit dem Echo seines Selbst
Sogar die größten Stars
Machen sich zurecht im Spiegelglas
Sogar die größten Stars
Leben ihr Leben im Spiegelglas
The following track, "Schaufensterpuppen," provided a thought-provoking exploration of the possibility of the extension of man’s creations beyond the limitations originally placed upon them:Here, Kraftwerk metaphorically express the potential of a greater existence for the products of man’s labor and intellect, using an inanimate object familiar to every Western individual. It is the showroom dummies’ lack of life that is most important in fulfilling Kraftwerk’s lyrical objective. Kraftwerk calls the listener’s attention to the absolute ubiquity of technology in modern life, and to the important questions posed by this unprecedented development; for example, when will engineers and scientists produce the first computer capable of basic cognitive thought similar to that of human beings? What would happen if the tools we so often take for granted, the commonplace products of man’s technical experience and knowledge, were to one day assume a will of their own? How will man interact with and respond to a feeling computer? Kraftwerk in "Schaufensterpuppen" recognize that the blinding pace of technological and scientific advancement makes these issues no longer the exclusive, conceptual domain of science fiction writers. This track encourages the reader to contemplate the fast approaching day when today’s most imaginative stories become reality.Wir stehen herum
Und stellen uns aus
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir werden beobachtet
Und wir spüren unserem Puls
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir blicken uns um
Und wechseln die Pose
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir bewegen uns
Und wir brechen das Glas
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir treten heraus
Und streifen durch die Stadt
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen
Wir gehen in den Klub
Und wir fangen an zu tanzen
Wir sind Schaufensterpuppen . . .
The following track, "Trans Europa Express," was released as the single for the album. In the United States, it quickly became the most influential Kraftwerk track on the exploding urban music scene . It’s most famous usage was as the basis for Afrika Bambaataa’s groundbreaking electronic funk composition "Planet Rock." As with "Autobahn," Kraftwerk here employ the Doppler effect to express movement through sound (4:55-5:21). The rhythm of "Trans Europa Express" is continued in the following track, "Metall auf Metall," an exploration of the limits of using synthetic drums as an element of composition. This song is pure rhythm, and it deeply influenced the work of future artists, among them Alan Wilder (q.v. the 1991 composition "The Defector").
The album closes with "Franz Schubert," an instrumental in the vein of "Ohm Sweet Ohm," and "Endlos Endlos," a brief reprise of the recording’s first song. This effectively brings the album full circle, emphasizing the infinite nature of the work as a whole. Though at times so progressive (and aggressive) that its dense percussion and melodies can, to some at least, seem inaccessible, Trans Europa Express offers the receptive listener a rich, undeniably and uniquely modern musical experience.
Die Mensch Maschine, Halb-Wesen und Halb-Überding
Die Mensch Maschine is perhaps Kraftwerk’s finest work. The album compendiously describes Kraftwerk’s perspectives on many of the most insightful and incisive tenets of their collective philosophy. Though the cover art seems to convey what Bartos recognized as a "strong paramilitary image" reminiscent of the visual style of Russian Constructivism (Bussy 100), the album’s lyrical content omits discussion of such aggressive themes, instead focusing on innovative conceptions of the robot, the model, and other seminal aspects of modern industrial societies.
The first track, "Die Roboter," is driven by a high-pitched rhythm reminiscent of the shooting of bolts into metal by an automaton in an assembly line (0:00-0:24). The melody’s sparse notes are played regularly, robotically, with no humanizing variation. The only aspect of the composition not to suggest that it is being played by a robot of the era is the swiftly rolling undercurrent of synthetic bass. The distinctively human character of this aspect of the song was perhaps designed to engage the listener--to act as a bridge between the understanding of the human mind and the rigidly logical functioning of the machine.
"Die Roboter" is third in the series of interrelated works that began with "Schaufensterpuppen" and "Spiegelsaal." The song bears numerous thematic similarities to the preceding compositions, though, significantly, it doesn’t encompass any treatment of rebellion or change of any kind in the subject’s position; the track acts merely as an intriguing exposition of the place of the robot in the modern Western world. The exclusively electronic vocals, used to give machinery its own voice as done previously in "Die Stimme der Energie," deliver lyrics here in a singing voice which perfectly complements the melody:In this work Kraftwerk speak from the perspective of the robot itself, underscoring the robot’s role as an indispensable co-worker and companion in modern industrial production. Kraftwerk’s use of the word ‘slave’ in the song’s computer-generated Russian lines (which, translated, announce, "I, your slave; I, your robot") serve furthermore to personify this technology, compelling the listener to consider the robotic products of human engineering with a sense of compassion and respect.Wir laden unsere Batterie
Jetzt sind wir voller Energie
Wir sind die Roboter
Wir funktionieren automatik
Jetzt wollen wir tanzen mechanik
Wir sind die Roboter
Wir sind auf alles programmiert
Und was du willst wird ausgeführt
The following song "Spacelab" opens with the distant clatter of bolts firing, like clamps being released from a rocket’s fuselage just before liftoff (0:00-0:13). The launch itself is suggested by rapidly rising tones, repeated and quickened continuously until they scintillate into a high-pitched series of synthesized waves, connoting the mindbending speed of a spacecraft in orbit. Perhaps even more important than this resumption of the theme of space (expanded here to reflect the pivotal role played by machines and computers in the exploration of space by humans) is Kraftwerk’s innovative recognition and exposition of the electronic musical instrument’s ability to transmute sound into new, entirely unique variations, completely different from the original version, by specially modulating and manipulating its pitch and tempo. The ascending series of tones heard initially which were soon transformed into the dazzlingly fast currents of sound that so effectively suggest motion were created by modifying the original notes electronically in a technique beyond the realm of possibilities of traditional, acoustic instrumentation and performance (4:05-4:23). Kraftwerk here explicitly demonstrate the place of sonic treatment devices in the creative recording of synthetically produced music.
The curiously futuristic atmosphere of "Spacelab" is maintained in "Metropolis," which may be most profitably interpreted as an imaginative musical representation of cities to come, rather than of the industrial, burgeoning metropolises of the contemporary West (0:00-1:19). In this song, Kraftwerk compose what would have been the ideal musical accompaniment to Lang’s silent masterpiece of the same name. Here Kraftwerk seek to document aurally an urban experience, capturing the essence of what music such an environment might contain. As once described by Hütter, this technique of expression is based on a particular way of encountering and processing sound: "I like to wander around and hear music environmentally, coming out of the loudspeaker at a cafe or a club. I don’t listen to music at home, I make music in the studio" (Witter 23). Kraftwerk are able to translate the disorder of the environmental music they hear into an accessible work of art and beauty, as on "Metropolis."
"Das Modell," Kraftwerk’s most successful single commercially, resumes to some extent the thematic undercurrent of "Spiegelsaal," "Schaufensterpuppen" and "Die Roboter," shifting and expanding its focus considerably. Here Kraftwerk once again investigate the phenomenon of celebrity, now exploring the general public’s opinion of people popularly taken as paradigms of behavior and being. Kraftwerk compare these models and the function they serve (primarily by context as a part of this album and, somewhat more obliquely, through the exclusively human vocals) to the robot and its duties. The lyrics read:The model is viewed by the speaker as an object, something less than a human being. She is used for her beauty in the selling of products much as a robot is used in the fabrication of them, though her methods are immeasurably subtler. In the great Western assembly lines that churn out a neverending line of consumer goods, this automaton of sorts has the final and most important duty--ensuring that people purchase the items manufactured. She has the responsibility of driving the movement that turns the other cogs in the vast corporate machine.Sie ist ein Modell, und sie sieht gut aus
Ich nehme sie heut’ gerne mit zu mir nach Haus’
Sie wirkt so kühl, und sie kommt niemand ‘ran
Doch vor der Kamera da zeigt sie, was sie kann
Sie trinkt im Nachtklub immer Sekt (korrekt)
Und hat hier alle Männer abgecheckt
Im Scheinwerferlicht ihr junges Lächeln strahlt
Sie sieht gut aus and Schönheit wird bezahlt
Sie stellt sich zu Schau für das Konsumprodukt
Und wird von Millionen Augen ausgeguckt
Ihr neues Titelbild ist einfach fabelhaft
Ich muß sie wiedersehen, ich weiß sie hat’s geschafft
"Neonlicht" acts as counterpart and continuation of the spirit of "Metropolis," extolling the beautifully iridescent, electronically-generated illumination of the modern cityscape:The vocals are delivered by Hütter; they express a joyous celebration of the machine’s potential to brighten the dark night of the city with resplendent electric colors.Neonlicht
Und wenn die Nacht anbricht
Ist diese Stadt aus Licht
The album ends with "Die Mensch Maschine," a song with lyrics sufficiently brief and ambiguous to allow for several possible interpretations:One might contend that these lines serve as an ode to the good resulting from interaction between man and machine--to the interaction that leads to the existence of a kind of ‘man-machine,’ a being, functionality and awareness at once mechanical and organic. This conception of the lyrics’ meaning holds that, more than a being itself, the man-machine is a state of being--a metaphysical entity that exists in the interconnectedness between man and machine. This relationship would manifest itself in an author’s writing with or communicating through a computer, an automotive worker’s installing the tires on a car with a high-powered tool, a disabled man’s speaking through the technology of computers sensitive to eye movement, and a more fundamental interaction, one Hütter himself has cited: The riding of a bicycle (Bussy 134). This being is superior to either human or machine (an Überding) in that it integrates the power of both, thus amplifying the ability of the whole. Even in the earliest interviews Hütter describes Kraftwerk itself very fittingly as a "Mensch Maschine" (Townley 20; Bussy 117)--the tight interplay among its members and their electronic instruments is, indeed, the creative basis behind the Kraftwerk Gesamtkunstwerk. In keeping with this perspective is Hütter’s remark that digital data storage technologies, such as the computer programs Kraftwerk now use to archive their library of sounds, act "like an expansion of your own memory" (Sinker WWW).Die Mensch Maschine
Halb Wesen und halb Ding
Die Mensch Maschine
Halb Wesen und halb Überding.
Hütter has commented that within Kraftwerk, "We play the machines and the machines play us; it really is the exchange and the friendship we have with the musical machines which make us build a new music" (Bussy 96). Popular music critic Lester Bangs extends this description, observing that "the machines . . . absorb them, until the scientist and his technology, having developed a higher consciousness of its own, are one and the same" (Nagel 129). "Die Mensch Maschine" affords Kraftwerk’s most potent and insightful expression of this theme.
Another understanding of the lyrics’ meaning would involve the future existence of an electronically enhanced human being, a more literal "man-machine," which in actuality is half-human and half-thing. Proponents would argue that this type of new man exists today to some extent; the modern technology forged by physicians and engineers has, for example, made possible the implantation in human beings of pacemakers, a now-commonplace device that saves thousands of lives each year. In the future, it might be possible to fashion entire, flawlessly operational artificial limbs and organs for babies with birth defects or victims of disease or major accidents. These people might indeed be halb Wesen und halb Ding, and the quality of their lives would be attributable exclusively to technology.
Computerwelt--Kontrollieren und Komponieren
Computerwelt is Kraftwerk’s most stunningly prescient album to date. It’s seven tracks provide the group’s most comprehensive exploration of the place of computer technology in modern life and society; as on Radioaktivität, Kraftwerk limit their focus on Computerwelt so as to completely explore a single theme. It is also contains some of Kraftwerk’ most influential musical pieces; many of the innovative synthetic rhythms and melodies it contains were to reappear later on seminal rap and rhythm and blues compositions.
"Computerwelt," the opening track, acts as an optimistic yet realistic analysis of the potential uses of computers in information transfer, collection and control. "Interpol und Deutsche Bank, FBI und Scotland Yard . . . Flensburg und das BKA [Bundeskanzleramt] haben unsere Daten da" sings Hütter in a low-key, contemplative tone, later changing "Flensburg" to "Finanzamt" (0:00-0:36). Here Kraftwerk contend with the increasing role computers were playing in data storage and transmission at that time, particularly in financial and forensic areas. Though content merely to recognize this trend, their use of a litany of such influential (and intimidating) Western organizations lends the song a heavy, suspicious tone very much in keeping with a concurrent popular apprehension regarding the German central police file based in Wiesbaden (Bussy 112). Unlike the assertions of some critics, "Computerwelt" does not signify Kraftwerk’s advocation of the use of computer technology for greater social control; instead, it simply calls the listener’s attention to several facets of this important phenomenon.
Hütter’s vocal alternates with that of a computer, which plainly intones a series of the elements of computer information and its primary uses: "Nummern. Zahlen. Handel. Leute . . . Reisen. Zeit. Medizin. Unterhaltung." The first four elements work with the series sung by Hütter to suggest the further use of computers in monetary transaction and administration; the following four, however, demonstrate Kraftwerk’s recognition of the undeniably positive capacity of this new technology for the enhancement of the quality of life. Computer long-distance transmissions save innumerable hours of travel time, leaving workers the leisure time to travel more extensively for recreation. Computers also serve to improve greatly doctors’ and hospitals’ diagnostic capabilities. The final element of the list is perhaps the most meaningful for today’s computer use; computers are now a ubiquitous part of film and television production, sometimes providing the technological basis that makes the work possible.
Furthermore, computer use is now more than ever before a form of entertainment itself. Digital entities such as the Internet and World Wide Web entertain millions of computer users, linking individuals around the world with unprecedented immediacy and versatility. Web publishing makes possible the unmoderated exchange of ideas thorough text, imagery and sound among people thousands of miles apart; for the first time, anyone with the proper equipment is able to present their personal ideas and perspectives instantaneously to a global audience. Because it so uncannily foreshadows these developments, "Computerwelt" represents Kraftwerk’s art at its most tersely descriptive and potently insightful.
Track two, "Taschenrechner," heralds the coming explosion of portable digital technology, which only then was becoming a prominent area of growth in computer research and development. The miniature electronics contained in the pocket calculator eliminated the need for the brobdingnag calculators of previous years. Kraftwerk here investigate the surprising capabilities of this unassuming instrument, which at the time was sometimes offered with a novelty function--that of a modern-day musicbox. "Ich bin der Musikant mit Taschenrechner in der Hand," sings Hütter, nonchalantly establishing a new, curious relationship between a ‘musician’ and the ‘instrument’ with which he makes music. He describes further the role of the calculator’s user:Here Kraftwerk explore the magic of a computer’s performing programmed music at the control of the user, a technology which would later lead to the availability of conveniently portable synthesizers--a boon to the electronic music culture Kraftwerk helped engender. Hütter later commented that the popularization of synthesizers was to him the most significant technological development to take place during Kraftwerk’s career (Sinker WWW).Ich addiere
Und komponiere . . .
Und wenn ich diese Taste drück’
Speilt er ein kleines Musikstück . . .
Kraftwerk then employ the language of computers--numbers--as rhythm and vocals in "Nummern," a track which emphasizes implicitly through its creative repetition and arrangement of electronically generated, multilingual names of numbers the importance of numbers in computer function and usage. A synthetic voice’s even, sequential repetition of the numbers one through eight in German provides the song’s base rhythm, later enhanced and expanded with computer readings of numbers in English, Italian and Japanese (0:00-0:24). This multilingual delivery suggests the universality of computer data transmission thorough the communicative constant of numbers, a fundamental part of all computer technology. The German-language base rhythm of "Nummern" is maintained as the driving beat of a reprise of "Computerwelt," called "Computerwelt 2." This song pairs the percussive strengths of "Nummern" with the appealing melody of "Computerwelt," further expounding upon the necessity of mathematics in computer operation. The track closes with the almost unintelligible utterance by a computer-generated voice of an uninterrupted series of numbers in the millions and billions, each number spoken so quickly that it is exceedingly difficult for the human ear to discern individual figures. This device successfully suggests the light-speed movement of computer data transmission.
"Computerliebe," the fifth song, is one of Kraftwerk’s most poignant and meaningful compositions. The German version of the lyrics reads as follows:This is an expression of human loneliness, the repetition of lines reflecting the monotony and tedium of an unfulfilled existence. Beyond this assertion Kraftwerk’s ideas are somewhat unspecified, allowing for two plausible interpretations of the work.Ich bin allein, mal wieder ganz allein
Starr’ auf dem Fernsehschirm, starr’ auf dem Fernsehschirm
Auf heute noch nichts zu tun, auf heute noch nichts zu tun,
Ich brauch ein Rendezvous, ich brauch ein Rendezvous . . .
Ich wähl die Nummer, ich wähl die Nummer
Rufe Bildschirmtext, rufe Bildschirmtext
Auf Heute noch nichts zu tun, auf heute noch nichts zu tun
Ich brauch ein Rendezvous, ich brauch ein Rendezvous . . .
In one, a lonesome human searches for companionship through a computer network linking individuals; this interpretation ascribes to the song an impressive prescience, since that type of computer-based communication would not be realized for more than a decade. This understanding of the lyrics is supported by a line from the English version "Computer Love," which reads, "I call this number, call this number / For a data date . . ." Kraftwerk here expose the computer’s potential as an additional avenue of communication between people, foreshadowing the proliferation of phenomena such as electronic mail and computer dating services.
The second interpretation involves a more literal (and revolutionary) conception of Computerliebe--that a computer can love or can be loved. Though the comparatively primitive technology available at the time of this album’s creation (and, for that matter, today) eliminate any possibility that a computer might be capable of emotion, "Computerliebe" poses many of the same questions as did "Schaufensterpuppen" regarding the evolution of the cognitive capabilities of machines.
The following song "Heimcomputer," like "Taschenrechner," explores the potential of another new form of digital technology. The track’s simple refrain--"I program my home computer / Beam myself into the future"--conveys Kraftwerk’s infectious sense of joy at witnessing the incredible advancements being made in the world of computer design. Programming a computer is, in a very real sense, being transported into the future; creating new software functions and applications and expressing personal thoughts and ideas through technology is one of the facets of computer use which Kraftwerk find so promising and stimulating. Indeed, they cite the creation of new software, hardware and electronics as a pivotal aspect of their Gesamtkunstwerk (Dee WWW). This song, though, is most notable for the beautiful musicality with which Kraftwerk convey an impression of the inner workings of computers. Towards the middle of the piece, ascending and repeating synthesized notes in the right stereo channel introduce the listener to an aural, interpretive journey thorough the inner space of computer electronics (3:19-3:51). This series of notes is echoed continuously in the left channel, resulting in distant, angelic music, suggesting the rapidity and fluency with which electrons flow through a computer’s circuits. Later a faint tinkling, like the contact of crystal glasses, fittingly extends this exploration of the sounds of computer function. Here Kraftwerk express the melodious, harmonious possibilities inherent in the unique music made by computers.
The proliferation of personal computer technology is reflected in the album’s cover art, which on the front of the sleeve contains a picture of a machine like the TRS-80--an early computer design integrating a monitor and alphanumeric keyboard in a single desktop console. On the computer’s screen appear head shots of the members of Kraftwerk, along with the group’s name and the word Computerwelt. Featured on the reverse is a photograph of what appear to be the robotic counterparts of the members of Kraftwerk, strongly resembling Schaufensterpuppen, working together at large consoles. This image introduces a seminal aspect of Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Hütter insists that within Kraftwerk:
We are like any other workers. We make a product which we call industrial Volksmusik. We do not believe in personal cult status. If you buy a car, you don’t need to know anything about the people who built it to enjoy driving it (Dee WWW).
The assertion that the members of Kraftwerk are musical workers stems largely from the influence of the Bauhaus school, which sought to unify the vision of the artist with the skill and expertise of the craftsman (Nagel 128). Kraftwerk’s first use of mechanical figures resembling those on the cover of Computerwelt took place during the launch of Die Mensch Maschine, when the robots performed concerts simultaneously in Paris and New York (Petley 2312). The cover of Computerwelt contains the first of many images of Kraftwerk’s mechanical Doppelgänger to be featured in their graphic art.
"It’s More Fun To Compute" closes the album with what was to become one of the most ‘sampled’ synthesized melodies (that is, copied and used as a sound in other composers’ songs) in American urban music (0:03-0:12). The distinctive two-note strain of electronic violins that punctuates the song’s opening was subsequently used by several rap artists in early songs of that genre. The track’s title was a modification of the logo used on a popular electronic gaming machine, which read, "It’s More Fun To Compete." In this song Kraftwerk recognize that it was, indeed, a much more entertaining experience to use the computers of that time, thanks to the considerable advances made in previous years. For the first time, computer games were becoming a widely available, popular form of recreation; machines like the Atari and Coleco home electronic game systems were bringing the technology of leisure computers, previously available only as enormous consoles in arcades, to the living rooms of millions of homes in the industrialized world.
Electric Cafe and Techno Pop
Kraftwerk’s most recent recording of original music continues and refines several themes treated in preceding works, and also introduces new ideas and sounds to the Kraftwerk repertoire. Though impressive in its attractive musicality and potent ideological content, Electric Cafe was nevertheless a surprisingly sparse offering from what had become one of the world’s most creative and highly respected groups of musicians.
The opening three tracks, together occupying the first side of vinyl editions, demonstrate Kraftwerk’s appreciative recognition of the adoption of many of their composition and recording techniques by musicians in contemporary American rhythm and blues and urban music. In "Boing Boom Tschak," they appropriate and adapt the style of rhythm used by the ‘human beatboxes’ popular in early rap music; here Kraftwerk employ a computer-generated man’s voice as the central percussion, modulating and manipulating the sounds beyond the range of any human’s voice. Whereas the original rap artists used heavily affected breathing and speaking to fashion new kinds of rhythm, Kraftwerk enhance and amplify this process, taking it to entirely new levels, by exploring those possibilities via the preternatural capabilities of new music technology. Though the composition does feature very sparse, melodious synthetic strains, these are clearly secondary in importance to the relentlessly progressive man-machine rhythm driving the music.
"Boing Boom Tschak" includes only one line of intelligible words, delivered by, for the first time, male and female machine voices: "Music non stop, techno pop." The words ‘music non stop’ invoke the theme of endlessness in music first explicitly advanced on Trans Europa Express, here conveyed and expressed with equal if not superior success. The mindnumbing swirls of rhythm, along with the monotonous, deep bassline and vibrant accent drumming serve to lend the track a feeling of endless continuity--an atmosphere of timelessness and permanence that has a profound effect upon many listeners. This idea is carried seamlessly into the next composition, appropriately titled "Techno Pop."
Within this second installment of the Techno Pop sequence, the repetition of the lyric "music non stop, techno pop" is resumed and supplemented by the album’s first human vocals:The initial couplet clearly refers--for the first time in Kraftwerk’s Gesamtkunstwerk--to the contents of the music itself, though it also works well as a further expression of the musicality Kraftwerk finds in the sounds of industrial machinery. The following four lines emphasize the endlessness of the music, and its potential as a transmitter of ideas, a theme which recalls "Radioaktivität." This idea is maintained and augmented in the final couplet, which brings together the concepts introduced in the preceding lines. Only "Nummern" is characterized by a more multilingual method of presentation, though in that case words of many languages were used more as a rhythmic device than as traditional lyrics. In "Techno Pop," however, Kraftwerk employ the three languages to underscore the universality of the effects of musical sound, and to illustrate the worldwide, cross-cultural appeal of this type of music.Synthetic, electronic sound
Industrial rhythms all around . . .
La música ideas portará
Y siempre continuará
Décibel sintético . . .
Es muß weiter geh’n
Musik konstruiere von Ideen . . .
The series of songs closes with "Musique Non Stop," which serves as a pleasant continuation of previous musical ideas. It features only a female computer voice saying "Musique Non Stop." This track affords a very engaging, danceable finish to the album’s first side, and a further expression of the endlessness in modern dance music explicitly underscored in the song’s title.
The reverse side of vinyl editions of Electric Cafe commences with "Der Telefon Anruf," one of the finest examples of Kraftwerk’s ability to compose flawless, innovative traditional popular songs. It brilliantly demonstrates the capacity within techno pop for new, inventive expression of classic themes. The hallmark of the song is Kraftwerk’s ingenious use of the sounds and voices heard in using a telephone, from touch tones and dial tones to busy signals and recorded operator instructions. These are integrated seamlessly into the music, highlighting and enhancing the song’s lyrical and musical content.
Karl Bartos’ lyric delivery is likely the most animated, and beautiful, of any Kraftwerk track. The lines recount a story of failed communication, the longing for contact which is impossible:Following the lyric delivery, the recorded voices of many operators are heard saying, "We’re sorry, your international call cannot be completed as dialed . . . " and "The number you have reached has been disconnected . . ." Werckmeister points out that the use of these recordings together with the lyrics seems to suggest a breakdown in the communications infrastructure (145); I believe this usage signals a physical, technological manifestation of a very human awkwardness or general ineptitude in interpersonal communication.I give you my affection and I give you my time
Try to get a connection on the telephone line . . .
You’re so close, but far away
I call you up all night and day . . .
"Der Telefon Anruf" is followed by "Sex Objekt" which, like "Schaufenster-puppen" and "Das Modell," originally seemed most out of place in Kraftwerk’s oeuvre; however, "Sex Objekt" is last song Kraftwerk released to continue the theme first expressed in those earlier compositions. The song opens with the exasperated, reverberating synthetic interjections of a computer: "Yes! No! / Yes! No!" Hütter then delivers English lines somewhat reminiscent of "Das Modell," but now the ideas and comments seem to originate from the model’s perspective:The remainder of the song features male and female computer voices saying various words, both enhancing the thematic content of the track and adding to the rhythm: "No! Why? Yes. / Maybe. Perhaps . . . Yes! / Vielleicht, warum . . . doch! " Then, as on "Techno Pop," Spanish lyrics are introduced by human vocalists: "No, sí, si quieres . . . Por qué? No. Quizás . . . A lo mejor." (An alternate, Spanish-language version of this song, titled "Objeto Sexual," appeared on the edition of Electric Cafe released in Spanish-speaking countries.)I don’t want to be
Your sex object
Show some feeling
I don’t want to be
Your sex object
I’ve had enough
And that’s a fact . . .
These conflicting interjections seem to suggest the continual capriciousness of the public. Kraftwerk here are able artistically and musically to convey a plaintive entreaty from a popular ‘sex object’--but, by ‘sex object,’ the group means more than what is popularly understood by the term. This person, male or female, is used as is "Das Modell" for a certain quality, perhaps beauty, talent, or intelligence. And like "Das Modell," this person is a thinking, feeling, unique individual, who needs but rarely receives genuine respect. In this way, "Das Modell" and the "Sex Objekt" are very clearly like another entity often given a voice in Kraftwerk’s music--the machine. "You turn me on then you forget," sings Hütter some moments later in a brief modification of the lyrics; though the most familiar meaning of this line involves human sexual stimulation, the words could very easily refer to activating and then ignoring a piece of hardware. "Sex Objekt" is one of Kraftwerk’s most provocative treatments of this theme.
The album closes with "Electric Cafe," a song which recalls the predictive nature of Computerwelt. The composition’s Spanish, French and English lyrics are the main focus, emphasizing again the place of new music as an avenue of communication for the peoples of the world:An intriguing addition to Kraftwerk’s previous subject matter is the mentioning of "L’art politique," perhaps included due to Kraftwerk’s being denied permission to perform in concert in East Germany: "The government refused us . . . We play electronic music, we use computers. The only ones who had access to computers were the secret police, and the influence we could have had on the people was seen as dangerous" (Dee WWW). Otherwise, these lines fit well with earlier works in the Gesamtkunstwerk, even recognizing ours as the atomic age, as had been emphasized implicitly on Radioaktivität.Musique rythmique
A l’age atomique . . .
De la era atómica . . .
The cover of Electric Cafe is the first of Kraftwerk’s visual creations to be produced exclusively though computer technology. On the front are graphic representations of the busts of the members of Kraftwerk, suggesting an updating of the image presented on the computer screen in the art for Computerwelt. This parallel with Kraftwerk’s earlier cover art is continued on the reverse, which features linear, geometrical outlines of the members working at consoles.
Though at the time of the album’s release the worldwide community was closely interconnected with radio, television, telephone and satellite transmissions, and the use of computers and electronics in the creation of art both musical and visual was already growing at a rapid pace, today the intercontinental electric cafe thrives thanks to unprecedented levels of computer-based communication and artistic expression. This electronic, synthetic union among nations has always been a key concern in Kraftwerk’s art. Hütter explains: "We have always played in different situations, in different countries, different cultures . . . . Electronic music really is a world language, it is the music of the global village" (Bussy 119). Electric Cafe as a whole, more so than most any other Kraftwerk recording, has particular significance for today’s listeners.
Electric Cafe was followed in 1991 by Kraftwerk’s most recent album, The Mix, a collection of previously released Kraftwerk songs all newly rerecorded and beautifully updated to reflect the many changes that had taken place in music technology and production. With The Mix, Kraftwerk demonstrated that the endlessness they had so often expressed in their music could be extended to the reworking of their art as well; indeed, The Mix underscored one of the unique strengths of their Gesamtkunstwerk--that the music can be revised and refined continuously, without end, so that it might always be in harmony with the latest advancements in science and art. Maintaining this singularly contemporary relevance has always been of great importance to Kraftwerk. Hütter has even suggested that Kraftwerk’s music may one day be remade without the active, collaborative input of those who first composed it:We have transferred to digital all our sounds, all our memory, all the old tapes which were demagnetizing, and we have changed all the original sounds into digital format in the memory of the computer. Now all the Kraftwerk encyclopaedia is at our disposal, a complete catalogue. And one day when we have stopped or died . . . someone else will be able to continue with these ideas and sounds and make new compositions" (Bussy 162).
In The Mix, Kraftwerk redefine the concept of immortality through art by providing that their emotions and ideas may be reexpressed in new and different ways, even when the group itself has ceased to create. Though certainly not the last of Kraftwerk’s recordings, The Mix is at once a compelling culmination of some twenty years of relentless evolution and progress in the development of a new music, and a promising intimation of the sounds and compositions yet to come. As Hütter noted in 1975, "There is no beginning or end in music. Some people want it to end. But it goes on" (Townley 20).
Primary Works Cited
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