Above: Folk musicians touring the European countryside by bicycle. Photograph Roger-Viollet /Rex Features
The following was originally published in the LAWeekly on June 2, 2005…
Man-Machines of Loving Grace
by Jay Babcock
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
—from “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan
Next Tuesday, German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk will perform in Los Angeles for the first time since their now-legendary show at the Hollywood Palladium in 1996. That concert drew an appreciative, astoundingly diverse cross-genre audience: indie-rock nerds and art-school casualties, computer-programming geeks and hip-hop heads, synth freaks and industrial goths, every laptop musician west of the Colorado and — oh yes! — breakdancers. Machines, it seems, had succeeded in uniting humans.
It’s impossible to overstate Kraftwerk’s influence on pop music and culture over the last 30 years, from new wave to hip-hop, electronica to (yawn) Coldplay (who use the riff from “Computer Love” on their new song, “Talk”). We all know Kraftwerk songs — odes to transportation like “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express,” future/now manifestoes like “Man/Machine” and “The Robots” — but it’s in the live context, where the songs are joined to specially designed graphics, that Kraftwerk achieves a purity of all-encompassing vision that secular music rarely touches. It’s all about rapture, and an interaction with — or longing for — a relationship with something other than human.
On the telephone, Ralf Hutter — co-founder of Kraftwerk with Florian Schneider, and now approaching 60 years of age — is helpful and deliberate, like a professor pleased to have a visitor who’s interested in his research on an obscure subject.
Q: There’s a bumper sticker that says “Drum machines have no soul.” Do you think that is true?
RALF HUTTER: It depends on who is programming. [Chuckles.] It sounds to me like a sticker from the ’70s, “Kraftwerk is anti-music” or “Synthesizers have no feelings.” It sounds very old-fashioned. It’s all in the interaction between man and machine. That’s what Kraftwerk is all about: the harmony between man and machine.
Would you consider the Kraftwerk concept to be basically optimistic about the relationship between man and machine?
Yes. It is about showing possibilities and limitations of possibilities. And also dynamics. I think there’s a lot of energy in our music, at least that’s what I feel, and we get that feedback from the different cultural communities where we’ve been playing the last year, from Moscow to Santiago, Chile, from Sydney to America. We’ve been playing in Miami, in November, so I think it’s nowadays in the world community.
When you play this show at the Greek, you’ll be performing almost in nature, under the stars: the machine in the garden. Do you see that as a contradiction?
Yes, but I think that’s okay. We’ve been performing in different cultural contexts. We played a tribal gathering in England that was in the countryside in tents. In Italy, we will play outside in the old city center. We played on the Lido in Venice. In Moscow, at Sports Palais. So it’s like a little spaceship landed somewhere and we present our performance.
There’s an almost universal fascination with machines and computers, but at the same time, isn’t there a cultural fear of the future, of machines taking over? A fear of cyborgs?
This has to do with social structures and who is operating the machines. But it’s the same with all machinery from simple tools to . . .
Since the wheel, I guess.
Yes . . . since the fire may be made to prepare food, or to burn your enemy’s house down. It’s all to do with social behavior.
What do you think about artificial intelligence? Do you think it’s possible that a machine can become sentient?
Well, maybe. People are working on certain things, but by doing so I think, as far as I know, they discover the complexity of the human brain. Lately, we have been doing basic work on more random — or subconscious? — music. Composing, not by chance, well, like we say sometimes: We play the machines, and sometimes the machines play us. It’s interaction, to be relaxing and enjoying the rhythm, like driving your car, or leaning back and having your friend drive a little bit, leaning back and enjoying the movements. Also we have the same feeling with bicycling. It’s the same with music. But also with music, maybe music during the concert, I have the feeling sometimes it’s best when it plays itself. We have the computers running and we can interfere, and sometimes we let the computers keep on going. Then you feel like going Ah! I want to do something here. And we interact again. So it’s in and out.
Last year’s “Tour de France” album was Kraftwerk’s first new music in many years —
In the ’70s, we just stayed in the studio and worked out the concept albums. But now, with the new Kraftwerk mobile laptop setup, we can perform the music live and keep the man-machine dynamic. And it’s multimedia. It’s very visual. We have created, ourselves or working with others, these electronic paintings and computer graphics and electronic images that are synchronized with the music.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked with engineers who build instruments, who build computers, like Ludwig Rehberg, the EMS-Synthi guy who helped with the Vocoders.
Florian did that, yes. And also engineers, Florian was very good in persuading, because we couldn’t afford, and then another programming engineer from University computers — Florian persuaded him to write speech programs for him at night. We’ve always had scientists and friends helping us out. Because especially in the early days, things were unaffordable for us. The big computers, they were with Bell Laboratories, or IBM, or the Speech Voices were with Bell. So we organized, we got access to certain sounds, and always I say, when I bought my first synthesizer, it was the same price as my gray Volkswagen, which later was on the Autobahn cover. Today it’s much easier to get access, now that we have 35 years of work behind us. We even test-pilot for music computer-programming companies.
When you let machines play at concerts — especially when there are actual robot versions of Kraftwerk onstage in place of the humans — when you do that, and the audience applauds at the end of the song, what are the people applauding for?
The spirit . . . the art. Or the spirit of the art. The creativity. Sometimes people like the robots more than us. [Slight chuckle.] Especially when we’ve set them up in the afternoon in public, or somewhere backstage, or at a party. They are in their traveling suitcases/coffins, and when we set them up, people look at the robots, and they ignore us. Which is okay, because they are there, they do photos for us, and things like that.
But they’re not ready to do the interviews yet.
No, I have to write maybe some interview programming.
Well, I look forward to seeing the show at the Greek.
Is it open-air? And what happens when it’s raining? Or, it never rains?
It says on the ticket, “Rain or shine,” so it will happen.
Okay, then the stage is covered?
Yes. There won’t be any rain. It’ll be fantastic, don’t worry.
We’ll bring the anti-rain device.