I hadn’t heard of the German band Kraftwerk until I read this Pitchfork interview with Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk is considered by many to be pioneers of German electronic music. According to Wikipedia, “The signature Kraftwerk sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western classical style of harmony with a minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation.” Today, electronic music is relatively popular and common. However, it was not so common 30 years ago.
Additionally, Kraftwerk uses many visual elements in their live shows. “This included back-projected slides and films, increasingly synchronised with the music as the technology developed, the use of hand-held miniaturised instruments during the set, and, perhaps most famously, the use of replica mannequins of themselves to perform onstage during the song ‘The Robots’.”
Kraftwerk’s live show with mannequins
From the Pitchfork interview:
Pitchfork: How did the 3-D aspect of the show come about?
RH: Our music is always, as you know, very spacey– computer graphics, music, images, lyrics, and visual art we make ourselves, or that we make with artists. And it’s all synchronized. The premiere was at the Volkswagen factory when we played there in April. It went so well that we decided to do it again in the summer when we played for the Manchester Velodrome, where we had the British Olympic cycling team riding on the track and then later during the show, after our robot performance, we continued about five or six compositions with 3-D graphics and the audience put on the glasses. It was fantastic.
Pitchfork: Was there, when you were a young person and you were first seeing live music and performing live music, perhaps in the late 60s, was there anyone you saw that was an inspiration for this kind of multimedia show?
RH: No, nothing special. I think it was more like an awakening in the late 60s of the whole living situation– the German word is einfach musik. Everyday music, like– it’s more like discovering the tape recorder for us. Like, the world of sound: Everyday life has a sound, and that’s also why our studio is called Kling Klang studio because “kling” is the verb and “klang” is the noun for “sound.” So it means “sounding sound.” That’s really what Kraftwerk is about. Sound sources are all around us, and we work with anything, from pocket calculators to computers, from voices, human voices, from machines, from body sounds to fantasy to synthetic sounds to speech from human voice to speech synthesis from anything, if possible. We don’t want to limit ourselves to any specific sound like that was before when we were brought up in classical music. Then it had be strings, it had to be piano, blah blah blah. We wanted to go beyond, to find a new silence and from
there to progress to continue walking into the world of sound.
Pitchfork: Kraftwerk exists as not just an art object, like in a museum, but there’s always an element of popular culture, where it’s received by large groups of people. This is opposed to some people, who experiment with sound and they might do a sound installation in a museum. But it seems like there’s always been a popular element to what Kraftwerk does.
RH: Yes. That developed for us, when we started in the late 60s in art galleries and student clubs, there might have been 50 people or whatever, and it just developed this way. Then in the early 70s and with Autobahn, suddenly the world was– it was possible for us to tour around the world. Well, in France, Italy, and America. And then from there on, it was for us like a vision of electronic music as a universal language. It became our reality.
Pitchfork: Something I’ve always found interesting about Kraftwerk is that even when your music is electronic music and it’s, as you say, immaterial. It sort of exists independent of physical formats. There’s always been a strong feeling for the body in your music, that there’s always a physical manifestation of it, whether it’s through dancing or inspiration in something like cycling. Is that, the interface between electronics and the human body, is that of particular interest to Kraftwerk?
RH: Yes, I think that’s best expressed in the words the “Man-Machine”. It’s this combination of human sounds and machine sounds, so as you probably know, electronic music has been very, very intellectualized in the 50s, 60s, or whatever, and I think we always felt strong elements ourselves of these machine rhythms, repetition and charm. Like the motor humming on Autobahn, radio waves playing in fantastic melodies in the air. All these ideas have been in our minds and we try to combine them into the different albums.
I really like this idea of “Man-Machine”: creating music by combining human and machine sounds. This is the foundation of electronic music as we know it today. Even though there was electronic music before Kraftwerk, they helped to popularize it and greatly influenced the genre.
And to top it off, the music video for “The Robots” by Kraftwer