April 13th, 2012 12:09am
Life Is Timeless
Kraftwerk @ Museum of Modern Art 4/12/2012
Trans Europe Express / Europe Endless / The Hall of Mirrors / Showroom Dummies / Autobahn / Radioactivity / The Robots / The Model / The Man-Machine / Numbers / Computer World / Computer Love / Home Computer / Tour De France / Planet of Vision / Boing Boom Tschak / Techno Pop / Musique Non Stop
1. This night was billed as a Trans Europe Express show, but as you can see from the setlist above, the performance was in fact a career retrospective with an emphasis on TEE at the start of the show. Still, I’m very glad that I caught this night of the MoMA residency, as “Europe Endless” and “The Hall of Mirrors” are almost certainly unique to this program and they are two of my favorite songs in their catalog. So I lucked out: This set includes every Kraftwerk song that I would hope to see them play.
2. The visual presentation of the show was very impressive and crucial to the performance. The images, largely adapted from the band’s packaging and assorted iconography, emphasized the music’s thematic and structural conceits. The former is in some ways unnecessary – Kraftwerk is an act that overtly states its thematic content – but the latter was more interesting and revealing. The images accompanying “Trans Europe Express” and “Autobahn” are very literal in presenting a journey along train tracks and highway pavement, but the contours and repetitive lines mirror the shape of the composition. Less obviously, the sounds in “Radioactivity” correlate to the representation of the atom or the stark, terrifying beauty of the universal radioactive hazard symbol. The visuals highlight the group’s modernist approach – even if this wasn’t being spelled out quite so literally, it’s easy to understand how the sound itself is an impression of, and a comment on, the subject of 20th century scientific innovation and its impact on daily life.
3. Kraftwerk may clearly state their premises, but the meaning of their work can be rather ambiguous. The songs on the topic of transportation seem to exist without any particular judgment – there is a sense of “this just is” about them, and a genuine appreciation of structure, design and efficiency. The selections from The Man-Machine and Computer World – and most especially The Mix version of “Radioactivity” – contemplate the hazards of scientific progress, but come off as almost alarmingly neutral in tone. The program is mostly chronological, which highlights a thematic arc, as they shift from straight modernism to something a bit darker and more implicitly critical to the meta commentary of “Planet of Vision” and the cuts from Electric Cafe a.k.a. Techno Pop, which are essentially electronic songs about electronic music. This is where the music just sort of dissolves into itself – it’s easy to understand why they essentially never moved on from that phase. It’s the end of the line, and here, the end of the show.
4. One important thing about seeing Kraftwerk live as opposed to listening to the recordings is that you are confronted with the human element of their music. Four men are on stage doing who knows what, but they are there. The most striking thing about their presence is watching Ralf Hütter as he sings. He is as cold and aloof as you would expect, but it’s impossible not to reckon with his age – he’s in his mid-60s – and the very sound of his voice, which is often quite stunning and beautiful in a sort of severe, Germanic way. (See also: Nico.) Kraftwerk are mostly known today for being influential and innovative in electronic music, but in watching this show it’s obvious how crucial Hütter’s voice is in the success of this music. It’s not just that he brings humanity to this mechanical, sterile music – there really is something magnetic and engimatic about his rather low key persona.
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