Somnambule - Writing About Music

Kraftwerk ~ Minimum Maximum DVD

The four members of Kraftwerk stand calmly at their consoles. Looking for all the world like besuited technocrats, they hardly move at all throughout the course of their two hour presentation.  Fritz Hilpert may tap his foot, Henning Schmitz might nod briefly and Ralf Hutter will raise a hand, the more clearly to enunciate a by-now familiar aphorism. Florian Schneider, however, remains seemingly motionless throughout.  The group’s arrangement on stage has changed little over the past three decades. They continue to stand in a shallow semi-circle facing their audience, as a perfectly synchronised visual accompaniment unfold on the screens behind them.

Time passes and as it does so, that which was once thrilling, almost invisibly becomes familiar and ultimately mundane. In light of this seemingly immutable law, how does any artistic endeavour succeed in maintaining its relevance in the face of pop’s extreme ephemerality? Innovation, though it may secure an artist’s place in history books, is seldom enough to maintain an audience’s interest. Nor is it easy to meaningfully innovate more than once or twice: only a maverick few manage such a feat (Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis inevitably spring to mind). Contrary to the above-stated law of diminishing returns, Kraftwerk’s Computer World manages to sound highly contemporary, 25 years after its release. This feat is all the more remarkable when it’s recognised that there was no computer involvement in its recording whatsoever. It’s tempting to view such freshness against the backdrop of the current fashion for recycling musical styles. So recursive is such music that it tempts one to subscribe to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that we are experiencing the end of history. Indeed, Kraftwerk themselves play stealthy games with time. Their strategies are clarified greatly by viewing this double DVD commemoration of the group’s 2005 world tour. Throughout its two hour duration, Kraftwerk locate themselves at different vantage points while surveying the past, present and future. Thus, on Trans Europe Express, their impressive three screen setup is filled with stop/start close-ups of locomotives that were decommissioned more than 20 years ago; Autobahn is accompanied by charming paintings of almost empty 1950s motorways, while the animated graphics that accompany The Man Machine were inspired by lithographs produced in 1919 by the Russian Suprematist artist, El Lissitzky. Hope for new possibilities and sorrow at their inevitable redundance are repeatedly refracted through the lens of history in Kraftwerk’s articulation of “man, nature, technology” (one of the central lyrical motifs of their millennial single Expo 2000 now renamed Planet of Visions). Key to this temporal dialogue is Ralf Hutter’s declaration that, from the outset, the group consciously rejected the four decades of German culture that preceded the group’s formation in 1970. This was, after all, a period sullied by the National Socialism that ruptured the dream of Modernism in the early 1930s.

It’s the pathos of this loss that informs much of their earlier work. When seen from such a perspective, their music appears to be a single threnody composed of many parts.  If this focus represented the entirety of their oeuvre, the Kraftwerk experience would be thoroughly suffocating. They have, however, explored many other facets of their central theme – technology’s impact upon humanity. For example, Home Computer celebrated the potential of an industry only a few years old at the time of its composition, while It’s More Fun to Compute evinces a characteristically dry sense of humour that’s all too often ignored by commentators. 17 years in the making, it’s with the album-length exploration of the man/machine interface on Tour De France (2003) that Kraftwerk finally proposed a technologal future that is also ecologically viable. Accordingly, they allot a full third of Minimum Maximum to its themes. With the likes of Vitamin, Aero Dynamik and Elektro Kardiogramm the group’s visuals, together with their Tron-like attire, essay a vision of the future using minimalist vector graphics that stands with one foot in the 1970s. Given their fascination for travel and movement, it’s entirely fitting that Kraftwerk’s narrative arc over the three decades of their existence should have culminated in this subject. Alongside this focus upon time, Kraftwerk have also registered the effect of changing attitudes upon their themes. Although disappointingly not included in this release, the car engine that signalled the beginning of Autobahn at the concert I attended failed to start up several times. The effect was pregnant with humour as well as meaning. Likewise, the version of Radioactivity that appeared on 1991’s The Mix inserted an assertive ‘Stop!’ before the radioactivity in the chorus. On Minimum Maximum this warning is further emphasised with a brief lecture detailing the dangers of nuclear power, an all-too timely message given recent industry-sponsored attempts to raise public support for a renewed programme of building.

Careful examination of the 22 track concert setlist reveals a careful pruning of their back-catalogue. All of the overtly psychological pieces, such as Showroom Dummies, Hall Of Mirrors and even Computer Love have been purged. The self-referentiality of these pieces has been replaced by a statesman-like perspective upon the technologically-developed world. Yet the final product remains very much a human, rather than a corporate endeavour. If Minimum Maximum had been produced by committee, there are a number of elements that would surely have been Photoshop’ed out. For example, the low resolution quality of some of the graphics and the enthusiastic audience member silhouetted in front of the stage who’s so readily identifiable by his waving arms. Likewise, the work-rate of these self-declared ‘musik-arbeiter’ (music workers) would have resulted in their redundancy decades ago, if they hadn’t so determinedly ensured their independence from the meddling of record companies. Whether induced by artistic crisis following the release of the relatively substandard Electric Café or by a realisation that less really can be more – here given the titular nod – the group’s glacial release schedule has certainly contributed both to their mystique and their cultural stature. Indeed, it also provides a welcome counterbalance to claims that the group’s technological focus represents a form of endorsement of the model of ceaseless change that’s such a symptom of late capitalism.

Kraftwerk have long produced videos for their music, but the films they produced in the 1970s such as The Robots and Trans Europe Express now look awfully dated. Given the group’s reputation for perfectionism, it might have been anticipated that Minimum Maximum’s concert footage would have excised the audience entirely, substituting perfectly-turned graphics for their irregular presence. It’s something of a relief – even salutary – then, that the silhouettes of dancing audience members is a subtle, but key element of the visual presentation and the almost stationary presence of the group. Once again, the essential nature of the human element of the man/machine equation is recognised and asserted. However, it must be said that the direction of this project fails to compete with the creative flair of Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense. The presentation here is competent, at times beautiful, but it would be difficult to call it inspiring.

Great art is said to raise a mirror to its times, enabling those who stare into it, to recognise themselves and, via the agency of another’s perspective, be granted the chance to discover that which might otherwise remain hidden. Technology’s impact is, after all, the defining characteristic of our age, whether it’s the software that produced the magazine you’re reading, the online communities you belong to, or the banking systems that support every financial transaction you undertake. Kraftwerk have often been accused of emotional detachment. Only the blindly dogmatic could adhere rigidly to such a view in the face of the wistul audio-visual eulogies embodied here in Neon Lights, The Model or the original version of Tour De France. If anything, the group’s unique perspective ultimately allows them to capture something of the soul of our times. Minimum Maximum underlines how relevant – in fact essential - Kraftwerk remain, even if their influence is partially eclipsed at the moment by an unprecedented degree of cultural recycling. It’s difficult not to interpret the group’s extensive world tour, its cataloguing in Minimum Maximum and the imminent release of their remastered back-catalogue as preparation for posterity’s judgement. Whether or not that proves to be the case, Minimum Maximum is essential viewing.

Colin Buttimer
February 2006
Published by e/i Magazine