March 20, 2014
There was a palpable glee among the crowd at Disney Hall as they awaited the start of Kraftwerk's Computer World set, show No. 5 in the electronic group's trip through their catalog at Disney Hall. Lucky ticketholders at this pricey event had been promised a state-of-the-art presentation including 3-D video projections and surround-sound engineering. This quivering, paying-tribute-to-the-gods vibe - - gee whiz, we get to see the legendary Kraftwerk! - - was rather nice to be around, frankly. After all, Kraftwerk don't tour much, rarely release new music, and founder Ralf Hütter is getting on in years and might just decide to pack it in soon, so, you know.
In their neoprene neon suits, Hutter and newish recruits Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen stood onstage at individual control panels lined with stark strips of colored light. As the iconic images from their Computer World album rolled on a giant screen behind them, they proceeded to "play" - - and no, I don't mean to say that they simply turned on their sound machines.
In fact, what was most noticeable about the way the four Kraftwerkers approached the material on Computer World was that it appeared to involve subtle mutations of the familiar melodies and beats, as if they were being given new sets of parameters. Contrary to their image as machinelike beings who merely push the start button, these robots were improvising - - not like a bunch of jazzbos, exactly, but supplying enough variation on the familiar material to shed a little new light on it.
The Computer World songs, like the rest of the Kraftwerk catalog at these shows, were painstakingly re-created for these live performances, each song requiring new sequences, beats and sound textures to be re-programmed. And within each new version, Hütter has left space open for each member of the group to fiddle about in his own personal way, responding to the ambience of the concert hall or perhaps just something he'd seen on TV the night before. The variations that resulted were, if not intriguing, then at least enjoyable, though a bit disappointing.
Oh, of course that disappointment is unfair, but it's because these particular beats and melodies, so cleanly cut and programmed/played on the original albums, have seared themselves into the body and brain at this point, become a part of our own physiologies - - any disruption of their "organic" original flow feels just wrong, like maybe we've got a touch of flu. So when the tempos were slowed or sped up, or the sound mix rethought (too much bass, not enough bass) on tracks such as "Numbers," "Home Computer" or "Computer Love, " it was like being gently yanked by the neck out of one's own nostalgia. The group's run-through of several additional iconic songs including "Autobahn," "Trans Europe Express," "The Model" and "Tour de France" had a similar effect.
It's funny, thinking about the "emotional" impact this man/machine Kraftwerk has had on our lives. But if you dig a bit it's not hard to detect why the early hip-hoppers and then the rest of us might have heard in this music something we could easily relate to, and even found moving. Kraftwerk's own response to the battering of German psyches following World War II was to create a new kind of art that reflected both their admiration for a new technological/industrial society and their natural fear or ambivalence about its dehumanizing effects. Thus there's an extremely dry wit and irony built into every Kraftwerk song. Realizing that gave this performance a hundred layers of meaning and relevance.
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