Monday, April 18, 2005

We are programmed just to do anything you want us to

Without Kraftwerk, we would have no hip-hop beats, no dance music as we know it, no electronica; rock and country and jazz and even folk would have withered and died with nothing to react against. We'd probably all be listening to bad gospel, Irish acoustic guitarists and increasingly overplayed soggy orchestral pomp. Possibly we'd be living in caves.

You read that correctly. Caves. This is certainly high praise from Stephin, in an article written for Time Out New York, and he is only slightly exaggerating. Kraftwerk's influence on pop and dance music (among other genres) is immense, and Stephin enthusiastically shares their musical philosophy: to embrace artificiality.

In this dialogue between Stephin and Claudia, they discuss "false realism":

Stephin: When I scroll through the seems that everything is recorded in the same way, what I call "false realism," where all the instruments, real or synthesized, are trying to sound like real instruments. Then, in rebellion, there are bands like Kraftwerk who make the music that is self-consciously synthetic.
Claudia: But modern-day disco isn't trying to be real. It all sounds canned.
Stephin: That's not the point. Those instruments are still designed to imitate the usual instruments. The point is not whether it's real, but that it shouldn't be an issue if it's real. An acoustic guitar shouldn't have to sound like an acoustic guitar; it can, but it shouldn't have to.

And in this interview with Elisabeth Vincentelli, he says:

I am proud of the fact that my records have nothing to do with the sounds instruments happen to make. The guitars aren't guitars, the synthesizers aren't synthesizers, the drum machines and drums aren't drums. In general, you are unable to tell with conviction what anything is. This I can do because I have about 70 instruments and a room full of electronics, but so do a lot of studios.

False realism is like Cinema Verité. As Cinema Verité should be left to academic documentary filmmakers, false realism in music should be left to those making demonstration recordings of historical instruments.

The members of Kraftwerk claim to be robots, and they have disowned their first three albums from the early 70s which feature (*gasp!*) non-electronic musical instruments. A backing band composed of robots seems to be exactly what Stephin is looking for. In this Salon interview, Merritt says:

Robotics would be great. If we could have an easily used robot guitar, for example, we could do lots of nifty things that have not been done. Computer-assisted songwriting would also be great.

Then, when asked by the interviewer, "Would you want a world in which everyone played perfectly metronomical drumbeats all the time?", Merritt replied "Yes! Yes, I would!"

And in an article by Randy Silver, Stephin discusses replacing human voices:

So what piece of technology would Merritt's dream studio come equipped with? "A really accurate voice synthesizer," he ruminates, "One that would sing lyrics you typed into it according to notes that you played into it. Something that would allow you to control the singing style and the inflections from a computer. That would be very useful to me."

Possibly, the song that sums up the Kraftwerk aesthetic and manifesto best is "The Robots," with its catchy Vocoder chorus, strict rhythms, and synthesized beeps and bloops. The second selection is the irresistibly upbeat "Airwaves," from the album Radio-activity, which was Stephin's favorite recording of 1975. I should also point out that the band will be touring Europe and the U.S.A. in late May through July (tour dates are on the official site), and they will also be releasing a two-disc live album called Minimum-Maximum in June.


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