Pascal Bussy, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, and Music

093408193It comes as a shock to me that what is the most prominent popular book on one of the by this point unarguably most important musical groups of our time is one of the most poorly edited books I’ve read in years. I read the first edition, grabbed off the library stacks. Maybe subsequent editions are improved, but I’m shocked, shocked.

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of popular music journalism, and I have to say that the standard critique, that rock journalism is shallow and mercenary, seem to apply. To be certain, I loved reading the book, but while Bussy hinted at a breadth of understanding when he first name-checked Gilbert & George, his cultural context seems narrow when they’re name-checked for the tenth or so time.

Bussy posits a very tidy trajectory in the band’s development from openness to closed-ness. They began as part of a krautrock scene, one improvising group among many. Socially, part of a scene, they were open. Musically, improvisers, they were open. Gradually, Bussy tells us they applied greater and greater structure to their music, while at the same time, developing the Kraftwerk mensch-maschine aesthetic, the group withdrew socially to its Kling Klang studio and autonomous daily routine.

This is one way to explain a band that put out a record a year for most of a decade, then two in the next, then one album of remixes at the start of the following. Bussy makes it sound, in his telling, more than a little dysfunctional on a social level and almost sinister. He–Bussy–gives the impression of being a stereotypical techno scenester, though I have no idea if he actually is. He doesn’t seem to understand that “scenes” are not universally appealing. There are non-dysfunctional reasons for not participating in scenes.

What is clear is that Kraftwerk, as time passed, both worked through their musical idea thoroughly–by Computer World–and developed a daily routine that suited Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, if not Bartos and Flur as much over the long-term. They slept, drank coffee, biked, made music, and danced. They could certainly have put out a record a year, but Electric Cafe, an inferior work by any measure, demonstrated, I have to hypothesize, the futility of that kind of work, unless the only goal is to make a lot of money.

I don’t think that retreating from a scene is at all the same as retreating from the world, as Bussy seems to paint it. In fact, I’d argue it’s precisely the contrary. Kraftwerk seem reclusive only if one takes the perspective of the journalist denied an interview.

Bussy suggests that improvisation declined in Kraftwerk’s working methods as time passed. It certainly is true that they moved from wholly-improvised to generally structured music over the course of their work. To that extent Bussy is right, but it misses a key point to Kraftwerk’s project.

In discussing The Mix, Bussy cites one of the members whose name escapes me at the moment, having returned the book to the library. That project, which more or less formed the basis of their performance work to this day, consisted of digitizing their earlier work to preserve the sounds, and then reprogramming the songs as sequenced events. The effort, though, was not in order to make the entire thing automatic, reproducing exact performances every time, but to facilitate improvisation. Many more specific sequenced patterns exist on Kraftwerk’s computers than actually get used in any particular performance. The members, it was noted, choose which patterns to play as the performance continues. I would also note, having seen them twice, that pedals and knobs also affect timbre, reverb, and other effects. The actual sound one hears in the audience is entirely dependent on the choices of the musicians in the moment of the performance.

At some level, the story that Bussy missed is the story of Kraftwerk’s accommodation to the sequencer. Their basic project has always been to develop some kind of symbiosis, for lack of a better word, between man and machine in the moment of performance. The sequencer, programmed ahead of time in an act of composition rather than performance, upsets this symbiosis. If electronic music is programmed rather than played, the machines win in the moment of performance. This explains the long wait between Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks. With a Moog, a musician plays notes. Kraftwerk opted, to integrate the sequencer into a performance environment in which the musician plays not notes but sequences. That’s a huge task in terms of man hours, but it squares the circle.

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