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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Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart

Cover of "The Sun My Heart"
Cover of The Sun My Heart

Thich Nhat Hanh has never disappointed me, either in the fairly large number of books of his I’ve read or when I was lucky enough to attend a week-long retreat at which he gave Dharma talksThe Sun My Heart is no exception, and, truth be told–I’m actually reading another one of his books at the moment–I don’t expect there to ever be an exception.  You don’t have to be a Buddhist to get a lot from his work, and indeed he makes very explicit and to my mind successful attempts to reach out to practicioners of other faiths, though most particularly Christianity.

I got the book from the library and read it a few weeks ago, but haven’t written about it until today, and I don’t have the copy in front of me, so I imagine what I write will be more tangentially related to the book than usual.  I can’t remember if it was on the back cover or in an introduction that mentioned that the book was a follow-up to The Miracle of Mindfulness, which is the book that made Nhat Hanh’s reputation in the anglophone world.  This connection is likely a matter of marketing more than anything else, which is fine: I’ve been to Plum Village, Nhat Hanh’s home/monastery in Bordeaux, and I can vouch that he really doesn’t have any possessions.  He’s the real deal.  So, marketing considerations just go to fund the community of practicioners, not his own bank account, which doesn’t exist.

I think it was reading a book by Master Sheng Yen, the recently deceased–let’s say, “transformed”–Chan (“Zen,” in the Chinese) master in whose lineage I started practicing Buddhism, and in it he said that in all of his books he, Sheng Yen, keeps repeating the same thing, over and over.  That’s true in a way for Nhat Hanh as well, though probably less so as he sees himself very much as a writer, which Sheng Yen didn’t.  In any event, The Sun My Heart makes that same, basic Buddhist point that Sheng Yen makes and that Nhat Hanh made in The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Sit your ass down, literally or metaphorically, drop your concepts, and be in the present moment.  Then, you can be happy.  Indeed, it is not possible to be happy in anything other than the present moment.  That’s really it.

Nhat Hanh is very prolific and I imagine that he writes nearly every day.  I’m fantasizing, of course, but for a reason.  I imagine that his method is to respond to whatever is passing through his head, be it what’s going on in the news, a book he just read, etc., and respond to it as a practioner.  Much of The Sun My Heart refers to quantum physics, a favorite subject of many Buddhists because it seems to confirm the basic ontological observations the historical Buddha made 2,500 years ago.  The connection is not an original one–Thich Nhat Hanh, I have to think, was not the first Zen monk to make it–but, typically, Nhat Hanh does it exceptionally clearly and exceptionally well.  He is a deeply gifted writer (and speaker, if you ever get a chance to hear him in person), in that his words are absolutely clear and simple and at the same time stimulate very deep and, at times, complex thought, at least in me.  That week I spent at Plum Village was taken up largely by me chewing over Nhat Hanh’s talks, which, as I heard them, were easy listening.  His writing is the same: very easy to read, and prone to stimulate deep thinking on, among other things, being.

Formally, the book feels to me like a very, very long Dharma talk.  There are themes to which Nhat Hanh returns throughout the book, and episodic returns to a pair of characters, a Vietnamese orphan who stayed with Nhat Hanh, and a friend and interlocutor of Nhat Hanh.  Periodically, the book re-visits the two, as if to check in.  That said, the subject matter changes from practical advice on both meditation and maintaining mindfulness off of one’s cushion–the tricky part, anyone who’s tried it can tell you–to the periodic references to quantum physics, to discussions of particular aspects of Buddhist thought.

Anyone who knows me will know that I compare everything I like to good jazz, particularly to bebop and the post-bop of the 1950’s.  Bearing that in mind, the comparison here actually has some validity: it’s always seemed to me since I started (and stopped, and started again) practicing Buddhism that good Dharma talks, or Dharma books, are like good jazz.  The teacher, like the musician, is so attuned to the essence of the material that she or he can play with it and let it go, so to speak, without dropping it.  A bop musician has mastered the form in order to let it go and let the performance attune itself to the particular situation of the moment.  Good bop goes where it will be is never out of place.  So too with a good Dharma talk, or in this case, book.  The Sun My Heart, were one to label each section with subject matter, would seem to bounce from topic to topic.  Really, that’s discriminating mind getting in the way.  The whole book is, like Sheng Yen pointed out, really making the same point, over and over, though from different angles, and, importantly, really well.  The book was a great help to me as I restarted my practice.

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