Thursday, March 25, 2004

Freude durch Kraftwerk

Brixton Academy, 20th March 2004

I suggest that those averse to superlatives avert their eyes promptly. I generally have developed my critical faculties beyond the “It’s all just sooo great!" scale, but since my heart pretty much always beats in synch with the shunting rhythm of 'Trans Europe Express', Kraftwerk could have just played 'Electric Café' and this would still have been a dumbfounding experience (not a fact, please note). I won’t make that much attempt to describe the music here: I assume that most Cullsters who haven’t spent the past 30 years locked in a sensory deprivation chamber have tuned their ears to Kraftwerk frequencies on occasion (though I suspect that sensory deprivation wouldn’t necessarily deny you of visceral Kraftwerky rhythms). Most of the audience were inert, gawping, and seemed to be viewing the whole thing as if through the screen of a digital camera (as if that could make it less intense or spectacular). This was the first (and probably only) time I have been in the presence of Kraftwerk since falling for 'The Model', at the tender age of four. Would this be a nostalgic experience of sentiments, or one bristling with the shock of the novel? Well, both really. Kraftwerk have always appeared to enjoy playing with the queasiness of nostalgia (especially in the cosy/unheimlich iconography to Radio-Activity [Nazi standard issue radios], and the 1930s Aryan families numbing themselves/escaping down the Autobahn). They also seem unaverse to mining and defiling their own archives - most notably with last year’s album length reworking of 'Tour de France' (the centenary of which seems to have galvanised the tardy fuckers into their present excursions.)

One thing that becomes noticeable about Kraftwerk is that, whilst they keep their creative processes under wraps, they allow access to the refining and mutation of their ideas through the evolution of their live performances. They have a back catalogue that would have Widow McCartney or Popkid Jackson salivating, but every "hit" I heard, most of which are older than me, managed to sound pristine and fresh, and easily subverted any tendency to hear them as merely the pleasurable repitition of the familiar. The versions of 'Sellafield/Radioactivity' and 'Trans Europe Express' were notably stripped of the acid bounciness of their 1991 incarnations, whilst 'Autobahn' was a dreamy mixture of delicious dub and visions of lederhosen clad men jumping into cars.

My fantasy Kraftwerk gig starts with 'Man Machine'. It is with a visceral bristle through my CNS that the opening puckery bleeps start up, accompanied by the scarlet silhouettes of 4 besuited gentlemen hunched over dinky laptops. One of them is tapping his foot ever so slightly. The screens part, and for moments there is just Kraftwerk. Then the visuals start (earlier the man behind us, who had described them as "a boys band, but not a boy band", had said, "fuck me, that’s some big screens they have"): black, white and red, billion-bit 30 foot tall-MAN-MACHINE-SEMI-HUMANBEING. The audience of thousands of middle age men with digital cameras record this moment, and I see the stark red words replicated through the entire audience. There are no flaws, it is refined and economical and it is fucking stunning. I feel static rising through my veins. Four days later and its still crackling and fizzling through my synapses.

'Expo 2000' and the various versions 83/2003 of 'Tour de France' beckon. Most of the audience appear to be facing the nostalgia question already - will the newer material need to be endured? Most of the people surrounding me don’t appear to know the track titles, let alone have built a set of relationships with the material. It’s more than OK: I’ve never understood why Kraftwerk have managed to acquire a reputation of being impassive and vacant as performers. On this performance, they appear the most expressive of performers- conveying their ideas consistently and with a clarity and economy that makes every move they make and every image they produce appear necessary and sufficient. Elsewhere 'Tour de France' has sounded bland and, er, pedestrian, despite the quality of the concept, but here, flooding the stage and screen with contours and defined silhouettes of neon green and blue conveys the ambience and oxygenated kinetic intensities of cycling fluently. Vitamin, with its cascade of various tablets of elements, minerals and supplements works particularly well.

Kraftwerk then drop their bombs, and the audience, even less animated than the band, start to get it: 'Autobahn', 'The Model' (hhmm, would’ve preferred 'Showroom Dummies'), 'Neon Lights' (YES!!!YES!!!), info on the comparative emissions of Chernobyl and Sellafield segues into what initially appears to be the breathless melancholic early choral version of Radioactivity (presented here as an unambiguous condemnation of nuclear power), the BPMs gradually accelerating, tripling until it mutates into the 1991 blitzkrieg techno version (the highlight of The Mix, and worth the effort of them digitising their back catalogue by itself.) There’s not really a vocabulary to describe the glorious 'T.E.E.' (over stimulation of the parietal lobes at this stage…). And then they’re gone.

The Robots
Then: BACK, with rhythmically flashing ties, to do a more cheery medley of 'Numbers', 'Computer World', 'Home Computer' and 'Pocket Calculator' (the melody is Cancel+4=Blerlerlerbleep). Once again, their post-1980 material is wetter and more domesticated than the clipped metallic tones of their earlier stuff, but as multimedia performance, the music finds itself elevated above “ok”. The Robots come on for the next encore to dance automatically and stretch their loving arms out imploringly to 'The Robots' (huzzah!), whilst their creators charge their batteries, and put on stonking blue and green neon aerodynamic suits. For 'Eletrokardiogram/Aerodynamic', the vast stage is flooded with green and blue contours, with the faces lit in ultraviolet. This works particularly well on Florian, who looked like Sam the American Eagle in his youth, and now looks like a bald, bulbous purple-headed Nosferatu. (This is actually very alluring.) 'Musique Non Stop' ends the show, with them leaving the stage one by one after completing solos. (Florian grabs his crotch as he bows. I like him.) This leaves Ralf the last to depart, and as the lights go down the final notes get deeper and deeper 'til I can feel not hear them.
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Thursday, March 11, 2004


Middlesex University
6 March 2004

If talking about music is like dancing about architecture, then a conference dedicated to the very boundaries between music and noise promised to be quite the architecture-themed knees-up. Happily few that attended were likely to be subscribers to Costello's thought-stifling dictat, instead being the types to bring to bear boundless enthusiasm and/or formidable theoretical armoury on the issues surrounding NOISE -- be it the contorted vocal gymnastics of Artaud or Galas, the orchestra abuse of Helmut Lachenmann, or most frequently, the electric and electronic sonic practices of the last two or three decades, carried out in the heavily scare-quoted field of "popular music". While the conference's aims could scarcely be described as having been 'met' in any tangible sense, this was entirely appropriate given the recurrence in the day's papers of the theme of failure.

This failure was engagingly elucidated in this paper by Nick Smith. Smith followed Adorno in seeing art and music as attempts to find meaning beyond the instrumentality of the concepts, rules and laws we're necessarily immersed in the rest of the time. To this end, Nick turned to Japanese noise terrorist Masonna, hoping to get the feeling Adorno imagines of 'a gnarled hand grabbing you from behind': an experience so unsettling and disorientating that one's alienated identity is dismantled. Poignantly, Nick found he didn't particularly like Masonna and the gnarled hand remained at bay. While it seemed initially as if Smith's core problem -- what can we do when the most extreme non-music has already been commodified, already become a cliché -- had some force, it soon felt more as if the problem was in his expectations rather than in the work itself (or its commodification).

While other speakers were less gloomy about the failures involved in sonic experimentation (especially if the very success of modern art/music/noise is its 'dramatisation of its own failure', an idea reiterated ad nauseum), it fell to two practitioners to present a more positive picture. Steve Goodman (hyperdub/Ccru) intriguinginly proposed a hydrodynamics both of rhythm and of crowd behaviour, utilising chaos physics and complex dynamics to cut across the nature/culture distinction. Similarly unconcerned by such boundaries was Aled 'Freakuency' Rees, seen on these pages before in his guise as member of Soliton and co-organiser of Waveswarms. Rees, via Deleuze-Guattari and William Burroughs, spoke of the emancipatory potential of noise (in the most inclusive sense) for dismantling the human security system, silencing the word virus and transforming our relationship with the cosmos.

Or was this mere mysticism, or the results of taking too many drugs and attending too few weddings, as questioners objected? In the apparent absence of mass migrations into 'space' or new ways of being, aren't the priests of inevitable failure on much firmer ground? Seems that the dichotomy between experiences of noise freely chosen (e.g. by attendees of a Keiji Haino gig) and those unexpected or unwanted (e.g. air raid sirens, explosions, etc) is striking, and the panic or terror caused by the latter seems more akin to the transformative, destabilising, desubjectifying panic that a number of speakers alluded to. Can anything you ever freely choose to listen to on a cd or at a gig ever come close? Perhaps we've no choice but to get our jaded, alienated asses down to the nearest warzone for some real noise.

If that doesn't appeal (and why the hell would it), then regardless of how intriguing and imaginative a philosophical assessment of a sonic creation of some sort might be (be it improvised, composed, algorithmically generated, totally random or whatever), mustn't it ultimately come down to the intangibles of individual taste -- about whatever factors make you invest the time to appreciate something? And the same surely goes for whether you choose to cash out your appreciation in Adornian, Deleuze-Guattarian or other terminology -- and isn't this decision utterly underdetermined by either the producer's intentions or the sounds themselves? We can only hope that NOISETHEORYNOISE#2 (t-minus approximately 6 months) -- or your comments below, dear reader! -- will explore this enthralling area further.
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