I’ll go ahead and confess, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Kraftwerk. My first exposure to them was driving a Uhaul moving from Arkansas to Florida. I had discovered a plethora of Krautrock bands that I love (IE Can, Nektar, Eloy) several years earlier and kept seeing Kraftwerk’s name come up. I thought driving between states would be the closest thing to an Autobahn I had–so I put in the album as I set off. About 15 minutes in, I thought I was slowly loosing my mind.
I don’t dislike electronic music, nor do I hate Kraftwerk. In fact, I have a real musical ‘scratchy spot’ at the intersection of pure electronic and acoustic textures. Electronic drums with a real string quartet soaked in reverb, or even Kraftwerk’s airy flute, make me drop everything I’m doing and listen. The real problem I have with most electronic music (which in its defense is typically made for dancing’s sake) is the repetition. It’s like my views on human mortality: length alone does not give anything meaning. I’ve listened to a number of Kraftwerk albums, and I frequently find sonic textures that I enjoy: I just think I’d just like them much more with some editing.
Now, for Kraftwerk, what they were doing must have been exciting and new. Their string of albums leading up to Autobahn introduced new sounds and very creative uses of synthesizers. I could see the opus of “Autobahn” having a much greater impact on someone who had never heard electronic percussion or the warm swell of ‘futuristic’ synths before. After watching “Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution” things like the “motor beat” employed in Autobahn and Trans Europe Express made much more sense. But to me, it still sounds like electronic music of the time is in puberty: awkward, somewhat bull-headed, yet not really sure what it’s doing yet.
Kraftwerk’s innovation is applying the cutting-edge technology of their day to music. Before Kraftwerk, electronic music sounds very avant-garde (see: Stockhausen) and completely distanced from the musical traditions of tonality, rhythm, and harmony. Kraftwerk takes this technology and applies it over the course of Kraftwerk 1 & 2 to more standardized musical sensibilities. The usage of electronic drum beats and other forms of synthesis had obvious influence on EDM to come. But, I think (along with other Krautrock bands like Faust and Tangerine Dream) perhaps the biggest influence of Kraftwerk is in establishing the genre of electronic music to come comes in the approach to song structure and focus.
As a pianist and composer it’s very hard for me to listen to material and not unconsciously lapse into ‘taking dictation’ of melodies and harmonies. This is probably why my first exposure to Kraftwerk was mildly maddening; I couldn’t see the forest because of the trees. Albums like Autobahn, Faust IV, and Phaedra aren’t interested in the notes or song structure. Song structure in electronic music can often be more like a soundscapes; it doesn’t require active attention or digestion of the musical content. In fact, I find analyzing these works musically misses the point. This is a tradition that would be carried on by people like Brian Eno and into future genres like IDM.
I like listening to electronic music to hear sounds used creatively and to hear textures that can’t exist in real acoustic spaces. As both a composer and engineer, new textures are like gold to me. Kraftwerk definitely played a vital role in bringing the possibilities of electronic music technology into the mainstream.