Given all the hoopla surrounding ticket allocations for Kraftwerk’s eight-night residency at the MoMA, many fans naturally came to assume that the game was rigged from the start. Surely, there must have been some back door by which celebrities, the press and the super-rich siphoned-off tickets from the general allotment. It’s odd then that on Thursday night, there were no moguls, entourages or celebrities in sight — that is, unless you count ruffled-looking pop scribes like Rolling Stone’s David Fricke and NPR’s Bob Boilen. Instead, the room was filled with 450 normal-enough-looking showgoers, united only by their luck and reverence for the German pioneers who crafted the blueprint for modern electronic-pop music.
“… a clear set of themes began to emerge: freedom, particularly as provided by the automobile; a longing for a pan-European identity; a fascination with but also anxiety toward technology, robotics and nuclear power.”
Those pioneers (or the one of them who remains, anyway) certainly didn’t disappoint, though a curious onlooker might’ve been confused as to why. Running through their 1977 classic, Trans-Europe Express, as well as highlights from the rest of their catalog, the four men of Kraftwerk stood stock still in their Tron-esque spandex suits, virtually indistinguishable from the robotic “Showroom Dummies” in the lobby. This, of course, was the performance, the band’s expressionless austerity serving to anchor the audio-visual spectacle they controlled from their podiums. While it was impossible to see what it was they were actually doing up there, there was no shortage of visual stimulus, most of it delivered via 3-D graphics projected onto a screen behind the band that required cellophane glasses–similar to those used at movie theaters — to be fully appreciated. Cars whizzed down the Autobahn, robots danced jerkily in time with the music and pixilated letters and numbers shot across the stage. And, as is the case with most 3-D summer blockbusters, there were moments when the effect was pushed to willfully cheesy extremes: a train barreling toward the audience, shards of glass tumbling toward the viewer, music notes flying off of the staff. All of this, however, was presented with the aesthetic of early-90s CGI, lending the graphics a charmingly nostalgic feel.
If the visuals seemed to be of a previous decade, the music, at times, sounded as if it had been updated for the occasion. The title track from Trans Europe Express sounded especially sinister and foreboding, as the clickety-clack of its trebly beat reverberated throughout the museum’s Marron Atrium. “Europe Endless,” meanwhile, felt even more optimistic than on record, its bouncy gait serving as a counterpoint to some of the night’s more oppressive sonics. A few numbers–namely “Tour de France” and “Computer Love”– veered a little too close to Euro-house for the glasses-wearing crowd not to dance but the band, again to their credit, remained motionless, save for the occasional tap of the foot.
It’s worth noting that the space where the show was held — an open atrium on the museum’s second floor — was the ideal setting for Kraftwerk’s retrospective spectacle. Not only was the space as minimal and pristine as the band’s work, it also provided clear sight lines from any vantage point. A powerful sound system piped in crisp, clear audio and significantly, the room’s speaker arrangement allowed for surround-sound-like panning effects that accompanied the movement of the visuals.
Watching those visuals pop out of the screen and recede over the course of two hours, a clear set of themes began to emerge: freedom, particularly as provided by the automobile; a longing for a pan-European identity; a fascination with but also anxiety toward technology, robotics and nuclear power. Watching Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter, the very archetype of German pop modernism, stare coldly into the crowd as the names of bygone nuclear disasters flashed onscreen, the whole affair couldn’t help but feel quaintly dated, in a delightfully retro-futuristic sort of way. It all felt, fittingly enough, like something that belonged in a museum.
Kraftwerk’s retrospective continues tonight April 13 with The Man-Machine and concludes on Tuesday night with Tour de France. All eight shows are sold out.