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Sound Machine

25 aprile 2012

di Sasha Frere-Jones per il New Yorker

On an August night in 1981, the German band Kraftwerk played at the Ritz, on East Eleventh Street in Manhattan, in support of its latest album, “Computer World.” The only instruments onstage were actually machines: reel-to-reel tape recorders, synthesizers, keyboards, and a calculator. All four members of the group had short hair and dressed identically, in black button-down shirts, black pants, and shiny shoes, which made them look more like valets than like musicians. That didn’t bother them, as they didn’t like the idea of being a band—or even musicians—and often referred to themselves as “operators.”

For the song “Pocket Calculator,” one member triggered percussion with a drumstick. Another used a Stylophone, a metal keyboard played with a small stylus. Florian Schneider, a founding member, played the calculator, which was wired into the sound system, so that pressing the keys made audible beeps. His partner, Ralf Hütter, who is the only remaining original member of Kraftwerk, sang the lyrics of the song in a monotone—an approach that he calls Sprechgesang, or “spoken singing”—and played a small Mattel keyboard. “By pressing down a special key / it plays a little melody,” he intoned. Schneider responded by playing something sort of like a melody with the calculator. At one point, Hütter bent down and let the audience play the keyboard. Recently, Hütter said, “I wanted to show them that anyone could make electronic music.”

That year, songs from “Computer World” were played on “urban” radio stations in New York, such as Kiss-FM and WBLS. The Bronx d.j. and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa was in the audience at the Ritz. He had found Kraftwerk’s 1977 album, “Trans-Europe Express,” in a record bin several years earlier. “I was just looking at these guys on the cover and saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, what the hell is this?’ ” he told me. “Wow! Something’s here that’s very funky, and I got to play it for my audience.” He added that Kraftwerk’s battery of gear at the Ritz made it look as if they were playing “washing machines.” (Because of the difficulty of re-creating their recordings with such complicated equipment, the band has visited the U.S. only seven times in its forty-two-year history. Now they use laptops.) The following year, Bambaataa, along with the musician John Robie and the producer Arthur Baker, combined the beat of “Numbers,” from “Computer World,” and the melody of the title track from “Trans-Europe Express” to create “Planet Rock,” an early hip-hop song that spawned a small clutch of genres, including electro, Miami bass, and Brazilian baile funk. “Computer World,” Kraftwerk’s masterpiece, sold less than a million copies, yet its influence has been surprisingly broad—even Coldplay, for its single “Talk,” from 2005, has used a melody from the album.

(continua sul New Yorker)

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