4/30/12

Kraftwerk and sci-fi soundtracking

“We were very much influenced by the futuristic silent films of Fritz Lang; Metropolis and Dr Mabuse […] We feel that we are the sons of that type of science fiction cinema. We are the band of Metropolis. Back in the 20’s, people were thinking technologically about the future in physics, film, radio, chemistry, mass transport…everything but music. We feel that our music is a continuation of this early futurism. When you go and see Star Wars, with all its science fiction gadgets, we feel embarrassed to listen to the music…19th century strings! That music for that film!? Historically, we feel that if there ever was a music group in Metropolis, maybe Kraftwerk would have been that band”.
-Ralf Hütter quoted in Tim Barr: "Kraftwerk": From Dusseldorf to the Future (With Love) (1998)

These sentiments (uttered some time in the late 70's) come to mind whenever I listen to my 2nd hand copy of The Electric Moog Orchestra's LP Music From Star Wars (1977). I wonder if Hütter would have had an easier time digesting the synthesized timbres of the Moog synthesizers?

While the synths do add a futuristic dash to the mood and while it's a lot of fun to listen to in comparison to the original, it must be said that the Moogs don't really pull of the dynamics we're accustomed to via the orchestral version. Probably since John Williams wrote the music with an orchestra in mind. So it's not just a timbral issue but also a question of form and structural content.

Hütter expresses his dislike of the "19th century strings" of Star Wars while underlining his admiration for Metropolis. The funny thing is that Hütter makes no mention of the Metropolis score: an original score by German composer Gottfried Huppertz that's very much of the "19th century strings" variety. Drawing mainly from romantic composers Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss the score also throws in some "Dies Irae" (an oft quoted 13th century hymn) for scenes of apocalyptic imagery.

(Danish director Carl Th. Dreyers 1943 masterpiece Vredens Dag also takes both its title and theme music from "Dies Irae").

Though the Huppertz score played a big role in the making of the movie - apparently Huppertz was on set playing excerpts on piano for emotional effect - Hütter can be forgiven for not mentioning it since to my knowledge the score wasn't actually recorded and released along with the movie until 2001. So when Hütter made his remarks in the late 70's he may not have been aware of the score.

Add to that the fact that Metropolis is from 1927 and any big advancements in electronic instruments and music where yet to be seen. The Theremin - among the earliest electronic instruments - was patented in 1928, the year after Metropolis, and didn't see notable sci-fi soundtrack use until 50's b-movie classics like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek tv-series. Forbidden Planet was released twenty years before the first Star Wars, yet it features a soundtrack of radically abstract synthscapes that leave the musical conservatism of Star Wars dead in the water.

According to documentary Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution the music of Forbidden Planet was in fact one of the many sources of inspiration for the German rock scene in the late 60's and early 70's. Which brings us back to Kraftwerk:

While searching through relevant clips for this blog post I came across this video where someone has set the Kraftwerk track "Metropolis" (The Man-Machine, 1978) to the opening sequences of Metropolis.
It's quite eerie how well the visuals and the music sync together! I don't know whether Kraftwerk intended this - whether they recorded the track to go along with the movie or not - but I do get the feeling that Hütter was on to something. Kraftwerk could have been that band...

4/19/12

Berlin!

Photo by Solveig H. Olsen
Two weeks ago my girlfriend and I visited Berlin for the first time. We spent five nights and six days taking in and enjoying as much of the city as we could. What an experience.

I've driven through parts of Germany before so technically I've been in the country but I've never stayed in any particular place for days, nevertheless visited the capital city. In many ways I'm happy that I didn't go there until now because over the years I've come to know and relish many things about German culture so it was great to actually go there after the fact.
Walking along Karl-Marx-Allee, a monument of DDR architecture (kitsch classic or classic kitsch?). Fernsehturm in the distance. Photo by Solveig H. Olsen
Through my musicology studies I've gained some perspective on romanticism and modernism in European music and arts, and Germany definitely has its share of significant players in these fields of study. It's quite a thing to actually work with the idea of Beethoven and get a sense of what this figure means in European classical music. To get a closer look at someone like Arnold Schönberg (an Austrian composer whose work is steeped in the Austro-German tradition) and get a feeling of what his modernist ideals and "emancipation of the dissonance" meant for 20th century music.
At Alte Nationalgalerie. The painting is Liszt am flügel by Josef Danhauser. A funny/interesting painting for musicologists. Photo by Solveig H. Olsen
To sit down and listen to the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen - both electronic stuff he did at Studio für Elektronische Musik in Köln as well as some of the vocal/acoustic stuff - hearing Theatre of Voices perform Stimmung live in The Black Diamond at The Royal Library here in Copenhagen in the late autumn of '09 was a particularly mindblowing evening - and try to grasp the post-war cerebral serialist business he and others were up to at the Darmstadt Summer Courses For New Music (a continuation of Schönberg's concept of twelve tone music).
Metropolis (Lang, 1927) original movie poster
Last year I took an elective course in film history as part of my bachelor degree and one era that stood out in particular was the German expressionist cinema of the 1920's. It was quite moving to actually experience the work of directors like  Robert Wiene (Das Cabinett Des Dr. Caligari), Fritz Lang (Der Müde Tod, Metropolis) and F. W. Murnau (Faust, Nosferatu, Sunrise), and and notice how these cinematic strands move on into newer styles like film noir, horror and sci-fi. Another notable style from the same era are the so-called "city symphonies", the most famous of which is Walter Ruttmann's Berlin - Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt from 1927.

Add to that my extra-curricular interest in and love of German rock music of the 70's (lovingly dubbed "krautrock" by UK journalists back in the day). Bands like Kraftwerk, Can, NEU!, Tangerine Dream, Cluster, Harmonia, Faust, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Düül II and Popol Vüh. My favorite of the bunch is probably Kraftwerk whose output it is hard to overestimate in regards to electronic popular music of the last 40 years. I've actually written exam papers on Kraftwerk in relation to Stockhausen's electronic work so in a way this interest is omni-curricular (!)
Kraftwerk: Autobahn album cover
And then there's the techno. When I got into electronic dance music about 6-7 years ago I quickly noticed the magnetism of Germany and Berlin in this context. The German techno of today definitely points back to Kraftwerk (via Detroit, a classic case of trans-Atlantic ping pong development). In general, the 4/4 motorik pulse used by krautrock bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can seems like an obvious connection to techno.

Which is a reason why it was so amazing to arrive in Berlin and experience how it's not just hearsay: techno and house music really does seem to be all over the place. Several record shops that we went to had dance oriented music as their main selection with rock and pop often designated to a couple of crates in the corner. Likewise, we noted how many clothes and 2nd hand shops had the almighty four to the floor beat as sonic accompaniment (though we did also attend other record shops with huge selections of rock and many other styles).
At Oye Records on Oderbergerstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg. Diggin' through crates for cool schallplaten. Photo by Solveig H. Olsen
Another funny thing we noted was the fact that with the S-bahn and parts of the U-bahn train tracks often being located one or two levels above street level the city is actually slowly beginning to look a bit like the city of Metropolis! Walking inside a building like the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (finished in 2006) also evoked clear associations with the architecture and cityscape of Metropolis. Berlin is like a huge teeming anthill full of movement and machinery.

The city holds many different clubs and places dedicated to the aforementioned techno and the flagship of 'em all is Berghain.
The club takes its name from its location near the border between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. The building is a former power plant, rustically beautiful in an industrial area near the Ostbahnhof station. Quite a symbolic building/location. A Kraftwerk where power and thumping four to the floor beats are produced. 
Our hotel was near Berghain so we took a walk by it on the first day. Photography is strictly forbidden when inside. A cool break from the narcissism of many mainstream clubs around the world. Photo by Solveig H. Olsen
The club's reputation precedes our visit by several years. Going there on Saturday night and staying there until early Sunday morning was deeply satisfying and then some. The building looks great from the outside and the inside matches. There are two dancefloors. The main floor Berghain where the real hardcore techno bangers are played and the more house-y Panoramabar upstairs. All the DJs played excellent music and all the staff seemed really involved.
When we left at half past six in the morning there was still a long queue outside and everyone was still on an upwards slope. Since we also wanted to do other things on Sunday we had to leave "early".

Berghain also runs its own record label called Ostgut Ton. They've released a ton of great stuff over the last few years. You can buy records in the cloakroom in Berghain which was great. I bought two vinyls on our way out. A Tobias remix EP with remixes by Efdemin and Ricardo Villalobos and the debut album by Shed, called Shedding The Past. Here's the beautiful cover:
I could go on about these and other things that are to be found in Berlin, but there's no avoiding the fact that Berlin is also affected by what isn't there anymore. It's a city and country with a history like no other and it's good to see that the city deals with the difficult parts - the holocaust especially - in different ways. We visited both the Denkmal Für Die Ermordeten Jüden Europas as well as the Jüdische Museum.

Jüdische Museum in particular came across as a poignant attempt to articulate the cultural and human gap left since WW2. The architecture of the museum reflects these issues in many ways that are both poignant and open to interpretation. It's quite redundant to explain in words what it's like to visit the place, so I recommend you to go there instead and see for yourself.
Jüdische Museum, designed by Jewish-American architect Daniel Liebeskind. Photo by Solveig H. Olsen
Berlin has seen a lot of bad times and a lot of good times. After the devastation of WW2 the city was literally divided for almost 30 years, though in recent times things have taken a turn for the better. All in all it was an incredible trip to an incredible city.
To finish of this blog I'll leave you with a little video that Solveig filmed on a Sunday afternoon in Berlin. It sums things up nicely. Thanks for reading!