In case you haven't read the first part of this interview, please do so by clicking here.
Kraftwerk in 3-D (part 2)
By Cornel Hecht, April 25, 2018
Kraftwerk should be seen as a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, and it’s no secret that this is the reason why you play at art galleries like MoMA. But these kinds of venues aren’t always perfectly suited to music concerts. Does it require a lot of effort to build sound installations that give results that you’re satisfied with? I saw that you sometimes install acoustic elements at the venues before the concerts.
Well observed! Because we’re mostly playing eight concerts in a row at these venues, with each one focusing on one album, there’s even more incentive to invest some resources and work in the acoustics. If the on-site installed equipment is lacking in its capabilities, the decentralized Soundscape system will partially improve on that. It’s important that the L-R arrays commonly found in these venues don’t push too much energy from two directions into the space. Instead, the horizontal arrays are used to create a harmonious, smooth sound field.
The effort involved is, of course, a lot bigger. The distance between and angles of the individual systems have to be calculated precisely using a spatial simulation program.
As a multimedia band, Kraftwerk has always been linked to the latest technological developments. Technology is seen as a creative medium to cross musical boundaries. Doesn’t that make you dependent on the technology to a certain extent?
Every musician is dependent on their instrument. If you lose your Stradivarius it’s going to get quiet on stage, or if a singer’s vocal chords give out. In my view the new technologies open up new approaches. Music technology is dependent on the musicians that give it purpose.
How much effort do you put into searching for new technologies?
There’s so much that’s new in the world of music software and hardware that it’s more a case of selecting than searching. The task has more to do with limiting yourself to a set-up that’s suited to you personally, one you know well and can fully exploit in a way that avoids getting lost in the technology. Then there’s the question of what’s really so new that it has an audible influence on the music.
Given that you’re touring the world, be it in Germany, the USA or Russia, I get the impression that you have little or no time for a bit of breathing space. One concert follows on from another. What makes the concert in Moscow different to the one in Detroit? Are there tangible differences?
Superficially, yes. But when the music starts, then all that’s important is the sound and the vibes among the music fans. It makes more of a difference if the venue is an all-seater. As a musician on stage I enjoy it when the audience is moved or moving. But when I’m in the audience it’s pleasant to have a nice seat, good sound quality and a good view.
Each region, of course, has certain propensities, but I don’t perceive those to be as dominant as one might expect. Unexpectedly, the best readings on the applause-o-meter were in Santiago de Chile and in South Korea. There was also our first Roskilde concert, where we had to push our stage monitors to their limits to be able to hear ourselves well.
I remember that that was the reason that during our first concert in Chile in 2004 after the release of Tour de France, I could only hear our music over the PA because the monitor speakers that had been hired there suddenly had no membrane left and there were bits of black paper lying around on stage. So although the three places are far away from each other, they do have something in common.
Staying on the subject of touring, last year on July 1, 2017, Kraftwerk played an open-air concert in Düsseldorf at the opening of the Tour de France, the so-called “grand depart”. Anyone who’s at least a bit of a fan will know that cycling and particularly Tour de France have a major influence on Kraftwerk. Do you see the Tour de France as a source of inspiration and do things come full circle when you play at the opening of the Tour de France?
Of course, it’s a good feeling when you play a concert and you feel exactly that happening, feel things that belong together finally coming together. I began cycling in around 1990 (it took Ralf three years to persuade me) and I connect that with amazing experiences in the Dolomites and the French Alps, and there’s no question that that inspired the Tour de France Soundtracks album. There was a similar event in 2009 at the Manchester Velodrome. The British team had won gold in Peking in 2008, and came out onto the track and rode a few laps with Tour de France playing in the background while being frenetically cheered on by the crowd.
At Steinberg we focus on the latest developments and try to predict how technology might develop in the future. You began working with synthetic speech production and vocoders early on. Vocoders are popular now but when Kraftwerk started working with early forms of speech synthesis, they were virtually unknown. But technology has made big strides here, too. In Japan, for example, Yamaha’s Vocaloid technology is very popular, filling entire stadiums with virtual musicians. Those developments are a bit slower here in Europe. But we’re still witnessing the birth of virtual reality. What is the special attraction of these new technologies and do you also stay up to date on the technologies behind them?
Of course, speech synthesis and the developments in vocoder technology were Florian’s special area of expertise from the beginning. They have had an important influence on the Kraftwerk sound. On the other hand, these electronic voices became so strongly associated with Kraftwerk during the 1990s that other artists didn’t want to use these elements any more. Today, synthetic voices — however they’re produced — have become part of daily life through all the smart devices that produce speech like satnavs or the good, all-knowing spirits that can attend to a lot of tasks on behalf of their owners. That’s brought digital voices in their various facets back into the electro pop sound world.