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The thing and the place

Kraftwerk, half-men, half-machine, return to New York.

There’s nothing New York likes more than a thing. Or a place. Or a place that’s a thing. Or a thing that happens to be a place. This is the city of the impossible restaurant table, the speak­easy bar, the VIP private view hosted by a famous actor who’s not present because he’s at another VIP private view, which is identical to the one you’re at except secret and on Mars. Of course, the same stuff goes on in London or São Paulo or Mumbai but there’s something hard-wired about this behaviour in New Yorkers. Say there are three identical-looking pizza joints on a street. Two of those will always be empty. The third will have a line of people patiently waiting, checking their phones. There’s always one place that’s the place. That’s how it works.

One morning the internet told New York that Kraftwerk would play an eight-night retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art – a presentation of eight of their albums, one a night, to an audience of 450 people. Kraftwerk usually play stadiums, and are generally reckoned to be the most influential pop musicians of the past 30 years, having given birth to the electronic dance music that now soundtracks the lives of millions. Instantly there was a sort of gut recognition (at least in what is laughably called the “creative community” but really consists of a fiendish Google-alert-enhanced hipster mob who will stop at nothing to get another hit on the cultural crack pipe) that this would be the biggest MoMA thing since Marina Abramovic sat silently at a table and people cried and camped out overnight and had spiritual experiences.

Faced with such thingitude a few fans inevitably lost their minds. New York being almost improbably full of rich people, when threatened with denial of gratification, a small subset of the denied will always try to throw cash at the problem, a process that sometimes seems to be the main driver of the city’s absurd top-end service economy. Hence the appearance on the net of a scalped ticket for the Trans-Europe Express show priced at $45,000. Plus a $6,750 service fee.

Given all this, I was curious about the 449 other people in the room with me on the night of Sunday 15 April. The ones who didn’t have a commission from an august British weekly either had to be ridiculously rich, ridiculously connected or in possession of some clever sniper software. We filed into the museum past four Kraftwerk automata in coffin-like boxes.

I was surprised to be handed 3D glasses, since the band was supposed to be “live”, in the sense of present in reality, as opposed to on a screen.
With Kraftwerk, the issue of what’s living and what’s not is far from trivial. The band’s huge influence has come from their exploration of certain kinds of affectlessness, particularly the imagery of the cyborg. Formed by Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter in Dusseldorf in 1970, they started as an instrumental group influenced by minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. In their early phase, they made driving, trance-like music using Schneider’s flute over preset organ loops and a primitive drum machine. They became famous when they removed every trace of the analogue from their sound and began to sing through vocoders about radioactivity and computers and other phenomena of modernity.

Kraftwerk’s rigorous aesthetic modernism is probably what has brought them to MoMA, when other acts such as Silver Apples or Underground Resistance or Suicide or Devo or Afrika Bambaataa could lay claim to some of the same territory. Kraftwerk (German for “power station”) have an intellectual and visual agenda that complements their music. As they play, slogans and lyrics flash behind them, including a couplet from the song “Technopop”: “It will go on and on/music as the carrier of ideas.” The “ideas” carried on the sine wave of Kraftwerk’s music concern the boundaries between organic and inorganic and the Janus face of modernity, which offers the utopian promise of a rationally organised society, and the spectre of dehumanisation and totalitarianism. The band present themselves as showroom dummies, robots, cyborgs – half-men and half-objects. They sometimes wear uniforms and are photographed in heroic poses that nod to the terrifying consequences of Germany’s experiments with modernism.

hey have made themselves the poets of what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls “nonplaces” – bland, transient locations (the Autobahn, the control room) – managing to find a weird incantatory beauty in them. They seem to celebrate post-war Europe as perhaps the ultimate “nonplace”, banal but somehow perfected, and sing out its banality as a kind of transcendent pop joy.

At MoMA, we watch four middle-aged men dressed in rubber suits, painted with a wire-frame grid that seems to suggest they are waiting for software to skin them according to the preferences of the user. They stand at evenly spaced consoles that hide whatever keyboards and other interfaces they are using. With our 3D glasses on, the audience is as depersonalised as the band, enhanced in order to see the visuals but stripped of our individuality.

At first we are reserved, a little uncertain of how to behave but despite the band’s showmanly impassivity we are eventually applauding and yelling our approval at every song. Gradually we begin to dance. It is impossible (not to mention irrelevant) to work out what aspect of this performance is “live” in any traditional sense – what is atoms and what is bits. We are experiencing the aural equivalent of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, a towering symbol of the New. And we are finding the New quite funky, thank you. The auditorium is soon filled with 450 very lucky New Yorkers succumbing to the sexual discipline of the disco, bodies jerking masochistically to relentless, synthetic, industrial beats.

Hari Kunzru’s latest novel is “Gods Without Men” (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis