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RIP Florian Schneider: How Kraftwerk became the forefathers of modern electronic music

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Sahil Gupta is the founder and editor of warpcore. He has spent his entire career in mainstream media including stints at Gadgets 360, BGR India, India Today and more recently the Times of India Group where he led international franchise publications like Gizmodo India, PCMag India, TechRadar India and TechSpot India. Apart from having deep insight into consumer electronics trends and tech, he's also a music aficionado and pioneered the concept of thematic indie music events in New Delhi, India's capital. warpcore is a culmination of his career which has been spent on the intersection of technology and music.

Even though he wasn’t active with Kraftwerk for more than a decade, his name will forever be etched in history as one of the inventors of modern electronic music. Schneider, who was reportedly suffering terminally from cancer in his last few days, founded the groundbreaking project in 1970 with Ralf Huetter. Schneider hadn’t performed as Kraftwerk since 2006 and had become estranged with his longtime partner Huetter with whom he co-composed the act’s 10 albums, the last of which came out in 2003. 

Technological innovations: 

No modern musical ensemble has pushed the limits of technology more so than Kraftwerk. They are considered to be the inventors of modern electronic music.  Florian started off playing the flute, violin and guitar and often would process the sound to a degree that people wouldn’t realise what was the original instrument. But even then, they used to heavily depend on custom drum pads which were a triggering mechanism for the Maestro Rhythm King which was a 60’s drum machine.

However, by 1974, when Kraftwerk released their eponymous album Autobahn, he had ditched the flute and added the iconic synthesiser and microphone to the setup. 

Autobahn was largely the seminal moment for the Kraftwerk as it had not only expanded to a quartet which they are even today, but the sound of the album and the instrumentation influenced modern music perhaps more than any other act in the last 50 years. 

Following the release of the album, the ensuing tours also to-date remain the benchmark for what an electronic music performance should stand for. It was an audiovisual sensory experience which by 2009 was evolved to a 3D concert to view projections behind the band.

Autobahn was the first major album that made extensive use of synthesisers. It made use of the mini-Moog which was also already known for its pulsating sound found in Donna Summer’s iconic track “I feel love”. At the time, it was a very original sound and coupled by the fun lyrics and robotic drone-like vocals of Hüetter it was a hit in the United States and Britain. The mini-Moog was now part of the vocabulary of a musician because of the AutoBahn. 

Both Huetter and Schneider evolved their new formula in the 70s. Their setup kept getting bigger with more sophisticated synthesisers and drum machines which led to albums like Trans-Europe, the Man-Machine and Computer World. 

In 1976, Wolfgang Flür of the band used a laser drum cage where he triggered rhythms by breaking lasers with his hands. Today, they do the same thing using software triggers. 

Schneider and Huetter also had Matten & Wiechers to build a custom 16-step sequencer called the synthanorma sequenzer which was used both in Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine

Even before their tryst with digital technology, Kraftwerk was using something called the Orchestron which would deliver sampled sounds. The Orchestron stored its light-scanned graphic waveforms in something that’s close to the ancient relative of an optical disc. 

In 1981, when Kraftwerk happened to tour India in Mumbai, they reportedly came with 52 tons of gear according to an article by Red Bull India. And this happened at a time when the band had just spent a lot of time recording Computer World in the studio making sure that it was easy for them to travel and perform their music. 

By the 90’s Kraftwerk was in full embrace of digital technologies. In 1993 for its Musique Non-Stop concert in Austria, the band collaborated with synth pioneers Dieter Doepfer who also invented the MOGLI. The gadget in question was the MOGLI midi glove which was an early form of gesture control on stage. This was actually based on the Nintendo Power Glove.

Today, such an effect can be had by hacking gestures systems like the Microsoft Kinect which is actually meant for gaming. 

One of the most distinctive things about Kraftwerk’s music is the robotic vocals. Kraftwerk had a mysterious device called the Robovox which was reportedly patented by Florian Schneider in 1990 — a system for synthesising singing in real-time. Reportedly it was first used on “The Robots” on the Mix album in 1991. Even before the use of the Robovox, they were known for their pioneering use of the EMS Vocoder 1000.

The most influential musical group in the last 50 years

The sound that Kraftwerk invented with the use of technology established them as the godfathers of modern-day house, techno and disco. However in the 80’s it also established them as the progenitors of genres like synthwave, synth-pop with the increased use of synths in even rock music which can be heard in the work of the Alan Parsons Project and even bands like Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode.

What’s even more interesting is that their sound was even touching genres like hip-hop. For instance, Trans-Europe Express was sampled by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force for Planet Rock. In 2010, Dr Dre on Under Pressure from his Detox album featuring samples of Trans-Europe Express. They have influenced even Kanye West as detailed by a Vanity Fair documentary.

Computer World influenced the work of people like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Larry Heard in the Detroit scene which has become a focal point in the history of techno. “Mojo used to play ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are The Robots’ pretty regularly, but the first time I heard ‘Robots’ I just froze,” said Juan Atkins in 2012. 

Modern-day electronic music wizards, the Chemical Brothers borrowed from Kraftwerk in their debut album Exit Planet Dust where they sampled “Ohm sweet Ohm” in their track Leave Home

Computer Love from Computer World was even sampled by Cold Play in 2005 for their song Talk. The simple melody of the Computer World is played throughout the track – the difference is that the melody is being performed on a distorted electric guitar.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop were always highly influenced by the work of Schneider and Huetter. Bowie’s track V-2 Schneider is said to be a tribute to the legendary co-founder of the band. Iggy Pop once said in a documentary that he and Schneider once went shopping for asparagus together. 

Even Miley Cyrus took to sampling Kraftwerk in 2015 in her song “Doo it” taking to the 1975 ambient track Radioland. 

Everyone from Daft Punk to Justin Timberlake to Porcupine tree has been touched by Kraftwerk and are considered to be part of the modern pop continuum just as bands like Pink Floyd.

You may not know about Kraftwerk but in one way or the other you know their sound — be it in a form of a sample by a pop act, or modern music that’s influenced by it or the basically the synth-laden sound of science fiction in movies like Blade Runner and even some disco music. 

This was best put by Underworld’s Karl Hyde. “They are in the psyche of modern pop, whether there is an awareness of it or not,” he said in 2013.

Here are a couple of the most influential tracks by Kraftwerk

Autobahn

Trans-Europe Express

Computer World

The Model

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