Friday, 31 July 2020

Book: Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany

Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany, by Uwe Schütte, 2020, is another 'introductory' book to Kraftwerk. I recall when Pascal Bussy's Man, Machine and Music from 1993 was pretty much the only book on the topic. Now it seems there's nearly an industry making stories out of Kraftwerk and the krautrock phenomenom.


Not that I complain. It does make an interesting read and is still a little known story. Kraftwerk are known for a certain elusiveness, which further separated from the usually rather pushy pop-acts. Therefore the fans are even more hungry for any potential new snippet or insightful interpretation.

The book traces the evolution of Kraftwerk from a local art-scene band to an internationally known electro-act. The book structure is firmly mapped over the album releases, and it's not a long nor a very detailed book. If you read the ANTENNA mailing list actively in the early 2000s, there's probably not much new in this book, despite the 2020 perspective. In some of the details, the book does read like a compendium of the collective insight in that group.

Perhaps following these times, there's more need to re-examine the band's strategy of flirting with fascism, and to discuss racial themes in relation to the band. Despite some early bad international publicity and poorly calculated attempts at playing a game of stereotypes with journalists, it's long established Kraftwerk do not condone nazism. But, despite that, now the somewhat flippant notions of 'ethnic music from Ruhr area', 'industrial folk music' and the band's apparent celebration of western technological values (irony and all) need some re-evaluation too.

However, the way I read the book, the widespread appeal of Kraftwerk's music in different localities seems to testify in favour of a fundamentally anti-nationalist standpoint. Whereas rock/blues was appropriated to be the standard western white (male) music, Kraftwerk could help invent pop music that was a sufficiently blank slate, music for people who 'came from nowhere'.

Between the lines, I'm thinking the author says that Kraftwerk's asexual, 'anti-male' approach kind of rescues Kraftwerk from the sins of rock artists' maledom, despite being something of a boys' club music. The book does not do much to open the sexism of The Model, though. Is it somehow saved by a layer of irony or not, I'm wondering?

Instead the author offhandedly says the Sex Object is an oddity, and, in my opinion, misinterprets the song. It is perhaps time to say The Model is the odd one out in Kraftwerk canon, and the author is already giving tools to decipher the song this way. At least I've felt that Sex Object is now a more a song for our times than The Model.

Interestingly, the author points out the cultural stream of 1970s afro-futurism, which means that in likelihood the electro-influences in hip-hop would have emerged even without Kraftwerk, or the very least it was already a fertile ground for Kraftwerk's 'mothership' to land on.

This is a nice touch in a book that otherwise tends to follow the hype and elevate Kraftwerk as the single most important band of the 20th century. Yet, when enthusing about who Kraftwerk influenced, authors rarely discuss who influenced them. Sadly the book stops short of doing that, giving an impression that Kraftwerk transposed high art ideas of Warhol, Beuys, Gilbert&George and Stockhausen directly into pop music. To balance this out somehow the author points out Kraftwerk were not past 'copy-pasting' sound and melodic elements themselves, but this is more of a detail rather than a major reveal about the origins of Kraftwerk's sound.

It seems to me there is a route from early synthesizer music, such as Wendy Carlos' work made famous through Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. Especially the march, with overlaid vocoder singing works almost as a blueprint for Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express -era music. I recall Pascal Bussy had this in mind with his earlier book, rightly tracing the emergence of Kraftwerk as a result of the evolution of the synthesizer, making notes of the moog music era and novelty songs en route to Kraftwerk.

I recall fans have sometimes suggested that Kraftwerk brought the funk-like elements for their music from, well, funk. I've not yet found the famous Numbers beat from funk music, but that may be because I'm not an aficionado. Captain Sky might be a starting point here. I believe Kraftwerk were actively mining any new music styles behind the Atlantic ocean, especially after visiting US themselves. Was Kraftwerk simply one more band to take elements from world music, but just being more clever and more tactful about it? Even if the beats might owe something to funk I guess the insistently monotonic and minimalized beat in Numbers is really their invention.

The book repeats the fan-historic and journalistic consensus that Electric Café was a misfire and does not belong to the canon of great Kraftwerk albums. I always disagree. Perhaps I should argue this in more detail some day!

Let's say I really suspect the criticism always came from older Kraftwerk fans, those who started with Autobahn and saw the band further themselves from that sound and conceptual point of origin. But I think for us, the Commodore 64 generation and 1990s techno musicians, it was a very important record, and working backwards towards Autobahn and the older records was always a bit of a challenge.


What I find most valuable in the book is the way it connects Kraftwerk's themes and concepts with locally german cultural and political events, such as the debate on nuclear power and the terrorist scare of 1970s-1980s. This nicely ties with the central idea that Kraftwerk was a project of building a new European and German identity into the void after World War II. But I think Pascal Bussy already suggested as much.

There could have been more discussion on musical connections, because as I already opined Kraftwerk did not simply filter high-art and political-societal concepts into music in an isolated bubble. Saying Trans Europe Express contradicted punk in late 1970s, does not say much because a whole futurist-disco theme existed in parallel to punk. Is Kraftwerk to thank for that too, or did Kraftwerk derive from it?

It is also a sobering to point out that although the band was known early on in Germany, it was not particularly revered there during the time when they were already internationally famous.

All in all, a very entertaining and inspiring read. Still I cannot help but point out some tiny mistakes and what I felt were omissions.

No, Afrika Bambaataa did not sample Numbers or Trans Europe Express for Planet Rock. Many journalists and writers tend to get the story somehow wrong. The beat was recreated on a drum machine, and a TEE-like melody was overlaid on it, creating a kind of a mash-up without actually doing a mash-up. I guess that because of the way music copyright worked a that time, only the melody from TEE became a point of contention and later pressings of Planet Rock credited the songwriters.

The computer on cover of Computer World has been identified and it is a terminal rather than a 'computer'. Interesting detail here is that supposedly the band had this particular item, and it was used for working on speech synthesis.

Schütte bluntly says that first home computers arrived after the album Computer World (1981), stating that the Commodore 64 from 1982 was the first 'true home computer'. No, Apple II was available from 1977. Commodore's PET (1977) models likewise predate the album. Atari 400/800 were also from 1979. Even in Europe, Sinclair ZX80 hit the shelves in 1980.

It is true the home computer 'fad' properly hit Europe only later and in a sense Kraftwerk had hit on a fashionable concept early on, possibly by having a whiff of what was already happening in the US.

Digressing a bit, I've never felt the rather excellent album was particularly 'prophetic' (an adjective often associated with it). I'd say it was observative about things that were already going on. Computers had permeated trade, banking and logistics already at that point. This would be especially true of highly industrialized centres in the USA, Japan and Germany. It's just that computers had not yet entered home life to the extent we now know.

So, to me it would be better to say that with Computer World, Kraftwerk managed to identify the concepts that had real staying power.

Yes, Rebecca Allen (not 'Allan') set up the computer graphics for Electric Café album and the video Musique Non Stop. But it was not a new invention, it was basically re-use of the techniques that had been used for the film Futureworld (1976), and partly showcased in Allen's earlier contribution to the Adventures in Success music video project from 1983. The technique dates back to early 1970s and research into computer graphics at the University of Utah. Of course, stylistically and artistically the bold Kraftwerk rendition is the most impressive. But purely from a technical viewpoint it was hardly state-of-the-art anymore.

When it comes to The Mix, to me it seems an omission not to say that the album could be considered Kraftwerk's idea of a 'live' album, in that the songs now resembled what they sounded in concerts.

Despite mentioning the new concerts, the author does not mention Kraftwerk gave album-themed concerts, and generally being more flexible as to what songs to include in a concert. This meant a sudden influx of revamped songs that were never before played live. To me this is the most significant, last step in the Kraftwerk archival process, and perhaps not so much the 3-D visuals and sound.

I don't get what the author has against Daft Punk.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Fleamarket pedal


5 Euro foot pedals from a flea market. At first I thought it might be a sewing machine pedal, but seeing as it is pretty heavy and has two pedals so I don't know.

I had no fitting DIN connector and the cable smelled so strongly of old house, I got rid of the cable altogether.

Opening the box was not obvious. I had to tear off the soft rubber bottom to reach the screw that holds the pedal axle in place. (The tiny hole in the axle of the loose pedal at the top image).

These machine screws were mightily stuck and I may have contributed to bending them, when trying to "open" the axle from the end.


Inside there was a tiny surprise: There were more parts than I would have expected. What does the cog do?

First I thought there was some complex system for softening the punch for the microswitches. Which it probably kind of does too...


But the pedals are not both on-off switches. The left one has a mechanical flip-flop latch that keeps the switch "pressed". Were there no microswitches with this functionality?



The left pedal then controls whether the right pedal presses go through at all.


Using the pedal

I had some visions about using the pedal as a second fire button on C64, or controlling my own programs through Arduino serial. Or a weird chess clock.

But, first, the pedal could be used in something that actually needs a pedal.

Enter the Alesis Samplepad Pro, another recent cheap acquisition. It's an electric drum kit that can be played with drumsticks.

There's not much pro about it, as it has a widely known crosstalk problem between the pads. But fortunately by adjusting the individual pad sensitivy values the problem can be practically removed.

My approach so far has been to make Kick, Snare and Hi-Hat more sensitive (6) and concentrate on using them. The rest of the pads can have level 2 sensitivity.

Now if the kick drum could be delivered with pedal, I could remove that pad from the equation altogether.


The Samplepad Pro has a pedal option for kick drum and hihat, and I could connect the pedal microswitch easily to this connector. I soldered in some cables, of course missing the right connections at first, but finally it worked.

Here I've used the 'trigger' option. Possibly the 'switch' allows a velocity control through a resistor.

Well, honestly I can't play at all, but already could see it would make more sense to have a pedal together with the pads. It's a bit dificult to generate proper patterns by using drumsticks alone, even though the geniuses in Youtube can do that too. Then again using both feet and hands is another level of motoric articulation and it doesn't come too easily either.

Well, the ergonomics of the situation now weigh much more heavily than when just using drumsticks. It's also blindingly obvious the pedal is not really suitable for a musical instrument. Ok, so I had to remove the rubber footing that would have kept it better in position, but I doubt if it would help that much.

No wonder the add-on pedals easily cost as much as the second-hand Samplepad.

Trigging the kick was not as accurate as I would have expected. If I make a steady rhythm it will pick all microswitch clicks accurately. But if I click it in really rapidly, only the first goes through. I'm wondering if this is a problem (or intentional design) with the Samplepad input detection, or with the microswitch itself.

So, a nice junk find that at least motivated me to do something more material after a long while.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Some more Linux/Proton games

About a year ago, I had a look at Proton on Steam for running Windows games on Linux.

Here's a small bunch of games I have since then played on Linux using the Proton/wine setup in Steam.

The results show not everything is totally perfect, it seems the larger the game the larger potential there is for some glitchiness.

Mind you some games could be improved by adjusting settings, these are more like out-of-the-box experiences.

A larger problem for the Linux player these days is the increasing amount of different game stores and solutions for running these games. Not everything is available on Steam. For instance, to play Firewatch I had to use Lutris, so I'm not discussing it here.


(I have reduced the screenshot sizes for this blog)


Inside

For some reason I avoided this for a long time. The game's a real little treat, comparable to Limbo (if not better in some ways) and works quite perfectly.

Ok this is exactly the kind of screenshot that helped me avoid the game. It's much more interesting than this.

Arma 3

There's apparently some limitations to on-line features, but I could play the solo missions.

If I recall correctly it did work rather well.

Every vehicle is quite meticulously modelled from outside and inside.
Although I had some positive memories from Arma 2 back in Windows Vista days, I just couldn't really now become enthused about this somewhat militaristic and involved playfield.

There is interesting stuff like drone reconnaissance, but the missions are of the "perform exactly correctly, or fail" variety, rather than a dynamic simulation, which is not that satisfying.

Some of the cutscenes are almost hilarious in their military matter-of-factness

Dirt Rally

I'm not too enthusiastic about car games but rally games have tended to be more bearable.

Dirt Rally works well, the loading times were surprisingly long but this likely has nothing to do with Proton.

The famous Paskuri.
It's about playable with a keyboard but this kind of game might really need a controller.

It does look quite authentic.

Virginia

This is a heavily Twin Peaks-inspired story game. It's bit like the aforementioned Firewatch but with even less to do for the player. Just click on things and walk the character to correct position to find the things to click.

The beginning is promising but then it starts to get wearisome, as the gameplay never really expands. Then it just ends.

The unhappy family.
Almnost needless to say, the technically quite simple game works perfectly in Proton.

Where's the coffee?

NieR: Automata

Not as huge as a Final Fantasy game, but it's still quite intense. Although at heart an RPG, the game fuses elements from shootemups, platform games, brawlers, often shifting the genre multiple times a minute when going gets hectic.

The technical strain is not massive, but the visuals are well thought out
I encountered spurious crashes at first, but apparently these were a result of undervolting I had done earlier to my computer. After removing undervolting it became one of the stablest games.

You can attach different chips for different features, bit like magic accessories in an RPG. What makes it different is that even the basic game functions, such as hp counters, map, damage counters are "chips" and could theoretically be removed in order to make space for something else.

You are wearing the masks wrong

Mirror's Edge

A rather influential game, as most later third person action games (Tomb Raider) employ similar movement logic as this parkour-fest. Played this only a little but it seemed to work ok.

I needed to change the in-game resolution settings as it did not correctly guess the screen resolution.

Here I had not yet changed the resolution...

Just Cause 3

I believe this was something that until recently would not have worked because of Digital Rights Management issues. (Funnily enough the antagonists in the game are called DRM for Di Ravello Militia)

The High Ground makes it all easier
A rather nice open world game in the GTA mould, but with more emphasis on super-heroics and destruction. Maybe a touch of Midwinter here, although without the strategy/recruit elements.

After launching, the window minimizes itself, after which I had to bring it into view again. Using shift+tab I brought the focus to Steam, after which the keyboard becomes responsive.

The rebels favor strangely uniform visuals for styling their cars
During game, there's also a danger of pressing a key combination that minimizes the window again, or brings something else to focus. After this happens the keys rarely work 100% again and I had to relaunch the game.

I encountered some graphic glitches, which might or might not be result of Proton, but nothing that would distract my gameplay.

It also did crash very occasionally, perhaps 2-3 times in 20 hours (edit:30 hours) of playtime.