terre thaemlitz writings

Die Roboter Rubato
Piano Interpretations of Kraftwerk Titles Arranged & Performed by Terre Thaemlitz
- Terre Thaemlitz

Originally posted on comatonse.com May 1997. Accompanying text to the album of the same name (Germany: Mille Plateaux, 1997). Kraftwerk image parodies by Terre, used as slide projections during live performances. Click here to view original release artwork.


List of Tracks

  1. Die Roboter
  2. Ätherwellen
  3. Tour de France
  4. Computer Welt
  5. Techno Pop
  6. Ruckzuck
  7. Radioland
  8. Mensch Machine
  9. Schaufensterpuppen
  10. Morgen Spaziergang


    Die Roboter: English translation: "The Robots." Aside from being the title of one of Kraftwerk's more popular works, the recurrent theme of Die Roboter, including the substitution of robots resembling group members during performances, has become symbolic of the group itself.
    Rubato: Music performance that does not adhere to a strict sense of time.

In producing and recording these piano solos I have attempted to construct a style and sound which reflects the complexity of thematics established by Kraftwerk over the past two and a half decades, as well as my own changing and contradictory relationships to those thematics. Consistency of tempo and key, trademarks of Kraftwerk's compositions, are often abandoned. Melodies become obscured, warped and inverted, lost then found, only to be lost again. The piano sound itself is digitally processed, with intrusive noise and flooding resonance taking the place of Kraftwerk's meticulous clarity of technique. Noise which distorts and clouds like interpretive processes. Resonance which mimics the frustrating search for resonant phrases and associations with Kraftwerk's compositions and thematics.


Kraftwerk's German titles and lyrics are referenced in this text, with literal English translations of lyrics replacing the lyrics found in their English releases, under the self-critical and admittedly cynical pretense of identifying origin. The identification and eschewing of a concept of origin is central to Kraftwerk's commentary on production and authorship. While the manufacturing of mannequins and robots in their own likeness promotes an image of authorless mechanization and replication, they are also known for filing major lawsuits against unauthorized sampling of their works, including their notorious battle for the rights to Afrika Bambaataa's hip hop classic Planet Rock, which used music from Trans Europe Express. As these annotations are written in English, and as my primary constructed audience [American Kraftwerk and electronic music enthusiasts] is most likely more familiar with Kraftwerk's English titles, it is my intention that when reading German titles this momentary dislocation and ensuing identification of referentiality shall serve as a metaphor for the prescriptively Modernist flavors of alienation and insularity present in Kraftwerk's discourse, as well as a contextualization of the interpretive processes of the listeners/readers, and a critical acknowledgment of the limitations and desires of my own commentary.

Referentiality Non Stop

    Wir fahr'n fahr'n farh'n auf der Autobahn
    .... Jetzt schalten wir das radio an
    Aus dem lautsprecher klingt es dann
    'Wir fahr'n auf der Autobahn...'
    We're drivin' drivin' drivin' on the Autobahn
    .... Now we turn the radio on
    From the speaker the sound comes
    "We're drivin' on the Autobahn..."

    - Autobahn, Kraftwerk (1974)

Since the early 1970's, the technopop supergroup Kraftwerk has cultivated a sonic discourse on Man's [engendered] relationship to post-Industrial technologies. The crisis of this relationship, if it is to be identified as such, is the manner in which Western and Global First-World Cultures ask people to continually reposition ourselves as subjects and authors of our environments. This 'spectacle of the spectator' was explored heavily in Kraftwerk's early works, such as the above-quoted Autobahn, in which the spectator "Kraftwerk" [Kraftwerkzuschauer] gives reference to its own spectacle [Kraftwerkschauspiel]. However, over the years Kraftwerk's active identification of this simultaneity of circumstance gave way to insularity and self-referentiality, culminating in 1991's regurgitant Das Mix. Despite the productive promises of their recurrent anthem since the mid 80's, "Musique Non Stop," and amid rampant rumours of continuous productivity at the Kling Klang studio, new releases by Kraftwerk emerge at ever lengthily intervals and with ever decreasing urgency. As a producer I am not interested in interpreting this limitation of visible productivity from Kraftwerkschauspiel as a commentary on the producers themselves. Rather, I am interested in discussing Kraftwerkschauspiel`s transformation, and the decreased reference to Kraftwerkzuschauer, as a metaphor for the attempts of myself and others to accommodate for recognized and unrecognized limitations and contradictions of contemporary discourses on the social construction of cultures, identities and subjectivities.

1 The concept of the avant garde is herein rejected for its function since the late 1920's as a vehicle for dominant culture to recuperate reformist metaphors into high culture, ultimately becoming the spectacle of the wild beast within the confines of the gallery epitomized by Expressionism. It is also recognized as a primary venue of distribution and discourse for contemporary electronic music, placing at issue processes of recuperation implicit in my own projects.
Admittedly nihilistic, skeptically optimistic, sardonically humorous, the piano solos which comprise Die Roboter Rubato ring of familiarity and estrangement - an estrangement which, via the hyper-aestheticized tradition of 20th century rubato piano performance, reflects a refinement of taste with each unexpected transgression of meter and scale. This inescapable circumstance of taste conditions my responses to my own actions, distracting me with an aesthetic savoriness which attempts to make palatable well ingested cultural preservatives. My attempts to identify and discuss the politics of my practices are despairingly self-suppressed or quickly diffused by high-Modernist concepts of the avant garde.1 I learn to find savoriness in contradictions of self and community which I attempt to embrace through difference while struggling to engage ensuing problematics in terms other than Sartonian nausea. I learn to find savoriness in the resignation with which I accept my associations with such electronic music genres as Contemporary Ambient, Electroacoustique Computer Music and Minimalism, which are typically discussed through dominant a-politically Humanist and Metaphysical jargon. It is in this gluttonous stupor that I ask, can Kraftwerkschauspiel's transformation into ineffeteness inform a post-Modern convolution of multiple politicized contents?

Wo Spricht die Stimme der Energie? (Where Speaks the Voice of Energy?)

Kraftwerk isolates post-Industrial technologies as the vehicles through which Man [engendered] constructs and loses identity. These technologies are both symptomatic and pro-actively affirmative of Western and Global First-World Cultures.

    Hier spricht die Stimme der Energie
    Ich bin ein riesiger elektrischer Generator
    Ich liefere Ihnen Licht und Kraft
    Und ermögliche es Ihnen, Sprached, Music und Bild
    Durch den Äther auszusenden und zu empfangen
    Ich bin Ihr Diener und Ihr Herr zugleich
    Deshalb hütet mich gut
    Mich, den Genius der Energie
    Here speaks the voice of energy
    I am an enormous electric generator
    I supply their light and power
    And make possible their language, music and art
    Travelling through the air to the receiver
    I am simultaneously your servant and your master
    So protect me well
    I, the genius of energy

    - The Voice of Energie, Kraftwerk (1975)

By naming themselves "Kraftwerk" [English translation: "Power Station"], Kraftwerk discloses the role Kraftwerkschauspiel plays in the construction of culture while they note Kraftwerkzuschauer's contingency upon cultural and technological preconditions. This social circumstance of signaled content [Genius der Energie] finds perpetuation [via hüten] in our construction of identities through technological media and the absence thereof. Political transgression, all radicality, is penetrated by waves of cultural influence and referentiality.

    Es strahlen die Sender
    Bild, Ton und Wort
    An jeden Ort
    Radiating from the transmitter
    Pictures, sound and words
    In every location

    - Antenna, Kraftwerk (1975)

Within this continual barrage of influence, much of Kraftwerk's project assumes a stance which is ultimately complacent in its exhaltation of the spectacle of post-Industrial cultures:

    Radio Sender
    Und Hörer sind wir
    Wir spielen im Äther
    Das Wellenklavier
    We are radio transmitters
    And listeners
    Playing the piano waves
    Of the air

    - Antenna, Kraftwerk (1975)

But can one develop a more complex relationship to such influences than play without purporting to transcend or evade such influences? May one/I [schauspiel/Thaemlitzschauspiel] select, distort and ultimately engage in critical dialogue with that to which one/I [zuschauer/Thaemlitz-zuschauer] respond(s)? In the instance of these piano recordings and their original referents, which takes precedence: their stylistic and thematic variance, or their engagement with a mutual discourse that overrides intent with avant garde? Or rather, to what extent is an acceptance of the latter implicit in an understanding of the former, and how can the resulting circumstance contribute to a strategy of social action?

Spiegelsaal (The Hall of Mirrors)

    Der junge Mann betrat eines Tages den Spiegelsaal
    Und entdeckte eine Spiegelung seines Selbst
    One day the young man stepped into the hall of mirrors
    And discovered a reflection of himself

    - Spiegelsaal, Kraftwerk (1978)

I am skeptical of binarisms. I wish to complicate the interrelationship between zuschauer and schauspiel. They do not exist in a one-to-one exchange, but are experienced as a dynamic and often contradictory condition of many-to-many - of my simultaneously being acted upon, acting out, being complacent, being confused, being inattentive, being unclear to others, and/or projecting unintended signifiers. Yet I can only comprehend this a-totality of being through fractured images of "self and culture." Hence my attempt to avoid binarisms seems limited to an awareness of their utilization. Often in this hall of mirrors I catch myself staring, paralyzed, repulsed but drawn to the aesthetic charms of my skepticism.

Frustrated by my inability to resolve binarisms, I am momentarily caught in the vanity of an over-marketed antagonism against Pop Political Correctness, an antagonism with an underlying nihilism which holds the promise of tranquillity in inefficacy (an absence of the potential for disturbance). But I soon concede that I am reacting to a cultureschauspiel intended to conceal the potential for direct political action so as to maintain the status quo. From this state of informed paralysis I contemplate identities which will allow me to enact in a capacity similar to the manner in which I sense identities acting upon myself.

For Kraftwerk, this struggle to construct identities serves as their primary function as Artists:

    Der Künstler lebt im Spiegel
    Mit dem Echo seines Selbst
    Sogar die gröBten Stars
    Leben ihr Leben im SpiegelglaB
    The artist lives in the mirror
    With the echoes of himself
    Even the greatest stars
    Live their lives in the looking glass

    - Spiegelsaal, Kraftwerk (1978)

It is this idea of Artists as "living in the mirror," inseparable from the social dynamics of the signifiers around them and unable to identify a 'true' (supra-social) self among the reflections, through which Kraftwerk takes their most critical departure from traditional Modernist concepts of the Artist as a culturally transcendent reporter of a universal Human Condition. Kraftwerk shows that even within a world of global communication technologies, an understanding of non-universality and contextualization is required for dialogue to occur. This concept gains expression through Kraftwerk recording their albums in multiple languages including German, English, Japanese, French and Spanish, each album being released in corresponding distribution territories. However, what is of even greater interest in Kraftwerk's commentary on Artistic production is the manner in which Artists, Stars, Kraftwerkschauspiel, are addressed secondarily in relation to their audiences - "Sogar die gröBten Stars..." ["Even the greatest stars..."]. Thus the emphasis is shifted away from schauspiel and toward the zuschauer, the performance of the spectator within an arena of images.

Die Mensch Machine als Sex Object (The Man Machine as Sex Object)

Integral to a concept of identity amidst the images is a concept of surrogacy - objects and imagery which become the basis for deriving and conveying content about oneself as zuschauer. For Kraftwerk, post-Industrial technologies are the surrogates of choice, assuming human form in mannequins and robots. Accordingly, technologies take on meaning through contextualization and utilization to the same extent that I derive self-content through their appeal, attainment and utilization. Emerging from this perpetual exchange (if not fictional exchange) of information is the location of content within the technologies themselves - a fetishization of the Mensch Machine.

2 While this process of identification involves many engendered signifiers which emphasize the social prioritization of Masculinity and men, it is not a specifically Male process. Rather, it is herein seen as a dominant ideological point of reference which contributes in multiple and ever inconsistant ways toward the construction of concepts of self among women, men and transexuals.

While Kraftwerk seems to embrace this concept of fetishism with self-parodying fervor, I find myself distracted by the radical clarity with which they pronounce a simplistic Masculine engendering of such technologies. Kraftwerk's stance is overly symptomatic of traditional Western Patriarchal and Hetero-normative concepts of technology: machines function as heroic extensions of Masculinity which allow patriarchal societies to dominate Mother Nature. For Kraftwerk, it is through Mensch Machines that Man [engendered] attempts to compensate for His inability to locate a Natural [feminine engendered] essence of the self.2 It is in reference to this concept that these recordings utilize digital representations of piano (mechanical reconstructions of an overtly Romantic and organic signifier) and are performed in a stylistic vein which sets out to deconstruct the Expressionist gestures it epitomizes.

A concept of the Feminine as alien permeates Kraftwerk's representations of women as estranged objects of desire. It is in discussing women that Kraftwerk returns to the misogynist formulas of the shunted Male Modernist Artist. In compositions such as Das Modell women are objectified and transcribed with content through processes of fetishization that parallel those applied to technologies, until the two become interchangeable. In fact, since the early 1980's, Kraftwerk has referred to technologies as sexual surrogates for women, such as in the compositions It's More Fun to Compute, Computer Liebe, and Der Telefon Anruf (in which the unattainable object of desire is a recording of a woman's voice).

Tour de France
3 The term "Queer," as reappropriated since the late 1980's by such groups as Queer Nation, references pansexual and transgendered concepts of sexual identity and is used as an alternative to identities such as Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual which operate in relation to the restrictive dichotomy of Heterosexual/Homosexual. As a reappropriation, the term "Queer" immediately discloses its contingency upon context. By de-essentializing sexual identities as social constructs through which people manifest their sexuality, rather than as immutable biological preconditions, Queerness places the construction of sexual identities within the social sphere, reinscribing their underlying cultural dynamics with the potential for social reform. The intent is to diffuse dominant fictions that Heterosexism and Homophobia are justified as Natural attempts to suppress sexual diversity and maintain dominant social orders. Similarly, Queerness is a response to discussions of biological predeterminism within Lesbian and Gay communities, as such discussions can be turned against members of pansexual and transgendered communities who reject the Heterosexual/Homosexual paradigm in favor of a multiplicity of identities, and for whom concepts of identity are more openly related to the complication and/or subversion of cultural norms.
One unwitting and potentially deconstructive disclosure of these fetishistic processes is the active Homoeroticization of Mensch Machines in everyday life (i.e., the redirection of Heterosexual Male desire from women toward Masculine engendered technologies). With this revelation I rush to recognize that what is Homoerotic is not necessarily Queer-empowering.3 The form of Homoeroticization at issue does not lie in contradiction to dominant Western and Global First-World patriarchies, but is rather a manifestation which permeates all actions - a metaphor which lies buried in every attempt to mediate identity in a world of post-Industrial technologies. Kraftwerk's most vibrant celebration of this Homoeroticization is in the composition Tour de France. The sonic manifestation of the group's well known adoration for cycling bears an undeniable resemblance to the sound of two men fucking one another - the rhythmic breaths of the top intermingling with the panting moans of the bottom.

Immediate questions come to mind: for all of the obviousness of homoerotic thematics in the world of the Mensch Machines, how do such thematics remain undiscussed by popular media? Is the dominant silence around homoerotic themes an act of social suppression or social obliviousness? In the case of the latter, can the discussion of such a metaphor's placement at the heart of hetero-normative ideologies assist in the deconstruction of such ideologies? In the case of the former, can the mechanisms of suppression be identified and sabotaged?

Femme Machine

Die Roboter
Confronted by limitations of cultural experience and subjective interpretation, I contemplate strategies for action which will embody the contradictions between Hetero-normative processes of objectification as exemplified by post-Industrial technologies, and the Homoerotic overtones implicit within Man's [engendered] infatuation with machines as extensions of Himself. Strategies which will not seek to invert this paradigm, nor presume its potential for resolution, but will explode its circumstance with a diversity of irreconcilable yet politicized contents. Strategies which will disclose my own limitations of vision arising from my experiences as Man [engendered], Queer, Straight, Gay, White, American, Southern, Yankee, Nerd, Geek, Fag, Husband, Divorcee, Drag Queen, Theoriac, Illiterate, Artist, Performer, Businessman, Recluse, Exhibitionist, Lover - disclosures which inform dialogue rather than serve as excuses for omissions in thought. Strategies which will embody these contradictions in a quite literal sense, actively addressing the body as a signifier of the irreconcilability between zuschauer and schauspiel.

Emerging from the actions of this reconstructed body I contemplate discourses which speak of specificity rather than universalism. Sound as discourse which actively discloses a concept of referentiality and contents that intermingle with my intentions as producer. Means of production that treat methodologies as the endlessly reoccurring shadows of those signifiers undergoing deconstruction. I contemplate a Femme Machine which critically embodies all that it disavows.

Donning lace and makeup, I sit before my computer and contemplate.

T. - (Hee)E. - (Hee)E.

I hear laughter. The chagrin of Modernity applauding the idolatry of contemplation, the idolatry of music production. I map out my ever increasing retreat into the studio over recent years, paralleled with a frustrating inability to satisfactorily contextualize my intentions both personally and publicly. I watch attempts to create discourse collapse into the foundations they build upon. While I welcome the loss of clear concepts of community and audience as a critical response to their popular fictions, I remain unable to disassociate their loss from non-marketability and self-indulgent processes of alienation. I mistakenly yet repeatedly convolute a coherent concept of zuschauer with the effective construction and implementation of schauspiel.

I return to the frightful image of Kraftwerkschauspiel's transformation from a concept of referentiality to one of non-productivity and self-insularity. Placing the image like a transparent overlay upon the mappings of my own actions, I begin retracing the lines of commonality in hopes of envisioning a new course of action.