The true artists of modernism make very much out of very little. In fact, many of the greatest have shaken the world with a handful of slight elements – in music: Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Black Sabbath and James Brown come to mind.
In 1971 Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger formed the band NEU! in Germany. Their musical philosophy and mission statement was to make a new music from the barest elements repeated until the idea was exhausted (a philosophy mirrored in the minimalist art music of the time and also in the visual arts). A way into this music was to expunge all traces of American rock, pop and blues influences from the performances.
On paper it looks frigid, inhuman and flavourless. In reality – in the hands of Rother and Dinger, with help and guidance from engineer Conny Plank – the music of NEU! (and Rother’s bands – such as Harmonia – and solo works that followed) contain some of the most uplifting, noble and achingly beautiful music of the late 20th/early 21st century. It is the musical path that lead to David Bowie’s “Heroes” and its tremors can still be heard today across all modern rock music.
Sydney was treated to an historical team-up for Michael Rother’s show at the Oxford Art Factory on Saturday night. Performing with Rother on the night was his Harmonia cohort, Dieter Möebius and on electric drums, Hans Lampe who played drums with NEU! in 1975. But this was not just an historical event – the trio’s music sounded as sharp as tomorrow and full of power and surprise. And ecstatic beauty.
Before a large rectangular projection of pale olive and lime green blurs (a colour-shifted wheatfield swam in and out of focus) Rother would begin a groove or a vibe with a few notes; he would be joined by Möebius who would give further shape to Rother’s ideas as they built. The music would swim in and out of aural vision until Lampe started the motorik beat, and the whole thing would move forward, as if down a dot-lit highway in some European night.
Not enough can be said of the effect of the ‘motorik’ (trans: ’motor skill’) beat. It was perhaps one of the greatest aescetic thrills of NEU!’s 1971 debut, as heralded by the opening piece ‘Hallogallo’. A flat, straight eighth-note beat with backbeat on 2 and 4 of the bar, it does not vary in tempo or dynamic, rarely even utilising fills, and when there are fills, they are just more eighth-notes played across the toms. It is a perfect beat for rock and roll – see Maureen Tucker’s American take on motorik on the Velvet Underground’s early albums – primitive and modern all in one. Because it rarely varies it implies man-as-machine, but, as with everything about this music, it is deceptively funky. When Hans Lampe got going, every head in the place was bobbing to his motorik groove.
When I spoke with Michael for The Orange Press back in February (http://theorangepress.net/2012/02/qa-michael-rother-neu-kraftwerk-part-1/ and http://theorangepress.net/2012/02/qa-michael-rother-neu-kraftwerk-part-2/) we discussed his upcoming Australian shows and he said that “There was no chance to rehearse, but I know exactly what Dieter Möebius is capable of creating on the spot. So I am preparing the ‘backbone’ of the music, and I rely on Dieter adding special colours and spices to the music – that’s what he’s really great at: he can pick up the situation and come up with crazy ideas. I look forward to that experiment very much.”
With such an improvisational aspect to the music, it was even more surprising that it came together so seamlessly and with so much – dare I say it? – soul. As I looked around me at the height of the trio’s hurtling and thudding musical enmeshments, I saw many listeners bobbing their heads in time to the 8/8 beat, eyes closed, off in a world of their own.
And I asked myself: how can a music so devoid of harmony, so stripped of any syncopation or sophisticated rhythm, with melodies that are often flat and astonishly spare… how can that music conjure such feeling and high emotion? How can such bareness be so beautiful? Like so much contemporary art, this music gives the listener only part of the picture, often hazy suggestions, sometimes barely anything – we fill in the voids from the puzzle pieces of our own minds and experience. This is not any sort of explanation: the music is of course still utterly magical.
It is a magic road that rock music has gone down for 40 years now and it stretches out into the mapless future. To be taken for a ride by Michael Rother, Dieter Möebius et al was more than a thrill – after all, these men laid the diamond stones of that very road.
Published March 2012 on theorangepress.net