With the usual German punctuality, at 10 pm, the quartet Kraftwerk kicked off the closing concert of the EDP Cool Jazz festival, held in the stunning Marechal Carmona Park. In almost 50 years of career, this was only the fourth time that the German group has performed in Portugal, and all happened in the last 4 years: twice in 2015 at the Coliseu dos Recreios and Casa da Música, and in 2017 at the Neopop festival. The lawn and benches of the Manuel Possolo Hippodrome, located inside the park, seemed small to receive the thousands of Portuguese and European fans who came with the promise of a 3D concert. Mission accomplished successfully, and largely exceeded.
It would have been for many the concert of a lifetime. The denomination “3D Concert” alludes to only a small part of a show of sound, colours, light, politics, society, technology, activism, history. Sticking to the visual component – which alone might be worth the ticket price – would be an unbelievable heresy. But let’s start from there.
At first glance, the layout of the stage sounds like minimalism: just 4 tables and a big screen behind, as if Ralf Hütter – co-founder of the group and the only resistant of the original 1970 composition – Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen, dressed as robots from neck to toe, were controllers of a spaceship. The mission was simple: to awaken consciences, making a journey through the history of the twentieth century, in close correlation with our times. Although it is a hallmark of the ensemble, the effect created from the musicians’ clothing is always impressive: the black suits with thin horizontal and vertical gray stripes, when the lights focus on them, completely transforms their look – like if suddenly the quartet resembled robots or parts of a computer’s hardware. I venture to say that the quality of the concert would not be compromised without the 3D glasses. However, the way they were able to bring the audience closer to the stage and the themes of the music took the show to another level. Firstly, the sensation that the artists were suspended in the air, among the public, as if they were, in fact, sent from another planet to land on Earth. Even the arrangement of the tables was carefully studied: through the 3D glasses, the quartet shadows were geometrically between the actual bodies, creating a sense of duplication, as if 8 people were on the stage. It remains to speak of the screen behind. It worked as an extra element, fundamental to reinforce the effects or cryptic messages of the music: on there passed endless computer codes, moving geometric shapes, drawings of highways, trains and landscapes, actors, cyclists, symbols, spaceships, keywords with political or humanistic flow. All this through a combination of colours that sometimes resembled the universe of astronomy, sometimes the disco wave of the 80s. The pictures seemed to come to life, leave the screen, touch the audience, cohabit with it, bringing it closer to the musical and conceptual texture of the show.
Watching a Kraftwerk concert in 2019 is, as the Portuguese musician Rui Reininho said after leaving the concert, inevitably shed tears of nostalgia. The show transports us to a simultaneously troubled and frenetic historical era, set somewhere between the 70s and 80s: loyal to the original compositions of themes like “Tour de France”, “The Robots”, “Autobahn”, “The Model”, “Aerodynamik”, “Trans Europe Express”, “Home Computer” or “Radioactivity”, topics like the first personal computers and the endless binary codes, the nuclear rush and the resulting accidents (with a little irony directed to Marie Curie), Morse code secret communications, the achievements of space and astronomy, new means of transport such as private cars, highways and the early high-speed trains (such as Trans-Euro-Express), or the passion for black-and-white cycling and Tour de France, were critically and constructively revisited over the course of two hours where music and historical witness (from a time when the wonder of the great technology inventions coincided with the dark cloud of the Cold War) merged. There was still room for a brief foray into disco and Detroit techno, but the general tune did not escape the quartet’s pioneering tendencies: a mix of synths and electronic sounds with pop and rock, which at the time didn’t have even a denomination, so revolutionary it was – what we today call electro-pop and synth-pop.
In 1936, Charlie Chaplin directed, produced and starred in a movie called Modern Times. In this film, Chaplin embodies the role of a factory worker who is treated as if he was a robot (despite of, at the time, the concept of robot was a mirage), being forced to work at the increasing speed of a faulty assembly line, and at the end having a nervous breakdown. The aim is clear: to criticize the excesses of capitalism and to warn of the excessive mechanization and robotization of human beings caused by work and daily life. We do not know if, 34 years later, Chaplin’s genius was the origin or inspiration of the Kraftwerk project. However, the similarities are impossible to hide: in 2019, the show of the automatic, the robotic, the futuristic, which Cascais received, reminds us, with some nostalgia for things that were considered modern at the time, that we never should or even cannot – as, 35 years later, the French duo Daft Punk explored with greater depth – quit our humanity. Because, after all, it’s music like Kraftwerk’s that make us feel a bit more human.