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Arts and Hegemony, Europe, Music and Cultural Diplomacy

Teutonic Nights: How Europe Turned The Tide on American Culture

by John O’Leary (News Team Programme Coordinator)

Being young and ambitious in the cultural vacuum of post-war Germany was to be suffocated by the weight of history inherited from the misdeeds of another generation. To be young and African-American in Detroit in the Nineteen Eighties was to face the frustration of a limited future with no opportunity to rise above social expectations. Despite the gulf in culture, a common bond was formed between these youth movements through a shared obsession for industrial rhythms.

Through the ’50s and ’60s, culture in Europe and particularly in West Germany was deeply transfixed by America, circling within the sphere of consumerism and economic prestige. By 1968 German youth were slowly becoming aware of the possibilities for intellectual and artistic freedom. At that point, Germany’s teenagers were looking to establish a new identity that embraced the freedom of the West but were eager to create a distinctly Germanic artistic epoch.

Experimental musical groupings that started to look at emergent technology as the key to establishing a national musical identity. Building on ideas put forth by early electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of an embryonic form of industrial music dubbed “musique concrete,” young German musicians embraced rock, improvisation, and primitive synthesizers to seek something rhythmic, escapist, and fundamentally Teutonic. Their quest was given added impetus by the fact that many of these war children knew their history had been erased, without standards, foundations and father-figures.

A slew of new experimental music flowed when the cultural dam was breached, bands such as Faust, Can and NEU! created a new genre, unrecognisable from the limitations of American popular music. One particular band from Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk would become one of the most original and influential artists produced in Europe in the 20th century. Kraftwerk stand at the bridge between the old, European avant-garde and today’s Euro-American pop culture. Harnessing the Moog synthesiser to create lengthy electronic pieces, backed by the throbbing industrial sound of a primitive drum machine, founders Ralph Hütter and Florain Schneider captured the technological zeitgeist and bore unexpected offspring across the Atlantic.

In 1981, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa created the genre defining “Planet Rock” which borrowed heavily from Kraftwerk using the melody from “Trans-Europe Express” over the rhythm from “Numbers.” However, the key event in the popularisation of Techno in Europe occurred when Juan Atkins started to create music with fellow Detroit alumni Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. All shared a particular attitude toward making records, using the latest in computer technology without losing soul, a determination to overcome their environment with a common worship for Kraftwerk’s back catalogue.

Like Kraftwerk, these young disenfranchised African-Americans celebrated the romance of technology and the industrial city, using purely electronic instruments and sounds. Going against the tide of music which flooded Europe with American cultural norms, Europe was now the genesis of a youth-movement which would rise to prominence in the late-eighties. Techno did not long remain an underground phenomenon, limited to Detroit or even America, the music was exported back to Europe and packaged for the nascent club-scene which had emerged, particularly in Britain.

The Detroit artists were now the ones experiencing reverence, with this new flock of followers unaware of techno’s European birthplace.  The sheer exponential expansion of dance music in Europe is attributable to various factors, ranging from the sheer weight of records on the market to the DIY ethic involved in the creation. When Kraftwerk adapted free-form experimental music to be played exclusively on machines they had released the genie from the bottle, shaping culture on both sides of the Atlantic for decades to come.

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The London Art as Cultural Diplomacy ConferenceAugust 21st, 2013

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