Kraftwerk Plays ‘The Man-Machine’ Live at MoMA, Offers No Proof That They Aren’t Actually Robots

Kraftwerk performing “The Man-Machine” at MoMA. (Courtesy MoMA)

Here’s an unfamiliar scene from the front entrance of the Museum of Modern Art last Friday: a shady looking bald man was saying, “You got any extra tickets?” sounding more like he was trying to score meth; directly next to him, a sulking man with a large frame tucked into a baggy hooded sweatshirt shouted, “Tickets! Tickets! Tickets!”

It was the fourth night of Kraftwerk’s eight-night retrospective at MoMA and they were playing the 1978 album The Man-Machine in its entirety, as well as highlights from the rest of their career. To the ire of a few million Kraftwerk fans that didn’t get tickets, the museum was only allowing 450 guests each night. The atrium where the musicians would be playing was sparsely populated. It was dark and everyone wore 3-D glasses that they picked up at the entrance. After a few minutes of standing silently, they began to clap in unison—the only moment other than the scalpers that made this retrospective feel, briefly, like a regular old concert. The feeling came crashing down quickly: the clapping gave way immediately to the evening’s first bit of awe because, as if on cue, the opening notes of a buzzy electronic organ began to fill the room (one of the good things about seeing a concert in a museum is that everything starts on time).

Kraftwerk stood behind four synthesizer stands that were outlined in fluorescent violet. They were wearing black jumpsuits coiled with strings of light. It’s not just that their faces were expressionless as they performed, they were also staring intently out at the crowd, as if monitoring to see that everyone was behaving themselves. They didn’t look human, which was especially fitting for The Man-Machine, which is the closest Kraftwerk has to a manifesto (“We are programmed just to do/Anything you want us to” is a lyric from “The Robots”; “Man machine, pseudo human being,” goes the title track).

Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s only remaining original member—he founded the group with Florian Schneider, who left in 2009—sang through a vocoder that was attached to the side of his head. He has a little more paunch than he did in the ’70s and the part in his hair is much wider, but the features of his face had a kind of un-aging feel like a mannequin. For a while, he moved nothing but his fingers. This is the most club-ready of all Kraftwerk albums, and so the self-restraint practiced by the unmoving men onstage was as impressive as any kind of rock star showmanship. Though, for the song “Neon Lights,” Mr. Hütter did do his best impersonation of a real human musician: he cupped his hand around the vocoder as he sang, squeezed his eyes shut and arched his right leg, a still-restrained gesture that looked eerily significant in this context.

The youngest member, Stefan Pfaffe (he joined in 2008), was in charge of 3-D video projections, which jumped out at the audience and caused them to literally ooh and ahh. They cheered with each new synth line and by the time the group started playing a brooding extended version of the group’s only international hit, “Autobahn,” it seemed like everyone in the room was smiling but Kraftwerk; the applause became something of a dare to see if the four men on stage would cave to the audience’s enthusiasm and break into a smile. The loser of that contest was Henning Schmitz, the imposing bald gentleman with the small patch of gray hair beneath his bottom lip standing to Mr. Hutter’s left. He couldn’t help but flash a wide grin at the end of “Trans Europe Express.” At that point, Mr. Hütter even engaged in a little bit of stage banter… sort of: “This was 1977,” he said coldly and then they launched into the song “Computer World.”

They finished with “Techno Pop,” another kind of manifesto (“synthetic industrial sounds/industrial rhythms all around,” go the quite appropriate lyrics). The members exited the stage one by one, each first performing a keyboard solo that the audience applauded the same way they would an electric guitar break or a hard bop sax piece. When only Mr. Hütter was left onstage, his voice could be heard chanting the phrase “music nonstop” on a loop. His mouth wasn’t moving. The music was still playing after they had all left the stage.

Kraftwerk Plays ‘The Man-Machine’ Live at MoMA, Offers No Proof That They Aren’t Actually Robots