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Kraftwerk opens Disney Hall run with 'Autobahn,' 'Radio-Activity'

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The four identically dressed members of Kraftwerk stood before electronic consoles, glowing lecterns outlined in strips of blue light, in a dark Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

Above them, three-dimensional moving images of sleek commuter trains speeding down tracks, molecules colliding and musical notes orbiting an idealized Earth were projected onto a vast screen. 

Appearing for the first and second of eight sold-out performances over four nights, German electronic music innovators Kraftwerk presented two separate, oft-astounding shows on Tuesday to showcase its landmark electronic pop albums.

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In its first set, Kraftwerk offered in its entirety the majestic 1974 release "Autobahn," its official debut album, as well as a selection of its celebrated electronic pop music that followed. (Three earlier releases, Kraftwerk cofounder Ralf Hütter told me after the show, are considered "rehearsal tapes.")

At 10:30 p.m., the unit took the stage again to perform its second album, the grim, foreboding "Radio-Activity" from 1975, followed by a similar selection of its classic works. 

During the entirety of both shows, members of the quartet remained nearly motionless except for their hands, which worked their instruments and triggered tones that at the best moments sounded like a soul struggling to articulate its first thoughts. 

Concertgoers wore 3-D glasses and nodded their heads in metronomic rhythm to "The Robots," from "The Man Machine" (1978), while a surround-sound set-up spun glistening beats and synthetic swooshes in and around Frank Gehry's grand hall. The skittering, percussive high-hat bounced through the space like precisely programmed android crickets.

Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1970, Kraftwerk is the creation of Hütter and Florian Schneider. Searching to give new voice to a postwar Germany split in half and a virtual cultural tabula rasa, they found spirit in repetition and groove, drawn to new circuit-based gear such as the Arp and MiniMoog synthesizers and bent on emitting fresh circuit-based sounds. 

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In doing so, they questioned the relationship between technology and humanity, between real and artificial intelligence and the inexorable drive toward grand convergence with our silicon siblings.

Kraftwerk changed popular music -- helping to steer hip-hop, techno and electronic pop -- by suggesting a path forward for these alien new utterances.  Over the 90 minutes of the "Autobahn" show, Kraftwerk weaved through the circuitry in search of the soul within, moving through the 22-minute title track and the four mesmerizing instrumentals on Side 2 and into a chronological survey of the music that followed. 

It has done similar performances at El Plaza Condesa in Mexico City, the Tate Modern in London and elsewhere, in each space configuring speakers to offer a sensory experience that, coupled with its striking, stark visual aesthetic, makes for a singular, all-consuming trip. Schneider has since retired from performing, leaving Hütter and veteran Kraftwerk members Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen to present what felt like a career retrospective at a major museum.

Among the highlights were the clean lines and tones of "Autobahn," a meandering celebration of the open road. As Kraftwerk pumped out plasticine rhythms and warm, humming tones, the 3-D screen above took to the open road, and we virtually rode down the Autobahn as imagined on the album's iconic cover. 

Though created an ocean away in a chillier climate, "Autobahn" as presented had the feel of Ed Ruscha's version of California: idealized, perfectly artificial snapshot environments. And in honoring the industrial open road with an ode to music and postwar mobility, it presented the motorway like the Beach Boys did the surf: as something to ride, something to get lost on. 

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As a whole, most striking was the way in which Kraftwerk teamed sound and vision to create an argument, offering evidence of both its aural and visual influence. These first two shows suggested the arc of a multiyear multimedia project that only with decades in the rear-view mirror could come into focus. 

The images it presented played with a palette from Kraftwerk's first album to its last, moving from the sky blues and natural greens of "Autobahn" to the stark nuclear yellows of "Radio-Activity," the red-and-black "The Man Machine" and the primary-colored "Tour de France" blue, red and white themes.

For the group's work on "Computer Love," numbers and symbols moved in waves of PC green -- that glowing tone only seen outside of nature. 

By the end of the evening, Kraftwerk's members had fully explored a future where meat and metal intertwine. At the same time, they wondered on this progress, wondering on an evolution as dangerous and unpredictable as it is inevitable.

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