Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers

Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer

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Can a museum replace a nightclub? No. Obviously not. But this exhibition at the Design Museum in London comes close to doing so; especially right now since nightclubs are closed. Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers evokes the experience of being in a nightclub through animmersive experience of light, music and visuals telling the story of Electronic music through people, art, design, technology and photography.

The history of Electronic music is vast, diverse and waaaay too long to go into detail here and the exhibition itself does a great job of this explaining this with context and audio/visual examples. But to roughly summarise to set some context here:

Electronic music has its roots in Jamaican Reggae and Dub in the 1960s, the counter-culture genres of —Funk & Soul inspired—Disco and experimental Electro-Pop, Krautrock and Hip-Hop in the 1970s. Through to defining genres in American cities in the 1980s such as House in Chicago, Techno in Detroit and Bass in Miami.

The 1990s saw off-shoot genres grow, the likes of Trance, Acid, Jungle, UKG and Drum and Bass, all creating their own sound but all inspired by what came before. Up to the 2000s and 2010s with the likes of Dubstep and Trap. In this year of 2020, in such a digital and internet age, music genres can come from anywhere and anyone. As such music artists don’t want to be defined to a genre often crossing over and are often mixing existing genres to make their own sound.

It’s almost like genres are becoming a thing of the past.

The reason I say that this exhibition is like being in a nightclub is that this is not a normal exhibition (but this is quite common with The Design Museum’s exhibitions as they’re always of high quality and production values (such as the 2018 Ferrari & 2019 Kubrick exhibitions). The reason being that the context of the exhibition sets the concept; it’s quite dark throughout with spotlighting on specific pieces, the actual physical design is made from metal scaffolding structures, evoking a festival environment and throughout the whole exhibition, music is played–quite loudly.

The music being played is an integral part of the exhibition; it’s an 11 part mix by French DJ and producer Laurent Garnier with each mix exploring a different theme/genre/location such as the French Mix, the Second Summer of Love Mix or the Futuristic Techno Mix. The music being played in the space created such an experience which I hadn’t experienced before as museums are usually quiet aka silent. There are even parts of the exhibition where the music is pumped up louder and it’s impossible not to move (or have a full-blown dance).

You can check out some of the mixes on Soundcloud.

As I mentioned, the exhibition explores Electronic music through people, art, design, technology and photography. I wanted to share some of my favourites here; either based on my own personal musical taste, their importance in the history of Electronic music and what I found generally interesting and cool.

Roland Synthesisers

The exhibition opens with the visual history of Electronic music (much of the things I mentioned earlier) along with some pieces about some of the instruments which were instrumental (pun intended) in the creation of Electronic music; specifically, the machines made by the Japanese electronics company, Roland in the early-to-mid 1980s, the Roland TB-303, TR-808 and TR-909.

Interestingly these synthesiser machines were not a big hit when they first came out, probably because Electronic music was still emerging and “real” musicians just didn’t like it. But once it got into the hands of some of the early Techno musicians, things changed.

“In Detroit, Michigan, a group of black musicians were seeking to create otherworldly, futuristic sounds. The TR-909’s fat kick and crisp open hi-hat laid the groundwork. Soon, pioneers such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes were hammering away at the TR-909. They began programming frantic rhythms that took advantage of the TR-909’s shuffle function, which added a swing to the beats.

At the same time, House was emerging in another Midwestern city, Chicago. By all accounts, May is responsible for the TR-909 making it into House music.”
Excerpt from
Perfect Circuit, Techno’s Favorite Drum Machine by Natalie Robehmed.

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This synthesiser (and others made by Roland) are the electronic heart, rhythm and soul of Electronic music.

“I’m not really sure how dance music could have ever evolved to this point without the TR-909. If you were to remove the signature 909 sound from every dance record made since 1983 and replace it with something else, something inferior, it would sound thin, cheap, muddy and well to be honest…. shitty.”
Andy Caldwell on the TR-909. Quote from Perfect Circuit, Techno’s Favorite Drum Machine by Natalie Robehmed.

Jeff Mills & Detroit Techno

As someone who is interested in the history of things, I will often find myself listening to music and then digging deeper to find its origins; where it came from and how it has evolved from this to now. One of my favourite genres of Electronic music is Techno, which in itself is quite a broad term as Techno can be Ambient Techno, Dub Techno, Minimal Techno, Intelligent Techno, Acid Techno, Deep Techno or, the original, Detroit Techno.

Detroit Techno is real Techno (which you can read all about online) and one of its founding figures who in the late 1980s founded the Techno collective Underground Resistance* (UR) along with ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and Robert Hood is Jeff Mills. Also known as The Wizard (his name from his 1980s radio show) because of his technical capabilities and his magic as a DJ, as shown in the exhibition through this video of him mixing vinyl on three decks at the same time and staying in the mix almost perfectly the entire time.

“Mills threads his records into something fluid and non-linear, both less predictable than a typical DJ set and, crucially, more human, with each moment bearing of the mark its performer.”
Resident Advisor on Jeff Mills.

This video shows how a real DJ actually mixes records together; no auto-cue or auto-sync, no laptop to see whats going on, no USB stick of thousands of tracks to choose from.

*Underground Resistance are also renowned for their militant political and anti-corporate ethos which is well worth looking into in itself.

Also, to touch on what I mentioned earlier about the Roland TR-909: “No one mastered the TR-909 quite like Detroit native Jeff Mills, who plays the drum machine like an instrument. That Mills, a DJ and producer preoccupied with space, would worship the alien-sounding TR-909, is befitting. He has long DJed with a TR-909 in addition to turntables or CDJs, using the drum machine to create rhythms on the fly.”
Excerpt from
Perfect Circuit, Techno’s Favorite Drum Machine by Natalie Robehmed.

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Kraftwerk

One of the most important parts of the exhibition is, of course, its namesake, which alludes to the forefathers of Electronic music: Kraftwerk. Formed in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, they are widely considered to be the pioneers of Electronic music and among the first to popularise the genre, growing from the experimental Krautrock scene in the early 1970s before embracing electronic instruments like synthesisers, drum machines and vocoders.

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Despite being so important to the genre and being the namesake of the exhibition; there isn’t much of them to see other than a long, animated, 3D film which brings to life some of their biggest hits through digital typography and other computer themed effects. It’s quite hard to explain something like this which is so visual but the video below does a good job.

The appeal to Kraftwerk to me is to be able to listen to modern Techno and Electronic music and hear how technically advanced the sound is but then to revert back to Kraftwerk’s music almost like going back to its purest form.

France and UK Electronic Music Culture

I found out after the exhibition that it was, in fact, a travelling exhibition which had already been shown in France at the Philharmonie de Paris and called Electro: From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk, which makes sense since Daft Punk are one of France’s biggest contributions to Electronic music but it also looked like much of the exhibition focused on other French Electronic music artists and French Electronic music culture in general aka French Touch.

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Interestingly the same can be said about this iteration, being in the UK and paying homage and attention to the importance of the UK (not just London) in Electronic music culture. Specifically speaking here about Acid House and the use of the smiley face which are synonymous together. Much can be read about this here.

The exhibition contains two smiley face pieces, both of which are quite different. Firstly is Untitled (The Endless Summer) by Bruno Peinado, a glowing, flashing smiley face, reminiscent of dance floor lights; especially now since no clubs are open; the name itself surely related to the “Second Summer of Love” in 1988; the explosion of Acid House. Secondly is James Caulty’s Riot Shield — a genuine ex-police issue riot shield which has been painted and reappropriated with the smiley face symbol as a subversive piece and which are even for sale online for £600.00.

Jimmy Cauty Riot Shield — SRS 17

  • Appropriated police riot shield
  • All shields are battle-scarred ex UK police issue
  • Battle scars may include impact cracks, protester blood, sweat and tears and police constable residue
  • Acrylic and Emulsion on Polycarbonate
    Actual item description from
    James Caulty’s online store.
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Aphex Twin & Weirdcore

The exhibition doesn’t just cover the more mainstream Electronic music genres like Techno and House but also (perhaps) lesser-known ones, specifically here I’m talking about IDM aka Intelligent Dance Music which is “a style of Electronic music originating in the early 1990s, regarded as “cerebral” and better suited to home listening than dancing.” It’s also widely reviled* as a name but has been attached to artists like Autechre, Venetian Snares, Boards of Canada and probably the most renowned, Aphex Twin.

Aphex Twin has been called “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary Electronic music” and “a pioneer of experimental Techno” and because of this kind of amalgamation of music styles and not being totally rooted to one genre or another it’s hard to summarise what his music style is. It even fluctuates massively as he assumes other alter-egos such as, but not limited to AFX, Blue Calx, Q-Chastic, Phonic Boy on Dope, Power-Pill, The Dice Man and user 18081971.

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It’s easy to say that his music’s visual style is almost as important as how it actually sounds. Multiple album covers, music videos, tour visuals and graphics have become highly iconic in their own right. The piece on show here is his Collapse EP artwork and visuals, created by Weirdcore. In a way, Weirdcore is much like Aphex Twin as someone who assumes a persona and also chooses not to be so public.

First working together in 2009 they have collaborated on multiple projects together, I can imagine in a way inspiring each other. The artwork and visuals for the Collapse EP are like a visual acid trip with 3D effects, distortion, warping, code typography and much more. Essentially, it looks like how it sounds.

“Geography also plays an important role in Aphex Twin’s mythology, with elements of the Cornish landscape appearing throughout the Collapse visuals. Weirdcore got a personal tour of the unique Aphex homeland from one of James’ old school friends — a kind of “guided Richard D. James excursion”. Collapse is, as the imagined neural network of an artificial brain would be, built on the convergence of digital and environmental minutiae (they both loved the psychedelic tone and texture of “yellow moss on rocks”). It’s a world spiralling and coming apart at the seams under the weight of its own open-source sprawl.”
Excerpt from Crack Magazine,
Weirdcore: Enter the vortex by Karl Smith.

You can experience it for yourself below.

*I just think it’s really funny to have terms like that. It’s basically saying, “this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.” It’s really nasty to everyone else’s music. (laughs) It makes me laugh, things like that. I don’t use names. I just say that I like something or I don’t.
Aphex Twin on the genre of IDM

Dubstep & Benga

Dubstep is a music genre born from the UK in the early 2000s as a dark and moody offshoot of UK Garage and 2-Step but with the bass and low-end of Jamaican Dub Reggae. One of its key players back in the early days was Benga aka Adegbenga Adejumo (together with Skream they pioneered the genre as teenagers). In 2012 Benga released the track I Will Never Change which has become a bit of a (later years) Dubstep anthem (despite Benga trying to distance himself from the genre at the time).

For the music video, Christopher Barrett & Luke Taylor aka Us created a stop-motion video which, throughout the length of the track, shows the waveform through 960 varying sizes of vinyl records.

The artwork is a great example of visualising sound; showcasing the steady build-up, heavy drop and fluctuation throughout. But also through a medium relatable to the genre as Dubstep grew from vinyl record shop culture as well as Dubstep artists having dubplate records made, often from varying and non-conventional sized records.

1024 Core Light Artwork/Laurent Garnier Soundtrack

Finally to end, referencing the soundtrack that I mentioned at the start of this piece. This sound is being played loudly throughout the whole exhibition space and towards the end of the exhibition is the artwork, Core by 1024 (also responsible for the exhibition design)

Core is the physical visualisation of the music being played, through flashing lights, it replicates the beat of each track beautifully, something that has to be experienced to fully appreciate it in all of its multi-sensory glory.

“Core is a sensory and visual journey, which implements a new technology of music spatialization with dynamic volumetric light. Core is located at the heart of the exhibition and references to computer processors, as well as the digital and scenographic visual components that accompany most Electronic musicians in concert. Core transforms music into volumes of dynamic light, embodying in a spatial form, vibrating and oscillating, to music.”
1024 on Core

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Of course, there are so many things I have not included here which are included and covered in the exhibition, such as the importance of black, queer and transgender communities in the genre, much of European Electronic music sub-genres and scenes i.e. Berlin Techno and nightclubs like Berghain as well as the importance of Italo disco. There’s just too much to include here and it’s definitely worth checking out yourself either in London’s Design Museum until February 14 2021 (with social distancing restrictions) but I’m sure it will be on show again at another European city with an equally as vibrant Electronic music culture and history like Berlin or Amsterdam.

Read more blog posts on craig-berry.co.uk or my Medium page.

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