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Culture Notes: Computer Love
by Li Wen

Light installations by bruce munro at longwood gardens 04Light: Installations by Bruce Munro at Longwood Gardens

Their name in German, Kraftwerk, means "power plant", and they are considered one of the most influential groups in modern music.

For the last four decades, they have been makers of Alltagsmusik ("everyday music"), dedicated to expressing the "quotidian landscape of a Mass Culture age" (Frieze Magazine). The style which they pioneered -- electronic music -- spawned techno, disco, house, synth pop, drum and bass, hip hop, and myriad genres: folk music of the man-machine world. The inescapable auditory patterns forming the soundtrack of our digital present. More than any other band, according to Tom Ewing at Pitchfork, "they...catch in music what interaction with machines really feels like -- sometimes glorious, sometimes lonely and frightening, occasionally very funny."

One of their most popular singles is "Computer Love" (Computer World, 1981):
another lonely night
stare at the tv screen
i don't know what to do
i need a rendezvous
A tender and wistful love song between a lonely protagonist and the computer which he is dependent upon for a "data date", this track about human longing at the organic/technical interface, with its completely synthesised instrumentation and 8 bit samples of consumer electronics, gets reinterpreted through the wood-and-resin prism of violin, viola and cello by the Balanescu Quartet in their 1992 album Possessed.

The Balanescu Quartet, "Computer Love" (Possessed, 1992)

Stripped of the alienation of synthesisers, the elegance and lyricism of the song become highlighted in the string quartet version, whilst retained are the achingly beautiful melodies, the precision of its staccato rhythms and the complex, layered counterpoint that characterises minimalism. The lively tonality of strings replace the gleaming warm/chilly alchemical textures of the original (surging, pounding, beeping, dissolving), coming at the same organic/robotic divide from a different angle. Then, as the song gradually progresses, harmonies shifting in and out of phase, twisting and transmuting in an endless web of connectivity, there is the undeniable joy of hearing a violin mimicking a slide down an electronic keyboard or the rapid bleeps and pings of a calculator.

Passion is still muted, the humour no less dry, but agitation and effort, more easily expressed on a stringed instrument, are an audible presence. A duet between singer and electronic keyboard in the Kraftwerk version, an exchange as much about intangible connection as it is about loneliness, loses some of its whimsicalness by becoming a pas de deux of violin and viola, the two voices no longer separated by a real/analog divide, but reflections of each other.

Yet even as this breach is overcome, the stirrings of desire are sharper, more desperate. Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that everything seems sadder on the violin, just as the simple sounds of the early decades of personalised computing cannot help but convey a sense of hope and naivety.

"It's like a drug to human ears. It can cure, it can crush. It can raise someone up, it can send one crumbling to the ground. A note to stir any hidden feeling in the core of our being." 
Laura Teodora Radulescu on YouTube, comment to the Balanescu Quartet's "Computer Love"

In fact, to my ears, by removing one reflecting glass (or perhaps by adding one) between the robotic and the real, the Balanescu Quartet's "Computer Love" is even more terrifying lovely than the original. It is easy to see how this music - with its catchy melodies, pristine and calming - could be adapted to more ominous effect; the moments that flutter and swoop like silvery birdsong, appropriated to set a soft, nostalgic gloss over every conceivable product of postmodern life: test-tube crops, a sparklingly efficient and impersonal train network, the mechanical slaughter of farm animals, a Sony notepad or digital TV.

"Trust me", it says, like the soothing, almost (but not quite) human female voices speaking corporate slogans on television ads. Eerie, but mesmerising. "You already know me. You can trust me."

Where the Kraftwerk original is about the experience of technology displacing real, tangible interaction in daily life, the Balanescu Quartet's cover of "Computer Love" seems to capture something more disturbing: how deeply and fundamentally radical technology is woven into the fabric of our daily experience, so that even as we sometimes feel a tingle of wrongness, of something being a little "off", we are often unable to see through to their ultimately foreign nature. And this subterfuge is not "natural", not empty of human purposefulness. The anthropomorphising is not spontaneously done at the user end.

The means of production, the way objects are designed and packaged and marketed, are not devoid of consideration. There is a human hand on the strings, a human mind that directs it. If Kraftwerk's message is: "Machines are doing this to Us", the message of the Balancescu Quartet's "Computer Love" is: "We are doing this to ourselves."

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