Influential band Kraftwerk on Wednesday announced that pioneering electronic musician Florian Schneider died of cancer a few days after his 73rd birthday in early April. Schneider founded the German group with Ralf Hütter in 1970. The innovative band emerged from West Germany’s Krautrock scene and soon began experimenting with electronic effects like tape echoes and ring modulators to craft an almost entirely computerized sound that laid the sonic foundation for much of later electronic dance music.
Schneider was among a number of German musicians influenced by experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose pioneering music featured strange manipulations of sound waves performed by newly developed electronic effects following World War II. Initially, Schneider played the flute, but feeling like the instrument was too limited in its capabilities, he quickly augmented the flute’s sound with electronic effects and early synthesizers. The electronics supplanted the woodwind instrument almost entirely until Schneider designed his own electronic flute.
Throughout the 1970s, Kraftwerk released a series of groundbreaking albums. In 1974, Autobahn established the band’s unique sound. The album’s 25-minute long opening title track features a precise and rhythmic groove meant to evoke the feeling of freedom imparted by driving. One of the song’s sections features a drum pattern later dubbed Motorik, which eventually became one of the signature sounds in Krautrock, anchoring jams by some of the genre’s biggest names like CAN, Harmonia and Neu!
On 1977’s Trans-Europe Express, the band pursued a more minimalistic approach, aided in part by the Synthanorma Sequenzer, a sequencer custom-made for the band. The album also marked a turn away from some of the excesses associated with Krautrock. The band limited its onstage improvising as well as the band members’ alcohol and drug use. The band’s interactions with Iggy Pop and David Bowie prior to the recording influenced the record’s lyrical content. David Bowie named “V-s Schneider,” on his album Heroes, in tribute to Florian Schneider and was very vocal about Kraftwerk’s influence on his “Berlin period” in the late 1970s.
The Man Machine (1978) laid the foundations for much of the synthesized pop composed in the early ’90s. Many of the album’s tracks explored science fiction ideas like the relationship between man and android on the title track and “The Robots.”
Songs like “Pocket Calculator,” from the 1981’s Computer World, encapsulate the band’s sound, which the quartet referred to as “Robot Pop.” With robotic sounding vocals, often achieved with use of a vocoder dubbed the Robovox, Kraftwerk’s music sounds mechanistic and computational, but the exaggerated nature of these computerized sounds ironically emphasizes the humanity of the musicians who crafted them. Kraftwerk laid the musical foundation for later acts like Devo, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and even much of modern Electronic Dance Music.
In addition to its musical innovations, Kraftwerk was known for its striking visual elements, from its album art to stage performances. Schneider and his bandmates used powerful color combinations and elaborate lighting and visual effects in concert to add to their strange and futuristic vibe.
Schneider hadn’t performed with Kraftwerk since 2006 and had been replaced for live performances by one of Kraftwerk’s lighting technicians, Stefan Pfaffe. In 2015, Schneider teamed up with Belgian composer Dan Lacksman and produced the song “Stop Plastic Pollution” as part of the “Parley for the Oceans” campaign with the help of fellow electronic music pioneer Uwe H. Schmidt.
Kraftwerk’s 2020 tour has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Condolence messages lit up Twitter Monday night.
RIP Florian Schneider. This is what true innovation sounds like. https://t.co/KrX7fmZ8RA
— Gary Numan (@numanofficial) May 6, 2020
Damn. Without Kraftwerk there would be no Art Lord and the Self-Portraits, thus no Future Islands.
Kraftwerk was the crux of our musical friendship and beginnings. We wanted to be just like them. And so we were. RIP Florian, a true Lord of Art. https://t.co/zmPROZlIQJ
— Future Islands (@futureislands) May 6, 2020
We are absolutely devastated to learn that one of our heroes Florian Schneider has passed away. pic.twitter.com/Y2dnYfxkj8
— Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (@OfficialOMD) May 6, 2020