Postcards from a PhD
Having read quite a lot of theory on nostalgia recently which has tended to draw on case studies either from television or fashion I was pleased to come across an article in Popular Music and Society (Volume 38, issue 3) from earlier this year, ‘When Tomorrow Began Yesterday: Kraftwerk’s Nostalgia for the Past Futures’ by Pertti Grönholm. Not only did I think it would be useful to read something which explored nostalgia in a electronic music context, I was also hoping for some insight into the negotiative process involved in looking back nostalgically to a place or period of time considered politically or socially problematic.
Grönholm has an interesting take on Svetlana Boym’s definition of restorative and reflective categories of nostalgia, reclassifying the first as utopian and the second as ironic. This doesn’t entirely correspond in with my own reading of Boym, but for the purposes of understanding Grönholm’s argument I have taken this at face value. Kraftwerk between 1974 and 1978, the years on which this paper concerns itself, combined both utopian (restorative) and ironic (reflective) nostalgia, Grönholm argues. Key to this is their relationship with technology, most specifically in the way they romanticise the ideal of technology as both utopian and progressive.
Drawing on the writing of Susannah Radstone, Grönholm suggests that Kraftwerk used nostalgia progressively by creating an alternate future though the process of looking backwards, particularly in the way they sought to reconnect with positive aspects of early 20th century German culture. This is symptomatic of how Grönholm identifies nostalgia as paradoxical, embodying disaffection and disappointment as well as optimism and hope. Grönholm doesn’t explore how, for reasons of nationality, this paradox may be considered essential to the nostalgia of Kraftwerk quite as fully as I would have liked. He speaks of the ‘ironic detachment’ with which Kraftwerk treat nostalgic themes but doesn’t, to my mind, get to the bottom of the band’s ambiguous relationship with their past beyond an interesting quote from Ralf Hütter where he notes “to continue into the future, we had to take a step back forty years.”
I found the section of Grönholm’s paper which focused on Autobahn particularly interesting in that it talked of an ‘intellectual and self-conscious approach to the past’ but also because one might suggest that it’s the album that most audibly displays the nostalgic paradox that Grönholm writes of. When discussing the point in ‘Morgenspaziergang’ when the sounds of nature are ‘revealed’ to be electronic I am reminded of Joanna Demers on synthesis where she suggests “reproductions underscore their own status as citations. Reproductions in other words explicitly display the frame enclosing a sound, a frame that identifies a sound as originating from another place or time.” (Listening Through the Noise, 2010, p.51) This is particularly pertinent to the idea that Grönholm raises, that the track ‘Autobahn’ specifically constitutes a musical landscape composed of “memories of the musique concrete of the 1950s” suggesting this highlights a German compositional continuum at the heart of the music of Kraftwerk.
One might draw parallels to nostalgia in hauntology based on similar ideas, how hauntological music can be interpreted as a remembering of early British electronic music. Grönholm also writes of how much of the 1974-78 catalogue of Kraftwerk is preoccupied with a nostalgia for ‘the pioneering era of electronic music and broadcast technology’, another similarity to much hauntological output.
Grönholm does, in my opinion, have a tendency to take an idea too far on occasion. An example of this is when he writes of Nachtmusik, a late night German radio programme on which experimental and avant garde music could be heard. Ralf Hütter talks of Nachtmusik in the same language we may be used to hearing people recall listening to Radio Caroline or the John Peel Show in their youth, on a transistor radio under the covers. Grönholm takes this arguably one sentimental step too far, suggesting that for the members of Kraftwerk the strange electronic sounds of the late night radio broadcast may be seen as “substitutes for the real lullabies that should have been sung by the parents who were burdened by both war-time memories and a heavy workload”, almost unconsciously transposing his personal nostalgic feelings onto the scenario. As I hinted at before, there is also the question of how robust his definitions of nostalgia are, which does have a tendency to undermine an interesting article on an under-explored area.