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More than techno: A history of electronic music

Philipp Jedicke
December 13, 2021

From early sound experiments to dub, Krautrock and techno, electronic music has a long musical lineage that is now being celebrated in one of the genre's birthplaces, Düsseldorf.

Kraftwerk perform on stage, huge head on screen, four men stand in front of synthesizers on stage
Düsseldorf electronic band Kraftwerk were at the center of an electronic music revolutionImage: Sandro Campardo/dpa/picture alliance

Electronic music is sometimes labeled robotic and one-dimensional, music that can only be enjoyed with the help of alcohol in a dark nightclub. This cliché extends to the idea that the genre originated in the 1980s when synthesizers and drum machines became integral to pop music.

But electronic music has had a long and diverse influence on the modern musical canon, a topic explored by the exhibition "Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno."

Now on show at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf — the city that incubated electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk — the exhibition maps the more than 100-year history of electronic music from its very beginnings to compositions by artificial intelligence.

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From the Theremin to the Hammond

The first experiments with electronic sound generators took place as early as the mid-late 19th century and culminated in the development of electromechanical pianos that predate the electronic keyboard. 

One of the most famous early electronic instruments was the "etherophone," later called the "Theremin" after its inventor Leon Theremin.

Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin
Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin, considered the world's first electronic musical instrumentImage: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Developed in the 1920s in Russia, the sound seems to emerge as if by magic: Invisible electrical oscillations created between two antennas can be played with a hand as it bends the pitch.

Soon after that, Friedrich Trautwein created the "trautonium," a precursor to the electronic synthesizer — played here with a wire instead of keys — that has also been essential to electronic music.

So too was the electromechanical Hammond organ developed in 1935 as an alternative to a church organ. It became an essential part of blues, jazz and funk music.

From Krautrock to dub

In the postwar period, US composers such as John Cage and Steve Reich were pushing the boundaries of electroacoustic music in America.

Meanwhile in Europe, Karlheinz Stockhausen was pioneering electronic sound experiments using ring modulators and Hammond organs, among much else, in the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne.

Karlheinz Stockhausen holding a score, sitting near a 1970s synthesizers console.
A pioneer of electronic and 'intuitive music': Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1971Image: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

In the 1970s, the torch was passed on to Düsseldorf, where the band Kraftwerk, in their Kling-Klang studio, developed a sound that has decisively shaped electronic music to this day.

While avant-garde rock and Krautrock bands such as Can or Neu! infused keyboards into their monotonous "motorik" sound, it was Kraftwerk that gave the genre worldwide popularity.

Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Afrika Bambaata, Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode and Blur were inspired by the German electro band, whom the New York Times once described as "the Beatles of electronic dance music."

"Think of the band as a lab technician synthesizing the DNA that provided the code for rap, disco, electro-funk, new wave, industrial and techno," wrote the newspaper.

French artists were also central to the electronic music renaissance. Jean-Michel Jarre brought the synthesizer to the mainstream with groundbreaking albums like "Oxygène" before Parisian artists like Laurent Garnier, Air and Daft Punk popularized the French House genre.

Meanwhile in Jamaica, groundbreaking producers and musicians like Lee "Scratch" Perry experimented with electronic effects on instrumental versions of reggae songs, inventing dub music in the process.

In the US, Detroit and Chicago each develop their own varieties of techno and house music, which became a major influence on the burgeoning electronic dance music (EDM) culture in Europe — and especially the techno capital Berlin where the Love Parade became the biggest EDM party on earth.

Popular hits and trip-hop beats

Countless EDM subgenres — including acid house, drum'n'bass, dubstep, trance and two-step — defined a new worldwide rave culture in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, downtempo dub beats and experimental soundscapes marked the new trip hop sound coming out of Bristol via bands like Massive Attack and Portishead — and from Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister.

Around the turn of the millennium, British bands such as The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Radiohead combined electronics and rock, while Icelander Björk and US artist Trent Reznor infused indie and rock elements with electronic beats, computer sounds and synthesizers.

And in the reunified German capital Berlin, Atari Teenage Riot and Canadian singer and composer Peaches built bridges between performance art, punk and techno.

 Daft Punk, two performers in space costume, standing behind consoles.
Icons of electronic music: Grammy award-winning duo Daft PunkImage: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/picture alliance

Ever-evolving musical genre

Back to Düsseldorf, where bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! made the city synonymous with early electronic music worldwide, "Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno" is now paying tribute to the rise of a groundbreaking musical direction.  

The more than 500 exhibits at the Düsseldorf Kunstpalast include instruments, homemade sound generators, photographs, audio recordings, videos and graphic design.

The exhibition was first held at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. It was also created in close collaboration with Kraftwerk co-founder Ralf Hütter.

"Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno" runs at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf through May 15, 2022.

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This article was translated from German.