By Sven-André Dreyer
Our guide of the tour "The Sound of Düsseldorf" remembers Florian Schneider from Kraftwerk.
I met Florian Schneider for the first time on a tape. My uncle had recorded it for me and made a big effort photocopying the original, at that time not yet in colour, and laboriously scaled it down. It was the record "Kraftwerk" from 1970 and as a child I especially liked the piece "Vom Himmel hoch" a lot. Recorded by the legendary producer Conny Plank, you hear mighty reverberating noises at first and a hardly classifiable sound carpet of acoustic and only partly electric instruments that develop into a real inferno of sound over the course of 10 minutes and 12 seconds.
I suspected as a child that air raids are simulated acoustically here, which eventually grow into a driving rhythm that later in the piece has a powerful impact and is quite danceable. The nephew who received the tape was seven years old, and thus actually much too young to understand what he was holding in his hands. It wasn't just the humour that underlies this early piece of the band. It was the legendary record itself with the orange and white striped traffic cone, the hallmark of the group Kraftwerk par excellence, on its cover. When you open the double cover, you see a black-and-white photograph of a transformer pumping its electrical voltage into copper cables. The photograph is by Bernd and Hilla Becher. It demonstrates how intensive the exchange between the visual arts in the sphere of the Düsseldorf Art Academy and the new music scene from Düsseldorf already was back in 1970.
Studying the small picture of Florian Schneider-Esleben, also printed inside the cover, today - 50 years later - something else intriguing can be discovered: Schneider plays the flute in the picture. Soon he was to put aside forever the instrument he had studied in the 1960s at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in his home town. However, only a few years later he set off into new worlds of sound and became one of the world's most influential electronic musicians.
Florian Schneider grew up as the son of the architect Paul Schneider-Esleben. He built not only the Cologne-Bonn Airport, but also created pioneering architecture in his home town. For example, the “Mannesmann-Hochhaus” on Düsseldorf's Mannesmann-Ufer. Almost 90 metres high and now a listed building, the architect himself once supplied some of the material for the construction of the high-rise that was completed in 1958. And already with the design of the glass Haniel Garage on Schlüterstrasse, completed in 1953 and the first multi-storey car park and motel in Germany after the war, the renowned architect had furthered the German tradition of classical modernism and achieved international fame. Growing up in this environment had a lasting influence on Schneider, as his family was always in touch with the leading, internationally renowned artists of the time.
Together with his friend from student days Ralf Hütter, Schneider finally set out to overturn the music that had been created up to that point and to reinvent it completely. The following records became more and more electronic e.g. Autobahn, Radio-Aktivität, Trans Europa Express, and the aesthetics increasingly cooler. Avantgarde from Düsseldorf. And the musicians - as far as their appearance is concerned – also underwent a clear change. While their hair was still long in the early photographs, they already looked more like civil servants in the mid-1970s and by this time they had finally broken with the musical tradition and acoustic dominance from Great Britain and overseas.
Not only were their lyrics sung in German, the whole appearance of the band seemed as if it had fallen out of time, the musicians’ image veering towards extremely progressive German engineers. Meanwhile the band grew outwardly more and more silent. The courage to experiment with sound, the ever-increasing fleet of electronic, mostly self-built instruments, the visionary approach of staging music not only acoustically but also as a complex concept, and last but not least the concentrated creativity of the musicians Schneider and Hütter ultimately made the band a complete work of art, relevant to this day.
Their musical minimalism became a pattern and was extremely formative in the long run, as they influenced whole generations of musicians with their style. For example, their rhythms were first sampled in the New York hip-hop scene, and the band Kraftwerk was also a major inspiration for early techno, which emerged in Detroit from the mid-eighties onwards. With the release of the 1978 album "Die Menschmaschine", Kraftwerk's declared goal was not only to decline their music strictly and formally, but above all to de-individualize their work.
This also included underpinning Hütter's actually quite passable singing voice with more and more complex, vocoded vocal passages and weaving around them. It was Schneider in particular who worked feverishly - by electronic means and later computer-aided - to dehumanize the human voice and to fathom the boundaries between man and machine anew. And yet: Florian Schneider always remained true to his hometown Düsseldorf. Not only because of the KlingKlang-Studio, which was set up in the late 1960s on Mintropstraße, and thus in the middle of the red-light district, where the musicians worked behind closed doors and near the main train station until the late 1990s.
Here in Düsseldorf, Schneider also welcomed his international guests - such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who, according to Schneider, were significantly inspired by the sound from the Rhine. Until very recently, it was from here that Florian Schneider's band sent its influential and ground-breaking signals into the musical world.
If we play Kraftwerk’s piece "Das Modell" on Düsseldorf's Königsallee during our musical city tour "The Sound of Düsseldorf" today, even the international guests will stop and listen to the timeless electronic pop made in Düsseldorf.
As shy as Florian Schneider sometimes seemed, he was still remarkably present in the Düsseldorf cityscape. You could meet him at lunchtime on the Carlsplatz for a pea soup, or for an espresso in the Caffè Enuma on Suitbertusstraße in Bilk. And sometimes Florian Schneider even gave away a smile during one of these brief encounters. A silent nod of acknowledgement in passing. A seemingly constant presence. A few days after his 73rd birthday on 7 April 2020, Florian Schneider passed away after a brief battle with cancer.