Zukunft Ohne Menschen is best appreciated in context. Electronic musician Wolfgang Voigt was invited to contribute something to the infamous Art Cologne, one of the oldest and most high-profile annual art festivals in the world. Already wrapped up in the festivities of the Kompakt label celebrating its 20th anniversary, Voigt nabbed the opportunity to take his art “to the streets”, so to speak. Zukunft Ohne Menschen is more of a street installation than an album. Voigt collected various urban photos, spruced them to the point of abstraction, and had them randomly generated to a soundtrack of synthesizer music that played variations of an arpeggio. This was all there to greet you as your walked through the festival’s main entrance.
If you are familiar with Wolfgang Voigt by way of Gas or the contributions under his own name to the annual Kompakt compilations (Total, Ambient), then this approach may sound overly clinical and cold. But at the same time, does it surprise you? It shouldn’t. Even if Voigt is a master of placing a sample just-so in a mire of electronic washes, that doesn’t mean that he’s above using a random generator to get his ideas across. Besides, these patterns are played by hand. As uniform as the music is, it’s easy to think that it’s 100% machine-made. But no, Voigt’s fingers actually got the ball rolling.
Zukunft Ohne Menschen the album is made up of ten movements, titled sequentially (“Z.O.M.1.1″,” Z.O.M.1.2″, and so on) and lasts over an hour. As an isolated listening experience, it only offers so much. The full package from Kompakt comes with a 24-page hardbound book, but only 500 copies were made. But the disorienting nature of the music is at least something worth writing home about. The music will chug along on a simple enough pattern. But then, as if Philip Glass suddenly stopped by the booth, the emphasis will be placed on a different tone. When the emphasis alters, your sense of timing will alter and you may forget about the main pattern — even if that main pattern is still chugging. And that’s all in just the first track. As Zukunft Ohne Menschen creeps along, neither the notes nor the dynamics ever change but the mood shifts ever so slightly. Voigt can carry the pattern from a brisk 12/8 walk (“1”), to a piece of falling action chill (#2), to bottomless suspense (#4) and then carry it off to art school (#5) within just half of the collection. All the while, the downbeat can become just as elusive as copies of the book on eBay.
Speaking purely as a listening experience, Zukunft Ohne Menschen does not come highly recommended. But Wolfgang Voigt, Gas and the Kompakt label at large, that’s another story. Voigt has creative skill, and he’s using it on Zukunft Ohne Menschen. It’s just that, in order to fully listen to it, you probably have to see it.