021.5: Irmin Schmidt

An interview with Irmin Schmidt for a special midweek issue

Irmin Schmidt

Irmin Schmidt is a German composer and musician whose life is long and storied: he grew up during WWII, he soundtracked numerous films and theater pieces, he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, he was a founding member of Can, and he continues to make solo music today. His newest album is titled Nocturne, and features live recordings of performances at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Schmidt on the phone on May 2nd to discuss his childhood, Can, his solo career, and more. Photo by Brian Slater.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, this is Joshua!

Irmin Schmidt: Ah, excuse me! I forgot that I had an interview.

Do you need some time? It’s okay if you do.

No, no, it’s totally okay. It’s absolutely okay. Just give me a second. (gets ready for the interview). Okay, so here I am for you. I’m all yours.

How are you doing today?

Fine, fine. Very well. It’s a nice day. It’s less frightening here in the countryside, having space around to walk and everything. It’s bearable.

Are you taking walks regularly?

Yes, I am. There’s nothing around here, it’s trees, forests, and fields so I can walk around.

I wanted to start off by asking about your childhood. If you were to describe your early life, like when you were a child up until you were a teenager, what are the immediate memories that come to mind?

Hmm… what comes to mind… well the very, very, very, very early years… there was a huge room because it’s these old Berlin apartments. They have in between the living room and the kitchen and the bedrooms and bathrooms this one huge room—this is famous in Berlin architecture—and it has only one window out to the court but it’s a huge room. This, I remember I could drive around with my little car—you know, where I could sit in and move it with my legs. And it was very dark playing in there. It was strange and interesting in this room because it was so far from everything. This apartment is where I lived until I was four-and-a-half or four.

I’ve described this already in the book a couple times but there was a balcony and opposite to the balcony there was a doctor who had a very elegant car. There was this gravel opposite to where the car was always parking, and I loved that sound when the car came in and parked. I tried to find gravel where I could drive my car but it never had that same feeling, the same sound. So that was a very important thing.

Of course, there’s the beginning of the bombing. We were in circus one day in a very famous, huge hall which was all made from wood. It was the biggest wooden construction at the time and it was able to hold, I don’t know, a couple thousand people. I didn’t like the circus, I hated the whole thing! I didn’t like the animals which had to do things, jump through rings or whatever. I hated this. And above everything, I hated the clown. I hated him, I was frightened by him.

So a couple of days later, after a bombing attack, we came out of the cellar we had in our house and came out into the garden and the sky was red. My father came from the house and heard on the radio that this hall was burning, and I was happy. They would never have a circus in the hall! So that’s one thing.

The house where we lived when I was five or six, it was very idyllic. I had a place under a tree where I was sitting and listening to noises, totally alone all day—I loved that. I was very much alone, and very often. I had only one friend, a girl from the neighbor beside. With her I tried to imitate that with my little car—she was sitting beside me and when there was gravel I parked, went around and opened the door and let her out. You know, a little ritual.

I have very little memories of that time, the very early time, which related to the war. These tin soldiers and tanks and cannons and these things of war—all this stuff, I was playing with it because war was around and that was normal and there was always this very enthusiastic air about war because of the radio. I was playing with these tin soldiers with my uncle. He came with this huge kind of Red Cross car and gave it to me and said, “It’s for all your dead and wounded.” It all started working in my head, and a few weeks later I threw the whole shit away. I never played war again. It triggered something in my head. That was a very important memory.

And then we were evacuated into the Alps. We lived in a remote village in the Alps, in Austria. It was until the Americans came. It had a small train station and one day there was this huge train—a military train—with soldiers on it. There were meters of snow, and I was in the house where we were living and could see this street and station and train. Two, I suppose English, planes came over the mountain and started shooting onto the train and my mother was just with my little sisters right beside. She threw herself—I could see that from afar through the snow. I thought it was it, I thought she was dead. I was standing there looking out through the window and it was a very strange memory. It’s still a frightening, horrible memory.

I didn’t cry. I was standing there sort of hypnotized and thought, “I’m all alone.” That’s the most horrible memory of my childhood in the war. And then afterwards we returned to Germany, and I was nine then. Everything was in ruins, the towns. There was one side of my childhood which was very wonderful, and then there’s this dark side, especially after war. Hold on, excuse me (explains to someone that he’s currently doing an interview). I’m back, excuse me.

It’s okay. When you were going through these experiences, were you able to do things to find comfort?

Comfort! I found comfort. I had my mother and my two sisters—it was a very loving family, we loved each other very, very much. My wonderful mother, who was singing all the time because she had a wonderful voice, actually wanted to become an opera singer but her parents sort of thought, “She’s too small for that.” I actually had a comfortable childhood until I came back to Germany after the war, then it was horrible. We were living extremely poor, had lost everything—everything. We didn’t have anything anymore. We lived in little, small, cold, and unheatable half-cellar rooms. I mean, it was horrible. And it was horrible until I was 14. Still, as a child, you find youth and you play.

There was a neighbor who was an organist who offered—because my mother was always into music and talked about me—to give me piano lessons. So I started it very late—I started to have lessons at 12. I could rehearse just in his living room on his piano. Of course I was a young boy so I didn’t work very much on the piano but still I did and everyone said, “You are so gifted!” and I discovered more and more that it’s interesting, it’s fascinating. From the first moment on, I started to invent little tunes which were of course very simple. I listened a lot, a lot to the radio too. At 13 or 14 I knew nearly by heart the whole classical symphonic repertoire just from listening to it.

What were your favorite recordings that you heard from when you were that age?

Around that age, when I was 14, was the very first time I bought a record player and two records and that was because I sold my electric train I played with. All I could afford from it was a very simple record player and two records. And I bought my favorite record I heard on the radio, that was Schubert. The Unfinished Symphony, played by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner. And I also bought The Rite of Spring from Stravinsky, which I had heard on the radio and it was a total mystery to me.

My parents were very conventional with their music taste, they didn’t like modern music at all. I heard The Rite of Spring and I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought it was crazy (laughs). It seemed very ugly, but I wanted to understand, so I bought that—not because I liked it, but because I wanted to understand that strange, incredibly ugly thing. I listened to it again and again and got more and more fascinated. I don’t think I listened to any other record in my life that often at that time, nothing as much as Le Sacre du printemps.

By the time I could afford a record from time to time, I started to do this thing where you could pay a very little sum and every month you’d get one record. It was all the classical and jazz repertoire. I started getting fascinated by jazz. And then later when I was 16, I went to this guy who had a little kind of amateur orchestra and said, “I want lessons in conducting.” He only had three or four records. A Tchaikovsky symphony and a Beethoven symphony. I learned the basic conducting things from him. When I was late-16 or 17, I founded a school orchestra and conducted it. You know, simple things like a Haydn symphony. And I started studying piano at the conservatory, and that’s how it developed.

I know you eventually studied under Stockhausen.


What were your first impressions of him?

The first impression of him was on the radio, again. It was similar to the experience I had with Le Sacre du printemps—I heard Gesang der Jünglinge on the radio and I was totally fascinated and I couldn’t understand it at all, I didn’t know what the hell that meant. I tried to hear more of that and I got into this music and into Stockhausen—that was when I was 20. I started at a music academy and after I got my diploma in conducting, I went to Cologne and went to his class. There was much more than only that—there was [Earle] Brown, Henri Pousseur, sometimes Luciano Berio came—but the basic was the Stockhausen courses. And I met him first… I think that was ’62 or ’63.

On the one side, I was totally fascinated by his personality and his compositions, but from the beginning on, I had fights with him. I mean, not evil fights, but discussions went pretty heavy because I didn’t like—at that time—his dogmatism about serial music. Especially after I met Cage I couldn’t believe anymore in the holiness of serialism (laughter) and the dogma. But then later Stockhausen got a lot more open to other things, and he was an extremely fascinating personality. He invited us students to his house and we had parties all night long with him.

What would you say is the most important thing you learned from Stockhausen?

Form. It was about form. Even if I would never have built forms like him, it was the process of creating musical forms—that stands out the most. He was analyzing all the time in his classes, analyzing music of his and how he created his very, very complex and complicated forms. It made you open to the possibility and the richness and the complexity of musical forms.

How does that compare with studying under John Cage? What was the main thing you took away from him?

I can’t really define it. It sort of changed my musical thinking quite a lot. But it was freedom—everything was allowed. It was the opposite to early Stockhausen where there were rules. With Cage there were no rules, there was a freedom of thinking. You can call this a sort of Eastern or meditative freedom. He invented rules for every piece but they were more rules for games. He inspired me to study game theory for a while. Early compositions I composed were actually sort of games which had rules, a kind of framework of rules. And within it people could move freely. Sometimes there were nearly no rules and it was totally Fluxus and you could interpret as you want. You can call these rules, but they give you an enormous freedom.

What were your early compositions like? What sort of rules were there?

That’s too complicated to explain.

That’s fine.

It’s like, say, a drawing that is very Fluxus—and also very Cage—that had certain phrases which had nothing to do with music, and still you could interpret them music-wise and all of a sudden it could become a musical theme. It was like a happening. It always had something to do with happenings at that time.

It’s too complicated to explain, though, you have to see the sheet and then you see it there are certain things that you can connect in whatever way you want. You can play whatever you want, it’s not even defined what kind of music or instrument you play. These were rules about how you would react to another musician. You can totally improvise but there are rules, like social kind of rules: How to react, and if you do that then you have to play for a while together, and if you do something else then you have to be independent. It was very much Fluxus. There were crazy sentences that sounded very funny.

Early on with Can, you were known as Inner Space and did work soundtracking films, and you’ve also soundtracked films in your solo endeavors. How do you approach making music for films as opposed to making music for its own sake without such context.

After my studies, I started my way as a conductor and I worked in an opera house and also at a theater conducting or composing theater music. Also during my studies, I made a lot of music for these documentary short films. At the time there was no television so in cinema before the movie, there was always a short film. It was the news and a short documentary about something. I got some money with that.

I made two or three film music for real movies before Can and quite a lot of theater music, they became very successful. When we started with Can, all of a sudden I didn’t have money. I continued to bring into Can this kind of film music and since we got a little mail from underground filmmakers—and I was known as somebody who did this—they asked if we could make music for their films. Can started with making film music just to survive. Then when we were really successful we didn’t do it anymore because we were much too busy with touring and making records.

I formed the group because I was not satisfied. There were good conductors but I was fascinated by… well, it was not the plan to form a rock group, I wanted to form a group with members who were from all different styles of new music: new music in the classical sense; jazz, which was a new music in the 20th century; and rock. What really inspired the idea was this group with Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum [Musica Elettronica Viva], who were very spontaneous. And I met Richard Teitelbaum a couple times and I was very fascinated. That was really, like, new classical new music.

I also got fascinated years before by Coltrane and jazz, and also by Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground so I thought that I had to bring all these things together but without composing. I formed a group and out came Can, which was not jazz at all.

What do you feel like you specifically brought to Can?

Well, I don’t know what I brought. My sort of sound images, from which I brought from the new contemporary music from electronics—I brought that into Can. You know this editing thing was something that Holger [Czukay] and me had done lots before with Stockhausen, and that was very normal, just editing tapes. Holger had much more fun with it than I did but we always did it together. We decided the edits and the forms which came out of it. So, pieces like “Aumgn” and “Peking O.”—not only them but especially them—and quite a lot of early pieces, even Future Days, there was a lot of the form created from our editing. That was something Holger and me really brought into Can, creating form by editing.

Obviously you were with Can for a long time, but is there a specific memory that you have with the band that sticks out the most right now, be it from recording or in performing live.

There’s so many—so much—that I can’t think of any. Going on stage was always a very, very strange adventure because we didn’t reproduce existing pieces. We more or less quoted them sometimes, but they were quite different every time. Most of the concerts, we just invented the music on stage spontaneously. That’s an enormous risk and it didn’t go well every time—sometimes it was horrible and just didn’t work, and it was quite depressing if that was the case. But when it worked, it made me very happy.

Is there a concert you can recall where you felt everything went right, where you felt it was completely successful?

Oh, yes. Yes, sir. Concerts were recorded in the ’70s by amateurs in the public and we have a fan who collected recordings and we never released them on record because the sound quality is, of course, not very good—this fan recorded on a simple mono recording machine, and he would follow us on tours. But now we decided we will select some, and last year I went through a lot, a lot of tapes.

The management wanted us to go again through the live recordings and we found some. There is a concert in ’75 for instance in Stuttgart and one in ’74 or ’75 in Brighton, and there’s another one from Birmingham where we hope we can find a better recording. That’s an outstanding set, it’s just one 40-minute piece without stop and it blows you away, it has an incredible energy. I remember the Birmingham concert, that was really a good one. I also remember a concert in France that was in Nice—oh wait, no, I’m talking bullshit. It was in Arles. That was wonderful, it was July at night and warm and 7000 stoned people (laughter). When releasing Can Live, I didn’t want to have a collection of pieces from different concerts. I wanted the form, the atmosphere, the dramaturgy of a whole set we created spontaneously on stage.

I have a sound engineer who works with me all the time and he has selected a concert for a start, that was in Stuttgart. Everyone says it’s great—I find it good. I think we will start releasing that from autumn. And then we’ll do a second one later, and another one later, and so on—as many as we find. Maybe only three and four and that’s it.

I know that growing up you made the decision to be a musician instead of an architect, and that your father was an architect. I’m curious—when you’re recording or performing music, how much are you thinking about the space you’re in?

Well, you go on stage and you have to deal with what you have. The sound engineer, who is working out the PA, he’s working out the sounds for me. I don’t think much about the architecture except when I’m in outstanding buildings. There are experiences, like when I was in Porto in Portugal. There was a very modern concert hall, it was like an alien object had landed in this town. The inside of the concert hall is beautiful, but it has shitty acoustics (laughter). The classical musicians from the orchestra told me that every rehearsal they waste time with the sitting order because each conductor gets desperate about changing the acoustics. It was incredibly bad, but it looks astonishing.

I have an interest in architecture but it’s not so much related to concert halls or opera houses. Opera houses are interesting though because there are some contemporary opera houses that have been built and they are very beautiful. I haven’t been inside every one so I don’t know what the acoustics are like but they look fascinating.

Is there a single Can album that you’re more fond of at this moment than others? Like is—

Yeah, yeah. Excuse me, but I hate this question (laughter). It depends on my mood, you know? But up to Soon Over Babaluma I like them sort of equally. I have certain distance to some, but Future Days and Soon Over Babaluma—I like them very much. There were doubts about Landed already, about certain pieces. The most successful one is Tago Mago. It’s the most sold, the most prized, the most loved by critics. Of course it’s the richest one. When you talk about the influences from electronic and modern and Stockhausen and—

This is a nice story. Shortly after Tago Mago was released, they made a blind test with several rock and avant-garde music for Stockhausen and the only one he got extremely interested in while listening, and listened to until the end, was “Aumgn” and “Peking O.” He said, “Who is this? This is fascinating! It’s fantastic!” And they said, “it’s Can” and Stockhausen said, “No wonder, my students.” (laughter).

Do you mind reminiscing and sharing memories you have about the members of Can who are no longer here with us on earth? Only if you’re comfortable doing so, of course.

(pauses). No, I’m missing them too much. Maybe in ten years I would answer this question. When I’m 90 you can ask me that again.

No problem, I understand. An album I like that you’ve made is the one you had with Bruno Spoerri, Toy Planet.

Yes, and that was the first after Can.

What was the process like for creating that? What was it like working with him after having been with Can?

It was purely electronic. There were certain parts, especially in the solo of “Rapido De Noir”... I had this idea of using this rhythm of the train on the trails, you know— (imitates the sound of a train moving along tracks). Bruno had a tape of it so we started from there and then started making sounds on it. I played this long solo, which is actually on the Prophet-5. I used the Prophet-5 with two additional pedals, one distorting and one wah-wah, like a guitarist. That changed the sound of the Prophet-5 very much.

I met Bruno when he made a lecture somewhere about synthesizers. He was saying synthesizers were just starting, that they were not yet really instruments, that they are on the way to becoming instruments. That was in ’77 or ’78 and that was absolutely my own opinion about synthesizers. All the electronic sounds on Can, they’re all made much less with synthesizers than with instruments that were changed electronically, like the organ. The thing I had was built for me—it was a very special thing with ring modulation and things like this which didn’t exist in synthesizers at the time.

Bruno said, “Come and visit me in Zürich” so I did. He invited me into his study and then we decided to make the record together. I was staying in a guest room in his house and had a wonderful time. The contributions for every piece were different. Like on the very first piece [“The Seven-Game (Ring Of Smile - Reversed)”], I constructed and made the whole rhythm but then he created this melody that is repeating over and over again with different instrumentation. On pieces he is playing a lyricon, it’s this kind of electric clarinet.

We had a very good sound engineer working with us all the time, Ron Kurz, and he was quite important for the record. When it came to making sounds on his synthesizers, everything created on those he did because I had no idea how. When it came to tape manipulation, I did that because it was more my domain.

How have your goals changed over time with the music you’ve made after Can?

Well, you listen to the music and you hear how it’s changed (laughter). Even with Can—from record to record—the music changed quite a lot. What I did before Can, with my first compositions, were different. And what I did after with Bruno is, again, very different. And then I made these two albums, Musk At Dusk and Impossible Holidays, which are really solo records—I wrote the songs and produced them with Gareth Jones. But still, Jaki [Liebezeit]’s drumming is there and Michael [Karoli] is playing nearly all the guitars. And then I wrote an opera, which was a totally different thing.

I’ve changed all the time. I always did something new. But, the basis is always looking at what was new: electronics, jazz, contemporary classical composition techniques. As different as these albums might be, it’s me, and my musical deep feeling is there in it. I always want to use new styles in a new way, and I’m still doing it now. Even with my new record, which is a piano record, it’s still me. But there is still Can sort of in it, and my experience with Cage—I use a lot of prepared piano, and I learned prepared piano by playing Cage in the ’60s. There is some jazz in it there too.

I will release the first recording of my prepared piano, Nocturne. It has two new pieces on it and it’s even totally different from 5 Klavierstücke from 2018.

Can you talk about the new pieces on Nocturne—the title track and “Yonder.”

I was sort of uncertain about how it would work live. I was quite excited, oh what’s the word in English… it’s lampenfieber (stage fright). I was very nervous because I hadn’t done solo piano in concert for a long, long time. And once I started playing, I felt so comfortable. It was a lot of improvisation, it felt wonderful. The public was so extremely concentrated I couldn’t believe it. In the first five minutes, I looked a couple times into the public because I thought they’d all gone because it was so silent, but it was so concentrated. There was so much attention and all of a sudden I felt so comfortable. The reaction was so great, they liked it very much. Then I found out the recording sounded great so we decided that we would release it. Have you got it already?

I’ve listened to it, yeah! It’s great, and the sound quality is indeed very good.

When you listen to it, you can’t hear the public at all. And it’s not that we worked on it, we didn’t do anything. We did a live recording of the piano with two microphones inside and two up in the room to catch the space. You hear one cough only once and this guy even came up after the performance and said, “Excuse me, I had to cough” (laughter). It was a contemporary music festival and there were many elderly people who heard pieces from [Olivier] Messiaen, Stockhausen, [Pierre] Boulez and all the famous names of contemporary music who had performed in the fifty years—or however long—this festival existed. There were very young ones who were more into, well, Can or techno or whatever. It was a very mixed crowd, but they all really liked it.

It made me quite happy, and I decided to keep doing this thing on stage, but I’ll have to wait until it’s possible again. I won’t go on a real tour—touring in the old way is out. But going to one show and then two weeks going to Norway—I would very much like to tour over the world.

There was a show in New York, maybe it was Brooklyn, but I couldn’t do that because the working permit cost too much. And I needed to go with my sound engineer; I want my own sound engineer who travels with me. The working permit for this one concert in New York was more than $3000 for both of us, and I found that ridiculous. To pay $3000 to play and then come out with a $150 earning, to have just had the pleasure to play in New York—that’s a little bit exaggerated. So I have to wait until they find a solution. New York is out for the moment anyway, there’s no way to go. And there’s no concerts anyway. So, I pray that all this is over and maybe one day I can play.

Are there any styles of music that you’re still wanting to explore?

No, because I’m always only performing my own style. The very new thing is that we live in a very global space. We can buy any record or listen to anything on the internet. We can listen to music from the Middle Ages. We can listen to African music, we can listen to 17th century Japanese court music. There are all these traditions.

I try to inhabit my own space. There are some things I know more about, and there are some things I know nothing about, but if I want to know something I can always study it. My knowledge is limited, but the knowledge in my sort of space includes 600 years of European music, which I know very well, and some other things too. When I hear something that influences me, it doesn’t matter if it’s 600 years old or from yesterday—it can be equally important. It’s the adventure of traveling in this space you have.

All of a sudden you may discover something which makes you vibrate and feel emotions and it influences you deeply. Like, for a while I have very much been influenced by Japanese music—it touches me. It has something to do with my feelings with my body, with my soul, with the whole of my emotion. And from this, I create my own style—it’s my emotional reaction to the space in which I live and create. I create something new from it, and this space continues to fill with traditions.

That’s really great, thanks for sharing. What contemporary artists are you listening to now?

There are different ones from different styles. In contemporary classical I very much like Sofia Gubaidulina. I really adore her. For instance, her violin concertos are absolutely wonderful. She’s an outstanding composer. I like the work of Steve Reich, which is something totally different. There’s also Ben Frost, who makes this electronic sort of techno which is absolutely great. I met him once—I was DJing, he was performing in the same venue. This was in Mexico. There are contemporary things in jazz I like but I’m very bad at names.

Do you have any advice for younger musicians who are just starting out?

I rather doubt I have advice, but I will say: Do what you feel you have to do. Don’t rely too much on computers, rely much more on your imagination. Get your imagination trained by listening to many different things—don’t listen to only one thing. Listen to others, open your mind and ears to the world and to the world of sounds outside. Go through the street of wherever you are and be opened. Where are you?

I live around Chicago.

Oh, Chicago. It’s very cold. The one time I was in Chicago during the ’70s, it was so cold. And then every time I was there in the ’80s, it was absolutely horrible. So much wind and it was so cold and it was freezing (laughter). But I liked it very much. And talking about architecture, Chicago was exciting for that.

What’s the name of the town you’re in now?

It’s a little village in the South of France, the nearest towns are Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. The village is called Roussillon and the area is Luberon. The nearest big town, which has the airport I go to if I travel, is Marseille. Marseille is an exciting town, I love it very much. So, now you have located me (laughter).

There was one more question I wanted to ask. There are a lot of stories you’ve shared in previous interviews about having a student magazine as a kid and exposing your teachers as Nazis, and you had contention with your father because he was a Nazi—what are your thoughts on the rise of fascists and neo-Nazis today?

Around 12 or 13 or 14 years old, I became really aware of what had been happening in Germany, about what “fascism” and “Nazi” meant, and that my father was a Nazi. I started really fighting my father. We had long, long, long, long nights and nights and days and days about it.

I, of course, am frightened. I’m frightened not only for the rise of fascism in our Western culture, because it doesn’t mean very much any more to say “Western culture”—it’s global. It’s all over the planet. There’s dictatorships and authoritarian thinking and fascism. I’m frightened by it. I’m frightened by it in any country, including my home country Germany and in France. Fascism is there and it’s growing.

What would you advise young people to do to fight against the rise of fascism?

Just fight against, fight against, fight against. And fight for the health of this planet because we are destroying it. I’m living in the countryside and from year to year, there are less birds because there are nearly no insects anymore. Some wasps and mosquitoes. What’s left? I know this is only one example, but I live in one of the most stunning parts of Europe and you feel the loss. Every year there’s something more that’s missing, there’s less flowers.

Nocturne is available now at Mute, Rough Trade, Norman Records, Boomkat, and Drift. Irmin Schmidt and Rob Young’s All Gates Open: The Story of Can is out now.

Still from Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970)

Thank you for reading our special midweek issue of Tone Glow. We hope you enjoy your weekend.

If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.

Share Tone Glow

Donate to Tone Glow