Transcription: 0338 - Irmin Schmidt

Released: September 13, 2020

Darwin: Okay. So, this morning I have the great opportunity to speak to Irmin Schmidt. It's not the German pronunciation but it's the closest I'm going to get to it.

Irmin: It's perfect.

Darwin: Great. Thank you. He has a fantastic background. He started off as a conductor. He went on to be one of the founding members of the band Can. Subsequent to working with Can he did a ton of music, scoring music for film. And just recently, he's followed up the 2018 release of 5 Klavierstucke with a new release this May called Nocturne, Live at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It's just a beautiful, beautiful album. Additionally, in 2018 he collaborated with Rob Young on a book called "Can, All Gates Open," which is a very comprehensive history of Can.

Now, in this interview we're not going to spend a lot of time talking about Can, if for no other reason it's really clear when you read the book that Irmin spent a lot of time really documenting the Can experience there. So I'm going to point to that book as a place to go if you really want to learn more in-depth about Can. We're going to be talking a lot about Irmin's background and his focus on creativity and how he approaches his work. So, with no more ado, let me introduce you to Irmin Schmidt. Hello sir, how are you?

Irmin: Hi there. Thank you. Quite fine.

Darwin: That was a very long-winded introduction. I'm sorry.

Irmin: Yes. Okay.

Darwin: Why don't we start off by having you tell us a little bit about this latest release, Nocturne?

Irmin: Well, after the release of ... After I made the 5 Klavierstucke, which means five piano pieces, which was ... Well, I hadn't done anything nice since quite a while except conducting some music. And I thought I should do what I for a long time didn't just experiment or just play again with prepared piano. Prepared piano is actually an invention of more of less, an invention of Cage.

And John Cage, and I met him in the '60s and have been fascinated by his performances. And so, I met him several times. And he introduced me into the techniques. How to prepare the piano for his pieces. And I performed a lot of Cage in the '60s. I conducted also with orchestra things like Ellipticals. And so, I started to think about making a record with prepared piano. Basically also, because Gareth Jones who produced the record, was in my [inaudible]. He's ever since 20 years to plan. He always said, "Let's make a piano record." And all of the sudden having this idea of the prepared piano. I said, "Would you like to record in my studio, this album?" So that became quite a success. And it turned out to be a really nice album. So I thought that's an opportunity to perform live again all alone. Which, actually, all alone as a soloist I didn't perform actually well since Can I didn't do that. From the moment on I was with Can, I never did some solo appearances and afterwards neither. So that was a very exciting idea to go all alone again on stage.

Darwin: That had to be a little nerve-racking because you're out there all by yourself.

Irmin: Well I did that from my 12th year on. Because at that time I had a wonderful voice and I was singing. I was a soloist some times. And then during starting piano I did concerts and retried both, I mean all the years until between 20 and 30. So being on stage all alone was not nerve-racking. Before I'm always nervous.

But that doesn't make any difference if I'm alone or if I'm playing in an orchestra. Or in a group. Before a concert I'm nervous. The moment I'm getting on stage it's all gone. I feel at home and happy. I like stage. So I thought I should make less performance arts from this five piano pieces. But then it turned out that I had stewed more ideas. And what I like very much is to sort of make a kind of duo with some prerecorded soundscapes. And so for Nocturne, actually I recorded these drops of water. And what I like is that all different they... It's so subtle. The different colors of a water drop into different containers or surfaces. Each drop has a slightly different color from before.

And it has, yet has similarity with these sounds you can make from these prepared piano because they also, every note, every tone sounds... If you play it a second time it never sounds the same. Because if you put a screw, or two screws between the cords, they move with every key. When you move the key. They slightly move a little bit.

Darwin: Oh, sure.

Irmin: And they move differently. And so the tone has kind of strange vibration. And so, I used that similarity of the drops, these drops you can make on single notes of a prepared piano. And what I liked on the piano pieces is when you have both a normal piano sound and the prepared piano, there is a kind of, because it's never really tuned, a prepared sound.

And that has no definite tone. So between the real piano sound and the prepared, it starts a kind of shining which sort of makes the whole thing slurring and vibrating in a very wonderful way. And the more time you give that, the single event, the more you can meditate into these vibrations. And that's what was fascinating.

Darwin: Yeah, you definitely play in to that with these works. Both on the Five Klavierstucke pieces as well as this live performance. You give a lot of space around the individual note events so that you can really experience when it's the prepared sounds, or even a resonance of a nearby prepared sound. You really get to experience the whole envelope of the sound. It's really quite beautiful and engaging.

Irmin: Yeah that's what I'm after. To this kind of... You really get in to this...You can really meditate. Really get in to the structure of every single sound. And you follow it and how it swings and how it sounds. The longer you listen to it disappearing you listen in to the slight changes of color. And that's something wonderful and something very exciting.

Darwin: Sure. One thing I'm curious about is, so in the setup or in the preparation of the piano, first of all there is clearly a definition between clear piano notes and prepared piano notes. But you're playing these both on the same instrument, right? It's just a single keyboard with only some of the keys being prepared?

Irmin: Yes, exactly. Yeah.

Darwin: Now I've always wanted to ask this of someone who performed the prepared piano and now I'm talking to someone - so I'm excited to ask this question. So you go to Huddersfield to prepare for this program. Do you have a map or some kind of... How do you have the information that says, here's the preparation I'm going to do for different keys so that it's a familiar playing surface for me? Or do you not worry about that?

Irmin: No, it's quite different. Every time I prepare - for a recording or a concert - a piano, it's like creating an instrument. I have no map. Every time I prepare the piano, and I prepare it very simply. Not to create a lot of exciting effect. I prepare it like 50 years ago for the Cage pieces, with some rubber pieces with some screws and not many different objects. And I have them with me. That's given, like the piano. But then, where I put them, depends each time on the instrument. On the piano I get. How it sounds. How it speaks to me. And I put them never into the same cords.

It's always slightly different. There are certain regions high up. And some of the deep ones. But basically, it's in a way creating each time your instrument. Creating a new instrument. So that's why I cannot reproduce any of the recorded pieces in the way they are recorded. Because each time the piano sounds quite different. The preparation. Which, means that I let myself be guided by what I hear when I play it. And it's more, it's not recreating existing pieces. It's just the experience of how this time, this instrument sounds. Which, this time I have differently prepared than last time. So it's more the experience of the moment than a kind of recreating. And a composition.

Darwin: Yeah, so one of the things that if we go back to the Can years... Your use of keyboards there was often either in a percussive role or in kind of a cloudy role, right? And what's interesting is, when I listen to these pieces on the prepared piano, it seems like a lot of what you're doing is very percussive or very cloudy sounding. And I just think it's again, one of those things to me makes perfect sense. It's a perfect extension of your work.

Irmin: Yeah. I feel like this. I mean, even between Can and orchestra work and the opera and piano pieces, there are huge differences. But I feel always that I'm continuing doing something which is safe to say, my music.

And then no matter if it's with Can or with a symphony orchestra or some mixing like in the opera. Writing for fingers and recording in a symphony orchestra and mixing it into electronics. It's using all the experiences, musical experience and traditions in which I was sort of educated and the experiences I had. And I'm continuing and I feel it's a consequent for me. Consequent in a continuing way. The breaks seem to be much more for other people between my work with Can or with the orchestra or with film or with piano solo. People think that's a huge hoop to rupture. Breaks between the-

For me each time I'm using one of the many, many possibilities to express myself but on a continuous development.

Darwin: Sure. One of the things that I like doing in my podcast is I like talking to people about their musical beginnings and how they got to be the artist they are. And what were the things that were influential to them. In your case, some of that is recorded but some of it is still kind of mysterious. I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit, what was it like for you growing up? How did you first get involved in music? And how did that expand to have you become the studied and sort of complete musician that you end up with? And particularly, what were the things that happened that opened your ears so that instead of more traditional music, your ears were open to new music and to sort of the psychedelic music that was emerging in the '60s?

Irmin: Well as a kid I grew up hearing a lot of music. Just because both of my mother and my father played piano.

And especially my mother sat down at the piano from time to time. Just sat down in the middle of doing something in the kitchen or whatever. And all of the sudden, she sat down at the piano and started playing something. Or sometimes accompanying herself and singing - because she had an extremely wonderful voice. And she was singing and playing piano to it. And that was just for me daily. That was so normal. From the first year on as a kid I always heard that. And it was self understanding that from time to time you sit down and make music. There was nothing exceptional about it. And my father coming home from work and his travels. And just sit down on the piano and started playing. That was one thing. And sometimes there was the radio. And they listened to symphonic music. All that was just normal environment for me. That was one thing and of course it always was classical music. When my mother sang she was singing Puccini or Schubert.

And my Father is sitting down and playing Brahms. And they listened to what came from this little radio in the '40s. So that was one thing. The other thing was that I was very much as a kid, four or five, six, seven years old, I was very much alone. I had two sisters but they were so much younger and I didn't play much with them. And I was very often alone and I loved it - to be alone. And when I was alone, strangely I sort of had, I wrote about it, and I talked about quite a lot. But let's say it again. I had for instance this place in a nearby wood, in a kind of cave under a tree. And I was sitting there for hours. Five years old, six years old. And listening to the sounds and was absolutely happy. So environmental sounds really meant a lot to me. It was something where I could put myself and dream into it. The music was something. That was music. That was at home and it was nothing I produced. But the sounds when I was alone, of environmental sounds, were something which I sort of put to life - by my own dreams and fantasies I put into them. And so that's why these soundscapes, I tried to give them a name. Let's say soundscapes from childhood on were an important part of my musical fantasy. My musical experience.

And then later when I started playing piano, rather late because of the difficulties there after and between and during the war we were evacuated. And remote places. I didn't have a piano. But then my mother sang with me. She taught me lots of songs and even opera. And I sang all that and then I had a wonderful voice. And I was singing in churches and things. And then the environmental became less and less important. And I concentrated really on classical music. And I started to play piano. And then when I was 18, 19... 19 I think I was. Maybe I was 20. When I went to the first time Stockhausen, I heard electronic and concrete music. Most of it I didn't like at all. And then all of a sudden I heard Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge.

I don't know how it's called in English.

Darwin: That's what we call it in English too.

Irmin: Yeah. And I heard this piece Gesang der Junglinge, and I got totally blown off. Because, of what's the sentiment, it had all sentiment. Something really inside me touched me deeply. And I thought that these electronic music, I can, worth getting into that. I come near to my childhood experiences of environmental sounds. And I can create these things. So it grew from that moment, grew together the classical traditional education and the classical music with these electronic sounds. Creating sounds electronically. And from that moment on it sort of, I was in to both. So it lead me to studying finally with Stockhausen and with Ligeti. And Ligeti creating orchestra sounds which were so near to, they were like nature. They were totally different these lontano and atmosphere.

And the way he created the orchestra sound, all the sudden was like wind or the sea or...

Darwin: ...or a town in the distance.

Irmin: Yeah. And so that was then the next step. And then the next was I would get quite fascinated by Fluxus and the crazy stuff. But Cage was very near to Fluxus. I mean he was, in a way he was part of the Fluxus movement, too. It was the way to perform was totally different and sort of only holy way classical music was presented in the -

I mean holy in brackets.

And at that time I performed quite crazy things. And I liked to perform Cage because I mean, I also performed 4' 33". I performed that. In the middle of between Debussy and Boulez or Webern. And these great moments, experiences. I mean sitting down and doing their thing. And people getting nervous or joking. Or I forgot my piece. Even if on the program it was written what the piece is.

Performing this is really an experience. Especially if you perform it into a recital between different pieces. I did it once, I played Webern. After the Webern piece, I played this Cage. And it was really extremely strange. Some people stood up and went out. And there was this woman which merely exactly half the time, made, really a scream. She just screamed.

Darwin: Oh my goodness.

Irmin: And that was spooky. And from that moment on, the public was quite nervous that I was lot of noises. And then all of the sudden this woman, I don't know why. And I didn't meet her. I didn't see her afterwards. She screamed. And after that, it was dead silence in the public.

Darwin: Oh my.

Irmin: Just totally, total silent. There were people were really excited of what, total silence doesn't exist. Then all of the sudden, you hear every little rustle and sound. And that becomes great. It grows into the silence. So I mean, yeah. That's something I could perform. So I liked to perform it so much because it was part of my own childhood experience listening into silence.

My mother tried to punish me. To lock me into my room. And shut the shutters so it was even dark or nearly dark. And then I was sitting thence, and was totally happy. Started singing or doing nothing. Just sitting there and listening. All of the sounds, distant sounds in the house. When she got me out, everything was great.

Darwin: That's hilarious. It's interesting though. I actually really understand what you're saying. I too grew up in a very alone situation. And there's something about that that trains you to sort of draw things out, right? You can through your concentration draw things into your awareness and stuff. And I think that's maybe what makes that Cage piece so uncomfortable for people, is many people haven't had that experience of having to focus or being forced to focus on these minute things. And it's very uncomfortable for them.

Irmin: Yeah. It's definitely like this. So back to the piano pieces, they used this listening into silence. Into these sounds disappearing and the very subtle little vibrations between two sounds on this prepared piano. I also started during my studies ethnology. Music ethnology, especially old Japanese Gagaku music. So I found in Japanese spirituality in their thinking. In their way of creating a very similar thing. It's not because Cage also was into it. I came from a different angle. But I found the same thing in it of meditating and getting into something very, very deeply. Into a sound, into the vibration of one single string.

And listen to it disappearing. And that's something in Japanese music. And then there is this violence in it. A very special one. You know you're listening to it and all of the sudden, BAM!

Darwin: Right. Another thing, that use of dynamics is something that you really highlight though in these solo pieces. That's one of the things that actually for me, I had a very interesting experience listening to the Five Klavierst├╝cke album in my living room through speakers. So much of our listening now takes place with headphones or in a car or something. But I was doing it in the living room and it really highlighted the dynamics. Because it's bigger speakers. And the dynamics and the range and the way things would pop up and be very theatrical, I thought was one of the things that really made those pieces stand out.

Irmin: Yeah. It's very important these dynamics. And when you read Japanese and Chinese as well, these kind of meditation educations or Tibetan. It always has this thing that somebody, the teacher comes apart and just gives you a real hit from behind on your head. Bang!

Darwin: Yes.

Irmin: It's just that meditating is one thing. Sometimes you can easily fall asleep. And that's what dynamics are for. They sort of keep you alight.

Darwin: Yeah. They keep you engaged with it, right? Now one of the things I'm curious about, and I really enjoy your film music. I would say that, after the five piano pieces, it's your film music anthology that I listen to the most. And I find that work beautiful. One, because it definitely also has sort of a dramatic and kind of theatrical sound to it. You hear them and they make sense within the context of films. But also it's something that you've done that is highly, highly melodic. And again, going back to your work in Can, there weren't a lot of options for you to be pushing the melodic angle of things. And that wasn't kind of the schtick of what you all were doing in that group. So this seems like kind of a specific outgrowth or a new perspective. Or maybe it was a return to things that you were doing prior to Can. I'm not sure. But what for you, what is the inspiration for doing the kind of work that comes out in your film music?

Irmin: Well basically it was because it's always the film I am working for which gives me the idea to make what I am doing for this film. It's the film which inspires me to invent the melody or a certain sound world. And making music for films is of course a quite different thing because you can't, you are part of a bigger thing. You cannot just make wild noise that doesn't fit.

So you have to fit to a whole thing of which you are part of. Which doesn't mean that the music then can be a thing or at least parts of the music can exist on their own right. And do so because I never release film music of a whole, the music of whole films. I only put out on record then. That's why I do these anthologies. I put out only the pieces which can stand on their own. And are not illustrating sometimes of just accompanying something. And so, yeah. The basic inspiration of course is the film. I don't know, maybe because my mother wanted to be an opera singer and couldn't be I have sense for the dramatic arts.

Darwin: I see.

Irmin: And because I heard so many opera arias from my mother. And from her how beautiful, well and she introduced me to go into opera. After the war it was relatively late. She would have sent me with ten to the opera.

But it wasn't possible. So I love opera. And film has quite a relation, it's like being born out of opera. Film. Because when you imagine in the late 19th century, opera was something you went to like then later in the 20th century you went to the movies. Film has special... All film has actually sort of a feeling, more than opera than theater. It has this operatic grandness.

I'm very attracted. I love Wagner. And I love these big operas which last hours. And of course, there when you think about opera you think about melody because you have singers. And singers, yeah. Singers sing. And when they sing, they sing melodies. They might be strange and crazy or they might be simple. But it's melody. And that's why when I'm doing film, maybe I'm nearer to melody than when I'm doing everything else. That may be an explanation.

Darwin: Right. Well you went on to do actually an opera. The name of it was, help me with this. Gormen...?

Irmin: "Gormenghast."

Darwin: Was that because of this connection with your mother's love of opera in this early thing? Is that just something that you really wanted to do?

Irmin: No. Actually not. Actually this, I mean I really liked to go and listen to opera. And seeing it. But listening to it. And I went a lot. Until I had finished my studies and started to work in an opera house. As a unit, first you start as a... I don't know what the English, how you call it. You sit on the piano and teach the singers their role there. Their part. That's how you start and from time to time you might conduct the choir or something like this. So after having worked in an opera house, I was fed up with opera.

Darwin: That'll do it huh?

Irmin: I went to see opera but I didn't want do so much conduct operas. So I was much more then into the symphonic literature and performing new music especially. Contemporary music and then after Can is when I was already living part wise in the South of France. One day I went to a healer woman. A wonderful woman. And I didn't go because of me. I went because my sister was ill. And somebody said go with her to this healer she's fantastic. She couldn't help my sister because she was very honest. She said, "That's beyond my possibilities. When you have something like it's very complicated. Actually you should be with me really three days for years. And maybe I can make it less painful. But I can't really heal that." And I was very impressed of her.

So I visited her from time to time. Just when it was on the way where I brought my wine. And to the vineyard. And domaine. And I passed her house and I said, "Hello." And sometimes when I had a hangover and I had a headache, she put her hands on my head and it was gone. Also, I was suffering from my knee which later then now I have a poultice. So she put her hands on and for some days the pain was gone. And one day she put her hands on my head and said, "Oh, you're going to write an opera." And I said, "No, never. I'm done with opera. I go and listen to it but I won't write it. And it's much too much work. It's much complicated."

And she said, "Well then that will be stupid. It will be one of your greatest works." So I went home and forgot it. But it sort of started working in my head. And then I thought, well maybe I'll do an opera for film. Only the film in which all the characters sing.

And I invented a story which made it totally logical that the people which normally talk more and more were singing. It leads too far to tell you the story. But then I needed a lot of children in this because it was the children which sort of incited the singing. So I thought, well making the film with children is very complicated because you have to, all these laws with when they are allowed to work and whatever. So because I worked so much with film I know all this bullshit. And so I gave it up. And then some years before, Duncan Fallowell, a friend, a writer, had introduced me into these "Gormenghast" books by Mervyn Peake. These fantasy books. That was because everybody was excited about Tolkien. Besides the fact that it's very entertaining books, Tolkien, but it has quite a, well I wouldn't say fascistic, but near, part of fascism into it.

And I don't like Tolkien but it varies. Hidden kind of racism in... And Duncan said, "Well read Mervyn Peake. That's real fantasy of it's great literature. And it's totally crazy. And it's wonderful." So I read that and was very, I loved it. Put it into the shelves of my bibliotech. At the time when I, the first time when we lived and we've made the house here in the South of France there was all the books around the bed. And we lived in, sort of in my [inaudible] we slept. In the big room. And now it's my studio. At that time the goal the books are on. I woke up one day and I saw in the room up there "Gormenghast."

And all of the sudden it was like lightening. This is actually an opera. "Gormenghast." This story is an opera. And then I found out, sort of reread it and learned more about the biography of the writer, of Mervyn Peake. And I found out that Mervyn Peake himself wanted to turn it into an opera and had even asked Benjamin Britten to turn it into an opera. And Britten didn't want it because it seemed too complicated as material for an opera. And also, obviously, it was quite complicated to work with Mervyn Peake because he was quite a character.

So later he became very ill and sort of didn't recognize his wife anymore. And it was a very sad story. But this book is absolutely incredible. So I read it again and started getting this idea to turn it into an opera. Not the book because it's much... You can actually if you turn that into an opera it's 36 hours serial. If you tell the whole story.

Darwin: Oh my goodness. Okay. Got it.

Irmin: And so I made a kind of scenario of a skeleton of what I think I use of it. Of the book. And what I tell. But the characters are the characters of the book. And then I asked Duncan, who introduced me and who was a writer, to write a libretto. Which, he after it lasted a while because he was working on something else and was quite reluctant in the beginning as I was reluctant to write an opera. And so finally he wrote it. And I think it's one of his finest literary work he ever did. So I wrote the opera.

Darwin: That's an amazing story. And it explains a lot that I didn't really know. Because it seemed like an extraordinary task to take on, but it also, I was wondering why you had chosen that particular work and that actually is a really beautiful story.

Irmin: I mean one of my, and a very important part of my character is perseverance. So for writing the three hours opera you need perseverance.

Darwin: Right. Certainly.

Irmin: And to undergo 10 years of Can needs perseverance too. I'll tell you.

Darwin: But in a way those are two different works. One of the things I got out of reading the book, and I want to tell you. I want to thank you for working with Rob Young on putting this book out because it was really... It was the kind of depth that I think the band needed. And the discussions with you and the interviews that were published were pretty fantastic. But one of the things that I got out of that is that there was a certain extent to which creativity in Can was also spurred forward by the fact that you guys kind of fought a lot. Or at least had creative disagreements, right?

Irmin: Yes. Very much so.

Darwin: But then when you go on to do solo work or writing an opera or doing the piano pieces, or even film work, you're working alone. Which, unless you're schizophrenic, you're not really fighting with yourself very often. What do you do to sort of spur yourself into new territory or creative territory? Like Cage often times did things that were kind of game based, right? Or Stockhausen did a lot of stuff where he constructed these structures that kind of forced him in a direction. These are kind of gross simplifications but what do you do to sort of force yourself into new territory?

Irmin: I wouldn't say I force myself. It's rather the opposite. I sort of fall into new adventures. It forces me maybe. But forcing is much too...

Darwin: It's a violent word. Yeah.

Irmin: Violent, violent image for it. It drives me maybe. I don't like routine. I hate it. I don't like to repeat things even if they are successful. I'm getting bored if it's not inventive.

If it's not something which surprises me. In a way I want to be surprised by the possibilities even of my own brain. My own brain can, I think everybody's brain can produce a lot of creativity if you just let yourself really drive into it. Then guide it. And if you are open to it. But then, you have to catch the moment. And that needs discipline. So it's both. It's the sense for adventure. It's just like automatic writing or... It just sort of your fantasy.

But then when you catch a moment, it's like this... You see this book up in the shelf of Mervyn Peake, this "Gormenghast" book. And you had to, your brain was working on the idea and sort of having ideas about opera. And then all of the sudden it makes "bang." And you see this is the moment. And then it needs bloody discipline to do it. And perseverance to get the thing done.

Darwin: That is a great point and a great story. Unfortunately our time is up. But before we go, I'm wondering, what are you working on next? Now that the release of Nocturne is complete. What's next on your docket? I think your fans would love to know what you're working on for your next work.

Irmin: There is one very boring work I have to do. I did already. I mean it's also quite exciting. But actually Spoon Records and Mute, we will release a series of Can's live records.

And I had, like I did already when we did Lost Tapes, going through our own archives. No, I'm going through the archive of a fan who collected hundreds of tapes and amateur recordings of live concerts because we don't have good live... We didn't have. And only very few on record.

And finally I was talked into it, to do it. And I went and I will further go through hours and hours of recordings of Can concerts. And I found already three good sets... I don't want to look for one piece of eight minutes and then another piece from another concert. That's boring. That sort of highlights the best of Can. And what I'm looking for is whole sets of at least, say, an hour. And of the dramaturgy of the architecture. Because, it's all we invented the music we played on stage.

And we never knew when we went on stage what we were playing. And even if we quoted pieces which we had recorded, they became something totally different. Every time on stage.

And so what I'm interested to find is how we developed. If we did a set of one and a half hour and then a pause and then another set of an hour. If at least one set of these concerts as a whole. Even if there are parts which get boring because I'll get down. And then it gets up. And then all of the sudden it gets... This is what it's really live about. And I'm looking for that. And of course it's interesting. But on the other hand it's past. And listening to your own past is nearly as boring as talk about your own past.

Darwin: Okay. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to have this discussion. It was really great to talk about... to dive into depth on this. I learned an awful lot and I really do appreciate your time.

Irmin: Thank you. That was a nice talk as well.

Darwin: Thank you.

Irmin: Thank you.

Copyright 2020 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.