Interview: Irmin Schmidt
Irmin Schmidt (Reiner Pfisterer, used with permission)
Irmin Schmidt studied composition, piano, conducting and ethnomusicology. His teachers included Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. Between 1968 and 1978 he was the keyboard player and co-composer of the hugely influential band Can. After 1978 Irmin released several solo albums and he has now written more than 120 film scores as well as the opera 'Gormenghast'.
His collaborator on Gormenghast was British composer Kumo (Jono Podmore) with whom he has since released two CDs. More recently, Schmidt and Kumo teamed up with former Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit and Burnt Friedman as Cyclopean and released an eponymous four-track EP in 2013.
Irmin Schmidt interviewed by James Gardner on 11 September 2012. Edited and updated by James Gardner and Irmin Schmidt, February 2013.
James Gardner: You’re working on new soundtrack?
Irmin Schmidt: Yeah, I’m just starting today, actually—another soundtrack for another television movie.
That’s something you’ve been doing for quite a long time. You enjoy it?
Yes, I do. I mean, even when I was a student I was working for film—short films, and theatre. I did a lot of music for short films, because in those days, when I was a student, in the cinema before the main film there was always a short documentary or something.
And these days, do you generally work to the picture or does it depend on the director with whom you’re working?
It’s very dependent on the director, it’s very different. In Can, for instance, I discussed the picture with the director and then I actually went to the studio and told them the story, nothing else. We never looked at the film. I was like a fairytale-teller.
I always believed that if you look too much at the picture then you start commenting on it, or doubling it. The music for a film should tell its own story, or tell the story again from another angle.
Do you choose the directors or do they choose you?
They come to me. The producers or the directors come to me, and ask me.
Presumably the ones you’ve worked with on more than one occasion have given you a certain amount of freedom compared to the way one might have to work in Hollywood.
Well, everyone has given me a fair amount of freedom because they know me and they know that what I’m doing is, let’s say, a little bit unusual and not the normal way. And I only work with directors who accept the way I work.
That makes sense…
Yeah, especially to me!
Another thing I know you’ve been working on recently is a project with Burnt Friedman, Jaki Liebezeit and Kumo.
Yeah, we just tried a double duo. There isn’t much to talk about yet. We came together in my studio here, where I’m sitting now, and just tried to develop a couple of pieces together. In the same way as we in Can, and Jono  and I, worked.
Is the idea is that you record improvisations and then edit them and so on?
We recorded them and we sort of developed ideas together, and there was no pre-composed material. We just developed it all freely together.
The working method is rather like Can, then.
Yes, exactly. And out came four pieces  which Jono has just, in the last few weeks, given me a nice mix of, and now we'll see if we go on working on this or what we do.
That’s an exciting prospect: I’ve enjoyed Burnt’s work since the days of Flanger.
Yeah, and of course it’s quite a nice combination, working with Jaki again.
It’s well known that you studied with Stockhausen and Ligeti, but what did that actually mean in practice?
In practice it meant, with both, just a lot of really theoretical work, like analyzing a Webern piece or analyzing a Stockhausen piece. He made a long analysis of Gruppen for example—I assisted. So it was really more theory, composition theory. With Ligeti, for instance, there was also a lot of analyzing, but there was also practice—he made exercises with us. Ligeti was interested in learning to listen to the instruments, to the traditional instruments. He said “make a piece two minutes long with three instruments on one tone [pitch]”. And he expected you to make something surprising, say with one double bass, a piccolo and, I don’t know, an accordion or whatever—a trumpet. And then get the most out of the sound possibilities of each instrument. So that was one of his exercises. All with both was technical. With Stockhausen, of course —and I went to Stockhausen because I was very interested in electronic music—we learned a lot about working with tape and electronic [equipment] at the time. But that was only part of the studies with Stockhausen.
Did you make any compositions of your own at that time apart from just studies?
Oh yeah, of course—I was composing all the time. I was composing very different things: I was composing Fluxus kind of things that were actually graphic, sheets of strange graphics with indications: “do this” and “do that” and so on.
So you were aware of Cage as well at the time?
I wasn't only aware: I knew him very well. I met him a couple of times and he was the other great figure in new music who had a huge influence on me. Not so much the way he composed—it was the thinking, the freedom…the freedom he taught: that everything could become music no matter what you do.
Everything could be used.
Everything could be used. Well, that was the spirit…
With Ligeti and Stockhausen it was really the traditional wisdom—the knowledge of composing. With Cage it was rather the opposite: it was just “free yourself from all that and think differently”.
A kind of un-knowing.
Yes, which was wonderful.
Did you write any electronic music at that time?
Yes, in a way—I made lots of collages, tape collages. I edited millions of little pieces [of tape] together. A little bit like Stockhausen did, in a way. I didn’t have instruments, electronic instruments at the time, so I just used tapes, recordings from the radio, from anything I could tape or put on tape, just ‘ready-made’ so to speak, and collaged it together. Anyway, the collage is one of the most important stylistic principles of the twentieth century, so you find it back then very much in Can and it was mainly me who brought it into the group. So in the pure sense of electronic music, I didn’t do much. I could only work in the electronic studio with Stockhausen but there I couldn’t compose.
How did you make the leap from this sort of post-Webernian training to the possibilities opened up by rock music?
Well, I still don’t know exactly. At the time, all this new music, this new music scene, this sometimes very ‘scientific’ scene, was very limited. You know, like Adorno wrote that jazz and rock and all that is shit, and even in new music he only accepted…I mean it seemed a bit Stalinistic…there was a very limited acceptance of what you had to do. This frustrated me enormously and I had big discussions about this with Stockhausen because I was quite rebellious. So: I liked Coltrane, I liked extra-European music, I went to the University and studied ethnology and old Japanese music. I was just more open to lots of other things than post-Webern serial music. One of the things that fascinated me was when Jimi Hendrix appeared, when Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart appeared. A lot of this American rock music: The Doors. I mean, I was never very interested in English rock music, but there was a huge variety in American music, in jazz and rock. I mean, like I said, there was Jimi Hendrix and Coltrane and Miles Davis and Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa and Otis Redding. A huge variety and it was all very beautiful music.
And another thing that frustrated me was that this new music circle not only limited itself to a very narrow stylistic range, but it also had a very limited public. I mean, wherever you played—and I played a lot, and conducted, and gave piano recitals of this music in Stockholm or Palermo or Cologne or Amsterdam—it was always the same 400 people.
If you were lucky!
Well, yeah. So it was too limited. I wanted a broader sense, and I wanted to bring together this new music and all the power of American jazz and rock music.
It seems to me that in that period, between say, 1966 and 1969, perhaps peaking in 1968, a number of musicians trained in the Western art music tradition started to see serious creative possibilities in the world of rock music and the way its practitioners used electronic sound-producing and -recording technology.
Yeah, definitely. That’s true for me. I mean that’s what actually then happened. Actually when I asked Holger [Czukay] and the others whether they would be interested in forming a group, I wasn’t even thinking of a rock group. My idea was to bring together a few musicians from rock, from jazz, like Jaki [Liebezeit], who was a real jazz drummer, and somebody like me being into new music, and Holger too, although he also played a little bit of jazz. So the idea was to bring all these different new musics together in a group and discover what would come out under the conditions that there was no hierarchy, that there was no composer, that it was a spontaneous kind of inventing together and...well, out came Can!
What was David Johnson’s role in those early days?
He was playing flute. He was, like everybody else, one of the musicians. He was a flautist and he was also very into technique and was actually the one who was recording us, a sort of sound engineer, in the very beginning.
I find it interesting that by the time David was starting to work with you and Holger, Stockhausen’s electronic music had moved away from the very specified world of the studies and Gesang der Jünglinge towards something rather freer in Hymnen, for instance…
Yeah, Hymnen is my favourite
…which has David Johnson in it, of course.
Yes, you hear him talking, even, and playing, and of course working as an assistant. Well that’s true, but the thing with David was that actually from the moment the group developed more into rock, he stepped out. He didn’t really want to make rock music.
So there wasn’t a conscious decision to put those two things, rock music and art music, together—it was more spontaneous?
Well, putting those things together was my idea, I mean my idea was that here is a young rock guitarist , here is a jazz drummer, and here are two musicians who have studied traditional, so-called ‘serious’ new music, traditional music studies. And of course what we all had in common was a big interest in extra-European music. Jaki had played in Morocco and knew a lot about Moroccan music, and Holger had made a record even before Can with samples of Vietnamese music in it . So we had that in common. But there was no programme of what should come out when we started.
No manifesto, no…nothing! We just decided to forget everything we had learned and to start from scratch, in a way—which of course you can’t!
Did the working method of Can arise spontaneously as well—or was it out of necessity?
Well, both! I mean, it was spontaneous but that doesn't mean that you were just jamming all the time like crazy. When we started, it was more like a school to listen to each other. And when an idea came up it immediately required extreme concentration and discipline to try to get something out of this idea, to perfect it, to make a piece of music out of it. Which means it was no longer jamming—it was inventing together, trying to get a concise piece of music out of an idea that came up.
How democratic was the editing process?
Totally. Actually everything was democratic. I mean, we discussed things but actually we did most by just playing. But the editing process was that when we had played for hours or several times, we—like I said, collage was a very important idea—we started taking pieces apart and putting them together again in another chronological order sometimes, or putting different things together. And that was actually something Holger, Michael and I did. We sort of said “this we should use, and this we should put there”. So the whole structure, the architecture of the collage, of the editing, was something we three did. Jaki was bored by it. He got nervous—he wanted to play. But there was a very important moment, when we finally had put it together, and Jaki said “but you lose the groove”, we would start again, because that was one of the most important things—the flow, the groove of a piece.
And that’s one of the things that Can is prized for, too.
Yeah, and I mean…back to ‘democratic’: Jaki had the last word about that. He came and listened to it and said “yeah, that's good. OK—you can leave it” or he said “are you crazy? What’s this?—you cut in the middle of something and it doesn’t work”. So it was totally democratic.
In those early days were you working in isolation or were you aware of what was going on elsewhere, say, Amon Düül in Munich or Tangerine Dream in Berlin.
Well, there was quite a security distance between the rock groups in Germany—about 400 or 500km each! But nevertheless I was constantly going, every two, three or four months to Berlin because all my painter friends were studying and working there. I had had exhibitions with them, and in Berlin I met Edgar Froese, and heard him playing. And of course through our film music we had to go to Munich, because that was where the films were made. And there, of course, we met Amon Düül. Also all these groups played in the other towns, so when they played in Cologne we went and listened to them. Kraftwerk were nearby—we met them quite often because Düsseldorf is very near, so of course we were aware of this. And in the late ‘60s there were, of course, these festivals where everybody played, and you met them.
Was there any feeling of common purpose, any feeling that you had anything in common with those other bands or were they just bands from other towns?
There was something in common, because neither Amon Düül—at least when they started—nor Edgar with his various attempts in the beginning, nor Kraftwerk tried to imitate British pop music, which was actually the normal pop music in Germany at the time. Normal, because after the destruction, the total devastation of German culture in the ‘30s and ‘40s, we had to get it from outside. But these movements in the late ‘60s with Amon Düül and Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and us, that was trying to do something of our own, which was not imitating anything.
German rock music of that time is often seen as a Germanic take on psychedelia, but I think it drew a lot from the visual art world as well, and this made it more distinctive.
Yeah, you are perfectly right. I mean this psychedelia thing is more attractive for the media, so they could write about how drugged [the musicians] were. Which…well of course we took drugs, but that wasn’t very important for the music. But it was the time where that was hyped. So no, you are perfectly right. Especially me, I mean I came totally from the art world, and I was curating exhibitions and events, and sort of ‘happenings’, and I was into the Fluxus movement. So there was a big influence from this side, that’s true. And Kraftwerk also didn’t come from the pop side. They ended there, but they came much more from the art world. Amon Düül didn’t: they were all some kind of rock or jazz musicians, but they tried to find something of their own, which, in the beginning at least, was very surprising and very good.
I know that many years ago, Stockhausen was asked his thoughts on a number of bands—he was played them in a kind of blind test, and you’ve referred to this in the past.
Yes, I know this story… and the only piece he accepted as worth being called good music was ‘Aumgn’ , and he was quite excited about it. He loved it. And when they told him it was Can he said “well, no wonder—they’re my students!”
And then in 1995 Stockhausen was played some dance music/electronica for an issue of The Wire magazine : it’s interesting because he was criticizing what he called their ‘kitschy’ harmonies and ‘Post-African’ rhythms, whereas all the young guys, when they listened to things like Kontakte, just thought he should get a better groove!
Well, I know that Stockhausen didn’t like regular rhythms, anyway. I mean he got nervous listening to Mozart.
I think he associated regular rhythms with marching soldiers.
Yeah, I mean he was not very much into repetition—he hated repetition, and repetitive rhythms were horror for him. So actually European music ended with Monteverdi for him, and everything afterwards was too repetitive.
How did Can evolve into such a groove-orientated group, rather than something more ‘abstract’?
I don’t think we decided anything, in the pure sense, it just happened to us. I mean Jaki, who came from a free jazz group, was actually bored with not playing grooves.
That was banned, as it were.
It was totally banned. But he wanted to play grooves. And when we started to play together and he played grooves, we were absolutely fascinated by these machine-like patterns that he could play. So we loved it, and he played it because he wanted to play it. And nobody objected and said “No, Jaki, don’t”. Anyway, everybody had the freedom to do what they felt like doing. And then we’d discuss it if it didn’t fit, and sometimes somebody did something nobody liked, so it was discussed. But basically everybody did what he thought he wanted to bring into it. So Jaki brought grooves into it, and we were amazed, and we liked it.
So nothing was decided, everything just happened because we gave ourselves the freedom that anything could happen.
Do you think the fact that Can did have those grooves has made it much easier for you to work with Kumo, for instance.
Yeah, well I’m very much into grooves. I never played jazz, but already before Can I was listening to a lot of jazz: I admired Max Roach and Art Blakey very much, especially Max Roach. And when we founded Can, I had in my imagination such a drummer [for the group]. So it was not through Can that I had this urge to play a music that had grooves: It was there already.
So of course when I needed a sound engineer and co-operator for my opera [Gormenghast], I wanted someone who was into techno and drum & bass, a young musician and sound engineer at home making modern grooves. But also in classical music, because Kumo has a university education in classical music, and studied violin and electronic music and then went into drum & bass.
A question related to that: I’m interested in your thoughts on the so-called ‘democratization’ of electronic music that’s happened over the last 10 or 15 years.
Well I don’t really exactly know what people mean by this. If they mean that everybody can make music without learning something, it’s OK, but most of what comes out is irrelevant.
If they think that everybody who has a computer can become a composer it might be democratic, but it has nothing to do with music. Music is something... I mean you have to dedicate quite a lot of yourself, including work—learning. Otherwise it doesn’t become music. So people are seduced into thinking that a computer, with all these pre-existing elements, with which they make…The problem is that you have a very stylistically-limited, coded thing like a computer, and it’s not a real musical instrument. People think that this is democratization; that everyone can have a laptop and you have enormous possibilities. You don’t! The possibilities are more restricted than with a piano, where you can have much more interesting sounds and possibilities, musically.
And in the same way the fact that many, many people in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century had pianos in their houses, didn’t make them good pianists or composers.
Yeah, there was the bourgeois kind of education that they—especially the daughters—had to learn the piano, which doesn’t mean they were great musicians.
If the spreading of making music, that everybody makes a little bit of music. is what’s meant by democratization then it’s OK with me, because to understand music you have to practise it, and if young people fool around with computers and make a little bit of music and put pieces together—now most of them want to be DJs—at least they’re working in the medium of music. And that’s perfectly OK—that’s part of the culture. But the misunderstanding is that they are all musicians, good musicians; that you can make music by this means. Making music in a serious way…and I mean, with all the joy I have with music—I mean it’s the most wonderful thing you can do in your life—but with all the joy, I still insist that composing and making music is a very serious thing because you put something into the world that others should enjoy, and it should mean something. It should really mean something.
One trend in electronic music, or at least in what is easily available for a laptop, is that the software is very focused on a specific genre.
Yes, that’s exactly what I mean with the limitation. It has its sort of codes and it’s totally limited by this genre. And this genre is, of course, a fashion thing. I mean nothing against fashion—fashion is a way of communication in a society, and can be a very creative communication. But nevertheless it’s genre and it’s fashion and three years later it’s forgotten.
And the fact that after more than 40 years people think that music we [Can] made was actually made yesterday. It happens to me very often that young people think this is a record which is new, which is a new group. They’d never heard about us. And the fact that this music, after 40 years, seems to be actual, and seems still to be living…that’s what I mean...that proves that it has nothing to do with fashion.
I’m also interested in your thoughts on the current fetish and nostalgia for early analogue synthesizers and so on.
Actually, I have to disappoint you. I don’t share that, so I don’t have to say anything about that.
I’m not disappointed. I just wondered what you thought about it.
In the 70s…I never had, or only for a very short time worked with, one of these synthesizers. What I had was a custom-built device  into which I could send the organ and the [electronic] piano, and then by flicking a switch, I could have the organ ring-modulated or filtered or distorted or whatever: electronically altered. This was the kind of thing I had built after my own kind of…not design, because I’m not a real technician, but I specified the way it was designed. It was not...well, it was a sort of synthesizer, but it was totally different from the synthesizers [of the time]. Then, the analogue synthesizers…I didn’t really work with them. On the very very late Can records, I used Polymoog twice, and that’s all. And then I worked with Bruno Spoerri, I made this Toy Planet record only with synthesizers because I wanted to. I made it with Bruno in his studio because I met him once in a kind of conference and we both agreed in this conference that synthesizers were not yet musical instruments. So through this agreement we could start together to make a record on synthesizers! And there are still a lot of recorded natural sounds and all sorts of collages on it. But the only synthesizer I really played—and again I had to alter it—was the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-5. And the Prophet-5 I altered with—you have it on this record—altered with two pedals; a wah-wah and a guitar distortion. And then it talked to me. Before, it wasn’t a real instrument for me. And coming back to your question, I have no interest to go back to those instruments. They don’t interest me.
For you was it just what happened to be available at the time?
Yeah, but then, always I tried to take them apart and use them totally differently.
Like putting them through the Alpha 77.
Yeah. The Alpha 77 is a synthesizer, but not in the same way. And like the Prophet-5, I only got sounds out of it that were interesting for me when I changed the sound by putting it through a wah-wah pedal and a distortion pedal and playing with these pedals.
Was this to do with the way you interacted with the instrument rather than something to do with the sound; it was the way you interacted with it physically.
Yes, because when I play the piano, I interact with an instrument that immediately reacts to how I treat it; tender or brutal. And that’s what I expect from a musical instrument. Of course, I work with computers, though I always have a programmer because I’m helpless with computers. When I now make film music of course I use presets, but that’s another thing. But when I touch an instrument which I play especially live, then I want the instrument answering me.
Have you found any electronic instruments that are getting closer to giving you the kind of tactile interaction that you value in the piano?
No, not really, but that may be because I’m now much more interested in a totally different kind of composing. I mean, when I play live with Jono I have a keyboard, and on this keyboard I play samples. But the samples are more a structural thing, I order them, in a way, but they don’t answer physically to me—for this, I play the piano and no, I don’t know any electronic instrument that does that in a way that interests me. Since the opera, I’m much more interested in combining physical sounds, even opera voices or a string quartet and a recorded symphony orchestra, with electronic or other recorded sounds. That interests me much more. So what I use live with Jono are all kinds of samples—samples from the opera like the sound of breaking glass and china, or of throwing stones down the staircase—on the one hand, and purely electronically-generated sounds on the other, and combining these with violins and flutes and oboes.
Are you planning any Irmin Schmidt/Kumo recordings?
We didn’t plan the first one…[laughs]…and it might just happen. We don’t know. The thing is…even Can was not really planned. Can was just me phoning a couple of musicians and asking them if they were interested in making something crazy, and experiment. And the same thing sort of happened—I asked Jono to join me as a sound engineer for the opera because I knew about his knowledge, as a sound engineer and composer and musician and sound designer. And then it just happened—we had all this material for the opera and we thought well with all this we could actually go onstage. So we went onstage and made a record after we went on stage—it just happened; we said well, “we should record this”. So I mean these kinds of things just happen. Hildegard  came up with the idea that the two duos, Jaki, Friedmann and Kumo and me should just come together for a week in my studio here in France and find out whether some ideas would come up.
And they did.
And they did, and now they are recorded, and I think they sound quite nice. So it might go on, this work; we might go on stage, but it's not a ‘plan’. It might happen, or not. I don’t make plans any more to which I then have to stick for years. I have very few plans. I might compose...I started but I haven’t had any time yet to really dedicate myself to it.
You mean composing for acoustic instruments?
Yes, for a symphony orchestra. That’s a plan in my head, and that will keep me busy for quite a while, to compose quite a big symphony orchestra piece. But putting together The Lost Tapes, and travelling for promotion has kept me quite busy in the last two years.
And away from your composing.
Yeah, well putting together The Lost Tapes was a hell of a lot of work…and as much as I disliked it sometimes while doing it, in the end the result makes me quite happy.
 Jono Podmore, aka Kumo, Irmin Schmidt’s musical partner and son-in-law.
 Released on an EP as Cyclopean on Mute Records in February 2013.
 David Johnson notably appears in the ‘Studio Dialogue’ and ‘Well, what did you say, David?’ sections of Hymnen.
 Michael Karoli.
 ‘Boat Woman Song’, by Czukay and Rolf Dammers, recorded in 1968 and released in 1969 on the album Canaxis 5, originally credited to ‘Technical Space Composer’s Crew’.
 From the album Tago Mago (1971).
 In issue 141, November 1995. The ‘young guys’ were Aphex Twin (Richard D. James), Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) and Daniel Pemberton.
 The Alpha 77, made for Schmidt by Hogg Labs of Zürich, is a collection of sound-processing modules including a pitch-shifter, ring modulator, phaser, tape delay and so forth.
 Hildegard Schmidt, Irmin’s wife and manager.