Irmin Schmidt, past and present, curtsey of spoonrecords

Irmin Schmidt – past and present

Irmin Schmidt, conductor and founder of the legendary experimental rock group CAN came to visit Japan for the first time in his life. I met him on his 68th birthday, while he gave an interview to Ken Nishikawa for massive loop.


Irmin Schmidt and Ken Nishikawa

The main reason Irmin came to Japan is to sign up with p-vine records for a Japan press of all the recently re-mastered CAN albums: Monster Movie (1969), Soundtracks (1970),Tago Mago (1971) and Ege Bamyasi (1972). Irmin Schmidt is planning to re-master the whole CAN catalogue based on the original tapes recorded about 30 years ago. “I want to make CAN sound, how it was originally intended to sound.“

Apparently, the quality of those old tapes is surprisingly good for their age and low-tech recording methods: back in those days, everything was recorded live in their studio – straight into the mic. No console in between, no adjustment afterwards, nothing – meaning that every member of the group had to perform at their best. This lead to an extreme education of group sound and also of the group feeling.

“You had to be aware of what the others did, totally forget about your ego and feel the group. It all turns into an organism, which you become a member of… it’s like meditation and in fact, we often joked and called CAN the school of telepathy.“

Even though everyone played their best, this certainly would not have been possible, without Irmin Schmidt’s directing skills. Before CAN, he studied under Ligeti and Stockhausen alongside conducting with Istvan Kertesz amongst others. As a conductor he won several prestigious awards, founded the Dortmunder Ensemble für Neue Musik, gave numerous new music recitals and was amongst the first German pianists to interpret the work of John Cage. He also studied ethnology and being an admirer of Japanese culture Irmin studied “No” and “Gagaku” for two years.


Irmin, back in the days, curtsey of spoonrecords

“I was educated as a classical, contemporary, New Music composer, but at one point, I thought, that this is simply not the only new music in the 20th century. This is why I wanted to start a band. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but that was also the whole point about it. One day, Malcolm walked into the studio. He was a fine artist and I was actually supposed to help him out with a few exhibitions when he spontaneously grabbed the mic and started singing. From the very first moment, it just clicked between Malcom and Jacky: they both turned into something like a rhythm machine and here we were: a rock group…. or maybe just a chamber orchestra, but a very loud one.”


CAN- the core members, curtsey of spoonrecords

CAN- in the studio, curtsey of spoonrecords

If one tried to describe the concept of CAN’s music, it might be something like: improvisation and the environment becoming music.

“One day, Damo sat down on one of these big cushion style sofas popular in the 70s, with that styrofoam filling producing an odd sound. Realizing that, he started moving more on that stupid cushion, creating more of this sound. At the same time Michael’ s guitar picked up some radio waves and Jacky and me told jokes to each other through the mic – out of all this, the “Future days” album developed.”

“The actual capability of turning the sounds of the environment into music is just a matter of awareness of the actual moment. That’s quite a Zen kind of idea, I guess… for us, the process of creating stuff was almost as important as the result.”

CAN then separated at a point, when all members simply knew each other too well. Improvisation became too predictable and therefore their way of creation didn’t work anymore. Afterwards, Irmin composed a lot of film music and accomplished all kinds of projects. A major work is the fantasy opera named Gormenghast, which he composed after Mervyn Peake’s fantasy trilogy. So far this amazing project has already been performed a couple of times in Europe. The most impressive production was probably staged in June 2004, when they performed at the Völklinger Hütte, the European Centre for Art and Industrial Culture, a Unesco World Hertitage Site. Click here to listen to some extracts of the opera.


Gormenghast, final rehearsal, costumes and photo ©Kostuemwerkstatt-UlliKremer.com

Gormenghast, final rehearsal, costumes and photo ©Kostuemwerkstatt-UlliKremer.com

Producing Gormenghast, Irmin Schmidt started to work with D&B musician Kumo, who was originally hired as a sound engineer. The collaboration between the two of them went so well, that they moved on to produce a first album together: Masters of Confusion (… and would you believe it, Kumo even became family, marring Irmin’s daughter Sandra).


Kumo and the orchestra at the rehearsal, curtsey of spoonrecords

Irmin directing at the rehearsal, curtsey of spoonrecords

Most of the the Masters of Confusion tracks were recorded live, true to Irmin’s roots of improvising and capturing the moment. “Of course!“, he said “I am a part of CAN – and despite all my classical studies, CAN was the most intense musical education I ever had. Therefore you will hear that until the very end of my days.”

Irmin and Kumo have toured all over Europe with Masters of Confusion (Listen here). Their next gig will be in November 2005 in Porto, Portugal. “We would love to come to Japan and play one day, actually….and mentioning Japan, I think that Gormenghast would look really great in Kabuki costumes, actually. I would love to see it directed by a Japanese conductor.”


Kumo and Irmin Schmidt, curtsey of spoonrecords

performing *masters of confusion*, curtsey of spoonrecords

The other project, which sounded most interesting to me, was the Flies, Guys and Choirs – sound installation Irmin created together with Kumo for the Barbican Centre for Elektronic as a part of the “Electronik” Festival, October 2001.

“From childhood on, I hallucinate sounds into other sounds, for example the noise of many people talking transforming into a swarm of insects. For the Barbican, I wanted to add to the sound of people being at an exhibition space and transform this sound into something similar.”

Focusing on the idea of transformation of sound, space and perception, the final installation piece was a two hour sound composition of people’s voices, insects and choirs transforming into each other.

“There were quiet and loud moments, moments where people didn’t even notice that they were part of an installation going on and then suddenly found themselves surrounded by angel choirs merging into a bee’s swarm.”

I wish I had been there! If I get to hear of any of their performances planned for Japan, I will let you know. If you should happen to be an event organizer and interested in Irmin’s current projects – please contact his wife Hildegard, who has been organizing and promoting CAN since the very beginning.


Hildegard and Irmin Schmidt enjoying Japanese food

Hildegard and Irmin together with Koki Yahata from P-Vine records, curtsey of spoonrecords
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