Irmin Schmidt: ‘I heard Jimi Hendrix playing and I realised this can really be art’

German musician Irmin Schmidt appears at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Duncan Seaman reports.

Irmin Schmidt
Irmin Schmidt

Few post-war musicians can match Irmin Schmidt’s creative drive. Over more than half a century as a pianist, conductor, band founder and composer he has created a vast array of music that has remained defiantly on the cutting-edge.

Even within the wave of German groups of the late 1960s Can, the band that Schmidt founded in Cologne with Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit, stood out for their fierce commitment to experimentation that went way beyond space-age effects and a motorik beat.

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His hundred or so soundtracks for film and television include a string of collaborations with Wim Wenders; he has conducted symphony orchestras and composed an opera, Gormenghast, based on the gothic fantasy novels of Mervyn Peake; he has also been a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gyorgy Ligeti. His contribution to music has been recognised in France, where he now lives, with the Ordre des Artes et des Lettres.

It is far more than can be squeezed into a four-album box set, but the new vinyl pressing of Villa Wunderbar has a decent try. Its musical scope suggests a restless and inquisitive mind. “I wouldn’t call it restless because I’m pretty relaxed about it,” he says, “but I’m always interested to do something new and I want to be surprised, even by my own stuff, so I always change direction.”

The film music on the box set was selected by Wim Wenders, with whom Schmidt – and Can – first worked in 1973, on the film Alice in the Cities. “It’s very easy to work with him,” Schmidt says. “The last thing I did with him was the film Palermo Shooting. All of a sudden I had the idea what about using this Bach theme from Matthäus Passion but let it play on a Neapolitan accordion and so give this beautiful melody a totally different atmosphere and in context with the film again it will change. So I told him, ‘what do you think?’ and he said, ‘A very surprising idea, but do it’.”

Reflecting on his days in the classical world, Schmidt once said having had total control while he was conducting an orchestra, he founded Can for the opposite reason. The avant garde band, who formed in Cologne in 1968 and went on to make such ground-breaking albums as Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi, were, he says, a democracy.

“No hierarchy, not at all, difficult sometimes,” he says. “That was the idea and it worked at least for ten years, and after those ten years on a lot of my solo work and a lot of my film music Jaki and Michael played, so until they died we were very close and worked together from time to time.”

Before Can, Schmidt devoted himself to classical piano, studying in Dortmund, Essen and Salzburg before a spell at the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne, where he met Czukay and was taught by Stockhausen. He says one of the visionaries of 20th century electronic music was a “very severe” teacher. “But then he could be very relaxed and very funny, full of humour. He invited his students, we had wonderful parties all night long at his house, but when it came to work, he was very streng.”

A visit to New York in 1966 has often been cited as the point at which Schmidt began to turn away from classical music. But he says even before then he was listening to jazz and rock. “Even while I was studying and practising classical music I listened to them quite a lot, so it came very naturally, and then something that was like a revelation: I heard Jimi Hendrix playing and I realised this can really be art. What he did in Woodstock with the American hymn [Star Spangled Banner], the improvisation he did there on the guitar meant to me there is somebody who creates a new instrument.”

Klavierstucke, which he will perform at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November, was first improvised on two pianos – one prepared, the other as normal. “That was played on the spot, no correction, nothing which was on the CD, so I wouldn’t play the same pieces the same way,” he says. “I can’t repeat that, and I would not at all start learning them to play to repeat them, I will do something else. I will play something which is near to Klavierstuck II, it will have a kind of similarity as it uses the same mental sound but then I will do some new pieces, again totally different.”

For Schmidt, the Klavierstucke album he released last year represents “more than 40 years work”. He sees parts of all the things he has written in there. “They are in me and of course they are in the music, because all my experience, that’s how life is,” he says. “You don’t start life every day from scratch, it’s all in you.”

Villa Wunderbar is released on Mute on November 22. Irmin Schmidt plays at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on 21 November.