Can wasn’t the plan. In fact, it was a sidequest. Up until 1968, Irmin Schmidt’s career was running a steady course towards something else: the concert hall. The Berlin musician had studied to be a composer and was settling into a prime role as a conductor around Germany. His name was associated with orchestras and symphonies throughout the country, and attached to an impressive list of teachers – the magnanimous Karlheinz Stockhausen, for one. On top of that, he had already led the most important revolution of his life: he had vehemently rejected the dogma of his Nazi father, who spent the war period as a willing bystander.
Schmidt had already asserted himself; he had escaped into music. Until the late 1960s, he had never planned to start a band. It was, as always, New York, that was the bother; on visiting the city, Schmidt found a place with less definition, and less boundary, than he had to deal with at home. In the American musical underground, there were no lanes to stay in; it was nothing like what he had experienced in Germany, where people were keen to keep classical and popular music apart. Schmidt completed his musical education here – with a lesson in breaking the rules.
Without Schmidt, we wouldn’t have Can. His visit to New York is the point of conception for the band and all that came beyond it; a new genre, as well as a new outlook in music, began with that trip. When he got home, he formed the band with fellow musical polymaths David Johnson and Holger Czukay – convincing them that they, too, could ditch the academic world and open up the avant-garde, giving it colour and character. Schmidt has expressly rejected the accusations that he formed a ‘rock’ band – the three founders played jazz, funk and psychedelia – but the early evidence is damning. Their first ever songs, retroactively captured in Delay 1968, are a rugged collation of guitar jams, their aggression and angularity finished off with the groaning wails of their first vocalist, Malcon Mooney. At least to begin with, rock music mattered: it was salve against the seriousness of the musical tradition Schmidt had been taught in.
It’s funny, really, that Can gave us ‘krautrock’. Inspired by the New York wave and actually eschewing the musical practices alive in Germany, Schmidt’s band were pure anachronism – everywhere at once, they united a contradiction of styles and cultures, counting American and Japanese vocalists in their ranks in Mooney and Damo Suzuki. At the same time, the band couldn’t get any play from their home country, which was ironically sourcing its musical sensibility from elsewhere. Through obsessive practices in which the band would simply improvise into infinity, Can began to sound placeless, developing a beguiling musical style around repetition, psychedelia and ambience. They made a long list of weird odd-one-out masterpieces: Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, all coming off like spoofs of traditional rock music that sounded sublime and seamless, played by a band with their own magnetic pull.
When the group disbanded, Schmidt retooled, returning to his classical career with a decade of new experiences to share. With Can, he’d picked bits and pieces from different worlds, making them work for him. The band had made Soundtracks, a collection of music for films, which including the monolithic Mother Sky, a 14-minute guitar groove written for the 1970 drama Deep End. Schmidt clearly enjoyed the experience, and began working as a film scorer, soundtracking so much visual media that his debut solo albums became compendiums of them: to date, his Filmmusk series has amassed six volumes. At the same time, Schmidt used his time away from Can to continue to make minor revolutions to his music: Toy Planet, conceived with Swiss jazzer Bruno Spoerri, married cosmic ambience and folk music, while Impossible Holidays saw him use his experimental palette to make something closer to pop music.
He has never completely abandoned his training. 18 albums into his solo career, he gave us Klavierstück, building on his early days as a composer and pianist. Schmidt describes the tracks as ‘spontaneous meditations, only played once, and recorded simultaneously’ – echoing the days when Can would play and play, improvising in search of serendipity. ‘They are formed’, he said, ‘from an emotional memory in which Schubert, Cage, Japan and Can are equally present’. In the end, this project is maybe the most definitive moment in his career. Like his epiphany in New York, these pieces rewrite the earliest lessons Schmidt ever learned about music – curious to see what can happen in the beyond.
Photo (C) Lucia Bauer