Irmin Schmidt is a German composer and musician whose life is long and storied: he grew up during WWII, he soundtracked numerous films and theater pieces, he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, he was a founding member of Can, and he continues to make solo music today. His newest album is titled Nocturne, and features live recordings of performances at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Schmidt on the phone on May 2nd to discuss his childhood, Can, his solo career, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, this is Joshua!
Irmin Schmidt: Ah, excuse me! I forgot that I had an interview.
Do you need some time? It’s okay if you do.
No, no, it’s totally okay. It’s absolutely okay. Just give me a second. (gets ready for the interview). Okay, so here I am for you. I’m all yours.
How are you doing today?
Fine, fine. Very well. It’s a nice day. It’s less frightening here in the countryside, having space around to walk and everything. It’s bearable.
Are you taking walks regularly?
Yes, I am. There’s nothing around here, it’s trees, forests, and fields so I can walk around.
I wanted to start off by asking about your childhood. If you were to describe your early life, like when you were a child up until you were a teenager, what are the immediate memories that come to mind?
Hmm… what comes to mind… well the very, very, very, very early years… there was a huge room because it’s these old Berlin apartments. They have in between the living room and the kitchen and the bedrooms and bathrooms this one huge room—this is famous in Berlin architecture—and it has only one window out to the court but it’s a huge room. This, I remember I could drive around with my little car—you know, where I could sit in and move it with my legs. And it was very dark playing in there. It was strange and interesting in this room because it was so far from everything. This apartment is where I lived until I was four-and-a-half or four.
I’ve described this already in the book a couple times but there was a balcony and opposite to the balcony there was a doctor who had a very elegant car. There was this gravel opposite to where the car was always parking, and I loved that sound when the car came in and parked. I tried to find gravel where I could drive my car but it never had that same feeling, the same sound. So that was a very important thing.
Of course, there’s the beginning of the bombing. We were in circus one day in a very famous, huge hall which was all made from wood. It was the biggest wooden construction at the time and it was able to hold, I don’t know, a couple thousand people. I didn’t like the circus, I hated the whole thing! I didn’t like the animals which had to do things, jump through rings or whatever. I hated this. And above everything, I hated the clown. I hated him, I was frightened by him.
So a couple of days later, after a bombing attack, we came out of the cellar we had in our house and came out into the garden and the sky was red. My father came from the house and heard on the radio that this hall was burning, and I was happy. They would never have a circus in the hall! So that’s one thing.