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Kicking the Can 50 years on: Irmin Schmidt

INTERVIEW! Irmin Schmidt, keyboardist of legendary krautrock band Can, talks about how he looks back on their 50 year anniversary, musical revolutions and his ties to Berlin.

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Photo by Diane Zillmer

Irmin Schmidt, keyboardist of legendary krautrock band Can, talks about how he looks back on their 50 year anniversary, musical revolutions and his ties to Berlin.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Can. For the occasion, Irmin Schmidt (81), the band’s last surviving original member, takes over Volksbühne to conduct Can Dialog, co-composed for orchestra by Gregor Schwellenbach, as well as a selection from his own elaborate film score repertoire. For the second half of the evening, Jochen Arbeit of Einstürzende Neubauten takes the helm, staging a Can tribute together with his band Automat as well as guest performers Peaches, Gemma Ray, Bettina Köster and others.

Can turned 50 this year. Any new insights after all the retrospectives?

I don’t really look to the past for new insights. However, when I have to listen to my music – I don’t do it voluntarily – then I’m like any other listener. I discover new things because listening to it after so many years makes you realise that music or any kind of artistic work always knows more than its creator.

How come you reworked Can songs for orchestra?

We didn’t rearrange, rewrite or simply orchestrate them. [Composer] Gregor Schwellenbach and I created an autonomous orchestra piece in four movements. It’s called Can Dialog because quotes from Can songs appear like ghosts. They can be recognised as such, but we’re quoting indirectly, changing a beat from 4/4 to 7/8, for instance. I’m not much concerned with my past, but this way it’s playful and free, and it’s far from engaging in navel-gazing.

How did you get into scoring films?

As a student, I composed music for the theatre and for socalled Kulturfilme simply to earn money. So, I was very familiar with this profession before Can was even founded. In the years between 1966 and 1968, the New German Cinema emerged, and a bunch of these young directors felt close to what we were doing and asked us to write music for them. Back then, we also did it to make a living as we were still unknown and didn’t earn any money as a band.

Can was founded in June 1968. A pretty rebellious time.

W e had already met in 1967. It just took some time to find a studio to work at and arrange our private lives so we could focus on our band. This 1968 founding myth just sounds better because of the revolts. Of course, Can merged all contemporary genres without any one of us being the band leader. This antihierarchical, almost anarchic attitude was part of the 1968 zeitgeist. And for someone like me, who had a fairly successful career as a conductor, contemporary composer and pianist, to give it all up fit with the times, too. It wasn’t meant as a political statement, though.

Would you say the invention of electronic music was revolutionary?

Calling what composers did in the second half of the 20th century a revolution adds too much pathos. We simply invented something new. Electronic music resulted from a scientific and extra-musical development. The arts took advantage of that. Just like Dan Flavin turned neon lights into art. Every scientific revolution brought forth an artistic movement. Composers like Beethoven, Wagner and Stockhausen were true revolutionaries, they got rid of all existing rules.

Do you keep track of the rapid developments?

I don’t see rapid developments these days compared to when Stockhausen composed “Gesang der Jünglinge”. What has happened since merely built on that. In that sense, techno didn’t have the same impact. Sometimes there is a little more noise than usual when something truly surprising is created, like what Stockhausen and Cage did in the 1950s.

What’s your relationship with Berlin today?

I’m closely tied to Berlin. I had left the city in 1942-43 as a child and returned to a Berlin in ruins in the early 1950s. Today, I wouldn’t say everything’s whole, but it’s a real city again, undestroyed. Sometimes, in certain places, you still see the wounds. But this path Berlin took, from ruins to reconstructed city, is a very emotional one for me.

Irmin Schmidt (Can) & Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg + Can Tribute: AUTOMAT feat. Peaches, Tikiman, Gemma Ray, Bettina Köster, Max Loderbauer, Andrew Zammit Dec 16, 20:00 Volksbühne, Mitte