28: Irmin Schmidt

Recorded: August 9 2018, 11:21
Place: Studio Les Rossignols
Interview: April 6 2019

I met John Cage maybe three or four times, but I never studied with him. He had a lot of humour. Meeting him was always a very joyful experience.

Even these few meetings had a big impact on me. I was performing his pieces quite a lot at that time, between say 1963, 1964 and the end of the Sixties – before Can, basically. I performed Cage’s work for prepared piano, but also other piano pieces of his, and I conducted with a symphony orchestra. I got quite deep into his work during that period. The prepared piano album I released last year, 5 Klavierstücke, is quite different from what I did in the sixties, but it’s influenced by the spirit and influence of Cage among lots of other things, of course.

I performed 4’33” several times in the Sixties. I would do these kind of piano recitals. Sometimes it would be with two grand pianos – one prepared and the other normal. Sometimes, after the intermission I would come on stage, sit down, and, well, do nothing. Every time that was an experience for the audience. That’s what the piece is actually about – it’s about the silence, and especially the silence in a concert hall, where there’s somebody sitting down on a piano, and then he doesn’t play. It creates this kind of tension. It’s not only silence – it’s a silence full of expectations, of tension, of consciousness about the fact there is nothing happening, and yet still there is lots happening. It’s about the vibration between these things, between nothing and the whole world of little micro sounds. If you are very conscious of that then you start hearing what you normally don’t in among that tension.

The piece needs live performance. It’s not really transformable into a recording. You can’t capture the actual sense of it on a reproduction. You can’t feel the real experience, and it loses its magic.
It’s just environmental recordings, which is another thing entirely. The key thing with 4’33” is, like I said, the vibration between you and all your attention being focussed on expecting something, and then this something doesn’t happen; all of a sudden you are confronted with everything which is normally nothing. There’s something in that experience which is much more than just acoustical.

Where do you go when you want silence?

I’m very into silence. But you don’t have to go anywhere to find it. For instance, right at this moment, I’m sitting in front of the window, and outside it’s raining. There is nothing else to see but the Mediterranean, which is grey, and the sky, which is grey. There’s more or less nothing to see, and nothing to hear apart from a very soft rain on the window screen. Nothing is happening in this room except that. That’s beautiful. That’s wonderful.

I live in the country most of the time, in the South of France. That’s where I am at the moment. In the country, especially at night, sometimes I sit for hours on the terrace listening. Sometimes you hear these little sounds of wind, owls, far away dogs, and then really nothing, and that’s wonderful.

Absolute silence doesn’t exist for us, because if you are put into a room – a soundproofed room – where there is nothing, then your ears hear your heart beating and also your nerves. You yourself are never completely silent. There’s never complete silence.

Interview: Mat Smith


Irmin Schmidt – 5 Klavierstücke (review)
Can – Silent Night (review)

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

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