IF IT’S TRUE THAT THINGS unsaid can tell you so much more about someone, it may be that sounds unheard tell you a lot about a musician. One musician at least, composer, underground icon and consistent provocateur, Irmin Schmidt.
As a documentary about the co-founder of hugely influential German iconoclasts, Can, begins, it is not the improvised “instant composition” and avant-funk meets kommische rock of his band we hear, nor the music of his great influences, Stockhausen and Stravinsky, not even the sounds of some of his most thrilling or most challenging movie soundtracks.
Instead, the man himself tells us “Silence is the most important sound”.
Well into his 80s, Schmidt must begin every day without the voices of others, without his or anybody else’s music. Just silence. Just as he encountered when as a young child he would sit in a hollowed section of tree and feel.
It is only then, he explains, that he can indulge in sound and contact and experience. And indulge he does, just as he did as a slightly older child when he would get excited by the sound of his neighbour’s car pulling up on gravel, the mix of tyres and shod-feet and rock fragments offering an aural kaleidoscope and a spur to imagination.
Can And Me, from director/producers Michael P. Aust and Tessa Knapp, is somewhat austere yet occasionally playful film, much in the mould of Schmidt whose presence in footage of Can from the 1970s, all big sideburns and glasses behind a mix of keyboards, always felt like the severe older brother. The kind of kid who would have, and in fact did, regularly confront his father about his Nazi past, and was expelled from school just before graduation for naming and shaming teachers who had their own Nazi associations.
It’s not like the rest of Can’s core, drummer Jackie Liebezeit, guitarist, Michael Karoli, and bassist, Holger Czukay – along with their idiosyncratic “imported” singers, Malcolm Mooney, an African-American visual artist in Europe avoiding the draft and America’s racism, and Damo Suzuki, performance artist and musician, found by Can busking in Munich – were kidding around.
Their commitment to spontaneity and improvisation, living by the maxim that it doesn’t matter what you play, only how it is responded to, was intense and consuming and responsible for the relative brevity of Can’s career. But there was something about Schmidt that seemed even more disapproving of less intellectual, less serious bystanders.
(Can mk 2: l-r, Damo Suzuki, Jackie Liebezeit, Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay, Michael Karoli)
In fact, that’s how he came across to his wife of more than 50 years, Hildegard, when she first encountered him as university students travelling to a series of youth concerts in the old East Germany. His apparent disapproval and her disdain for perceived arrogance did melt away though, and it is one of the most interesting if underplayed elements of the film how their combination – a very capable businesswoman, she managed Can and then his career – is central to his ability to compose and choose his moments of silence.
If the excitement and intellectual/musical fervour of German and then British music being challenged and invigorated by stern Schmidt and friends enlivens the first half of Can And Me – and there is a solid argument made for Can preparing the way for punk, or at least, you’d have to accept, post-punk – the exploration of his work in film solidifies the intellectual and visceral elements within him, and for us.
Indeed, hearing how his long collaboration with the great film director Wim Wenders began late at night with an unannounced visit to the Can studio, where Wenders, not having any footage from his new, unscored, work with him, talked through the film he had made, which was enough to inspire the immediate composition that would be the soundtrack, is a real “wish I had been there” moment.
That, in a career not short of such moments.
Can And Me is screening as part of this year’s Strobe Music Film Festival, at Golden Age Cinema, Surry Hills. Made 21 at 3.30pm and 5.45pm, and again on May 27 at 5.30pm.