Photo: Lucia Margarita Bauer / Courtesy of Mute Records

Irmin Schmidt Meets John Cage on ‘Nocturne’

Irmin Schmidt goes back to his Stockhausen roots with a new live album, Nocturne: Live at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Live at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival
Irmin Schmidt
10 July 2020

When it comes to Irmin Schmidt, we must expect the unexpected. From his groundbreaking days as a founder member of Can, through to his soundtrack and solo work, Schmidt has done what he wanted and nothing else. Nice work if you can get it. Schmidt has breezed through psychedelia, rock, funk, ambient, modern classical, and avant-garde styles and always come up smiling. His latest release, Nocturne is a live album recorded in Huddersfield, England at the tail end of last year and consists of three pieces, one of which is an extension of an improvisation, originally recorded for 2018’s 5 Klavierstück album. The other two works make their debut here. Unfortunately, where most of his previous work kept the listener engrossed, not all of Nocturne can hold the attention of all but the most diehard of devotees.

The album starts with “Klavierstück II”, a semi-improvised piece, based on a track from his previous album. Sparse piano notes alternate with discords occasionally underpinned with the low-level rumbling of what sounds like an aircraft passing overhead. The Nocturne version shares the original piece’s use of space and tension but sadly lacks the impact of the 2018 recording. “Klavierstück II” here is almost double the length of the 5 Klavierstück version, but sadly the motifs Schmidt uses don’t survive the extemporization. Sounds appear almost at random: bells, chimes, log drums, but they seem strangely unrelated to the piece. Schmidt’s partially prepared piano is augmented by pre-recorded soundscapes, which are often strangely jarring and at odds with what Schmidt is playing live.

The second piece, “Nocturne”, begins with almost two full minutes of tiny sounds – dripping water and small gongs, until a steady pulse leads the listener into something which sounds like an esoteric half-cousin to the introduction of Pink Floyd’s “Time”. What sounds like a leaky faucet provides the tempo as Schmidt browses through a minimal palette of piano notes. Occasionally, we hear a rich, almost gamelan gong sound, which gives this piece a forward motion that “Klavierstück II” lacked. There is a sense of drama and urgency here, and Schmidt’s piano performance is excellent and has the feel of a disjointed, art-house thriller soundtrack. In places, it is genuinely unsettling. Gradually, it fades away, bookending the piece with an echo of its muted opening.

Initially, the final piece, “Yonder”, sounds like an extension of its predecessor, but with a larger texture, including church bells this time. They clang alongside other sounds, while Schmidt coaxes tones from his partially-prepared piano. The overall effect is that of an eerie funeral march, with the bells slowly pealing alongside what often sounds like the ticking of a clock. In the middle of the piece, the soundscape swells, and more bells clash angrily against each other. This is the most successful part of the composition and one of the only times on “Nocturne”, where the separate elements coalesce into something which really holds your attention. It builds, and gradually over time, it finally deconstructs itself, leaving just a mournful pulse behind. It takes the Huddersfield audience a full 30 seconds to react, after the last chord was struck, finally exploding into rock fan adoration. Maybe you had to be there.

We can only imagine what these performances looked like as they were happening, with Schmidt studiously studying the piano keyboard, before leaning over into its inner workings to pluck strings, mute the hammer strikes or manipulate the mechanism, a la John Cage. With only the audio to experience, we’re missing out on what makes a piece like this as interesting and engaging as it was to those who saw it happening. For the rest of us, we’re left with a selection of sounds, which vary from intensely satisfying to slightly annoying. Irmin Schmidt is one of the most fascinating musicians of the last hundred years and the fact that, at the age of 83, he still performs and releases albums is a wonderful thing, but in the case of Nocturne, I feel we really aren’t hearing the best of him.

RATING 5 / 10
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