Irmin Schmidt has forever been a trailblazer for bringing the avant garde into the outer rim of the indie-alternative scene. Having composed and played on keys for German krautrock group Can, Schmidt’s 18th solo release, 5 Klavierstücke, is a record of elemental ambiance akin to that of The Necks. Using only two pianos and a collection of field recordings, there’s some mesmerising moments over the five instrumental tracks that defy the capabilities of its narrow outfit of instruments.
The sole survivor of the cultish Can’s original four-piece line up, Schmidt’s musical career began as a conductor in the 60s. Attaining awards in the process, he further dabbled in composition for theatrical performances before focusing solely on his new band. Upon their disbandment in 1979, he began working on an array of solo albums and scoring for film and TV, accruing a tally of over 100 projects as well as penning an opera. His most recent release is composed with his life’s work in mind. Recorded spontaneously without any edits or corrections, it presents a glimpse into a fluidly musical mind, meditating over an expansive career.
Standing at 13 minutes, “Klavierstücke 1″’s sparse and foreboding keys roll around a circular progression – feeling intrinsically artistic but just as equally human, thanks to the retention of aural artefacts. Variations slowly emerge from the central movement with an orchestral-like slew of timbres on offer; cymbal clashes, bowing bass and gongs are all achieved via the prepared piano technique of John Cage (placing objects along the strings to alter tones). It creates a soundscape that feels symphonic on a small and accessible scale. Beneath it all lies the traditional piano, the central figure amongst these other characters. Schmidt asks questions with dissonant movements and answers with harmonic melodies. However, the constant tug of war that pervades this opening movement never fully resolves into anything substantial, making the measure stagnate, forever in an aimless limbo. The second half introduces rhythmic, percussive strikes, but the track’s longevity means the listener’s focus is already lost. The least pointed of the five pieces, by failing to contribute to any narrative, it serves more to introduce an aesthetic above all else.
The introduction of field recordings on “Klavierstücke 2” revitalises things, diversifying the soundscape. A mix of piercing keys and swaying trees dance with one another, each respective element growing louder and softer in tandem. Arpeggiated melodic notes caress before fear and dread strike via chords played with an urgency to inform something is awry. Deeper renditions of these primary chords play as trees begin to move faster, lifting the tempo and creating a vivid soundtrack to the ambient sounds. As crickets and other nocturnal noises arise, the bruising chords strike firmer with bright rhythms of prepared piano, mimicking steel drums. Whilst relatively abrupt compared to the gradually evolving arrangements of earlier songs, the steady rhythm adds a much-needed levity.
The percussive tones on “Klavierstücke 3” run far slower than its predecessor. Here they roll and stop, interspersed with pings and bangs of alternatively pitched notes, giving a distinctive eastern feel. The reverb and sustain of each seems to run on endlessly. The foreboding bass and shrill high-pitched staccatos create an undulating anticipation far superior to that attempted on the opening track. An unrelenting drum interestingly only serves to make things more unstable. A chord not out of place on any Hitchcock film adds a menace to the shortest track on the record, which acts more as a bridge between its neighbouring numbers than a passage in and of itself.
Melodic keys open “Klavierstücke 4” to offer some of the most familiar harmonies yet. When played along a scale, there’s a comfort in hearing them. However, soon enough, dissonance creeps back into the score. As rain and wild weather pair with the steel drum sounds of earlier, the overall arrangement creates an intimidating sensation distinctly different this time around. An underlying three-note movement that seduces, scares and intrigues all at once only amplifies the tension before interjecting – abrupt halts leave the listener breathless. Repeated cycles of tension and release make this the most powerfully pointed track on the album.
The peaceful three-chord progression introducing the closer, “Klavierstücke 5”, acts as a counterpoint to the prior passage. Thick bass, and melodic chords arrive like a sunrise after a stormy night at sea. Similarly, however, curious flourishes on the prepared piano assert themselves to shatter the pleasant disposition like a rock to a window. Forcing a sense of alarm, a classical ‘60s waltz arpeggio aims to regain our trust before distorting into dissonance. The closing strikes, although tempered in pace, make you sit up straight. More nuanced in its suspense, there remains an uncertain air over the conclusion that feels unfinished.
Harnessing the improvisational prowess of his past projects, Irmin Schmidt hereby creates an aural landscape for your imagination to wander amongst. With a distinctive and complex narrative of tension and release, there’s enough gaps left for you to fill in the blanks. Whilst some repetitious cycles become derivative, there’s enough intrigue, suspense and serenity throughout to offset this. It’s an artwork that requires you, as much as you do it.