Manfred Eicher and ECM Records
Manfred Eicher |
Forty Years of ECM
In 1969, Munich producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM Records (Editions of Contemporary Music), long noted for a distinctive sonic angle that has defied the categories of "jazz" and "classical" while being conversant in both — and much more. Yet ECM has managed to document some of the most enduring figures of contemporary global jazz, among them Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Steve Swallow, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Paul Motian, Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner, and Paolo Fresu.
Downbeat marked ECM's 40th anniversary by conferring its Jazz Label of the Year award, while ECM's New Series (founded in 1984) garnered Classical Label of the Year status from Gramophone. The CUNY Graduate Center's Jazz Legacies series offered a chance to hear Eicher reflect on the label's remarkable trajectory, in a conversation with critic Gary Giddens on November 19, 2009.
Giddens introduced Eicher as "a great student of film" and "an auteur of recording." Indeed, ECM's aesthetics have expressed a strong visual sensibility from the start. Consider Sleeves of Desire (Lars Müller, 1996), which features ECM's cover art (a follow-up volume is in the works), and a history of ECM, Horizons Touched (Steve Lake and Paul Griffiths, Granta, 2007).
Parenthetically, ECM has released the soundtracks of Jean-Luc Godard's Nouvelle Vague and Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Godard's short films on DVD, and Eleni Karaindrou's music for film. With Heinz Butler, Eicher directed Holozän (1992, Suhrkamp Verlag re-release, 2009), based on Zurich writer and architect Max Frisch's novella Man in the Holocene (which made use of a quirky visual collage technique). Also in 2009, after five years' work, Swiss filmmakers Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer issued Sounds and Silence, their documentary on Eicher.
Eicher's visual orientation finds expression in his longstanding preference to record in Oslo, whose qualities of "light, and the atmosphere inspired by its light," he says, keep him returning. His biography also hints at the inspiration he finds in the visual. He grew up in the shadow of the Alps, on the eastern end of Lake Konstanz (known in German as the Bodensee), in Lindau, the island city and former Roman settlement where the borders of present-day Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge. Artists and writers (e.g., Otto Dix, Hermann Hesse, Norbert Jacques, Helen Meier, W.G. Sebald, Johanna Walser, Martin Walser, Robert Walser) have found inspiration in the region, known for its sweeping Alpine horizons and ever-shifting patterns of sunlight, clouds, and water.
Noting that many ECM recordings draw on artistic and literary references, I asked Eicher about a relationship between writing and graphic arts and the ECM look, feel, and sound. He responded, "I like to read, and quotes often inspire me. I read in airports, traveling, and I like to browse through bookstores. Often, a text provides a basis for what we are doing in the studio."
Growing up, Eicher describes himself as "looking to the mountains, looking around the Bodensee, listening to the birds, the sound of waves." Eicher also admits a certain Bauhaus leaning in terms of look and graphic design, "yet the most important thing is the music." Eicher was a student of classical violin and bass, and "my mother was a singer, so we heard Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and the like. But I was also always into jazz." (Paul Chambers was a particular influence.) Although Eicher played with the Berlin Philharmonic for a time, he gave it up because, as he says, "The classical orchestra was not my way."
Instead, with a loan of 16,000 German Marks (then about US$4,000), Eicher made the first four ECM recordings in 1969. "I just kept making records, without a plan or anything. I found out that I was a good listener, or so people told me. And that's how I became a record producer."
As Eicher told Giddens, "Sound is about organizing emotions in time—that is music. I never impose a sound on music. Rather, music requires a particular sound. In this sense, music has no location; it is a product of artistic inspiration and poetic expression."
From the first, the quality of the artistry, production, sound engineering, and graphic sensibilities of ECM were patent, elements that have marked the label into the present. Eicher notes that in music's long, long history, recording technology came very late. As a producer, he sees preparation as paramount, working with the musicians themselves, reading the scores (if there are any), and thinking through phrasing, timbre, color, and other aesthetic choices, while also setting a mood in the recording studio. Hence, Eicher sees himself first as a listener, well before the music is ever recorded.
Not everyone appreciates the ECM aesthetic, but to his critics Eicher says, "What you hear is the sound that we like. Some critics—none of whom have attended a session—don't realize that we work with the performers as partners all the way through the mixing and editing process. Recording is teamwork."
How does Eicher find the artists who record for ECM? "Many were not known at the beginning. People send me audition disks but I don't listen to them anymore. There's simply not enough time. I listen to the radio at night, driving in the car. I go to festivals. ECM recordings often come together by accident. I find music or I don't. You know it when you hear it, in a certain milieu that you are drawn to."
For example, Eicher spoke with Mal Waldron at a Munich performance, and "Free at Last," Waldron's first ECM trio recording, resulted. He relates, "I first heard Jan Garbarek with George Russell and Terje Rypdal, maybe in 1969. Jan and I talked, and about a year later we made a record. I sent a test pressing to Keith Jarrett when I proposed to record him. Keith liked it, and that's how we started. In fact, Keith used to study Jan's phrasing in performance."
In Eicher's view, other important early releases were Keith Jarrett's "Facing You" and "Solo Concerts: Bremen, Lausanne." Chick Corea and Gary Burton also came across his radar. "I thought a combination of piano and vibraphone would be good, and Chick decided to try it." "Return to Forever" and "Crystal Silence" resulted, both recorded in Oslo in the early 1970s.
What about working with Jarrett? "With Keith there is no need to do many takes. As he says, 'There are no mistakes for me.' By the time of the first recordings, he was already headed in the direction of solo performance. His 'Solo Concerts: Bremen, Lausanne'  was very important for his career, and 'The Köln Concert' was a million seller."
How about contracting musicians? Says Eicher, "For ECM, there is no exclusivity, just an agreement for the specific recording in question. The best contract is not exclusive; rather, it's one based on mutual confidence and respect." It should be no surprise that, 40 years on, many of the artists who first recorded with ECM remain with the label.
What is Eicher's view toward MP3s and downloading? "Spending so much time in the studio to make compelling sound, it pains me that music is being reduced to low-fidelity jumping from track to track on a little player. We hope listeners will approach our music as meaningful sound, and not rely on these little toys and toy sounds. In the same way, I prefer to see a film in the theater rather than on DVD. It's not what we meant when we did the work. All those little nuances of sound mean something, and it shouldn't be diminished by being reduced to MP3 tracks. Still, I'm optimistic about the future of music."
An overview of a number of recent and upcoming releases gives some idea why Eicher feels this way, and why he keeps making recordings. (All titles ECM unless otherwise indicated)
Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui
Trygve Seim and Frode Haltli
Towner and Paolo Fresu
Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, and U.T. Gandhi
See more scenes from Bodensee by Wolfgang Breuss
Photos @copy2009 Mark Vogel/ECM (portraits) and Wolfgang Breuss (landscapes)
For more on ECM's 40th anniversary, and audio samples of many of the CDs, visit www.ecmrecords.com.