Manfred Eicher: Through the Lens
ECM may no longer be the rapid trendsetter it was during the 1970s, when it established a number of canons that have since become the litmus test for others, including a body of solo piano recordings from major artists like Jarrett, Bley and Chick Corea, and relatively new stars including Stefano Bollani, Craig Taborn and Stefano Battaglia.Eicher and ECM also, virtually single-handedly, brought a most remarkable Norwegian scene to international attention, first through seminal artists like saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Arild Andersen, guitarist Terje Rypdal and drummer Jon Christensen, and more recently with emergents on the world stage including saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick and pianists Jon Balke and Ketil Bjørnstad. In today's landscape, it's hard enough to retain an identity, let alone break significant ground and actually have it reach the same number of ears as was the case 30 years ago, but if ECM has felt the tectonic shifts in the music industry, it has remained steadfast in the aesthetic choices that have defined it, while being flexible enough to change where it makes sense to do so.
What Eicher and ECM accomplish, year in and year out, is the relentless expansion of a body of work that remains unparalleled in the history of recorded music, both in size and scope. Sometimes Eicher and his artists succeed in moving things forward in bigger steps, as with Nils Petter Molvær's Khmer (1997), where techno-informed beats and textures, inextricably linked with the Norwegian trumpeter's inescapable lyricism, became an influential watershed that signaled the beginning of a new wave of Norwegian creativity. There are also times when a project doesn't gain the traction it deserves, as was unfortunately the case with Jon Balke's superb century- and culture-spanning Siwan (2009), an album that should have done better than it did. Still, it remains a high watermark for both Balke and the labeland a clear indicator of Eicher's ongoing commitment to risk-taking, large and small.
As the years have passed, ECM 's refusal to be bound by any genre has continued to define its unique place in recorded music. In any given year (in this case, 2010), the label can be found releasing everything from electro-acoustic improv (Food's Quiet Inlet) and intimate and acoustic jazz standards (Keith Jarrett's long overdue reunion with bassist Charlie Haden, Jasmine) to minimalism-informed Zen funk (Llyrìa, from pianist Nik Bärtsch's Ronin), and a wondrous convergence of the secular and spiritual with Norwegian trumpeter/vocalist Per Jørgensen's collaboration with Finnish pianist Samuli Mikkonen and drummer Markku Ounaskari on Kuára: Psalms and Folk Songs, where the trio's choice of traditional folk material was augmented, at Eicher's impetus, with music stemming from the Russian orthodox church. And that doesn't include the label's New Series, where, in any given year, significant works can be found by composers ranging from the modern (Arvo Pärt, Erkk-Sven Tüür) and the classical (Joseph Haydn) to the romantic (Robert Schumann).
There's only one thing that can tie this all together, and if Sounds and Silence reveals much about Eicherthrough glimpses of recording sessions with artists such as Bärtsch, and Argentinean bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi and German cellist Anja Lechner, as well as insightful comments from longtime collaborators like Estonian composer Pärtit doesn't give it all away. Instead, the 87-minute film successfully treads that fine line between resolving many previously unanswered questions about Eichera winner, 40 years on, of numerous awards ranging from the American Grammy Awards to France's Grand Prix du Disque and The Netherlands' Edison Awardand leaving intact some of the mystery that has made Eicher the enigmatic figure he is.