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Artist Profiles

Manfred Eicher: Through the Lens

By Published: October 31, 2011
Sounds and Silence relies more on imagery and music (much of it collected on a separately released soundtrack CD, with its own story to tell) than it does spoken word—the subtlest of gestures, sometimes, speak more than any words could. Still, and not surprisingly, every word counts, demonstrating—in direct defiance of those who accuse Eicher of being dictatorial in his control—that the strength of his vision is absolutely predicated on that of the artists with whom he collaborates. Early in the film, during a recording session in an Estonian church, Arvo Pärt speaks about Eicher and a creative process that—in a time when ProTools allows artists to piece together the perfect performance by pasting together the best parts of multiple takes—remains relatively unique. For ECM and its artists, it's not about constructing the perfect take, it's about finding it, about that single uninterrupted performance where, warts and all, the musicians manage to go beyond what's on the written page to create something truly transcendent.

After all, perfection sometimes has to be measured in something beyond the tangibly empirical:

We are looking for something very special. Something to do with sound. It's always like this when working with Manfred. Not only must you get the microphones into the correct position and select the right filters, you must always inspire the musicians so that something can be created. What we are seeking must always touch the musicians. They also want to receive something. This enthusiasm, this seriousness must be transferred. And this is the reason why the final version of the work is often the best one.


And it's not always easy, as Pärt's wife, Nora, explains further:

We go through hell. We're exhausted. We've reached our limits. But then, deep inside us, we hear this pure sound, which motivates us. And Manfred lives it with us.


It takes a very specific vision to be able to transcend genre and know exactly what the music needs, and this may well mandate a quality construable as controlling, but how could Eicher not be, when he's created a life's work as rich and varied as the ECM discography? Eicher is involved in the music at a level that few other producers are, yet far too many artists describe Eicher in egalitarian terms for such accusations of dictatorship to hold water. Yes, he knows what he wants, and there are artists for whom his vision is not a shared one, artists like guitarist Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
, who ultimately left the label, but not until it had helped him establish an international reputation. Others leave the label after longer stays but, like Metheny, the parting is invariably more about taking full control over all aspects of their music, as with bassist Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
, when he left the label after nearly 30 years to start his own Dare2 imprint.


Eicher, at a recording session with Eleni Karaindrou and Jan Garbarek


But what of artists like Jarrett, Rypal, Garbarek and guitarists John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
b.1944
guitar
and Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
b.1940
guitar
, who have recorded with Eicher for four decades? What of those, like Chick Corea, who continue to return to the label when a specific project seems right for it (like the pianist's recent duo recording with Stefano Bollani, 2011's Orvieto)? And what of others still, like Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd
b.1938
saxophone
, who have their careers revived by Eicher, leading to some of the most precious recordings of their careers, like the saxophonists' Athens Concert (2011)? What else can be inferred? Eicher has, indeed, a clear vision of what ECM is to represent, but that doesn't come at the expense of providing his artists—for whom, atypically in the recording industry, there are no long-term contracts, just an agreement and a handshake for each project—the freedom they need to realize their visions. The only requirement, it seems, is that these visions must, at least, share more in common than not.


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