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Manfred Eicher: Through the Lens

John Kelman By

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It begins in silence, always silence. Since the 1990s, all ECM recordings begin with five seconds of silence, and so, too, do directors Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer open their feature film on the heralded German record label and its enigmatic founder, Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher. As longtime ECM recording artist Keith Jarrett's performance of G.I. Gurdjieff's "Reading of Sacred Books," from the pianist's Sacred Hymns (1980), begins in the background, the film fades in on Eicher, sitting on a simple wooden chair beside an equally unadorned table, steeped in thought. Dissolving to the film's title, an impressionistic car ride suddenly leads to a view from an airplane window, one of many that Eicher experiences as producer of the majority of the label's 40-50 recordings each year. A generally introspective man who, nevertheless, shares plenty of warmth when engaged with the artists on the various sessions represented in the film, Eicher leads an itinerant lifestyle that would be a solitary one, were it not for the demands of the professional life he leads, where the music is all about interaction and engagement.

As a producer, Eicher is a rare entity, an endangered species, in fact, in a time of DIY recordings; he's also unique amongst the vast majority of producers, whose roles are more about ensuring that a recording comes off on-time and on-budget. Eicher makes sure these things happen as well, but his involvement in the music goes beyond mere practical facilitation; he's an active producer, who becomes directly involved in the very creation of the music, from arrangements to track sequencing...even providing the occasional uncredited musical contribution. Originally a double bassist, he rarely plays anymore—though he has been known to pick up a bass, play a little piano or strike a cymbal, every now and then, if it helps him to communicate. Being a musician may not be an absolute prerequisite, but there's little doubt it allows for a common vernacular that's all the more important when mother tongues are, as often as not, different, and when artists from around the world are regularly placed together in new, globe-spanning combinations.

Providing more than just an objective ear, Eicher tacitly but invariably increases the number of musicians in any given ensemble by one, so collaborative is the nature of his involvement. Eicher's strong interest in film leaks into the oftentimes cinematic nature of his productions, and he considers his role more akin to that of a film director. He has even said, to further that analogy, that he views the responsibilities of recording engineers like Jan Erik Kongshaug, James Farber and Gérard de Haro to be the audio equivalent of the director of photography, bringing technical knowledge and trained ears to bear in order to help the director and actors—Eicher and the musicians—more fully realize their vision.

Eicher's involvement in the now thousand-plus titles that make up the ECM discography is a defining marker in a life's work that may have begun in the improvised music of pianists Mal Waldron and Paul Bley and saxophonist Marion Brown, but has since expanded to incorporate so many disparate musical styles that the longstanding myth of "the ECM sound" has become even more challenging to nail down. Still, a couple of things are certain: it's almost always possible to identify an ECM production by its sonic transparency and clarity—something many have emulated but never copied precisely; and it's equally possible to tell—if not necessarily judge—an ECM recording by its cover.

As he approaches the age of 70 in 2013, Eicher seems to be doing everything but slowing down; if anything, he's ramped up the pace, a remarkable feat for a label whose employees can almost be counted on the fingers of just two hands, but who have, with Eicher at the helm, helped to maintain the label's reputation for creativity and artistic integrity.

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 Bjornstad. 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 Molvaer'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 label—and 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 Jorgensen'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 Part, 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 Eicher—through 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 Pärt—it doesn't give it all away. Instead, the 87-minute film successfully treads that fine line between resolving many previously unanswered questions about Eicher—a winner, 40 years on, of numerous awards ranging from the American Grammy Awards to France's Grand Prix du Disque and The Netherlands' Edison Award—and leaving intact some of the mystery that has made Eicher the enigmatic figure he is.

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, 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, when he left the label after nearly 30 years to start his own Dare2 imprint.
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