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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.

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