Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher

Nenad Georgievski By

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Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer

Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher

ECM Records


Some people have invented products and concepts that have revolutionized the world. Some have devoted their lives to helping others, while some have conquered mountains and have built business empires. Others have given us insight into how we should live. But some have dazzled us with their genius and art, with ideas that spark dialogue and dissent and sometimes revolution. A genuine visionary, Manfred Eicher has certainly revolutionized the world of music through his ECM label, which has aimed since its inception at capturing the most beautiful sound next to silence. For 40 years, ECM, guided by Eicher's vision and aesthetics, has released some of the most important jazz, experimental, world and modern classical recordings.

Sounds and Silence is an intimate musical portrait of this legendary label owner and producer, whose presence is the common factor in the careers of not a few musical giants. Swiss filmmakers Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer followed Eicher over a period of five years and the result is a sonic journey that captures the artistry of one of the most distinctive and celebrated producers of our time. A modern day Odysseus, in the film Eicher travels to several countries, where the music was created in its original and natural surroundings.

The main story doesn't exclusively center on the main protagonist, but through him we get to see how he works with people such as composer Arvo Part on a recording session in an orthodox church in Talin, Estonia; pianist Eleni Karaindrou's concert in Athens ( Elegy of the Uprooting); a recording session with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and viola player Kim Kashkashian; oud player Anouar Brahem in Tunisia ( Voyage du Sahar 2006); pianist Nik Bärtsch ( Holon 2007); cellist Anja Lechner; and bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi ( Ojos Negros, 2007); saxophonist Gianluigi Trovesi; and more. The film gives a rare glimpse of Eicher's creative process and his alchemical presence in the lives of the people he works with.

But the documentary isn't quite like any most other documentaries. Sounds and Silence is a composition of some of the ECM's most diverse and eclectic sounds, resulting in a musical canvas that stretches the imagination. It is less documentary than reverie, a series of elegiac episodes taken from the life and mind of a dedicated worker. Nothing in the movie is aggressively portrayed and nothing in it is intended to change lives forcefully. It uses slow cuts without showy montages or frantic edits, and the pictures move forward in long, serene takes with tight close-ups. Even the performances are shot differently. The result is a film that focuses completely on the playing. The musicians' empathic interaction is revelatory and both the documentary and the featured music are soothing, becalmed with that mellowness and ripeness that are ECM's trademarks.

At the heart of the film lies the art of listening. Eicher is a careful and detailed listener and always on the look out for special moments. He immerses himself in the music, he allows himself to be be moved and taken by the sheer power of it and—in the words of Nora Part, the wife of Arvo Part—he becomes the composer's companion in creation. Evidently, this restless nomad has a creative telepathy that evokes soulful performances from musicians, persuading them to rise to the challenge within. At the core of ECM's ethos are honesty, trust and human relationships. What has earned Eicher deep respect is the sincere musicality and spiritual depth in the recordings he has facilitated or produced. The effect is often mesmerizing and otherworldly but, as shown in the film, it can be fun and joyful too. Witness Eicher and Arvo Part dancing together on hearing the music, or Parts' blissful expression when he listens to the orchestra playing.

Sounds and Silence is a stirring, visually striking film. But by far the most powerful element is Eicher's clarity of vision and his sense of a high, pure beauty that results in heavenly music. When the music starts, this film becomes a vehicle of incantatory power.

Production Notes: 87 minutes

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