Quietly successful: Meet the man behind ECM Records

As Triskel in Cork gets ready to host its ECM weekend, Philip Watson is granted a rare interview with the man who founded the legendary label

Manfred Eicher. Photo: Richard Shroeder/ECM Records

Play an album of the wide- ranging music on the celebrated German record label ECM, and before the first track you’ll be greeted by five seconds of silence.

It can be disconcerting if you’re not expecting it, as if something somewhere has malfunctioned.

Yet for the legions of global fans of the influential label — and of the elegantly recorded and presented jazz, classical, early, world, folk and film music it has championed for almost 50 years — those precious few seconds perfectly reflect the aesthetic both of ECM and its founder and creative force Manfred Eicher.

“Whenever I listen to music, either on record or at a live concert, I want to first sit and rest and wait a little before the music starts,” says Eicher, by phone from Munich.

“I want some kind of silence, because music also comes from silence; it emerges and then dissolves back into silence again.”

A sense of stillness, quiet contemplation and heightened attention may be vital ingredients in the label’s singular appeal — ECM’s music was once famously described as “the most beautiful sound next to silence” — yet Eicher and his label have achieved a great deal more.

BIG INFLUENCE

ECM has not only changed the way much modern music is recorded, it has also affected its very sound, shape, structure, even status.

Focusing primarily on improvised and contemporary composed music, and their many intersections, and fostering cross-cultural ‘world music’ collaborations before the term even existed, Eicher has created countless highly regarded yet accessible albums that brilliantly break borders and defy easy categorisation.

Eicher launched ECM (the initials stand for Edition of Contemporary Music) in 1969 when he was just 26. He had a broad classical music background, having started violin lessons aged six, switching to the double bass at 14, and studying at the Berlin Academy of Music.

In his teens, however, Eicher discovered two further enduring passions: jazz and cinema. First turned on to improvised music by Miles Davis’s legendary 1959 album Kind of Blue, Eicher would also come under the heady 1960s spell of both the advanced lyricism of pianist Bill Evans and revolutionary edge of pioneers such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley.

At the same time he was inspired by a love of experimental European cinema, particularly the work of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague.

Eicher also had an enthusiasm for a wide variety of visual arts, from painting to photography, graphics and design.

Gradually realising that his skills lay more as a listener of music than a player, and frustrated at the poor quality of recording and presentation of much of the jazz he was experiencing, Eicher borrowed some money and set up his label.

He had no business plan, and no mission statement, apart from a desire to record music he loved, to the highest possible standards, and to introduce it to a wider public in a visually arresting way.

“I wanted to approach the recording in a different way, to record jazz in some kind of chamber music mode, like you might a string quartet, for example,” he says.

“There was something missing in the recordings I was hearing: a certain air in the music, a sense of space. For me the technical side was not as important as the idea of creating an aura or atmosphere, of finding poetry in the music.”

SOUND OF SUCCESS

It was an extremely personal, even romantic, artistic vision that almost immediately paid off.

Quickly attracting leading younger players from both sides of the Atlantic, such as American pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and English bass player Dave Holland, Eicher began to build a reputation for successfully wedding an unashamedly European aesthetic to a largely undervalued American art form.

In an era in which jazz was becoming increasingly fused with rock, funk and soul, Eicher reasserted timeless principles of clarity, personality, intimacy and uncompromising quality.

And he married those principles to a visual language that mostly echoed the music: a sense of restraint, an aversion to excess. There were very few cover portraits or liner notes; sleeve design was minimal, graphic, often painterly.

“From the beginning, everything about ECM seemed different, better: the quality of the sound, the mysterious record covers, even the vinyl looked thicker,” says innovative American guitarist Bill Frisell, who would make his major label debut with ECM in 1983.

“Manfred upped the standard. You can go through phases of fashion, but anything that’s that good and true is going to last, it’s going to hold up.”

ECM’s fortunes were assisted considerably in 1975 when Eicher released Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert.

A live solo double album made in less than ideal circumstances, the record has gone on to become the all-time best-selling piano album, in any genre, with sales of more than 3.5 million.

Officium, a groundbreaking collaboration between Jan Garbarek and British early music vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble, did something similar for the label in 1993.

As did ‘holy minimalist’ Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s debut, Tabula Rasa, in 1984; the album led Eicher to set up ECM New Series, a sister label dedicated to composed music “from the pre- Baroque era to the present day”.

Eicher says the total number of ECM recordings is now “close to 2,000”, and he employs 14 staff in offices in Munich, Paris and New York, but figures, especially sales figures, have never been his ultimate measure of success.

In a ruthlessly competitive and rapidly changing industry, ECM has remained steadfastly independent and kept its catalogue fully in print; the bottom line is always creative not financial.

ECM certainly has its detractors: some have criticised Eicher’s pristinely reverberating and all-embracing ‘ECM sound’ as being bloodless and overly austere.

Yet to its many admirers, who include Radiohead, Björk, Nick Cave and now even Jean-Luc Godard himself, ECM is like the jazz and new music equivalent of a revered and highly influential indie label like Factory or 4AD — except even more significant.

No other major label head has Eicher’s level of creative control — he chooses the musicians he works with, how and when he records them, and has final say on an album’s mix, edit, cover and design —and like all successful brands, from Apple Records to Apple computers, ECM has created a culture all its own. Loyal listeners often buy ECM first, and artist (especially one relatively unknown) second.

TRISKEL GIGS

It is this spirit of adventure, of a winningly open-eared approach to music, that is uppermost in the forthcoming ECM Weekend at Cork’s Triskel.

Spearheaded by Triskel artistic director and ECM aficionado Tony Sheehan, the third annual mini- festival features music that ranges from Italian classical/contemporary Duo Gazzana, to the soundscapes and freer edges of jazz in an American pairing of saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist David Torn, and Berlin-based Cyminology, a quartet that combines Persian singing and poetry with modern composition and the rhythms of jazz and Indian music.

Raffaella Gazzana and Natascia Gazzana. Photo: Evandro Inetti/ECM Records

Three films, one co-directed by Eicher himself, that explore ECM’s relationship to cinema will be shown on the opening night.

The ECM founder appears, at a youthful looking 74, to be working harder than ever. I ask him if he can ever imagine retiring.

“I have no plans, my hearing seems to be quite well intact, and being involved with all this music loads the battery and gives me great levels of energy,” he replies.

“I love the intensity of making music, being more or less in the centre of these fluctuating sounds and ideas. To be the first listener is a wonderful thing.”

FIVE ESSENTIAL ALBUMS FROM ECM 

  • Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert (1975) Sixty-six intense minutes of solo piano improvisations that still entrance and transport more than 40 years later.
  • Steve Reich: Music For 18 Musicians (1978) Debut and definitive recording of Reich’s masterpiece. David Bowie described it as “Balinese gamelan music cross-dressing as minimalism”.
  • Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa (1984) The album that introduced the Estonian composer’s powerfully movingly “holy minimalism” to a wider world. “Arvo Pärt’s music is a house on fire and an infinite calm,” said REM’s Michael Stipe.
  • Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble: Officium (1994) Lustrous jazz saxophone combines with the ethereal purity of an early music vocal quartet to glorious effect.
  • Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (2017) All-star group led by American jazz pianist Iyer; a compelling, complex, cutting-edge modern classic.

The ECM Weekend is at Triskel Christchurch, Cork from Nov 24-26. Triskelartscentre.ie/ecm<



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