|Manfred Eicher at the Royal Academy of Music
Phone snap by AJ Dehany
An Audience with Manfred Eicher
(Royal Academy of Music 12 February 2018. Report by AJ Dehany)
ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is one of the most, if not the most, recognisable record labels in all music. Established by Manfred Eicher in Munich in 1969, it has a reputation for outstanding audio quality, carefully considered programming and an influential vision of how design, typography, photography and artwork can contribute to an integrated aesthetic experience for the listener.
During the 1970s and 80s it established itself with celebrated jazz recordings by Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and so many more. Eicher himself has produced the majority of the label’s 1500 releases.
Having established ECM’s reputation for jazz and improvised music, ECM established the New Series in 1984 specifically for notated music, enhancing ECM’s celebrated exposure of non-western musical languages.
|Manfred Eicher receiving the Honorary Fellowship|
On Monday 12 February 2018 Manfred Eicher was presented with an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Music by Principal Jonathan Freeman-Attwood. These fellowships are limited to one hundred distinguished individuals for their services to the profession. Eicher talked about his life and work in a wide-ranging conversation with the Academy’s Deputy Principal and Dean Mark Racz. A superb sound system relayed fine selections from the ECM catalogue illustrating enduring themes of the label’s clear and luminous sound, curation of dynamic and unusual configurations of players, and seamless blending of old and new, ancient and modern. A holistic philosophy emerged from the conversation, richly couched in a particular kind of vocabulary embracing ideas like air, luminosity, clarity, energy, and empathy.
Intelligent, quiet and unassuming he exuded great humility and humanity. Ironically for such an accomplished recording technician, there were problems with his lapel mic, which after being badly positioned and repositioned, snapped free and dangled under the chair for several minutes. The packed-out room at the Royal Academy was a bit like a genius convention with a roll-call of great musicians including Evan Parker, Andy Sheppard, Iain Ballamy, Django Bates, Julian Siegel, Liam Noble, Kit Downes, Mark Lockheart, Chris Lawrence, Nikki Iles, Martin Speake, Chris Williams, Nikki Yeoh, and composer Dobrinka Tabakova and tenor/scholar John Potter, a key member of Hilliard Ensemble.
At the reception after there was an informal opportunity to ask any unasked, burning questions. The one we all wanted to know was: who that you hadn’t recorded do you wish you had recorded? Eicher told one questioner he regretted never recording Miles—a project was planned but never happened.
It was an evening of treasured memories. At one point during the conversation, Eicher refilled both Racz’s glass of water and then his own. Racz said “I should be doing that for you”. Eicher said “I am also a servant,” giving a genuine sense of his humility. It was, simply, a profound moment.
1. The First Listener
To begin, Eicher spoke about his upbringing and first experiences training to be a professional musician. Growing up near Lake Constance in the south of Germany with four older sisters, at age six he was encouraged to learn the violin by his mother, who was a singer. Within a few years he could play the Bach partitas. He inherited his mother’s love of the Schubert Lieder and got into the late Beethoven quartets. The melancholic lyricism of the Lieder and the quartets’ harmonic liminality seem to me to characterize much of the ECM catalogue.
He heard Miles Davis and Bill Evans, and at age fourteen went to study double bass in Berlin. His experience working as a professional musician shaped his future approaches to working ‘on the other side of the microphones’ as a producer. He was inspired by Bill Evans trio, Paul Bley, Jimmy Giuffre, but, he said, “I wasn’t sure I could ever be close to these wonderful music players—but as a good listener and as someone who dedicates his hearing towards this music I thought maybe I could contribute more to the music some way other than as a player. I felt I enjoyed listening. I was from the beginning very interested in how things are transferred to sound or tapes and this was something I really enjoyed—maybe that could be something one day for me to do would be to be an engineer or produce, to be someone who is taking care of making the musicians sound better…”
Jack DeJohnette, with whom Eicher has been recording with for some 45 years now, said “Manfred is more like a film director than a conventional producer.” Quoting this, Mark Racz asked Eicher about the role of producer as a role in the creative process. “Well,” said Eicher, “it starts with listening to music that you like and that is dear to you and then bringing these musicians together that you have probably liked in different situations and if they’re not playing together helping them cope in a recording situation. I saw there was a certain individuality and character in the personal code of the musicians who formulate and shape sound patterns to numbers in an unusual way. I became very interested in diving into their offerings. A producer is someone who loves music and listens to music in a different way. There could be a long discussion about the difference between listening and hearing. The differences between these things are extremely important, so it does help if you have studied music before. If you’re approaching music with your personal experience you can see it from this side of the live performance before you translate it or transmit it or transform it into another shape of thing.”
Continuing, Racz said “When we were speaking earlier you came up with a lovely phrase: I think of myself as the first listener.” This is a perfect description of a producer, and Eicher’s description of this nurturing part of the role helps us understand, not just what goes on in the studio, but how what goes on in the studio happens at all, illustrating the philosophy of what Eicher is pursuing. The musician is “kind of naked” here, in a delicate situation where the producer, Eicher says, “listens painfully sometimes and suffers with something that doesn’t work and helps if it works, and if it doesn’t work tries to help. Listening to a musician is listening not only to the music to shape what we know but also to discover music that we don’t know yet, and there is mystery in finding this. There is a great thing in the whole line not only from me but I want to have clarity on the music and lucidity and a certain amount of airiness. It needs to be in the music without fluctuation in overtones—these things are extremely important. Nothing is more mysterious than clarity.”
The sense of ‘transparency’ is a key notion in the aesthetic, capturing clearly and accurately the depths and layers of all the sounds in different frequencies in the sound space. Eicher acknowledges that “people sometimes talk about reverb, that’s all okay— but reverb is also an instrument.”
The sonic depth and spaciousness of ECM records is not just about reverb, but is more organically ingrained in the physical making of the sounds. He says, “the mics are there to capture the fluctuation of overtones. In many recordings one doesn’t hear the overtones. It’s not the reverb that makes these things, it’s an instrument that surges like a microphone. For all these kinds of elements that are in the music making, in a way as the producer you are playing the instruments, that is the microphones, and at the mixing desk. It’s always the musician that formulates the music, it’s not really coming later when we record the music. If we have a two-track recording we have to be alert to the balance, the shape of things, to capture the music in this moment. If it is a multitrack recording we have to bring this and balance later and not forget that everything that has been recorded cannot be corrected—intonation, tempi, phrasing should all start before the microphone, so the music shapes itself already in the best possible way.”
|Mark Racz (left) and Manfred Eicher|
After listening to some of Nicolette, the opening track of 1997’s Angel Song, Eicher explained how he brought together Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Lee Konitz and Bill Frisell. Dave and Kenny had played together before but this quartet grouping was completely new. It’s an example of Eicher’s instinct for bringing musicians together. Naturally, these combinations don’t always work out but this one is duly celebrated. With a beautiful balance, lucidity and attentiveness from beginning to end, he says “it became a kind of classical record.”
The next musical example continued the serendipitous theme. Gary Burton and Chick Corea were brought together for an album with the unusual duo combination of vibraphone and piano on 1973’s Crystal Silence. It took a day to make the instruments in tune with each other, then, in typical ECM style, two days to record and one to mix. The centrepiece, Crystal Silence, “became a big reference for many musicians” and Chick still includes it in his concerts to this day.
The key to recording at this pace is for the musicians to come to the studio prepared, either rehearsed or with a concept. “I don’t want to waste too much time with talking and discussing” he says, and he has cultivated long and loyal working relationships with his audio engineers, particularly Martin Weiland and Jan Erik Kongshaug (owner of the Rainbow studio where many ECM records have been made). “It’s best if you don’t have to talk too much, only when there is some disagreement or questions and you can resolve them by just offering different ideas.” The approach to recording is fluid and intuitive: “It’s important to have not a preconceived idea about so-called sound because the sound always comes from the music. The most important thing is the content of the music so you have to shape everything according to the things that are there in the music. I like these kinds of things that can never be seen before, to work with empathy for the musicians and empathy for the things to come—which is Utopian, but sometimes these sorts of things grow into something that you never expected.”
When the recording and mixing is done, before the record is mastered he pays great attention to the sequencing. He says, “for me it’s important that between every piece there has to be the right amount of pause, or air, and sometimes you have to make slight level adjustments in order to further the flow of the storytelling.” This sense of musical narrative relates to Eicher’s love of film, how a director puts sequences of visual images together. He cites film-makers Godard, Bergman and Bresson as influences, and indeed, in 1992 Eicher himself co-directed and co-wrote a film, Holozän (Man in the Holocene), based on a novella by Max Frisch.
3. The New Series
Next we heard one of György Kurtág’s ‘pedagogical performance pieces’ from the Játékok series (Hungarian: Games) followed by his four-handed reading with Márta Kurtág of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in E Flat. While both pieces are very different, they each have a luminosity in both the playing and the sound of the piano. They also reflect the breadth of the ECM repertoire. Mark Racz noted that while looking through the catalogue “what impressed me most was this perennial and very profound sense of surprise and the unexpected.” He cited an older comment from Eicher in which he said “I never felt comfortable being only on one side of a thing. I always want to check out the other shore.”
While ECM had established its reputation recording jazz and improvised music, in 1984 Eicher started the ECM New Series specifically for notated music. The first release was Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa, and we heard the beginning of Fratures for violin and piano. Eicher closed his eyes, enraptured by the music, motioning that the recording be allowed to play on for another sequence and another, with complete pleasure and absorption in the incredible performances of Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett.
Before explaining how the New Series came about, Eicher told us that, astonishingly, before this “electrifying performance” Jarrett and Kremer had never played together. They met in Basel. One was on his way to the States, the other just come from there. They recorded in half a day six or seven takes with very few edits. Eicher said, “When I listen now after all these years it still sounds so beautiful how it is possible to make music like this together that is written and actually sounds so simple but it’s so difficult. It is because of the conversation. It’s very simple, not simplistic but pure and simple and clear music. But for this music you need poise, and Keith has this affinity for this kind of piece so it was wonderful to see that poise for the first time here. Kremer has this kind of lucidity and energy, these crescendos are incredible. It’s something amazing, it’s very special.”
The New Series was conceived almost by a chance operation: “It was in the beginning of the 80s on a moonless night. I drove by car from Stuttgart to Zürich on the Autobahn near Lake Constance, very slow because my car was not driving the best possible way on a flat tyre. There was some music, it was so beautiful, like angel music, and I stopped the car. I drove out to a hill for better reception and listened to the whole piece. It took me one year after this point to find out what the music was. It was one of the first recordings of Tabula Rasa.”
Continuing on from Arvo Pärt, Racz asked about Eicher’s many decades of work with the extraordinary composers of the former Soviet Bloc: Estonia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, the whole periphery of Europe and Asia where identities can sit somehow in neither one nor the other, or both. Eicher said “I think in the centre of Europe we are very proud of what we have and belittle very often the things that come from the edge. Now come more refugees to us and the music is changing. It’s great to see that after so many years these people are getting acceptance.”
The ECM catalogue has brought such a wealth of music from outside the typical Western canon to our attention that, as Mark Racz said, “I think in the 1980s we would’ve all been surprised to know that you were going to do a complete recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas—so in a way that’s been another chapter in another development,” continuing by playing a recording of which Eicher has said he is especially fond and proud of, Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin’s album of Hindemith’s Sonatas for solo viola and piano and viola.
Illustrating Eicher’s dedication to pursuing music he loves, and how he consistently seems to work magic to make it happen despite impediments we can only imagine, he recounted how he loved Kashkashian’s timbre and phrasing and wanted to record her. She was surrounded by Deutsche Grammophon people, but he sought out a church that would do justice to the beauty of the music. He found one in Switzerland, renting a piano from Zürich. Time and again, Eicher has brought together disparate worlds and found common ground between them. He has written about “The curiosity that leads us, time and again, to draw inspiration from the remotest sources, classical and modern. Seclusion at close quarters means travelling between cultures and languages, but also travelling into history. The result is a roaming tendency, an ever-changing contemporaneity with the Old and the New, with composers of the Middle Ages and the modern alike.”
We listened to Parce Mihi Domine from 1994’s Officium, a collaboration between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble performing compositions by Cristóbal de Morales, Pérotin and others. It was recorded in the Monastery at Sankt Gerold in the Austrian Alps, and is one of ECM’s most successful records: a truly transcendent album ranging from the 16th to the 20th centuries, from the Northern Borealis to the Iberian Peninsula, that Marius Gabriel said is “what Coltrane hears in heaven.”
4. The British Sound
Finally, they discussed the important relationship Eicher has cultivated with British musicians, both ancient and modern, citing the influence of David Munrow, a great pioneer of early music whose collection is housed by the Royal Academy of Music, and the wide range of music by British jazz musicians that ECM has championed. British musical life in the 1960s and early 1970s had a strength, diversity, originality and marginality that was appealing. He said “I think the character of this music was very, how shall I say—vertraut in Deutsch—very familiar and yet absolutely new to me. We were listening to John Stevens, Kenny Wheeler [Canadian but long resident in Britain], Trevor Watts. The music in England was taking shape in a different way then in Europe. I was also listening to Tony Oxley. Another musician that we recorded who was very influential was Evan Parker. For me this was a fantastic time in English music at the birth of these directions. There was nothing like that in Europe at that time.”
We next heard the beginning of Poetic Justice, the opening track of 1995’s Time Will Tell with free players Paul Bley, Evan Parker and Barre Phillips. Eicher praised its “wonderfully slow, patient unfolding of the music” and Paul Bley’s contribution: “I can identify him after five notes—it’s incredible how he’s always inside the music. He is a poet. Whether extremely free or even very intense, he is always a poet: he has lots of melody in his sequences.”
He saved his concluding words for Evan Parker, who may have been blushing in the back of the room. “Evan is lyrical as ever. Even in the very first recording we made together he was extremely lyrical. Evan plays in different places but he is Evan Parker—you can identify his musical connection and direction in every sense and I can also hear immediately that it is Evan playing.”
Closing on an up-to-the-minute note, Mark Racz selected Seeing Things from the newly released album Obsidian by Kit Downes, who may also have been blushing at the back. It was recorded not on piano but on church organs around England. It’s a record that clearly embraces ECM’s typical synergism, over nearly fifty years, of old and new, ancient and modern. It sounds like nothing else Kit Downes, or anyone, has done before, but it sounds like ECM.
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
(with thanks to David Fraser)
ECM SELECTIONS PLAYED
1. Nicolette — Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell (Angel Song, 1997)
2. Senor Mouse — Gary Burton, Chick Corea (Crystal Silence, 1973)
3. Játékok / 5.: 9. Aus der Ferne — György Kurtág, Márta Kurtág (Kurtág, Bach, Játékok, 1997)
4. Sonata No. 1 in E Flat BWV (Bach) — György Kurtág (Kurtág, Bach, Játékok, 1997)
5. Fratres (Arvo Pärt) — Gidon Kremer, Keith Jarrett (Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa, 1984)
6. Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 4, Op. 11: 1. Phantasie (Hindemith) — Kim Kashkashian, Robert Levin (Hindemith: Sonatas For Viola Alone / Piano And Viola Alone, 1988)
7. Parce Mihi Domine (Cristóbal de Morales) — Jan Garbarek, The Hilliard Ensemble (Officium, 1994)
8. Poetic Justice — Paul Bley, Evan Parker, Barre Phillips (Time Will Tell, 1995)
9. Seeing Things — Kit Downes (Obsidian, 2018)