MANFRED EICHER OF ECM RECORDS, INTERVIEWED (1992): Art for the artists' sake

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Keith Jarrett: Shenandoah
MANFRED EICHER OF ECM RECORDS, INTERVIEWED (1992): Art for the artists' sake

As much as a disembodied voice down a phone line can, Manfred Eicher confirms the impression he made on English journalist Richard Cook when he visited London in late ’89: “He is a slim, rather careworn-looking man, whose great energy and dedication don’t always break through a cautious temperament,” wrote Cook, describing this founder of the German record label ECM (Editions of Contemporary Music).

“His small, shapeless face is surmounted by a careless thatch of greying hair, his eyes have the pale glitter of graphite; he’s not much given to laughing. But he warms to anything he senses is kindred to his own beliefs.”

As befits the head of a company which once carried the tag line “the most beautiful sound next to silence,” Eicher seldom gives interviews . . . and on the rare occasions he does, they are peppered with references to Kafka and Beckett, the zeitgeist of recordings, and he draw analogies between the music of saxophonist Charles Lloyd and a painting by Giacometti.

He counts among his friends film-makers Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, is a businessman who can say without being disingenuous, “I never thought about markets, I thought only about tones and whether they moved me”.

He brings to the production of his recordings the northern European aesthetic of the painter Edvard Munch, whom he admires.

Guitarist Pat Metheny, now no longer with ECM, says the only criticism Eicher ever made was “too commercial." Has any other record company head honcho ever said that to an artist?

All of that makes Manfred Eicher – whom Billboard called “a visionary” – a very interesting man indeed. And very successful, too.man1

His ECM label has been, for 25 years, synonymous with some of the finest jazz around. The label could boast – not that Eicher would – that it launched the careers of guitarists Metheny and Bill Frisell, pianist Keith Jarrett, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and dozens of others.

Under Eicher – who considers the music industry as “a kind of environmental pollution” – ECM gave the breath of life in the late Seventies to American free jazz outfits such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago long after their home-base labels had abandoned them.

Today ECM’s back-catalogue contains over 400 albums, and - since it launched its New Series imprint in 1983 - has commanded an audience in the contemporary classical world. Many of the ECM albums are “landmarks in jazz and new music,” Billboard observed last year.

In much the same way as Eicher gave Jarrett (formerly a sideman with Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd) and Garbarek (part of Karin Krog's band but a virtual unknown outside Norway) the opportunities to extend themselves into spectacularly successful solo careers, he started the New Series with Estonian mystic composer Arvo Part.

So when, in '94 on ECM’s 25th anniversary, the New Series sprang the enormously successful Officium album by saxophonist Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (over 250,000 copies sold - not bad for an album of airy, austere saxophone and medieval chants) there was the feeling it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

Happy anniversary, Manfred . . . and congratulations on the success of Officium.

“Yes, I am always surprised when people appreciate what we are doing,” he says in a voice as measured and rapid as the notes of Officium are leisurely. “I never think about market criteria, so could never foresee a success like that. In the past we were often successful . . . but with Officium we have something that is dark and light in the Beckett sense where we have the juxtaposition of the two.

“You can feel the integrity of a project and think it may touch people, but you never know these days, there are so many layers, so many books and recordings coming out and there's too much of everything.”

Eicher's point about the sheer volume of artistic output today is one he articulates often; audiences see too much and are too uncritical, reviewers (even those who acclaim ECM releases) write less and less substantial and critical reviews, with CDs reviewers jump from track to track and responses are superficial . . .

In this regard the ascetic Eicher is less like a businessman than a philosopher-musician . . . and his background is illustrative.

Classically trained, the first record he bought was “at the end of the Fifties, Klemperer recordings of Mahler.” Pop music of the Beatles kind went right past him. (“I noticed it but it never had an impact like chamber music and Miles Davis.”)

He lived on yoghurt and coffee so he could buy records, won a scholarship to the prestigious Berlin Academy of Music, was a production assistant on recordings by Herbert von Karajan, and indulged his abiding passion for jazz by attending concerts and clubs.

In the late Sixties -- when rock culture dominated the American music industry and jazz artists were relocating to Europe -- he started ECM in Munich with money borrowed from the owner of a local discount records shop.

“I was listening to people like Omette Coleman, Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans, but as far as recording was concerned, nothing interested me. ESP Disk was interesting,” he says, noting an avant-garde New York label. “But they had a strange production quality because they were mostly recorded in living rooms and didn't have the precise shape and sound this music deserved.

“I wanted to do something from my cultural background as a European with my awareness of what classical engineers would do. I wanted to explore a different sound picture than we had at the time."man3

The first album on ECM -- prophetically titled Free at Last and by expatriate American pianist Mal Waldron - appeared in 1970. The company pressed 500 copies and eventually sold more than 14,000.

What impressed listeners then, as it does today, was the clarity of Eicher’s production, one of the label’s hallmarks. And as much as the “ECM sound” - pristine clarity, a sense of space and feel for silence - garnered an audience, so, too, did Eicher’s eye for packaging. ECM albums came in austere covers often with chilly, atmospheric photographs of barren landscapes that were stark and introspective parallels of the music within. Very crisp, very European.

As Time magazine quipped about the recordings in studios in Oslo: “for fun the musicians trundle off to the Edvard Munch Museum.”

Eicher says the recording sessions aren’t businesslike (“they are efficient,” he says efficiently) but the musicians - many of them Americans, some such as guitarist Egberto Gismonti from South America - are affected by the light and atmosphere of Norway.

Eicher also exhibits an astute hands-on tendency with his artists and over the years has built a reputation for putting various players together in unexpected collaboration. The Officium album which brought saxophonist Garbarek together with a classical vocal quartet was typical.

He has put Brazilian Gismonti alongside American Charlie Haden and Norwegian Garbarek with remarkable results. He recorded jazz rebel Lester Bowie, exiled South African pianist Dollar Brand, Indian violinist Shankar, bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi ....

And developing careers rather than picking up name players has always been the Eicher ethic: “So many on ECM were not known or maybe just as sidemen. Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett were not known in any kind of solo career, and putting [vibraphone player] Gary Burton with [pianist] Chick Corea became a new idea of pairing.

“Pat Metheny was a discovery for us, Bill Frisell too. And I found Arvo Part in the middle of a creative process. He was still living in Estonia when I heard him.”

But Eicher has also lost some off his roster, notably guitarist Metheny, whose post-ECM career, it must be said, has seen him become enormously popular but producing material that barely hints at the depth of expression he achieved when he was working with Eicher.

There are no long-term contracts (expatriate New Zealand pianist Mike Nock recorded one album for the label) and each relationship with a musician is based on “trust and genuine respect for each other.”

And ECM’s list of superb jazz albums is lengthy: Garbarek‘s minimal Places and Dis, the vigorous free jazz on albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jarrett's numerous live recordings including the weighty Sun Bear six-disc box set, beguiling releases by cellist David Darling and vocalist Meredith Monk, the late-career resurrection the label gave saxophonist Charles Lloyd ....

It would be wrong, however, to say the label has been unimpeachable in its track record. While many releases are not commercially successful - a matter that Eicher treats as a minor consideration after artistic merit - the label seemed to come unhinged in the early 80s with releases by brain-numbing avant-rock outfit Lask and the exciting (but hardly ECMish) kiss-the-sky guitar jazz of the Everyman Band. Perhaps coincidentally, it was around the time Eicher was creating his New Series imprint to accommodate the likes of Part, the Hilliard Ensemble and others.

“Our music was very open from the start. There was no dogmatic idea of what jazz should be. It was a label for improvisers, and improvisation started in the 16th century. So jazz was always only one part of it.

“But improvising to me means any kind of musical idea that comes to my ear. The New Series started with Arvo when we realised we needed a new label for that kind of music. We’d already had Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Meredith Monk’s [vocal] music developed from music that had come from fragments of improvisation."

ECM's jazz imprint is not without its critics, either: some have quipped that the label’s acronym stands for Excessively Cerebral Musings, and the Eurocentricism it displays has shifted the jazz co-ordinates for its predominantly white audience away from the origins of this black music. Long on cerebration, short on funk, said Time.

That view is simplistic, however, and Eicher is unashamedly a product of the Continent. It also hasn’t stopped him building a label that has numerous black American artists (Sam Rivers, Old and New Dreams among many others) on its books.

“Music is such a universal thing and I don’t like this term ‘world music’ where some pop producer picks up African musicians and takes them to a studio in London and makes some gesture to a tribal source. It's artificial. If you are going to be true, you have to capture people in their own place.”

ECM has anticipated many movements in contemporary music: the solo piano musings of Jarrett have spawned innumerable inferior New Age pianists, configurations of artists from various parts of the globe have found their parallel in present world music trends of the kind Bill Laswell attempts, and the holy ambience of Arvo Part has reached a popular audience through Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener.

Even the ethereal melodic sound of Garbarek’s saxophone has its diminishing return in Kenny G . . . and some have noted that Officium was not an unexpected development. It has been read as “Kenny G-meets the-Benedictine Monks of San Domingo de Silos”, both of whom sold albums by the truckload. That latter comment is spurious, however, and diminishes the vision that Garbarek had when he brought the two sounds together.

And the consistency of Eicher’s vision has been extraordinary - 25 years of quiet, uncompromising independence and integrity almost unknown in the world of com-

merce and hard currency.man4

“ECM isn’t GRP and it’s not Verve,” says Steve Vining, vice-president of sales and marketing for RCA Victor/BMG Classics, which handles the label in the United States. “But you can be very successful with this music as long as you don’t try to market it as something it’s not. The tone of the advertising is important. The key is to be innovative while keeping consistent with the label’s special voice.”

Eicher is aware of what that voice is – and money doesn’t buy or sell it.

“Major companies are always far behind what the visionary small producers are doing. They can only jump on a trend but very seldom do they create something. What makes me feel good is that we could stay independent for 25 years in our thinking. lt allows us to articulate a certain kind of musical language that seems to have influenced many musicians and people.

“This is something special in the world because it is based on the idea of artistic integrity and artistic morality.”

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