Manfred Eicher: A Magnificent Obsession Page 2

While ECM's wider fame may be built on a small number of recognizable names like Jarrett and Pärt, as well as guitarist Pat Metheny and keyboardist Chick Corea, it's a catalog populated in large measure by unknown, more experimental, or esoteric artists that Eicher has found and signed. His persistence in finding new talent is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his genius.

That ongoing artists and repertoire (A&R), like everything else at ECM, is an Eicher responsibility, and over time the question has loomed ever larger: What intuition does he use to hear and then travel the world in pursuit of such lesser-known gems as Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen?


"I don't really know. I have no idea, no model. I'm not going too often to festivals. I travel a lot, and now and then I hear some music on the radio or while I travel, driving a car, very often in very unspectacular places. Or in my backyard—I hear more music there than I would in a festival or a concert. I also have no assistants giving me advice. A&R is very personal to me, and it has a lot to do with my first impulse and how I like things, and then there's intuition, and I make a spontaneous decision. Mostly, when I don't expect any kind of things to happen, things are happening .†.†. or I probably get a ray of light or a hint, and then I have an idea how to make a record. There's no formula. You somehow have to have a wolfish or foxish quality, that you find things or you don't.

"In the case of Gustavsen, very often when I'm in Norway there are tapes lying around in the studio, or people bring in their demos. I was not so sure at the beginning whether this is music I'd like to record, because it sounded like the music of déjà vu. Where did I hear this before? It's very original, and personal enough, and it grew on me."

Eicher was born in 1943 in Lindau, Bavaria, in a house where, as he said in a 2009 interview in Fanfare, "Schubert was playing constantly." Although he began playing violin at the age of six, as a teenager he studied double bass at Berlin's Academy of Music. After several years as a production assistant for Deutsche Grammophon, Eicher borrowed 16,000 deutschmarks from the owner of a small record store and made his first record, Free At Last, by American jazz pianist Mal Waldron. "We began in '69. We had no plan, no idea, no concept for a business. I was a musician—or I am a musician: I studied contrabass and music science."

From the beginning, Eicher was also a cinéaste, and has long been a friend of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. "When I started in Berlin, there was on the left side of the Hardenbergstrasse the music high school, and on the other side of the street was the Cinema Steinplatz, and there we saw all the French nouvelle vague, Bresson, Rossellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, all the French and Italian filmmakers. At night I went to the cinema, and during the day I studied music, and that was it. So it's a parallel movement for me.

"It's extremely important to leave, now and then, the world of music and just jump, dive into the movies. It's something that nourishes each other. And I keep a close relation with filmmakers like Godard, who became a very important and influential complice in all these years."


Perhaps Eicher's greatest artistic achievement, particularly for audiophiles, is the vaunted "ECM sound." While he's heard the term, of course, Eicher says he does not hear the "ECM sound," though he knows what others mean by the phrase. "What you hear at ECM is a personal choice of mine, probably slower music than music of presto. It is a kind of adagio. It's a chamber-music approach rather than a symphonic approach; therefore, people often tell us about a so-called 'ECM sound' which is more related to the program and to the programmatic artistic idea which is behind it. Okay, we have a lot of music that is spacious, transparent, whatever you want to call it, but people should also listen to the other side of the music that we record: the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in contrast to Arvo Pärt.

"You'll find a lot of involving, important music that came out in all these years at ECM, and each album is produced with the object of finding the best kind of shape for this music. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we are less successful. It is always related to the content of the music. For me, the most important thing is that you understand the music that you like to record, and from there you go and think about sound. You don't impose sound ideas that have nothing to do with the content of the music."

Asked about how he'd define sound that is less than ideal or just plain bad, Eicher pauses. "All this depends on how the musicians feel with each other. Musicians have to hear each other. Musicians have to have good contact with each other. Now and then, in the mix or the editing, you can repair things and also sometimes make things better, but you cannot correct things which are done from the very beginning in the wrong way.

"I like to see musicians record without earphones. It's a question of dynamics. With earphones, everything starts with mezzo forte. Musicians have a certain sound in the ear and then get inspired by that sound, get used to the sound, and maybe get distracted by the sound. Dynamically, it works so much better when you go into a good-sounding room, a good-sounding hall, and play acoustically and listen to each other, and the music flows in a very different way.

"I like to record whatever the needs are. There are recordings where production skills like overdubbing are necessary, but I prefer music that can be realized in a situation without overdubs."


Metalhead's picture

Thanks for the write up on Mr. Eicher.

Although not a "true" jazz fan, a friend is and he brought over some ecm recordings on redbook to listen and share. The art institute of chicago was pretty damn convincing even on redbook.

The few titles I have heard have sounded fantastic.

Mr. Eicher should be extremely proud of his work. A fantastic producer.