Manfred Eicher: A Magnificent Obsession Page 3

Although Eicher may choose what is recorded and released on ECM, what listeners end up with is the work of the rarefied partnership of Eicher and a small group of likeminded audio engineers he's come to trust over the years. German Martin Wieland, Norwegian Jan Erik Kongshaug, Italian Stefano Amerio, American James Farber, Austrian Peter Laenger and Frenchman Gérard de Haro have each made significant contributions to the ECM mystique, a point Eicher readily concedes. After 40 years, some of the details of recording remain the same. Schoeps microphones have been around since the very beginning, and several near-disasters have taught Eicher and his engineers to have a reliable piano tuner on standby in each city where they record. "We don't leave this . . . how you say, up to chance." This partnership between hands-on label head and crew of sympathetic engineers is the most essential element of ECM's legacy of audiophile sound quality.

"For me, producer and engineer, it's a little bit like in movie work, when there's a team [of director and cinematographer], like Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nyqvist, or [François] Truffaut with [Néstor] Almendros, or Theodoros Angelopoulos with Giorgos Arvanitis, and so on. These kinds of things are very intimate, actually, and we don't have to talk a lot anymore because we know we know each other very well. And, of course, an engineer has to do a lot of productions without me, for other companies.


"It's very important to have this teamwork. I can say now, after all these years, that it doesn't really matter whether I go to Oslo or to New York or to Italy or France, I always get the sound that I would like."

One sound that ECM's driven chief is less than thrilled with is the dynamically limited noise that is the soundtrack to much of today's download culture. Not surprisingly, considering his laser-like attention to detail, Eicher's objection to downloads start with the iPod's nastiest habit: the ability to tear albums apart by downloading tracks piecemeal.

"I'm not sure we can talk about download culture already. It's not yet a culture. It's a habit, is what it is," Eicher says, shifting in his chair, his distaste for this subject readily apparent. "You go in the studio and do all this painstaking work, trying to get the best possible sound, and then people are satisfied with iTunes. They don't care about sound, and they make their own sequences. That's all right, but I like to offer, and most of the musicians we have talked about like to offer their CDs in a certain sequence. We would like to have a beginning and an end, and hear the music travel. It's like a novel: You start on the first page and go further. You don't start at chapter three. If you would like to do so later, when you've read the book, then please do so, it's fine with me—but don't destroy the idea, the illusion that we would like to offer to the audience, of music in concert. There are reasons why a record starts with a slow movement rather than a presto movement: It's thoughtfully concepted.

"Everything [in downloads] is compressed, and compression is something we always avoid in recording—it's not necessary, and it squeezes the music into a mainstream of mediocrity. Why, then, should we accept it in the download business?

"We have some downloads—we can't avoid it entirely. We tried to increase the quality, but that is an extremely costly situation. I feel it's best for me to offer the music via CD, and then I know what it is and know that the sequence is there. I know the booklet is there. If it has to be the download, and it's becoming more influential, then we will have to see how to make this better, but I'm not looking forward to that."

Refreshingly, this gifted, intense man, who certainly knows his way around the increasingly complicated world of a recording studio, freely admits that he's still a Luddite about some of the supposed improvements wrought by the wonders of digitization.

"I still have no cellphone. I don't use a cellphone. I don't have a computer. The office has computers, but I don't use them. So I'm not affected by these things. For me, it's foreign territory. That's why I'm reluctant to dive into talk about downloads, because I'm still a man of analog time—plus what came after."

Many fans of ECM have begun to wonder what might become of the label after Manfred Eicher. Has he had offers and has he been tempted?

"Our company is doing quite well as it is. And I feel I have a lot of things to do, and as long as my health lasts I'll do what I'm doing. It's a catalog that remains with or without me, this catalog that we all produced together. But I have no intention of knocking on the door of a major label and saying would you like to have my label. Not yet. I have no need."

The deathless row between analog and digital has grown louder lately, thanks to the budding return of vinyl. Eicher has had long experience with the LP. In the early years, before the 1973 oil crisis—after which, he says, the formulation of raw vinyl deteriorated—ECM used Deutsche Grammophon's pressing plants to make its LPs: a significant coup, considering the high regard in which DG pressings have long been held.

"There are many bad analog recordings. There were many bad mike positions in analog times, too. And there are many bad digital recordings and many great digital recordings. It's how you work with it. It's not a question of analog and digital only, it's a question of what kind of recordings we are talking about. I don't like to talk pro-analog or pro-digital. I like to talk pro-music.

"The return of the LP would only be for me . . . the real return would only be if everything goes analog again. When we had analog recording, the LP was the only natural sound carrier. Digital recordings on LP don't sound the same way. The tactility is a different thing. You cannot nostalgically think and reproduce what happened at that time with different microphones, with different tube microphones, with different sound equipment, in mono time, in the first stereo time.

"[In the 1980s,] I was looking forward to having new sound carriers and new ideas, so when [Berlin Philharmonic music director Herbert von] Karajan was pushing the CD, I was not reluctant to follow this idea, because we were all a little bit sad about the bad vinyl that existed at that time. And the hiss in the recording and the multitrack situation with analog was also not very fortunate. So we were very happy to hear that suddenly there was no hiss anymore—but we had to learn what the new medium was, and that took a long time, because it was very difficult to make the change from analog to digital. But I think we did overcome the problems. You had to learn about different mike positions, different kinds of mikes, different kinds of ways of making recordings. This was the only way to continue working."

And work Manfred Eicher has. His singular vision extends even to ECM's austere, minimalist packaging, a style instantly recognizable to experienced record buyers. That packaging, CD covers that are blank or have enigmatic photos, san serif typefaces and the cardboard slipcases that cover each jewel box, are perhaps the most visible part of the ECM zeitgeist, and has become so famous that it's been the subject of two coffee-table books edited by Lars Müller: ECM: Sleeves of Desire—A Cover Story; and Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM (Lars Müller Publishers, Baden, Germany, 1996 and 2010, respectively).

An even more impressive study, Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, edited by sometime ECM producer Steve Lake and music critic Paul Griffiths (Granta Books, London, 2007), is a poetic recounting and exploration of the ECM aura. In two long interviews in the book, Eicher, a longtime fan of poetry, turns uncommonly rhapsodic. Speaking of ECM, he says, "The whole thing is actually a net that has no frame—a canvas without an edge—the music is open ad infinitum." Later in the same interview, he conjures motion: "A continuous movement of undercurrents and unexpected drifts, winds coming from different directions to become a central storm."

As our time together winds down, the questions turn to the ethereal, the essence of what he's been trying to capture for the past four decades. "You have to find the secret of music somehow. You have to be able to understand the mystery, yes, the erotic aspect that the music has. It's very, very important that you love the music. If you don't love it, you don't get it—and you can also not really record it. For me, the whole spectrum of the senses has to be nourished, and always inspired. The kind of inspiration I get from this music, I would like to translate in a recording and give it to the listener."


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.