Manfred Eicher: A Magnificent Obsession

At a time when the heads of most record labels barely know how to play a record, let alone make one, Manfred Eicher—owner, founder, and inspiration of ECM Records, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010—has been intimately involved in the making of nearly 1200 of them. How many, though, can he actually remember working on?


"When I listen back to them, I know the story of every record," he says without a smile or a moment's hesitation. "There is never an easy record. Every record needs a lot of input and concentration and dedication and passion to be made, that's clear. Create an atmosphere that is a productive search for music, and when this is the case, you have very memorable records."

Always a resolute talent, Eicher has now, by process of elimination and his almost unerring ear, become a glorious anomaly in an increasingly fragmented and fading record business. Tunisian oud players, Norwegian pianists, Polish trumpeters, free jazz and contemporary classical music—ECM has it all, making it one of the most distinctive catalogs of recordings ever made. It is also the impressive symbol of what one man, armed with an absolute vision and iron-man work ethic, has been able to accomplish, one record at a time, over four decades. Congrats, Mr. Eicher.

Legendarily cool and elusive, as well as single-minded, and occasionally arrogant, Eicher flashes a genuine grin as he motions toward the elevator that will take us up to his room in a midtown Manhattan hotel. He's in town to oversee a recording session (of course) at New York's Avatar Studios. Not surprisingly, he's no fan of talking to the press, largely because it sops up time he would otherwise spend making records. But now Eicher has finally agreed to an interview that's been a decade in the making. Constantly on the road, mostly in Europe and the US, Eicher lives a solitary existence now made doubly so: In today's record business, people at his level who do everything he does no longer exist. In fact, they never really did. So is a man who speaks fondly of ECM's early days of being distributed by Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA), when he was able to hang with music guys like Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, and Jerry Wexler, gettin' a little lonely?

"Because of that I don't feel lonely," he says, a flicker of a smile at the question crossing his face. "There are some other reasons that now and then I feel lonely, but not because of the record business. That doesn't really concern me too much."

That orientation—that there's the record business and then there's ECM—has served Eicher well since he founded Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM) in Munich in 1969. It's given him the quiet satisfaction that comes from knowing he has a financially healthy, 40-year-old record label whose reputation and mystique have never been greater, and that all of it was done, to quote another jagged individualist, his way. A workaholic of epic proportions (hence his long gray hair, two divorces, and successful record label), Eicher is known as a focused, exacting taskmaster who does not brook fools gracefully. His English vocabulary is peppered with such words and phrases as overtones and music pictures and painstaking process.

Yet, as his catalog amply shows, Eicher is also a master of having patience with the talent, pulling out of musicians the kinds of performances that weren't obviously there and have not since been repeated. At Avatar Studios, on Manhattan's west side, Eicher subtly steers a jazz musician whose main concern seems to be waiting for a nearby liquor store to open. When he returns, clutching a bottle of room-temperature vodka—which he briskly swigs down, prompting a sudden mid-morning nap—Eicher shakes his head and, not missing a beat, retreats to the control room, where he and the engineer begin editing what's already been recorded.


"To work with the musicians in the studio before the microphone—talk about the music, talk about phrasing, intonation, tempi, the music questions, the artistic questions—that influences so much the sound and the way of playing. It's the most important intimacy.

"We should never forget: It's the musician that introduces the music and provides the sound, and we capture it. It's crucial for me to dive into recordings with a full understanding and full empathy for the people and the music involved. Without this empathy, you would do a work of routine, and I hate routine."

For proof that Eicher's way with musicians produces great, career-milestone kinds of work, look no further than the albums of the label's two biggest names.

In the late 1980s, Eicher began recording the works of Arvo Pärt, the contemporary Estonian composer. The 1984 world-premiere recording of Pärt's Tabula Rasa (on the album of the same name) remains a highpoint for artist and label, both artistically and in terms of sales. "I think there's a strong affinity, an understanding for each other; yes, that's true. From the very beginning we had a . . . we didn't talk much, actually. We went for a walk in the birch forest of Tallinn. He's also a man who's very concerned about sound. He used to be a tonmeister [sound engineer], and he understands a lot about the difficulty of how to get music into a sound picture that expresses his innermost ideas of music. With Arvo, before every recording we have at least five to ten concerts where he tries things out. And then when we're in the studio, he is rigorous and painstakingly precise. By the time of recording, the instrumentalists know exactly what he wants and exactly how it should be played."

If ECM has any connection to the mainstream, it's because of its long association with jazz and classical pianist Keith Jarrett. His The Köln Concert (1975) remains the label's sales champ, having sold over three million copies. "With Keith Jarrett, we've worked now together for 40 years, and that's quite a long time. I can imagine Keith has had many offers in this time. From the very beginning, though, we've had a very good understanding for each other; otherwise, we would probably not continue to work together. We still have our discussions about certain things—debates. And there were also times when the understanding was less good, less deep. But it is really, artistically, on a very sensitive level. When we talk about music or when we listen to music together, we are in one room, and we are mostly in one mind and one heartfelt understanding about phrasing, and also about the next wave to come."


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.