A conversation with manfred eicher of ecm records

by Stuart Nicholson

The company, whose oft-quoted initials turn out to stand for nothing more mysterious than Editions of Contemporary Music, has gone on to become the most important imprint in the world for jazz and new music.
                                                                                                                                    Phil Johnson, The Independent (UK)

There are a lot of jazz recordings being made these days. It seems every musician wants their work enshrined on compact disk. With more albums than there are buyers for them, so much goes unheard or unnoticed in record shops or on the web. In an idealized past, things seemed so much simpler. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Alfred Lion’s and Francis Wolff’s Blue Note Records was widely recognized as one of jazz’s premier labels.

                                                        Manfred Eicher (photo by Marek Vogel)

Fans bought their records unheard because Blue Note stood for something tangible. The main thrust of the label was simple, singing themes and direct storytelling solos. Today, collectors eagerly seek out the original vinyl while CD reissue programs, often including previously unreleased material, continue to this day. Books have been written about the label and its cover art while both have been the subject of doctorial theses. Discographies have detailed every recording session and every release. But what of tomorrow? What label will talked about, written about and listened to in the same way as the old Blue Note label is today?

Chances are it might be a label that emerged just as Blue Note was being swallowed up by the huge United Artists conglomerate at the end of the 1960s. ECM began as a tiny operation in Munich run by Manfred Eicher, who had studied at the Berlin Academy of Music and had begun to make a name for himself as recording assistant with the classical label Deutsche Grammophon. After borrowing 16,000 deutschmarks to get started, he released his first album Free At Last by Mal Waldron in 1969 to modest sales and favorable reviews.

Today, ECM – an acronym for Editions of Contemporary Music – has a catalogue in excess of 1000 albums and has remained independent during a period in which most other important jazz labels have changed ownership at least once. The range of music Eicher has recorded is astonishingly broad, with more than 900 titles made under his personal direction that range from American and European jazz in all its diversity to music that is beyond the convenient categories demanded by an industry that likes its products plainly labeled.

Eicher is one of a select band of record producers that might include a Walter Legge in the classical field, a Teo Macero in jazz and a George Martin in popular music who have shaped the aesthetics of recording. When you buy an ECM recording, you are immediately aware you are buying into the notion of recorded music as artistic expression, from the packaging and art work through to the way the music reveals itself upon playback, emerging from total silence.

Yet despite the ultra-modern image ECM cover art exudes ? the eye catching cover photographs, the immaculate sans serif typography ? it comes as a surprise to discover their offices are above a shop unit in a grey Munich industrial estate rather than in one of those glittering shrines to modern technology of the sort you find in Seattle ? all glass and trendy aluminum architecture with, at the very least, a small man-made lake and water fountain out front.

But ECM is less about a place, more about a state of mind. Like the paintings of the 19th century Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, an ECM recording is as much about internal landscapes as external ones. There’s a resonance to the music that invites contemplation, challenging you to find a deeper aspect of yourself.

Eicher is unconcerned with boundaries and categories ? if the music in question has an integrity and originality that appeals or moves him, he will record it. Commercial considerations do not come into the equation.

Thus bassist Dave Holland and the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem not only co-exist in the same catalog, but on the same album without incongruity, linked by the fact they are both wonderful musicians. Such a collaboration, which also includes British saxophonist John Surman, reflects Eicher's creative role as producer in coming up with the unexpected by drawing together musicians from different continents and backgrounds to collaborate and exchange musical ideas in order to create a new musical language of the moment, yet without robbing them of their own individual voices.

Each year, every year, the label releases some twenty to thirty albums and many of them are bought by fans of the label simply because they are ECM recordings. In 1979 the label earned the first of many Grammy Awards with In Concert - Zurich, October 28, 1979 by Chick Corea and Gary Burton for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance,” with the duo earning another Grammy in 1981 for Duet in the same category.

The remarkable success of the label enabled the launch of the ECM New Series in 1984 with Arvo Pärt’s Tabla Rasa that immediately turned heads in the classical world. A forum for fresh approaches to both new music and the classical repertoire, the New Series has enabled Eicher to produce works from the likes of Heinz Holliger, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, John Adams and Giya Kancheli. In 2001 he received a Grammy Award as “Classical Producer of the Year.”

Today, with ECM’s fortieth anniversary on the horizon, Eicher continues to open doors to new musical experiences. “It is clear ECM is a European company,” he says. “My cultural experience is where I’m coming from, it’s my approach to music. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said, ‘You wish to see, listen; hearing is a step towards vision.’ That dialectic is something we have used as a leitmotiv in our catalogue. For me it says everything.”

Just a broad question to begin with, what is it about music that moves you and what moves you the most?

The mystery. The mystery of things past and things to come, the memory also of things that I heard, and the sounds that I remember from my childhood, especially sounds of nature by the lake and at the seashore. Sounds have always opened perspectives for me. Out of sounds, music evolves.

Some jazz artists I have interviewed speak of precisely this, of how they were influenced by the ambient sounds of nature, a very rural influence – and their approach is very different to, say, the urban sound of New York jazz.

Absolute silence exists everywhere, be it in the urban space, in New York, or, say, at North Cape. I was born in Lindau at the Lake of Constance. And I remember that the light and the winds would become sometimes very intense and wild, so, while watching the waves, you could get the impression that the lake was transforming into the rough sea.

It is interesting that you talk about the visual aspects, because in interviews you often speak of your love of films as well as your love of music. How have films influenced your aesthetic direction in music and perhaps vice versa?

When I studied music in Berlin, across the street was the famous cinema Am Steinplatz. Whenever I had the time I disappeared, diving into the dark room of a cinema. It was the time of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard, Bresson, Truffaut or the films of Bergman, Antonioni, Rossellini…Of all the art forms film and music are most closely related, both consist of motion and rhythm, sounds, tones, and the tones and intonation of light. Cinema seeks immediate and definite expression through gestures, intonation of voices and nature sounds. This system inevitably excludes expression through contacts and exchanges of images and of sounds and the transformation that results from them. In music, I’m consistently looking for something that is also not the given. Recording is always a transformation of things. Every session is a new morning. What is essential in recording is “Die Gestalt”. But we always need the score and the musicians who play the music. Above all, content is the secret.

Turning my original question on its head, when you came to direct a film, how did your vision of music influence your decisions as a film director in terms of your approach?

Well, so far I made only one movie together with Heinz Bütler, a Swiss film maker, called Holozän, based on the novel Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch. This piece of fiction has the characteristics of a musical score, rhythm, various motifs and their variations. Max Frisch charts the crumbling landscape of an old man’s consciousness as he slips away from himself towards death, towards reintegration with the age-old history of our planet. It is poetry of the mind rather than the senses, sparse and austere, with every detail chosen for its resonances. It was shot in the Ticino-mountains in Switzerland and in Iceland, and it was a wonderful experience to work with Erland Josephson with his great sensitivity toward text and music. Here we used the Adagio molto out of Bartók’s 5th String Quartet as a main motive and sounds of rain and rain again.

Can we also talk about the influence of American jazz on your musical outlook?

Well, the post-war generation was looking with very open eyes and ears pointed to America, and I was also fascinated by these sounds I heard from old shellac records of American music, not so much the swing era, but from the “Birth of the Cool” onwards. At 18, after high school, I was allowed to fly to America, and I went to the Village Vanguard and heard Bill Evans with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian. That was my first encounter with New York and America and since then I was admiring this music. The great development that happened in the 1960s, including the so-called October Revolution, was a big influence on me, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman. I was very much influenced by American music per se.

Even today the inspirational energy coming from the States is still strong and evident; I’m convinced that this is still true for many European artists. I can never forget the great experiences when American bands came to Europe, I heard John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones at the Deutsche Museum, it was the first time that I heard “My Favourite Things” … By the way, who was the impresario of Jazz at the Philharmonic?

Norman Granz

Norman Granz, yes, he brought all these bands over to Europe. He was regarded as an entrepreneur with a lot of business-skills and instincts – but after all, he brought the music!

And now you are meeting with success in the American market yourself, how did that come about?

Well, we were lucky to record with people like Paul Bley, Marion Brown, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell – I cannot name all of them. They made their first important recordings for us, so we had a good chance to be heard in America, and these musicians influenced a lot of players in Europe. Here we developed some musical ideas of our own with Jan Garbarek or Terje Rypdal especially, and formulated a differently shaded language of trans-cultural music. I wouldn’t say only European or only American, at this time everything was in motion, there was so much travelling back and forth. Gradually a new music started.

We are where we are in 2007. We are in an era of increasing technological change. How have these changes have affected your personal aesthetic to music and how have you reacted to these changes, from analogue to digital and now to MP3 files, to preserve what you hear in your mind’s ear?

These changes are significant indeed; especially MP 3 is obviously not in line with the quality of sound we produce. It’s a paradox – recording in the studio and the concert hall, we seek for the best and most differentiated sculptures of sound, truthful to the given music. And then … all the problems begin. However, talking about technical innovation, things are much more complicated than just comparing digital and analog. In the analog mode we had many limitations as far as distortion was concerned, so the digital change was welcomed by many audio engineers because it offered possibilities of widening the dynamic range. I still prefer the sound and the aesthetic results of the analog era, but at the same time we are able these days to develop some very good ideas and sounds with digital technology. It is not only bad or only good. The question is: what are we aiming for? So from time to time we have to decide what the difference really is and not just have an “opinion” about it. Let’s put it this way: Bach at the organ, admired by a pupil, once answered: “It’s just a matter of striking the notes at exactly the right moment.” That’s precisely it: let us place the microphones exactly at the right spot where they should be.

I guess what I was thinking of was whether you had an ideal sound and whether that ideal sound was analog and if so, whether you were trying to reproduce that sound in a digital format or are you using digital for what it is?

I grew up in the analog era and I was sharpening my ears and listening-capacities with analog in mind, including all the drawbacks which were also part of the reality – just think about the limitations of editing. But perhaps that wasn’t a limitation at all because it required a much higher awareness of the recorded material. We always had to ask ourselves if a certain edit is justified. Although, when new recording developments arrived, we were ready to try different microphones and microphone positions. Then, in the early 1970s, came the revolution of the Lexicon reverb, a very good musical instrument and a close friend of mine … Anyhow, time changes our perspectives. Think, for instance, of the legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder. I remember the ideological debate about whether Blue Note was manifesting the “real” or a “manufactured” sound. It seems that at that time, all the musicians were playing into the same microphones. When they had to be moved once in a while, it is said Mr. Gelder only touched them with gloves. Now, in retrospect, everybody glorifies this time. I remember when we debated that in the 1960s, there was an ongoing discussion between well-known musicians that I met and later worked with about the merits of Blue Note, of Creed Taylor productions at Verve and CTI or the productions of Orrin Keepnews or Teo Macero whose work as a producer I always admired. Today, after all these years we tend to say that everything was supposedly “better” then. But if you want to keep alive a catalogue of almost 40 years you have to decide how you want to preserve the old tapes because you have to make them available to the listeners again.

Recently I had an experience with the so-called re-mastering. I was listening to a tape made in 1983, an analogue recording of a piano trio and the tape had degraded in these years because analogue tapes do change if they are not played now and again. They often lose treble and brilliance which is quite a natural effect, this material lives, it lives from within, so if you compare it to the “original” sound, you will have a different listening experience today, especially with the different converters used then and now. So, it’s not only a question of whether this is a better listening experience, it’s unavoidably a different one. If you really want to compare the two, you have to listen to both under the same circumstances.

Now we are in the age of music downloading, we are told that these days only two people in ten buy the music they are listening to, while nine out of ten people are interested in music.

People spend lots of money for concert tickets these days, but they seem to be unwilling to pay for recorded music. Many artists’ careers were very successfully driven by live recordings. Downloading cannot be an alternative, since the quality is so questionable. Here again you have the paradox that we are producing at 98 KHz and then the data is reduced to a minimum resolution [on downloading]. As we can’t abolish them, let’s hope that these formats will further improve. Differentiation is the key word. As an artist I think, I can only produce what I produce. We offer the original, we invite the public to listen to the original and live with it.

Young audiences don’t value the artefact in the same way as audiences did say 20 years ago – or even 10 years ago.

The LP cover has gone, this artifact is not there but many young people are still eager to seek out the best. If they can’t find it we have to be more diligent to make people know that these things are available. That’s also your function as a journalist, to draw attention to things of quality based on your reporting and philosophy and that’s a responsible job actually.

In one interview you called the ECM story “a personal journey with others,” and I was wondering if you could bottle memories in the same way as you can record musical performances, what your collection of bottled memories would be from your journey with ECM – what would you have on the shelf?

The joy, the inspiration and the struggle continue. Yet, I’m not looking through a glass darkly. In the beginning you might get the idea and then afterwards you think: can I realise it? It has always been a book of questions. “Above all summits is rest”, says Goethe in his beautiful line, but then, to continue in my own words, at a new level, all the questions start anew. It’s as if you are on a hill and you look over the landscape and say ‘Wonderful,’ but if you climb up to 2.000 metres you overlook a much wider panorama, and you see more clearly because the air is different, and your feelings and empathy are different.

Finally, you were born in 1943 and you are constantly in motion and in one magazine feature they said everything in the ECM world begins and ends with you. What will be the end after you have done your four score years and ten, where will ECM be then, what happen to it? Will it come to an end or will it continue? How do you see the future?

I hope we will be able to do what we do now. I think ECM has a wide and wonderful music collection that will always reside within me, without me, this is the biography of the musicians, of my self and the label. It is a documentation of nearly 40 years’ work. It’s one thing actually, and if we closed this chapter and someone else turns the page he will probably regard what is there with admiration and affinity. So I am in that sense a person who believes good things will survive. So many musicians have given their best and their first ideas to a new musical direction.

Thank you.


December 24, 2007 · 3 comments

  • 1 Ed Goodstein // Jan 12, 2008 at 04:07 PM
    Thank you for the rare chance to hear from Mr. Eicher. I'm especially interested in his comments on 'digital vs. analog' recording. I think ECM has overall been one of the best labels in finding 'enriched' sound in digital format. Also nice to have some of ME's own backround delineated. I think ECM will be remembered as one of the great labels-- & I've certainly discovered great music there-- classical as well as jazz.
  • 2 Jean Couture // Jan 27, 2008 at 11:40 PM
    A quite interesting interview indeed. Thanks for sharing these moments with readers. I too like a lot the ECM label myself and own about 80 titles (I should get more with time). Mister Eicher is one of those rare producers and arrangers on earth who had a real ability for letting the musician (the music, that is) speak for itself. I think ECM is a lot about expression - in the widest sense of the word. True, our digital age with ipods and mp3s is a bit troublesome, at least in regards to optimum quality. Eicher's comments that he "still prefers the sound and the aesthetic results of the analog era" are quite revealing and come to term with a superb article in The Absolute Sound magazine (Issue 103, 1995, "Celebrating 25 years of Manfred Eicher's vision") where Robert J Reina remarked that analog ECM's were superior to later ddd's. In any case, I personally like both. I think as much glorious an early analog recording such as Afric Pepperbird as David Darling's Cello or Anat Fort's Story - the two latter being nice examples of finely made digital (among a myriad from the label). Technical stuff aside, there are many jewels musically to discover in there. And, don't forget that Manfred Eicher litterally got started (or helped a great deal) the career of such luminaries as Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. An immensely important record company in the history of music, simply, not to mention a pivotal label for the development of what we'd call jazz (be it fusion, contemporary or world music). Thank you Mister Eicher for all those great musical years - I look forward to raise a toast to ECM's 50th birthday! (J.C. - Canada)
  • 3 Jeffrey Sion // Feb 09, 2008 at 09:56 PM
    I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mr. Eicher's views on what motivates him to appreciate various types of music. As a long standing fan of ECM on both record and now CD, his label has allowed me to broaden my listening horizons, and introduced me to wide range of classical works and composers. My only concern, and I am certain a concern of most ECM fans, is the possibility that the analog masters of the old ECM series which have not been released on CD could degrade to a point beyond their ability to be transferred for CD use. As a true enthusiast of the label, I fervently hope that Mr. Eicher hastens the release of these older recording for the public to enjoy. As the other people who have commented said, our thanks go out to Mr. Eicher for bringing this wide variety of artists for the world to enjoy! (JSS -- New York, New York, United States)