Sounds and Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher

By , Columnist
“For me, the luminosity of sound has always been a goal,” Manfred Eicher tells the camera in an early sequence of Sounds and Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher [ECM]. “A beautifully ringing tone, for instance, is like the streak of a comet, like a falling star that discharges a light and leaves a tail behind. This is how I would like to capture certain sounds in music. And that is what I am looking for.”

How the founder and head of ECM Records actualizes this metaphysical aspiration is the subject of Sounds and Silence, released in the U.S. on September 13th, and available in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Roughly put, Swiss co-directors Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer capture Eicher at work on several recording projects at various locations between 2004 and 2008.

In the process, they offer clues to the enduring success of the label that Eicher launched in 1969—in the manner of an auteurist filmmaker (Jean Luc Godard is a good friend), his strongly typed aesthetic stamps the musical narrative, sonic values, and abstract packaging of every ECM productions—which continues to thrive in its 42nd year of operation.

inhalt_01.jpg The directors, who seem stylistically indebted to German director Wim Wenders’ ‘70s and ‘80s “road movies,” position Eicher, now 68, as a contemporary exemplar of the Romantic notion of the Sublime as expressed in the writings of Goethe and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich at the cusp of the 19th century.

He's a subtle impresario, possessing, as violinist Kim Kashkashian once remarked, an “uncanny ability to sense the needs of the situation: personal, psychological and artistic.” She continued: “Somehow he combines these things and comes up with a calibration of activity that works for everybody.”

Throughout, the action, such as it is, is in the playing and, even more, the listening, as denoted by several shots of long duration of Eicher seated, absorbing a recording, focused on some internal landscape.

Eicher works incessantly, supervising a schedule of 30 to 35 releases per year. We observe his benign oversight of a pristine choral work by “Holy Minimalist” composer Arvo Pärt in a church in Tallinn, Estonia.

He fusses over the timing of a small section of a piece by keyboardist Nik Bärtsch's Zen-Funk unit, Ronin, in a Zurich studio; helps bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner negotiate the proper phrasing of one of Saluzzi’s folkish post-tango pieces in Salta, Argentina; selects the cover art (an abstract photographic image of a piano key) for a solo recital by pianist Stefano Bollani.

Elsewhere, Eicher is alternately proactive and laid-back at an Athens theater where saxophonist Jan Garbarek and violinist Kim Kashkashian are performing an Eleni Karaindrou composition; in Bergamo, Italy, where conceptualist-woodwind virtuoso Gianluigi Trovesi is documenting  his mashup of Puccini; in a Copenhagen recording studio, as orchestral percussionist Marilyn Mazur uncorks a bravura solo performance.

“Music has no fixed abode,” he remarks at a certain point. “Music is where it is found, where it takes place, where it develops. I have always been interested in these borderlands between orient and occident, and later on, the North. These always had a really fundamental influence on my musical thought.
“I recognized I would never be able to play like those I admired and heard from a distance, so I decided to stand on the other side of the microphone and record them, The sound I heard from orchestral recordings was never the same as the one I heard if I stood among the players. So I tried to come a bit closer to reality—I worked at improving my capacity to hear music and applying myself to my own school of listening.”

The directors make palpable Eicher’s pragmatic mysticism, the micronic specificity of his ear, how he refracts abstract aesthetic principles into the trans-cultural “ECM sound.” But they completely neglect the jazz component of Eicher’s sensibility.

Their Eurocentric focus is understandable. After all, Eicher did tell the English writer Stuart Nicholson several years ago:  “It is clear that ECM is a European company. My cultural experience is where I’m  coming from; it’s my approach to music.” Yet, by his his own testimony, Eicher—a bassist who played both symphonic music and jazz during formative years—also found deep inspiration in the recordings of such cusp-of-the-‘60s jazz pathbreakers as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans.

ECM began life as a jazz label, and Eicher has only increased its involvement in the idiom. Notated music, which now comprises a consequential chunk of ECM’s catalog, didn’t enter the mix until 1984.
 Viewers of Sounds and Silence who are unfamiliar with its subject's history will be clueless that Eicher introduced the world to the music of Pat Metheny and  Bill Frisell as well as Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Eberhard Weber; that he released consequential recordings by Chick Corea, Sam Rivers, Marion Brown, Bennie Maupin, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Dave Holland; and that he continues to produce contemporary recordings by an international cohort of up-and-comers as well as such established hardcore mainstem and experimental jazz artists as Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Egberto Gismonti, Roscoe Mitchell, Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, Bollani, Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette, John Surman, Miroslav Vitous, Carla Bley, John Abercrombie, and Evan Parker.

 However selective their agenda (devotees of European classical music, both canonic and contemporary, may also feel shortchanged), the directors effectively capture the laborious process of composition, how the performers prepare to play, how their musical production correlates to the environment in which they function. And they illuminate why Eicher, whatever genre he addresses, does what he does so well.


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