By Greg Cahill
“Sound is about organizing emotions in time—that is music. I never impose a sound on music. Rather, music requires a particular sound,” reclusive producer and ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher told music historian Gary Giddins at a 2009 conversation at a City University of New York event. “In this sense, music has no location—it is a product of artistic inspiration and poetic expression.”
During the past 50 years, the 76-year-old Eicher and his idiosyncratic label ECM (an acronym for Edition of Contemporary Music) have been driven by that credo while creating audible landscapes and showcasing a host of innovative jazz and contemporary classical artists, from pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny to the cellists Anja Lechner and Frances Marie Uiti, from the violinists Mark Feldman, Gidon Kremer, and L. Shankar to the violists Matt Maneri and Kim Kashkashian. It’s also welcomed such groundbreaking solo bassists as Stefano Scodanibbio, Arild Andersen, Barr Phillips, Larry Grenadier, and Eberhard Weber. String ensembles on the roster include the Danish String Quartet, the Rosamunde Quartett, Vilde & Inga, and the Keller Quartet, to name a few. And ECM has introduced the West to such notable Eastern European composers as Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, Valentin Silvestrov, and Tigran Mansurian.
In the process, ECM has sculpted a reputation for thought-provoking and often meditative music, artsy black-and-white album covers, and high-quality recordings that have earned Eicher an Oscar, numerous Grammy nominations, and several Producer of the Year accolades from the prestigious DownBeat Critics Poll USA.
ECM will mark its 50th anniversary with a series of international concerts that kick off October 25 at SFJazz in San Francisco and November 2 at Lincoln Center in New York City. Lechner and Grenadier (one of six featured bassists) will be among the performers at Lincoln Center.
Growing up, Eicher described himself as “looking to the mountains, looking around the Bodensee [a lake bordering Switzerland], listening to the birds, the sound of waves, which might help explain the austere aesthetics of ECM’s distinctive album covers and Eicher’s intense commitment to unsullied sound reproduction. He studied classical violin and bass at the Berlin Academy of Music, noting “my mother was a singer, so we heard Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, and the like. But I was also always into jazz.”
He played with the Berlin Philharmonic for a time, but gave it up because, as he says, “The classical orchestra was not my way.”
Eicher has followed his intuition in finding and combining musicians, kindling new ideas, sculpting sound, and breaking musical ground. The record label, based in Munich, has long provided a unique forum for improvised and notated music. Given that few industries have undergone such fundamental change over the years as the music business, ECM’s quiet pursuit of a self-defined goal seems like an act of resistance, as the label stands not just for boundless contemporary music, but also timeless values. Since 1969, ECM has treated music production as a fine art. Each release is conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk—a fully integrated aesthetic experience, with music, sound design, and artwork. Eicher has confessed to a certain Bauhaus leaning in terms of the album covers look and graphic design, “yet the most important thing is the music.”
The special qualities of what began as a small cultural enterprise were soon recognized. In 1972, in its first article on ECM, the German magazine Der Spiegel ran a report on a 29-year-old “loner” in Munich who was increasingly of interest to high-profile musicians in the United States. According to Der Spiegel, this was because ECM was now releasing the “best jazz recordings . . . the gold standard for sound, presence and pressing.”
Yet, ECM had only been in existence for two-and-a-half years.
As a production assistant at Deutsche Grammophon, he had learned to strive for high standards in recordings of classical music. So, he started to record improvised music with the same precision and focus. With a loan of 16,000 German marks (about $4,000 US), Eicher made the first four ECM recordings in 1969. “I just kept making records, without a plan or anything,” he told Giddins. “I found out that I was a good listener, or so people told me.
“And that’s how I became a record producer.”
Almost as a statement of intent, the first title issued by the new label was Free at Last, by the American pianist Mal Waldron. Pioneering recordings of artists such as Jarrett, Metheny, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Paul Bley, and Egberto Gismonti established ECM’s reputation as a label to be reckoned with. By the late 1970s, Meredith Monk and Steve Reich regularly appeared in the ECM catalog. In 1984, the company introduced its New Series, dedicated to notated music. Launched to showcase the music of Arvo Pärt with Tabula Rasa, the New Series now ranges all the way from 13th century organ music composed by Pérotin in Paris to contemporary compositions. Pärt—and subsequently Giya Kancheli, Silvestrov, and Mansurian—was introduced to new audiences in the West by ECM’s New Series; for many years now György Kurtág and Heinz Holliger have released important works on the Munich label. Both series—ECM and ECM New Series—have emphasised multi-genre or transcultural projects, from recordings by the improvising trio Codona—with Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, and Nana Vasconcelos—to François Couturier’s Tarkovsky Quartet.
Today, to paraphrase the British newspaper The Independent, ECM is regarded as the most important imprint in the world for jazz and new music. Certainly, the label has had a significant impact on the string world. For example, the 2001 recording Morimur, by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble, which explored the secret meanings of Bach’s sacred works, gained widespread mainstream coverage and helped solidify the current Baroque revival. To date, the ECM catalog has more than 1,600 titles, including such global successes as Jarrett’s Köln Concert and The Melody At Night, With You, Metheny’s Offramp, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and Officium with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.
ECM recordings are often described as having a transparent sound that is rich in overtones. But there is no one-size-fits-all ECM sound. Each recording is attuned to the sound of the players and singers, not vice versa. “Of course, we take every possible care with the technology,” as Eicher has said. “But the deciding factor is always the music and the aesthetic ideas that go with it. That is what gives the sound its characteristics. The vessel is always shaped to fit its contents.”
Thus, a specific location is selected for each new project—a place with the right acoustics and atmosphere, be it in Oslo, New York, Lugano, or in the South of France, be it a radio studio in Zurich or the chapel of the idyllic 13th-century abbey of St. Gerold Priory in the Austrian mountains.
The British music critic and writer Paul Griffiths aptly pinpointed the unique status of ECM, describing it as “almost a musical genre in its own right, a genre with blurred boundaries, but a definite center, in some place where music is prized wherever it comes from, some time when nothing has yet quite happened finally, when even a recording—seemingly the end of the process—can show its value in opening a question, or more than one.”