Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Records from the ECM label always begin with moments of silence.  The ECM motto is the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence. Moments of silence are as important as sounds in the documentary film Sounds And Silence: Journeys with Manfred Eicher which I have just seen.

Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM and outstanding producer of contemporary music, documenting his travels via concert halls, recording studios, and back to the headquarters of  Editions of Contemporary Music in a tower block by the autobahn outside Munich. I have grown to love the music of ECM ever since discovering Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Folk Songs back in the 1980s.  I can’t imagine the last 40 years without the music of ECM. For me, Manfred Eicher is a hero: he has taken me on a 40 year journey that continues still.

Alongside massive successes like Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Eicher’s label has introduced me to the varied musics of Tunisian oud player Anour Brahem, German musicologist and multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus, the Lebanese band leader Rabih Abou-Khalil, and Nordic folk singers Agnes Buenas Garnas and Sinikka Langeland.  There have been unlikely collaborations such as that of cellist Anja Lechner with Argentinian bandoleonist Dino Saluzzi, or between jazzers Jon Balke and Jon Hassell and Moroccan vocalist Amina Alaoui on the exquisite Siwan.

Then there have been the Scandinavian jazzers – Trygve Seim, Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and others – who have joined established names such as Eberhard Weber, Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Egberto Gismonti, Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, Paul Motian, John Surman, and Andy Sheppard to make albums on ECM that represent their finest work.

The Scandinavians and the jazzers are less prominent in Sounds and Silence: the film drops in during rehearsals or recordings by  musicians and composers such as Estonian Arvo Pärt (a reminder that the ECM New Series features composed music from the pre-baroque era to the present day), Dino Saluzzi,  Eleni Karaindrou, Anouar Brahem, and percussionist Marilyn Mazur.

Featuring exquisite music, Sounds and Silence is a beautiful film that itself has the spare and minimalist characteristics of an ECM album or its cover art. If you are not familiar with ECM’s music, you might find this film a little bewildering.  But for those who love Manfred Eicher’s vision it’s enthralling. Early in the film, Eicher attempts to encapsulate his vision in a metaphor:

For me, the luminosity of sound has always been a goal. 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.

The first thing we see in the film is Eicher, seated in an otherwise bare room, listening – intently.  Throughout, the film-makers repeatedly observe those involved in the creation of sounds listening, closely – attentive to detail and nuance.

Before he founded ECM and took to producingrecords, Eicher was a musician.  In the film, he says all producers should be musicians, and explains why he ‘left his bass in the corner of the room’ to move behind the mixing desk:

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 film shares an affinity with road movies, with the travelling sequences filmed from aircraft, cars and trains having the feel of a Wim Wenders movie.  The first musicians encountered are the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, with conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, rehearsing a recording of choral works by Arvo Pärt.  The recording is taking place in the church of St Nicholas, Tallinn, beneath a magnificent 15th century alterpiece (above).  In attendance are Arvo Part and his wife Nora, who plays a key role in his music.  Overseeing it all is Manfred Eicher.  While Eicher listens intently, thoughtful and still, Part is clearly filled with joy at seeing his compositions brought to shimmering life by the singers and musicians.  There’s a delicious moment, captured in this clip, when Part sweeps  Eicher into a joyous dance.

In the film, Eleni Karaindrou, the Greek composer (you’ll know her yearning, nostalgic music if you’ve ever seen a film by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos) makes some remarkable comments about Manfred Eicher:

Manfred cannot be fitted to any one category.  He is a producer, composer, musician, rolled into one – but a poet, too.  With an extraordinary feeling for silence, for rhythm, for the tone colours of instruments.  Wherever he is, Manfred’s commitment is one hundred percent. This is the quintessence of passion. He is committed to the moment and to the artists. And that is unique.

It is the passion, the concentration, the merging with the work which produce this rare and timeless moment. It is the fascination of our film work to capture this state and to pass it on.  Nora Pärt, wife of the composer Arvo Pärt, describes how, in his meticulous attention to the sound and atmosphere of a recording session, ECM boss Manfred Eicher “becomes the composer’s companion in creation…”

Eicher himself described his modus operandi in an interview with Wire in 2011:

Mostly nothing is prepared. I listen – sometimes I even listen to tapes, before we go into the studio. That’s the place to work. In improvised music if people come together for the first time, you become part of that group if you’re a good producer. Sometimes not much support is needed – then music starts to fly. Something takes shape. This happened with the Magico sessions in Oslo with Garbarek, Haden and Gismonti, where everyone came from a different place. In this case, as a listener you’re part of the group.

We see Eicher’s approach time and again in the film.  In the studio he is meticulous over the precise mixing of a small section (virtually one piano note) in a piece by keyboardist Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, in a Zurich studio (this outfit, sounding a little like the late and lamented E.S.T, were new to me, and stood out in the film as the only jazz unit featured ). Eicher helps bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner work out the proper emotional phrasing of one of Saluzzi’s post-tango pieces in Salta, Argentina. We observe him taking time to select just the right image (an abstract photographic image that looks like a piano key) for the cover of a solo CD by pianist Stefano Bollani.

Music has no fixed abode. 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.

Eicher travels to Athens where saxophonist Jan Garbarek and violinist Kim Kashkashian are performing an Eleni Karaindrou composition, and to Bergamo, Italy, where woodwind virtuoso Gianluigi Trovesi is fronting a colossal orchestra thundering through his jazzed-up renderings of Puccini opera. In a Copenhagen recording studio, he listens and smiles as percussionist Marilyn Mazur puts on a bravura solo performance that suggests why the German for sound – klang – is so appropriate.

This is a film about not only about making music but, equally as important, listening to it.

Trailer

This has been a another year for fine ECM releases – Andy Sheppard’s Trio Libero,  an eponymous album from drummer Manu Katche, a new one – The Well – from Tord Gustavsen – but the highlights this year have seen ECM digging into the archives for superb live recordings, two of them historic ones.

Sleeper is a recording of Keith Jarrett’s great European quartet – Jan Garbarek on sax, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums – at the pinnacle of their five year career in a 1979 performance in Tokyo show.  In the interview for Wire, Eicher recalled the long gestation of the release:

I did a recording in Japan in ’79 of the Belonging group with Keith and Garbarek. We mixed it just a year ago, and I sent it to Keith and he didn’t listen to the tape for months. Now he listened and a few days ago he called me and said, I agree, we should release it.  It was a fantastic concert. At the time, we felt they’d done better concerts. When we both heard it again, we both felt that this was just the concert.

Over at the between sound and space blog, Tyran Grillo is engaged on the Herculean task of writing something about every ECM release.  This is part of his assessment of Sleeper:

If ever it were possible for a recording to be even more alive than the day it was laid down, this is it—such is the value of its release. In addition to the symbiotic rhythm section, Garbarek naysayers may find themselves knocked on their rears by the exuberant, life-affirming themes issuing from his bell, each fitting snugly in Jarrett’s pianistic relief. A classic before it ever hit the shelves, Sleeper may just be the ECM event of the year and is, as its title implies, a dream to hear at long last.

Just as historic (and, for me, harking back to the days when I first discovered Jan Garbarek and ECM) is Magico: Carta de Amor, perhaps even more thrilling than Sleeper. Whereas we had had live recordings of Jarrett and his group before, Magico: Carta de Amor is compiled from live performances by a short-lived trio that we had never heard live on record before.  The trio in question is, indeed, an example of Manfred Eicher’s brilliance in bringing together musicians who might not otherwise have collaborated.  Jan Garbarek, guitarist Egberto Gismonti (who also plays piano here) and bassist Charlie Haden produced only two studio albums as a trio – Magico (1980) and Folk Songs (1981, the first ECM record I ever bought).

Carta de Amor expands on material from both studio dates, but also adds plenty of music that, if familiar to fans of the individual performers, has not been heard performed by this vibrant chamber trio before, while Charlie Haden’s uplifting ‘All That is Beautiful’, appears on record for the first time.  The record documents the trio at its peak in an April, 1981 performances in Munich – 18 months after Folk Songs was recorded, and just five months after the original Magico sessions. One example of the revelations here: Gismonti’s lyrical ‘Palhaço’ was a tremendous finale on the Magico lp, but here Garbarek soars to great heights in a version nearly double the studio version’s length that also reveals the trio’s superb interconnectedness, as all three players transcend mere soloing and interact in a manner barely believable.

Bobo Stenson’s live recording Indicum isn’t from the archives but joins the other two as the year’s outstanding threesome.  The set was recorded last November and December during live performances by his current trio in Lugano.  An eclectic repertoire has become a hallmark of Bobo Stenson recordings and this one, the first since Cantando four years ago, is no exception. Alongside some  collective improvising, there are songs by Bill Evans (‘Your Story’ is offered here as a tribute to Paul Motian, for whom this tune was a favourite) and by George Russell (‘Event VI’), Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s ‘Oft Am I Glad’, a Norwegian hymn (in an arrangement by Anders Jormin and folk singer Sinikka Langeland), contemporary composition by Norway’s Ola Gjeilo, a Wolf Biermann protest song, Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s folkloric ‘La Peregrinación’ and more along those lines. Bobo Stenson (piano), Anders Jormin (bass) and Jon Fält (drums) have made a sublime album whose music just sings.

See also

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4 thoughts on “Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

  1. Gerry we are completely on the same wavelength lately! I didn’t realize you are another ECM fan.I am going to see Jan Garbarek tonight and have just been thinking about a post. I shall have to try not to duplicate you! Great post by the way.

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