The German record label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music), which is almost 4 decades old, has been shrouded in prestige and distinction all over the world ever since it was founded in 1969. An excellent book has been published – Tocando el horizonte (Global Rhythm, 2008) – offering an insight into the company’s founder and president, Manfred Eicher, a man who rarely consents to giving interviews and who is the wizard behind the creation of classic records such as Köln Concert, by the amulet/musician Keith Jarrett.
From the beginning, ECM was focused in a kind of jazz that wasn't much portrayed by the record industry, and it paid also a lot of attention to sound and to contemporary ideas.
I was interested in a kind of music that I have liked for a long time and that I had heard before in the United States, where I'd met people such as Paul Bley. But in my mind I was persuaded that the quality of the production could be somewhat different, because as a musician I was also very concerned about sound.
You didn't like the quality of American recordings?
It's not that I didn't like them, rather that I wanted to do things in a different way. At that time, there were the Blue Note recordings, which were very recognizable, and there were producers like Teo Macero and Orrin Keepnews, who also made very good recordings, but I had a different idea about the sonic concept, as well as a very personal approach which I developed in the years to come through ECM.
As you say in Horizons Touched, one of your main concerns was to transfer some elements of the classical recordings to the jazz universe.
Yes. I was interested in a chamber-musical approach and in aesthetical elements, which are important when “crossing territories”, so to speak, when going from an improvised music session to a recording where everything is written down. It's very hard for me to describe exactly these elements, because you need a certain amount of experience in both fields, but I love to work with the composer who writes music as well as with musicians who spontaneously improvise and also write music by not writing it, but by evoking it at the very moment of the session.
How did musicians react to that new concept?
When we started, they realized that we did some things in a different way, including working with piano tuners for varied detail. When I approached Keith Jarrett for the first time to ask him whether he wanted to do a trio recording for us, in 1970, I wrote him a letter and I sent him several records, such as Jan Garbarek's Afric Pepperbird and some piano solo recordings. He wrote back to me saying that he was very interested and he pointed out the quality of the recordings, since he'd realized there was something different. Considering that our first issues came out in 1970 and in 1971, it didn't take much time for people to notice there was something new about them.
I guess that was quite an adventure with the equipment available then...
We mainly used the existing equipment in a different way. From the very beginning I used those very good microphones, Schoeps microphones, which come from a very small German company and are a bit more famous now since we have used them at our sessions. I was also fascinated by the arrival of the Lexicon Reverb in the early 70s and saw its potential as a musical instrument. However, we must not forget that the technical equipment is just one part of the picture, and I would say a secondary part, and that the musical content is the more important. And it is the musical content I have chosen to record that has somehow pointed me in the direction of looking for different sounds. The technique has to serve both the music and the artistic purposes.
The sound is one of the main concerns of ECM, but you have always been very particular about the musicians you wanted to work with, as if you have a sixth sense to know who could fit in you philosophy.
I'm a listener, and a concert-goer, and a movie-goer, and I've learned to know what I like and what I like less. If I have liked a musician, I ask him whether he wants to do something together; if he accepts, we start working together in order to develop something. Very often we have started with musicians that were very unknown or very young and we have developed a relationship for many years that has brought out many different aspects of the music-making process. During all these years, we have been able to document what musicians such as Chick Corea, Keith Jarett, Jan Garbarek or even classical composers such as Arvo Pärt have done. I really like the continuity of working with a person and getting to know each other, because this affinity leads to the best musical results.
This affinity goes both ways so to say, because the musicians you work with always refer to your role as a producer. They say you are someone very active, as if you were another member of the band, and someone clever enough just to give them some hints and let them find out the way on their own.
Perhaps the role of an involved producer is quite similar to that of a movie director. It's a question of presence, authority and knowledge, and if the musician feels there's a partner on the other side of the microphone, the dialogue can open up new adventures. When you can work with trust and confidence, the results tend to be better.
How useful was for this understanding of the relationship with the musicians your background as a musician?
Essential. To produce music, you have to be a musician, you have to understand what it means to play in front of a microphone or to play in a concert hall, and it's very useful also if you are able to read the scores. Other producers with different backgrounds may make good recordings in their specialized areas but for me, moving between productions of composed music and improvisation, my experiences in both idioms have been very important. Not so many producers have a musical training, they are merely connoisseurs, but I think that a producer who is fully involved in the production business should be a musician.
As a producer, you have quite a great deal of experience in working with improvisers. How the improvised music scene has changed in all these years? What differences you perceive in the improvised music that was done in the 60s and the improvised music you can listen to today?
I'm not sure if the process of improvising has changed significantly, but the times have certainly changed. The 60s were very productive and evocative, a lot of new things started then and things were moving forward. The 80s and part of the 90s were a neoconservative period, but now a lot of things are happening again. I still appreciate when musicians really play music and interact together in the studio rather than doing too much sampling and too much studio work, but I have to admit that this belongs to another aesthetic and that the results are sometimes good. I'd say, however, that the challenge and the methods are still the same today: if you take risks, you can find things; if you don't, you'll fall into a routine. I'm only interested in taking risks. I don't like routines. I want to be challenged.
It’s a challenging time for record labels in terms of business and in terms of their survival.
It's a much more difficult time right now, yes, because there are so many record labels... Everybody who blows into a horn has a CD, and everybody wants to record. We all have to be more selective. To be rigorous, you have to challenge yourself first. You have to be very aware of what can be shown and what should remain private. What I miss these days among musicians is discourse. And in the media there's a lot of talking, but very little debate.
How difficult it is today to find suitable musicians for the label?
Very often it has been by accident that I've heard or seen a new musician. Sometimes the best ideas are in your backyard, not in festivals. Very often, something minor makes you being aware of something big to come. A ray of light may show you the path to something worthwhile seeing.
I guess that's one of the fundamental aspects of your job, being aware of what's happening.
Sensing the quality when you hear something and evaluating it is important. You have to have instinct and a intuition, to recognize whether what you like is enough to begin a project or if it's not yet ready Timing here is very much the question, or rather very much the secret. You have to know when the time is right and when things are ready to be done. Then, in the studio, you can develop something together with the musicians in 3 or 4 days. And it's a wonderful feeling, because you can also document in the recording the atmospheric process, which is also what I'm looking for. You can't force a result. The producer needs to see where things need to go and how they will develop. You have to understand the context psychologically.
But it seems you have also understood quite well the psychology of the record buyers, since ECM has survived quite well since its birth.
We’re still doing what we want to do, and we have survived quite well, yes. It's good to see and to know there's a certain solidarity towards this music from the public.
Maybe this solidarity comes from the fact that ECM has always taken good care of its records, not only of the contents but also on the packaging. Why did you decide to make every ECM record almost a “total work of art”?
It happened because I’m interested in aesthetics both sonic and visual, and it was natural to want to present the music with what I thought was an appropriate envelope. I had close friends who were painters and graphic artists and we developed this concept together.
I would like to finish referring to the other side of ECM, the New Series, which were born in 1984. You were a classical musician as well as a jazz musician, but it took you some time to start documenting written music.
We had already recorded notated music from Steve Reich (Music for 18 instruments) and Meredith Monk (Dolmen Music), but when I heard the music of Arvo Pärt in 1980 I thought we should start a new series on ECM because we needed to draw a line between jazz, improvised music and some of the transcultural music we had recorded so far and the written music. Arvo Pärt began the New Series with Tabula Rasa, which featured Gideon Kremer and Keith Jarrett, and it became a very important record for myself and for the label