Arts: Sound and vision

The ECM label and its founder Manfred Eicher have altered musical history. After 30 years, their albums still range over jazz and classical music, the eclectic and unclassifiable - and have a sound world as distinctive as the record sleeves' famous austere design. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
It's now 30 years since the first album appeared on the German ECM label. 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; a late- 20th century equivalent to earlier pioneers like Verve and Blue Note.

Just as those legendary labels favoured both a particular repertoire and a coherent approach to packaging and cover art, ECM has cultivated its own house style, with a cool, minimalist approach to graphics, and black and white photography.

This visual aesthetic complements ECM's preference for a crystalline clarity of sound where the music is cushioned by the acoustic like a fragile object wrapped lovingly in cotton wool. The question of the ECM "sound", or even "aesthetic", has provoked many critical debates, although the label's founder likes to deny that any such thing exists.

Whatever the truth of the matter, ECM has created its own distinctive genre of spare, ambiently-inclined, chamber jazz and contemporary classical recordings.

The success of the company has in turn influenced the development of jazz itself, helping to shift the centre of improvised music ever closer to Europe, and offering a quieter and more contemplative alternative to the blues-based structures of the Afro-American tradition.

As a consequence, the centre of jazz has not just shifted; increasingly, it has failed to hold. Many artists now prefer the term "new music". Contemporary classical recordings on its New Series imprint - from Music For 18 Musicians by Steve Reich in 1978, to recent works by Arvo Part, John Adams and others - have blurred the boundaries further still.

ECM was formed in Munich in 1969 by Manfred Eicher, then a young assistant producer working with string quartets and the Berlin Philharmonic, and also a double bass player with a passion for both jazz and chamber music. Eicher is still at the head of the company today, and his leadership is the reason why ECM has retained its independence and its sense of identity so strongly. He acts as the producer for each of the label's releases, but in Eicher's case the producer's role isn't restricted to twiddling a few knobs. Instead, he's an auteur: selecting artists, casting the production, choosing the recording venue and supervising the sessions.

Even if absent for the original recording, Eicher's work during post- production ensures that the ECM identity is inscribed in the finished product as unmistakably as the lettering in a stick of Blackpool rock.

Eicher is dismissive about the notion of an ECM "sound", if only, he tells me, because the concept has become such a cliche. I am interviewing him at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian Tyrol, which was the venue for the recording of the label's last big hit, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble's Officium. Eicher is famously reluctant to divulge too much about his methods, but over breakfast in the monastery's cafe he seems more than happy to answer questions. Now 56, his appearance is that a rather well-heeled ex-hippie with longish hair and a drooping moustache.

"The ECM sound is more about the choice of music in the catalogue," Eicher says. "It has a lot to do with the example of chamber music, and with a kind of poetic approach to music. My preference is towards that which has to do with lucidity, transparency, and the movements of sound. I like to make every movement, voice and texture available, but also the pauses and the silence. It's not only the notes, but the thought behind them, that sculpts sound. It's the white space, the empty space between the tones, that is the inspirational source."

Eicher's role in the recording process, is always, he insists, a sympathetic one. "I am with the musician in his solitude, and I never say this is right or wrong. I say `Are we in the right moment?' The musician makes the final decision, and the music always starts before the microphones are set up. We then capture the sound we receive through the microphones and wires, but we have to get something out that the musician recognises as himself, and this is a big job, for it always has to go through these wires. We have to start afresh with the sound every day, and there are never any fixed microphone positions. I leave everything open."

A typical ECM jazz session will take three to four days of recording and mixing, using a two-track system because, Eicher says, "it reflects the moment." The editing is done by Eicher and the engineer, and although the musicians are invited to attend the final edit, Eicher admits that the result is "not necessarily democratic."

When Eicher first started the label he claims to have had no real models in mind, although he admired the sound of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue album on CBS. Jazz attracted him, he says, partly because in the Sixties it was a music of protest that reflected society. "In the Seventies it became a surrogate of pop music to be played in restaurants with a lot of noodling around. What remained of jazz's avant-garde was coming from Europe."

In retrospect, the debut recording - Free At Last by the Mal Waldron Trio - might not seem like a typical product of what has since come to be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the company's house style. At the time, however, together with other early titles by American artists operating outside the jazz mainstream, free jazz by black musicians represented a very strong part of the label's identity, alongside European improvisers like Derek Bailey, Jan Garbarek, and Dave Holland.

In the succeeding years, the proportion of Americans on ECM has probably decreased, and the commitment to free jazz lessened somewhat, but otherwise not a great deal has changed. Garbarek, Holland and Keith Jarrett, are still there, and Derek Bailey was featured on a recent album. Few of each month's schedule of releases can be expected to shift many units, but for ECM this isn't necessarily the point. The occasional big hit, like Keith Jarrett's The Koln Concert from 1975, the best-selling solo piano album ever with over four million copies sold, and 1994's Officium, approaching a million copies, and still selling, help subsidise the less successful recordings.

The long-awaited follow-up recording to Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble will be released on 12 April. Manfred Eicher could be forgiven for anticipating a bumper pay-day, but he's more interested in quoting Goethe than discussing sales-figures. "My aim is to transmit what we hear in a studio, or a church, into a manifestation for the listener, who trusts this result of musicians, sound engineer and producer," he says.

Mnemosyne by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble is on ECM New Series 1700/01, order no: 4651222. The European premiere concert of the recording will be held at King's College, Cambridge on 14 April (tel: 01223 357851), and further UK dates are scheduled for November, including the Royal Albert Hall on November 16.

Ten Great ECM Albums

Conference of the Birds

Dave Holland

(ECM 1027, 1973)

The catchy title track of this improvised jazz album anticipated the label's later concentration on atmosphere.

The Koln Concert

Keith Jarrett

(ECM 1064/5, 1975).

Supremely lyrical inventions on a dodgy-sounding piano. The Bosendorfer delivered to the concert hall was the wrong instrument, but Jarrett let the recording go ahead. Four million copies later, it's still selling.

My Song

Keith Jarrett

(ECM 1115, 1978).

"European" quartet with Norwegian sax Jan Garbarek in country-tinged repertoire.

Music for 18 Musicians

Steve Reich

(ECM New Series 1129, 1978).

This is perhaps the best of all Reich's recordings.

Old and New Dreams

Don Cherry/Dewey Redman/Charlie Haden/Ed Blackwell (ECM 1154, 1979).

A superb tribute to saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

Folk Songs

Charlie Haden/Jan Garbarek/Egberto Gismonti (ECM 1170, 1979).

A breakthrough for the new, multi-cultural fusion.

Ballad of the Fallen

Charlie Haden (ECM 1248, 1983).

Carla Bley arrangements of songs for Nigaragua; one of the greatest jazz albums ever.

Passio

Arvo Part

(ECM New Series 1370, 1988).

A spare and intense setting of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John. Perhaps the Estonian composer's most sympathetic production.

Officium

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble

(ECM New Series 1525, 1994).

Medieval chant, early polyphony and Renaissance motets combined with saxophone improvisations in an Austrian monastery. It has now sold over a million albums.

Angel Song

Kenny Wheeler (ECM 1607, 1997).

Ambient-inclined songs without words from one of the ECM label's veteran.

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