Sound and vision: the loner's guide

Manfred Eicher's passion for music led him to create the ECM label - dedicated to recording the work of artists he loves, from jazz musician Jan Garbarek to 'classical' minimalists Steve Reich and Arvo Part. And with the sound he delivers parallel images to let the eye help the ear to hear. By Robert Cowan

Take a 20-minute drive from the centre of Munich to the suburb of Grafelfing and chances are that, sooner or later, you'll come across a fairly standard electrical-goods supermarket. It is there, set in offices amidst nondescript streets and scores of parked cars, that Manfred Eicher's ECM (Editions of Contemporary Music) turns musical dreams into tangible symbols of style. "Music is my Utopia," says Eicher, "and I grew up at a time when Utopia still had a meaning - Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno and other imaginative philosophers were, in a sense, dreamers with a keen sense of reality." Eicher, whose love of the arts encompasses painting, theatre, literature and photography and who co-directed the film Holozan (based on a novella by Max Frisch), started ECM back in 1969, initially as a vehicle for the improvised music of Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and others, then diverting to such radical "classical" moderns as the American minimalists Steve Reich, John Adams, Meredith Monk and, with the launch of "New Series" in 1984, the Estonian "faith minimalist" Arvo Part. Walk into Eicher's office and instead of the expected management manuals and faceless year-books, you'll see volumes of Robert Creeley, Joseph Conrad, Walter Benjamin, Glenn Gould and a complete Holderlin in facsimile.

Eicher is an inveterate intellectual adventurer. He pits the "boring neo-conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s" against the 1960s, a time when "there was still something called magic. A work of art was not a sign of something, it was the sign itself." His tight ship employs a hand-picked crew of eight, with a passion for music as the driving current. "If you don't love what you're doing," he says, "then you're not going to be able to do it as well. You have to be rigorous against yourself, even austere..." The German word is streng, which means, roughly speaking, severity, strictness or sharpness. Or does he mean single-mindedness, perhaps? "No..." insists Eicher, "... because that would exclude too many things. I am, I think, an open-minded person, but I want to present an idea that I feel, or that my colleagues feel, as good - unlike the general tendencies of record companies, which attempt to fabricate things in order to please an audience rather than let their own instincts or impulses become reality." He laments the CD industry's poor supply of musically sensitive executives. "When I visit book publishing houses, I feel that I can have a genuine discourse; but it's very difficult to have any discourse with people who are not in the least moved by the art that they are promoting. Nowadays, we see more and more 'business' people taking charge, trying to initiate a new 'marketing language'. They imitate and fabricate what's already available: 'packaging' and 'marketing' are the key words. But that's not what it's about. We need to trust our instincts, to discover, have something to tell and say it with the force of our convictions." Which is fine, provided your instincts are worth following. Eicher's usually are.

As it happens, the volatile history of classical "hits" fully bears out Eicher's theory: Kennedy, Pavarotti, Gorecki, Bryars and Jan Garbarek (on Eicher's own top-selling disc, Officium), all were unprecedented, unpremeditated and entirely unexpected. It wasn't marketing that "launched" them on their way; it was being in the right key at the right time.

Eicher's singular vision stems from profound self-knowledge, a self-disciplined approach to work and a sense of aloneness. He was born in 1943 in Lindau in south Germany, at Lake Constance. "In winter time it was almost like the sea; there was no shore, but plenty of fog. That feeling for solitude was with me from early childhood. I would listen to the sound of the waves, feel the influence of light and enjoy the harmony and distortion of nature and music." Parallel images inform many of ECM's booklet designs. "For me, it is important to set a tone, to sense the atmosphere of the music and to give a clear sign of our intentions. A dialectic of sound and image."

Taking an ECM disc off the shelf is rather like accepting an invitation to travel, an appropriate reaction given that Eicher has always refused to make recordings in his "home town" of Munich. "And I will never do so," he affirms. "I have always left my place in order to make music. I need to travel and bring people together, much as we have done in, say, Oslo, where musicians from New York, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro came together for four days to make music. I believe in the idea of a centre where you can go, achieve something and are then free to leave. We like to explore new halls, search for the right sound, but always try to avoid routine - because routine is poison for music-making." Given the precision- tooled nature of an ECM disc-experience, what sort of person does Manfred Eicher imagine his ideal listener to be? "Someone who sits down, or walks around, and concentrates on what is on offer," he tells me. "A lot of people seem to listen, but really they don't. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said, 'you wish to see, listen; hearing is a step towards vision'. That dialectic is something that we have used as a motto, a sort of leitmotiv in our catalogue - and, for me, it says everything. I might think also in terms of an arctic wolf. In fact, I feel that I have a better dialogue with one person than with two or three; I imagine a listener as a loner, someone who doesn't necessarily set out to listen to music, who might just as well listen in his room to the urban sounds and the sounds of nature. I think of the blind woman who goes to a Jean-Luc Godard movie and discovers, by a juxtaposition of sound, tone, music and those images that she cannot see, how to listen; and then she describes the film and she's very close to the image - perhaps much closer than people who think they can see."

ECM's latest releases have included key works by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, whose son Sandro has worked for the company for the last two and a half years, "learning the ropes". Eicher likes to record favourite musicians in favoured key repertoire. He's planning to record the Keller Quartet in the late Beethoven quartets and there's a new CD imminent with violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Robert Levin playing the two Brahms sonatas. "Of course they've been done before..." says Eicher sagely, "... but so what; they play them so wonderfully and so differently that probably nobody has played them like that before." He points out that there's no coupling for the sonatas, that it's a relatively short-measure CD but that if there's nothing suitable to add, then it must stay precisely as it is. Any other solution would have been wholly out of character.

Eicher's label would be a handsome catch for one of the "majors", but any proposal for a take-over - and there have been quite a few - is likely to meet with a frosty shrug. Still, the idea of "shedding the load" does have its attractions. "I am responsible for all the components surrounding this company, and sometimes the work gets very hard. I have to say 'no' to a lot of things, and there's no denying that the price is high. And as far as life is concerned, I mean 'private' life, I don't have time for very much. I sometimes find myself thinking that it would be far better if all this administration was in some other hands, then I would be freed for the more vital part of the studio work, the dialogue with musicians and all that. But thinking it over - it just wouldn't make sense. This is a very big part of my life; in fact, what I'm doing is my life, and it is not a question of more artistic success, more or less money or money per se, it's a question of being independent to do what I do for as long as my team is intact and my health allows".

Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence