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".