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A Striking Exception: on ECM records at the Grammys – WSJ

February 8, 2015

Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM.

Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM. PHOTO: BART BABINSKI

By STUART ISACOFF

Is art compatible with commerce? The question may seem odd—artists need economic sustenance, just like everyone else. Or elitist: Does popular success automatically diminish a work’s artistic value?

Perhaps not. But when we tune into the Grammy Awards on Sunday, there will be little evidence, beneath all the nerve-jangling bombast, of a concern for something deeper than instant fame and cookie-cutter trendiness. Commercial necessities tend to swamp more creative aspirations, despite the organization’s 83 categories.

Yet even at that glittery celebration exceptions will be found. The label Bridge Records is a prime example. Its Grammy-nominated releases this year are discs of music by adventurous American composers Harry Partch and George Crumb, along with classical piano virtuoso Leon Fleisher’s first foray into George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Founder David Starobin has been nominated for Producer of the Year in the classical category.

But the most striking exception at the Grammys belongs to ECM (Editions of Contemporary Music), nominated this time around for works by the little-known Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg performed under the direction of Gidon Kremer. If anyone deserves an award for lifetime achievement, it is ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher, a producer of over 1,600 albums—many of which have changed the course of recorded art.

Since 1969 Mr. Eicher, 71, has set fashion rather than followed it. He produced the improvisational solo piano ventures of Keith Jarrett—who could have imagined the immense reaction to the 1975 “Köln Concert” and the subsequent imitations it spawned?—and paired jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the early music Hilliard Ensemble, resulting in the haunting and best-selling “Officium” of 1994. According to Mr. Eicher, the latter collaboration has resulted in sold-out concerts for nearly 25 years. “The churches have been filled with both young and old. I am proud of this. It was risky—the music, blending old and new, was not done this way before. This ensemble was brought together at the right time.”

His groundbreaking “New Series,” an imprint created in 1984, has released seminal albums by such disparate musicians as Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, John Cage and Meredith Monk.

What is the strategy behind this odd patchwork of a catalog? Mr. Eicher’s history with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is instructive. As he tells it, one day in the early ’80s, Mr. Eicher was driving from Stuttgart to Zurich at night along the Autobahn in Germany when music came over the radio that he found so stunning he pulled off the road to listen. “I didn’t understand the language or know the composer,” he relates, “but I was moved by the strength and beauty of the music. It took me half a year to learn that it was ‘Tabula Rasa’ by Pärt, recorded in Tallinn in 1977. I found out where he was living—it was in Vienna at the time, where he was starting a new life in the West.”

The intensely shy composer was won over by the producer’s sincerity, and they agreed to do recordings together. “I suggested that Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett could play ‘Fratres’ together,” Mr. Eicher says. “And this recording still sounds as electrifying as it did at the beginning.”

The ECM “New Series” was launched with the work heard on his car radio—featuring Pärt’s alluring, hypnotic “Tintinnabuli” (“bell-like”) style—an approach that has so resonated with listeners world-wide that the database “Bachtrack” reports that he is today the most performed living composer.

In the recording industry, the usual reaction to that kind of success would be to issue as many knockoffs as quickly as possible. But, says, Mr. Eicher, “I think less about an aesthetic than about the content of the music. I worked with musicians I knew who had a personal approach that meant something to me. In all these years we continued to widen the spectrum of music on ECM because there was always something more to be discovered.”

The other motivating factor in his efforts was his interest in the quality of recorded sound, especially in jazz recordings, the focus of his earliest output. “From the very beginning I wanted to record things with the utmost detail possible, to get a sense of transparency, to get close to the musical structures,” he explains. “At the beginning we didn’t have a fixed concept, but there were musicians that I really liked. The idea was to approach improvised music with more of a chamber-music sensibility. The ‘gesture of listening’ was important to us.” As a result, he found churches and monasteries across Europe that helped create an ideal sonic atmosphere.

Manfred Eicher’s approach has changed the cultural conversation more than once, while making serious contributions to musical life. Why haven’t more companies replicated ECM’s model?

via A Striking Exception: on ECM records at the Grammys – WSJ.

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