On Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher

by Thomas Brett

Last week I attended the New York City premiere of Sounds And Silence, a documentary about the work of ECM record label founder and producer Manfred Eicher.  ECM is known for its exquisitely recorded releases by modern composers, jazz improvisers, folk and world music artists.  There’s a lot of natural resonance and space on ECM releases, partly due to the musical designs and partly due to the spaces in which the musical performances are recorded.  How to sum up the ECM sound in three words?  Minimal, luminous melancholy.  In the hundreds of recordings he has produced since the 1970s, Eicher has found this sound aesthetic over and over again.

The film follows Eicher as he travels around the world to oversee recording sessions and concerts by artists recording for his label.  In these scenes we get to hear and see musicians making music in acoustically sublime surroundings.  For example, one recurring scene is Eicher standing next to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt as he listens, wide-eyed and child-like to a string orchestra and small choir bring his piece Da Pacem Domine to life. The immense space (and light) in Pärt’s music is a perfect example of the Eicher/ECM aesthetic in action, making use as it does of the elongated reverb tail and ambiance in the performance space–in this case, a beautiful old church in Talinn, Estonia. Eicher and Pärt (and Pärt’s wife) seem to listen so closely to run-throughs of the music that their quality of attention feels integral to the music’s affect.  Here’s the piece they were recording:

In other scenes, the documentary leaves Eicher and focuses in on the creative work of ECM artists such as Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem and the Argentinian bandoneon player and tango master Dino Saluzzi.  On their ECM releases, both of these musicians make what once upon a time would have been called “fusion” music.  In Brahem’s case, he plays his oud to the accompaniment of a piano and an accordion.  And Saluzzi’s bandoneon is joined by the German cellist Anja Lechner.  Eicher is excited by these kinds of musical juxtapositions, not because they’re exotic, but because the instrument timbres and sensibilities of the musicians mesh well together.  Here is the Anouar Brahem trio playing his piece “Sur le Fleuve”

and Saluzzi and Lechner playing music from their ECM recording Ojos Negros

Besides the first-rate music making, one of the more remarkable aspects of this film is the quality of social interaction between Eicher and the film’s other protagonists as well as the intense focus demonstrated by just everyone we see in ECM’s orbit; indeed, there’s an immense amount of collective care and fuss to get things sounding just right.  In one scene, a piano technician rapidly applies a fine sandpaper to shape the felt hammers of a piano and then gingerly applies a blowtorch (!) to straighten them while the jazz pianist Nik Bartsch hovers attentively over his shoulder.  In another scene, an oud maker visits Anouar Brahem at his house to present him with a half-finished instrument to assess.  Brahem holds the oud in silence, running his hands over its continuous curves, and then sings pitches into its resonating hole and listens, imagining the oud’s luminosity when it’s finally strung and ready for playing.  “I can’t wait to hear it” he says excitedly.  Watching scenes like this I was struck by the constant, concerned and nuanced talk going on around musical sound and musical instruments.  The people in this movie really care about and come together around music.

After the film, Eicher, who had been lurking in darkness by the door to the theater during the movie, came to the stage and took questions from the audience.  Asked what he listens for in new music, Eicher said: “I don’t know.  I try to be intuitive.  I try to be a good listener.  It’s a mystery sometimes how things develop.” Asked about what he listens for when assessing a new live recording space, Eicher said: “I listen for the light in the church.”  With the work of ECM, he observed, the key is to “have respect for interaction, respect for the score, the music, the musicians.”  As Eicher spoke, a word popped into my head as a variation on musician: mystician.  As Eicher the mystician answered questions, he talked about how you never know how things–musical or otherwise–will turn out. “Sometimes” he said, “a gesture, a little thing, changes the situation immensely.”

Here is a short trailer of the film:

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