On Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s Re: ECM

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The record label ECM has long interested me, ever since I used to buy second-hand jazz LPs as a teenager. (And I wrote earlier ECM-related blog posts here and here.) The brainchild of German producer Manfred Eicher, ECM is as famous for the beautiful and atmospheric recording quality of its releases–Eicher loves to record in naturally reverberant spaces–as for the stellar contemporary classical, jazz, and world artists whose musics the label records. A few years ago, Eicher agreed to let techno musicians Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer remix ECM’s catalog of music. Over a few months, Villalobos and Loderbauer combed through recordings looking for instrument sounds, voices, and even empty resonances to sample and work with. With the samples as raw material, they then constructed new pieces using electronic sounds and processing. The result is a double CD called Re: ECM.

In a video about the remix project, the producers–well Villalobos, mostly–discuss the aesthetics of the music as well as their creative process in assembling it. One observation was how there is a fairly limited range of frequencies available for the production of electronic music. By sampling the acoustic sounds on ECM recordings, the producers could significantly expand their timbral palette and make more “organic” music. Another observation concerned creative process. Villalobos explained that he and Loderbauer made loops out of all the sounds they sampled (whose repeating structures are almost impossible to actually hear in the music, by the way). They then improvised in the studio:

“It is an improvisation, where the elements are looped in a definite length and always repeat themselves in a certain way and also intertwine in a certain way…The mixing board becomes an instrument as well, and also the synthesizers, of course.”

For the most part, the music is dark, atmospheric, and quite abstract. This isn’t dance music by any stretch, and it isn’t an easy listen. My favorite track is “Reblazhenstva”–a remix of Russian composer Alexander Knaifel’s “Blazjenstva” that actually caused me to stop walking up some subway stairs so stunned was I when I first heard it. The piece has a slow 6-beat meter, an ominous low-end via kick drum and bass synth tones (sounding once every 3 beats), choir and solo voice samples from Knaifel’s piece, sampled snare drum hits, occasional percussive interruptions (bow on the bridge of a cello), bits of static, bits of string section, and solo violin. Lots of bits really, but incisively chosen bits. The sampled snare hits, the kick, and the bass synth tones glue everything together as the other sound sources come and go like clouds. For me, the most impressive aspect of the way the electronics were programmed/improvised is that the finished track doesn’t sound like beats were simply added to ECM samples or that the samples were grafted onto the beats. Instead, each sound sounds as if it were meant to be in the company of the others. It’s music like this that make me glad I take the time to listen.

Not surprisingly given ECM’s strict control over the circulation of its music over the Internet, I couldn’t find “Reblazhenstva” on YouTube. But I did find a stellar performance of Knaifel’s original composition. You’ll have to seek out the remix on your own.

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