The ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) record label is now in its 42nd
year, and remains as mysterious and uncompromising as ever. This is
primarily due to the fact that ECM is a nearly total reflection of founder Manfred Eicher. In fact, there has never been a label that has
enjoyed such long-term success, while retaining an owner’s hands-on
approach as ECM.
In an attempt to understand this enigmatic music figure, filmmakers Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Eicher across Europe, and to South America, capturing him working with a number of artists. Their film Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher is a fascinating glimpse of life behind the curtain.
The movie begins with rehearsals in the medieval St. Nicholas church of Tallin, where Arvo Part and Manfred are working to achieve the optimum sound for an upcoming performance. Their association dates back to 1984, when ECM’s New Music series was launched with Part’s Tabula Rasa.
From Estonia, we follow Manfred to rehearsals in Athens, then to The Prince Regent’s Theatre in Munich, and then to the Serassi Cinema Theatre in the Italian town of Bergamo. Mr. Eicher then boards a plane to Argentina, where we are introduced to a very different world. In all of these encounters, Manfred Eicher is seen studying, listening, and offering quiet suggestions as to how the sound may be perfected. At times, this may be through the use of silence even, which is where the film gets its title.
In the midst of these travels, Manfred also ventures home to Munich and the headquarters of ECM. The austere offices are striking for their sterility. For a company that specializes in music as passionate as that of ECM, it is a bit of a shock. The building seems better suited to a meeting of the Politburo than to a creative endeavor. It seems to be an integral part of the ECM enigma however, appearances aside.
Among the many artists Manfred works with over the course of this 87-minute documentary are Marilyn Mazur, Jan Garbarek, Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner. Each of these musicians have very unique sounds, yet as Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou notes, “Wherever Manfred works, he is one hundred percent involved. That is the nature of his passion. He devotes himself to the moment and is entirely committed to the artist he is recording.”
The recent DVD release of the film includes some bonus materials. These feature a video (of sorts) for Manu Katche’s “Playground,” and the original theatrical trailer.
For those who have followed this remarkable label, and have been as curious as I have about the man behind it all, Sounds And Silence is indispensable.