Music is using sound to organize emotions in time.
First, silence. Then, as from afar, frantically, a violin descends, emerging from the shadows, ever more insistently. A piano answers, slows the pace. And thus begins a careful courtship of two opposing voices: teasing, complaining, questioning, refuting, embracing. And thus begins one of the most compelling recordings of modern music.
Later on, we hear a bell, the pulse, introducing the second movement – a requiem, a dream, a heart-stopping descent, unreeling slowly, ever so relentlessly, into a depth where there is nothing but mourning, brutal, encompassing, rapturous.
A variation: The initial melody reappears, hesitantly, lethargically. What was demanding and alive before has now lost its will, settled into a languid complaint, a tired resistance.
Finally, a violin edges in, harshly, introducing the last cycle: an infinite arch of contrasting movements, ripples in the sea, overlapping. A drawn-out rise of gathering forces, magnetic, building up, suspended, and inevitably, violently, colliding. The epilogue: a lament, distant voices, drifting apart. One by one, the musicians leave the room. The end of sound. Silence.
Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, introduced by ECM Records in 1984, marks not only a milestone in contemporary music, but captures a moment of utter beauty in time. Its three pieces – Fratres, once interpreted in a groundbreaking encounter between jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and classic violinist Gidon Kremer, once by the Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Cantus, a requiem for the composer Benjamin Britten, and finally Tabula Rasa – coalesce to a recording that reminds us what music is capable of, in all its might.
In many ways, Tabula Rasa has come to exemplify the universe of ECM: a constant quest for new sound and territories, a penchant for the grey skies of Eastern Europe, an underlying melancholy – but also the radical and uncompromising interpretation, the spatial depth of sound, the recurring patterns of repetition and variation, the purity and timelessness and fragility. The album also marked a juncture in the story of ECM, until then a German label firmly dedicated to jazz. Tabula Rasa would introduce the New Series for composed contemporary pieces, as opposed to improvised music. For Manfred Eicher, however – the founder of the label – this diversion into new musical ground in fact described a return to his roots.
Born in 1943 in southern Germany, Manfred Eicher dedicated his life early on to music, learning violin as a child, and studying double bass and classical music at the Academy in Berlin. On parallel tracks, he pursued an equally traditional self-education in jazz: through relatives in America, records bought in G.I. stores, The Voice of America, listening to Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard, playing double bass in German jazz bands and with visiting musicians including Marion Brown, Leo Smith and Paul Bley.
In 1969, a meeting with the American jazz pianist and composer Mal Waldron led to Eicher’s first impromptu production and official release, Free at Last. The immediate success of the record beckoned for more, encouraging Eicher to move backstage and from then on to dedicate his life to finding and producing new music rather than performing. On the outskirts of Munich, with little financial backing, less strategy and no experience in production or managing a record label, Manfred Eicher launched ECM Records as a platform for jazz, a primarily American phenomenon on its wane.
Eicher soon established a reputation by developing a new sound for American musicians, a sound that was influenced by his experience with classical chamber music, a sound that allowed for a different depth of field, that offered new experiences. But Eicher also expanded the universe of jazz geographically. Continuously travelling around the edges of Europe, he soon became intrigued by the vibrant music scenes in Norway and communist Poland. Each country had developed a unique approach to jazz, which Eicher managed to capture so beautifully – think, for instance, of Tomasz Stanko’s predatory trumpet as opposed to Jan Garbarek’s haunting saxophone – thus introducing a decidedly European notion into the world of jazz that to this day is distinctive to the programme of ECM.
Just as distinctive is the label’s unmistakeable graphic identity: Abandoning the cool and iconic imagery of American jazz, ECM developed a more ambiguous approach with abstract shapes and landscapes, refined by minimal typography. A European sound had found its place, illustrated by European imagery. Eicher had formed a new language.
The rest is history: ECM has released more than 1,000 records in just over 40 years, many of which were produced by Manfred Eicher personally. It has published dozens of seminal recordings, such as Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concerts – most famously The Köln Concert – Pat Metheny’s Offramp and Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. It has produced countless works by some of the most important contemporary composers and performers. It has gained enthusiastic praise and numerous awards for – or maybe in spite of – proposing unusual and often challenging music. It is one of the most influential record labels for jazz and contemporary music of our time.
Perhaps no other label has such strong connotations as ECM, such distinctive handwriting. Whereas the identity of the label is often perceived as categorical – words like melancholy, austere, elegiac come too easily – the output could in fact not be more diverse, with recordings from South America to northernmost Scandinavia, ranging from ancient folk songs to jazz standards to religious hymns to film scores. This year will even see a collaboration with electronic producer Ricardo Villalobos. And yet, there is a faint thread running through this diversity, an undercurrent that makes for the mystery of the ‘sound of ECM’, at the heart of which lies a personality – with his own experiences, convictions, contradictions – a personality that pays attention to every detail, with a profound sense for content and form, with determination and intuition, and with an insatiable curiosity for the unheard.