Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sounds and Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher” (ECM)

For over forty years, Manfred Eicher has been one of the most heralded, most creative, and most fastidious of all record producers - fastidious in terms of the quality of the music he presents, and equally fastidious in the quality of sound he bestows upon his ;productions. An artist recording for Eicher’s ECM label knows he/she/they will be expected to make exceptionally fine music, and that his/her/their performances will be heard by the home listener to a degree which is as close to in-person perfection as a musician has a right to expect.

This nearly-90-minute documentary film allows us to watch Manfred Eicher at work, encompassing the major varieties of music issued by the ECM label - jazz (often, but hardly exclusively, European in artist origin and in style), classical, experimental world-music, and unclassifible. The film is both a visual and audio representation of Eicher’s accomplishments, presenting top international artists such as Estonian composer Arvo Part, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and Argentine bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi, to cite the best-known names here. We do not hear from such famed ECM artists as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, or Pat Metheny, which may disappoint a few people, but may be just as well. Too many big names might detract from the focus on the producer and his work.

Essentially, we see Eicher traveling to several different countries to supervise recording sessions, which are interspersed alongside interview segments with the artists participating in those sessions. We also get an occasional glimpse inside the ECM home offices in Germany. Rather than bogging down the proceedings with an unneeded narration droning on interminably, directors Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer represent Eicher’s travels with views from airplane windows, lights on the highway, etc. We witness Eicher listening, directing, thinking. Listening and thinking may be nebulous activities to try to depict visually, but the directors have captured the sense that this is exactly what we are seeing. There is a great deal of presence to thew music in this film, as befits the subject. What’s more, the film is not afraid to lavish its subject with silence, or at least quietude, dimensions that Eicher’s productions have never been afraid to value alongside the sounds.

The interviewees are, of course, ready to sing their producer’s praises. But they also discuss his art as well as their own. Arvo Part tells us a record producer must not only know how to set up mics correctly, he also has to inspire the musicians. Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, a new name to me, relates the backgrounds of his variegated compositions and collaborations in such a manner that I feel the need to sample more of his music. Saluzzi takes cellist Anya Eichner to meet a group of veteran tango musicians, and talks about music as communication. Oud player Anouar Brahem musically explores the borderline between Western and Middle Eastern music. All these insights tell us much about the music, the people who perform it, and the motives and methods of the man who channels it to the worldwide audience. There is one more scene which is a testament to Eicher’s exactitude and need to approach perfection - we watch a piano tuner working on a piano to be used in a Nik Batsch session. The message is simply - Manfred Eicher cares.

Bonus features include the trailer and A 6-1/2-minute music video for a 2007 piece by Manu Katche, called “Playground” - very nicely done, as you would expect.

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