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Reflektor Manfred Eicher: The Artists

The legendary head of ECM records brings hand-picked artists to the Elbphilharmonie.

»The most beautiful sound next to silence« is the motto of the record label Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM), which the young bass player Manfred Eicher founded in 1969. 50 years and countless epoch-making albums later – one of the best-known is Keith Jarrett's »Köln Concert« – Eicher is among the seminal music producers of the 20th century.

ECM has long since become established as a hallmark, whose new releases are bought blind by music lovers and connoisseurs alike. Eicher celebrates his anniversary in 2020 with a self-curated festival at the Elbphilharmonie, where he presents a selection of hand-picked artists from 3 to 6 February.

Reflektor Manfred Eicher

In the »Reflektor« series, selected artists are symbolically lent the keys to the Elbphilharmonie. That means: they curate the programme. Manfred Eicher is in charge from 3-6 February 2020.

View the programme

It's clarity and simplicity, by its bold willingness to discard everything unnecessary

Arvo Pärt

Manfred Eicher is fond of telling people how he discovered the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: »I was driving from Stuttgart to Zürich one lonely night in 1981 or 1982. There was some wonderful music playing on the radio, and I actually left the motorway to get better reception. But I didn't find out who it was by, and it took me six months to find out.« He was especially fascinated by the music's »clarity and simplicity, by its bold willingness to discard everything unnecessary«. The 1984 album »Tabula rasa« marked the beginning of a »symbiotic cooperation« – and of Arvo Pärt's worldwide fame.

Sclavis Quartet and Manfred Eicher
Sclavis Quartet and Manfred Eicher © Gérard de Haro

Louis Sclavis

Clarinettist Louis Sclavis came to ECM in the early 1990s, when he was already one of France's leading jazz musicians. Since then, the label has released thirteen Sclavis albums with different line-ups, the most recent one a true masterpiece: in »Characters on a Wall« Sclavis explores the street art of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, accompanied by piano, bass and percussion. The French poster artist brings the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish back to life on a colourful house wall in Ramallah just as he does film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini – whom Manfred Eicher met in person, incidentally.

You sometimes feel you can hear time ticking in his music.

Heiner Goebbels

»For the 1968 generation, culture wasn't worth talking about in the political scene – but luckily for me, I belong to the 1971 generation,« explains composer Heiner Goebbels (born in 1952) in the booklet text to his CD »Eislermaterial«. His own compositions based on the political music of Hanns Eisler yielded one of his most popular ECM albums, first released in 1981. »I always found his impudence and his tendency to contradict exciting,« says Manfred Eicher. You sometimes feel you can hear time ticking in his music. The 1988 album ›Der Mann im Fahrstuhl‹ is just as modern now as it was when it was first released.«

It was her tone, her phrasing, her entire perception of music that fascinated me.

Kim Kashkashian

Like Arvo Pärt, Kim Kashkashian is one of the musicians that Manfred Eicher discovered on the radio. He first heard her playing viola music by Hindemith, as she went on to do on the first of almost thirty ECM albums. But Eicher had to persuade her to come into the studio. »I met her in Lockenhaus, and at first she didn't want to record anything at all! But I was persistent – I really wanted to have her record something! It was her tone, her phrasing, her entire perception of music that fascinated me.« On her latest album, Kashkashian plays Bach's Suites for Violoncello Solo, and in her hands they sound as if the composer wrote them for the viola.

It fits our time perfectly, yet it's essentially timeless

Anouar Brahem

December 2010 saw the beginning of a rebellion in Tunisia that became known as the »Arab Spring«, a movement that spread across many Islamic countries, but was later crushed by governments. Oud player Anouar Brahem, who was born in Tunis in 1957 and has been an ECM artist since 1989, was deeply moved by the uprisings and responded years later with the composition of »Souvenance«, a work which, as he says, »tries to react with the emotions of the moment«. This music combines the Arab lute with a string orchestra, and the immediate horizon with one that is farther away. »It fits our time perfectly, yet it's essentially timeless,« describes Manfred Eicher on the potential of a work so relevant today.

Meredith is a spiritual sister.

Meredith Monk

»Meredith is a spiritual sister,« says Manfred Eicher about the American multimedia artist Meredith Monk, a pioneer of performance art, whose vocal adventures range from seagulls screeching in her throat to songs without words. 1981's »Dolmen Music« was her first ECM album. She has just finished her latest record, and Eicher finds the new album »even more concentrated than earlier ones. Meredith ist 77 now and just as vigorous as she was at the outset. When we reach agreement after yet another struggle, there's a great sense of relief, and the music comes of its own accord.«

He is an exceptionally pure musician.

Egberto Gismonti

Egberto Gismonti was born in Brazil in 1947. He learnt to play the piano and the guitar, took composition lessons in Paris and then discovered the music of the natives of the Amazon region, which became the jazzman's most important source of inspiration. His 1977 ECM debut »Dança das Cabeças« already took him into the depths of the rain forest, but he wrote it in Oslo together his countryman, percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. »This was the first time either of them had seen snow,« Manfred Eicher recalls. »Gismonti is an exceptionally pure musician. He plays today just like he did back then, but he has also developed and has become much quieter and more gentle.«

Music that is somehow present in space. Marvellous music!

Avishai Cohen

At the age of 31, Avishai Cohen – not to be confused with the bass player of the same name! – is the youngest musician in Manfred Eicher's Hamburg team. His playing ties in with that of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, whose iconic album »Kind of Blue« inspired Eicher to set up his own label. A native of Tel Aviv, Cohen started to learn the trumpet when he was only eight. New York became his base as he embarked on a career in jazz, and the Jazz Times wrote about him: »Like Davis he turns the trumpet into a vehicle for the most moving human utterances.« Manfred Eicher hears in Cohen's playing »a music that is somehow present in space. Marvellous music«.

These are not musicians who have any need to show off.

Anja Lechner

Like viola player Kim Kashkashian and pianist Keith Jarrett, the cellist Anja Lechner is one of the musicians who embody Manfred Eicher's interest in linking the »territories«. Born in Kassel and a student of Heinrich Schiff's, she has made many ECM recordings together with the Rosamunde Quartet, several of which have won awards. She has also improvised together with Argentine accordionist Dino Saluzzi, and has made sensitive recordings of Schubert Lieder, displaying a quality that Manfred Eicher values in all his artists: »These are not musicians who have any need to show off.«

Text: Volker Hagedorn, Last updated: 12 Dec 2019

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