ECM is home to Arvo Pärt’s music


Written by Immo Mihkelson

In December 2019, the ECM record company celebrates the 50th anniversary of releasing their first record. This event will be celebrated in larger and smaller ways in many places around the world, including Estonia. In half a century, the small record label from Munich has grown big in terms of its significance, and its importance is measured by the music which has many passionate followers among listeners and musicians alike. During the decades of their activity they have carved a special niche in the global music scene. And this is also where the true home of the recordings of Arvo Pärt’s music is.

However, it would be more accurate to use the singular form instead of saying ‘them’ and ‘their’, because behind all of this is the vision of one man. His name is Manfred Eicher, and with each of the approximately 1,600 records released under the ECM label he has either actively participated at recording sessions or made decisions about how the album will look and how it is presented to listeners. Eicher is a man who fills the role of a successful company owner and businessman as well as a producer with extremely sharp intuition and high-flying creativity. He is the epitome of a very special success story.

Of course, the music world also knows other unique and successful one-man record labels, but ECM is the biggest and most influential. It is the oldest and with the highest standards. And it has a close connection with Estonia.

Three letters and an entire world behind them

ECM is home to Arvo Pärt’s music. It is under this label that the most important recordings of his music have been made over 35 years. Since the autumn of 1984, when “Tabula rasa” was released as a vinyl record, the collaboration between Eicher and Pärt has seen the release of over twenty influential albums with Arvo Pärt’s work.

In fact, ECM (short for Editions of Contemporary Music) stands on three large pillars. The oldest of these has to do with the activity of the American jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, the second focuses on the Nordic sounds of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the third has emerged from the music of Arvo Pärt.

The exact numbers have never been revealed, but it is safe to assume that millions of records involving the music of these three have been purchased under the ECM label. ECM is one of the very few record labels that is represented at the Grammy awards in the categories of classical music as well as jazz, and Manfred Eicher as a producer has collected awards on both sides of this separation line. His stylistic scope is in fact much wider and not only limited to jazz or classical music. The sound presented by Eicher on the recordings ranges from feather-like near-silence to fierce improvisational bursts of sound. The only thing that keeps it together conceptually is his personal choices.

Nowadays, when ECM is described in a few sentences, either Jarrett or Garbarek is almost always named, and Arvo Pärt is definitely mentioned. He has grown together with this record label.

A magical unrepeated moment

Manfred Eicher and Arvo Pärt first met in a recording studio for the recording of “Fratres”, which was also due to appear on the “Tabula rasa” album. The German recommended Keith Jarrett as the pianist, who was widely known as a jazz musician, but who he also knew had experience in classical music. The composer proposed the violinist. In his view, only one musician fitted the role perfectly – Gidon Kremer.

It was not easy to get Kremer to the recording. Eicher had to use all his skill and cunning to break the resistance of the violinist’s manager (a man huge like a bear). Yet miracles do sometimes happen, and on the appointed date and time they all got together, with Kremer arriving direct from the United States.

The recording took place on 31 October 1983 in a small studio in Basel, where the producer had also recorded before. Eicher later admitted that at that point he had no idea that Pärt had done a lot of studio work in his earlier life. Maybe this was initially overlooked because he himself was very nervous on that day. Although Manfred Eicher could be considered a man already well-seasoned in the field, the specific situation was new to him. So far, his passion for music had revolved around jazz musicians. A musician himself, he had enough contacts with classical music, but not as a recorder of sounds. Hired as the tonmeister was an old-school man who had created recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and knew exactly how everything had to be done and how to position the microphones to catch the sound “the right way”. However, several times Eicher secretly moved the microphones closer to the musicians because when recording jazz music, he had developed his own idea of the relationship between the sound of the instruments and the space.

A sound check was made, and then Kremer and Jarrett played “Fratres”, with tape recorders switched on. As the last long note faded into silence, everyone at the mixing console exchanged glances in surprise. This is it, it seemed. Doing better than this was just not possible. There was spontaneity and vivid spark in the performance recorded on the tape. The music lived. Something extraordinary had happened. It was a magical moment.

Just in case, but really only just in case, the musicians were asked to play the piece one more time. Arvo Pärt smiles as he recalls that moment and the day of the recording: “I was just like a bystander there, just an observer. I was watching with my mouth open at how they were playing “Fratres” – Gidon and Keith Jarrett. It was so phenomenal from the first time they played it. They met there for the first time. They took the scores and played. And it was perfect.”

According to the composer, he sensed that his music was new to both the tonmeister and the producer, and they were searching for how it should sound. And this created a “curious sweet anxiety” in the studio. Quoting Arvo Pärt once again: “It is always like something holy. You do not dare approach it with dirty hands. You have to somehow clean your ear nicely and search… Suck out something that is not really known yet. And then, if there is a truly great artist behind it, a miracle can happen.”

Recalling that special day later, Manfred Eicher called the event a risky venture, but also immediately emphasized that without taking a risk you would not reach the edge, and that he very much likes music that does.

Surely, what happened with “Fratres” was no accident. Eicher can be described as a restless person who is constantly searching for miracles in music and around it. He admits that to do this he has to constantly look around and peek under many rocks, figuratively speaking. “The first miracle happens when someone conceives music in their imagination. Another occurs when it gets recorded well. And then you have to introduce that music to people. You have to find the right way to do it.”

The composer perceived this awareness in the sounds which Manfred Eicher was in some inexplainable way able capture and record on tape. After all, it was his own work that it had happened to. He had been recording other people’s music for years and knew how difficult it was to succeed in achieving a recording true to the natural sound.

Arvo Pärt: “I felt that he was me and I was him. Music is like your flesh and blood. When you have composed the music yourself, you will feel the sound coming from the speaker in a completely different way. Because this life, this spirit that is already put in the score at the time of writing gives a completely different perspective to the recorded sound. You hear it in thousands of different nuances. Not just as monophonic or in stereo. And that said, I was not only surprised, but also happy to realise that Manfred’s sense of music that was new to him was as deep and rich as that of the author. And the two of us always shaped that sound and searched for it.”

The scent of music

Pärt remembers the recording session for “Fratres” as the first face-to-face meeting with Manfred Eicher, with whom he had previously exchanged letters and talked on the phone. However, the producer confirmed that a brief encounter had already taken place before, when he travelled to Lockenhaus to meet Arvo Pärt – a strange Estonian who had unexpectedly shaken him – at a small festival organised by Gidon Kremer. Eicher really wanted to record and release Pärt’s music and share it with others. However, in the festival buzz, Pärt was distracted and the standing conversation with the German went in one ear and out the other.

The music that surprised Manfred Eicher was “Tabula rasa” heard through the hum of a car engine and radio static during a night drive on the Autobahn. It is still a mystery what recording it was and how it happened to be played on the radio. However, these enchanting sounds lured him so strongly among other noises that he had to pull over to attentively listen to the rest of the piece. Eicher believes he caught the words “Radio Yerevan” in the outro.

With desperate perseverance, he began looking for what it was he had heard. Possibly something from Eastern Europe; probably modern; definitely singular. After many inquiries and conversations with experts, he came to the name Arvo Pärt about a year later. This find matched.

It was only after the recording of “Fratres” that Pärt gradually became attached to Manfred Eicher like a magnet. He saw and heard there that the miracle of sound could be captured and stored on a record, and this man knows how to do it. Small miracles also happened at the following ECM recordings. They always appeared in slightly different ways, and perhaps part of them might have gone unnoticed if the producer hadn’t grabbed hold of them and pointed them out as if with a magnifying glass. This was the art he knew.

“Content is everything to me,” Manfred Eicher says. Content in music that doesn’t care about the effects and exists outside of trends and fashions. He says he wants to give music an opportunity to express itself in a natural way, that is to say, a way that corresponds to its inner nature. “If you have been able to record music the right way, it will reach out to other people as it grows.”

Immediately after the release of “Tabula rasa” Pärt and Eicher travelled to London to listen to The Hilliard Ensemble record a programme of Pärt’s works for the BBC. It had been Paul Hillier’s initiative. And since the vocal group was well-known for performing early music, the work proceeded under the watchful eye of the early music editor Graham Dixon.

Eicher’s presence was said to have aroused more excitement than Pärt’s because thanks to his earlier records, the German had become a sort of legend among specialists. However, this modest event in a small church behind closed doors in London proved to be a turning point for both Eicher and Pärt.

When the singers stopped and the recording was declared finished, the composer approached the musicians from the back of the church, excited. David James, who had been the leader of the vocal group for many years, later recalled that tears had flowed down Pärt’s face as he tried to express in his broken English how deeply touched he was by what he had heard. The singer was most shocked by the way Pärt conveyed his impression of what he had heard – the music. He tore a sheet of paper into small pieces in front of them, threw the pieces in the air and, pointing at the beautifully gliding flakes of paper, explained that he had experienced something similar.

“Then I heard a human singing voice the way I hadn’t even dreamed it,” Arvo Pärt recalled many years later. “Their singing was so pure it was painful to the ear. This is the same ‘scent’ actually, isn’t it? The smell of sound, if you can say that.”

A shift occurred in Arvo Pärt’s work. The spirit he felt on Eicher’s first recording revolved around the notes he put on paper. He was inspired by the idea that the voice and the word could, after passing through the circuit of recording machines, be stored like “Fratres”. With the ‘scent’ of the voice in his ears, he composed the following works already with the specific Hilliard singers in mind, accompanied by the knowledge that the words, phrases and thoughts he believed in would be conveyed to the audience in a convincing manner.

And Manfred Eicher, who so far had very rarely dealt with the human voice in his recordings, because he had searched for music elsewhere, was in constant contact with singers and voices for the subsequent Arvo Pärt records. It was a whole new world for him.

A record as a gem

The album “Tabula rasa” (containing only instrumental music) had previously been an important breakthrough for both Arvo Pärt and Manfred Eicher, and in its own way created the backdrop for everything that followed. That brought such media attention (both positive and negative) in the composer’s life that he had never been exposed to before, and this abruptly increased the number of performances and airplays of his music globally. Of course, this was also reflected in an increase in royalties. Yet all of this disturbed his life and creative rhythm and caused tensions.

The main ‘culprit’ in this was ECM. Manfred Eicher later said that when he had listened through the master tape of “Tabula rasa” one last time before sending it to the record factory, he had a feeling he was holding a gem in his hands. He was hoping, but did not yet know that this record could influence the world. The following was determined by the producer’s obsessive idea that every great record should be presented to the listeners the way the music deserves, and that everything about the record – the cover, accompanying texts, promotional materials and more – has to serve a single very special moment and the feeling around it. It is this brief moment before the music begins, when the tension of anticipation should be strained like a bow, so that this tension can then be transformed into concentration at which the listeners embrace the music unfolding in front of them.

Eicher had remembered a similar sense of magic from film screenings in his childhood. The rustle of the opening curtain revealing the screen serves as a signal. People in the cinema hall are stiffening – everything is about to start. Now! And then the screen lights up, but there is no image yet. This is the longest fraction of a second, when an excited pulse thumps in your ears and your senses become open. When the images finally appear in the rectangle of light, they embrace the viewer completely.

The producer wanted every record he made to be able to create a similar feeling in anyone and anywhere. He worked hard for that. And when he was finally holding in his hands the gem that said “Tabula rasa” on the cover, he had put everything into it. All the skills he had acquired over the years.

The first record with Arvo Pärt’s music was followed by others at ECM. At first, at intervals of one or two years, later less frequently. In interviews, Manfred Eicher talked about how the feeling of their shared spirit deepened with each recording. Pärt’s “music of slowly beating wings” swallowed him more and more and had a cathartic effect on him.

Each recording and each record has its own story. When “Passio” was recorded, the wind was so strong behind the church windows that they considered cancelling the session. Instead, Manfred Eicher decided to use the noise of nature as part of the music and blend it with the sound. “Kanon Pokajanen” recorded in Niguliste Church features a stray dog strolling the streets of Tallinn’s Old Town at night, a ferry arriving in the harbour and birds waking with the first rays of the morning sun, their song bringing joyous tones to the singer’s voices. Finding the right sound for the few notes at the recording of “Alina” led the musicians to such exhaustion that they were already about to give up. And then, having almost surrendered, they did their best performance. However, there were times when they had to give in to external factors and cancel a recording.

The composer himself cautiously implied in an interview that since these records were so carefully crafted and prepared with a special focus and dedication and the music sounds very much in line with his imagination, any musician wishing to perform his works in the future should listen to the ECM records and follow their example.

In addition to more than twenty items in the ECM catalogue, there are now many other recordings featuring Arvo Pärt’s music. Doug Maskew, who has for decades been compiling and completing the discography of Arvo Pärt’s music, has collected information on hundreds of recordings released under other labels. Every recording is a bit different in the details or nuances, but overall, it can still be said that the ECM albums have been important messengers because, in essence, other performances follow the form and ideals presented by the ‘originals’.

The Nordic sound of Estonia

There is another important turning point in the history of Arvo Pärt and ECM: the moment the Estonian language came to be heard more often at recording sessions, and microphones catching nuanced sounds arrived in Estonia. With new performers, the music also underwent some adaptation. This started in 1993 when “Te Deum” was released and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra came into the picture. Standing tall behind them both was Tõnu Kaljuste. Today, Kaljuste is considered one of the most important interpreters of Arvo Pärt’s music in the world. It took him years to reach this.

While “Te Deum” was recorded in Finland, the first ECM record partly recorded in Estonia was “Litany”, recorded at Niguliste Church in September 1995. Manfred Eicher came to Tallinn and it was one of his first visits to Estonia. This was followed by many subsequent visits and recordings. Arvo Pärt and Tõnu Kaljuste were eventually joined by other Estonian musicians whose name could later be read on the covers carrying the ECM label. Among them are Veljo Tormis, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Helena Tulve, Vox Clamantis, Tõnu Kõrvits and Kristjan Randalu.

Looking at this process from a temporal distance, the secondary details have disappeared from the picture and only the important remains. More and more, it seems that the Estonian connection could not be a coincidence because Eicher had an inherent attraction to this region, and he was enticed by the Nordic sound in the music. I remember a talk in Tallinn years ago where the producer was invited to attend in connection with a small festival celebrating ECM’s activities. Before the talk, the brand new movie “Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher” was screened. In one of the questions after watching the film he was asked to comment on the fact that Oslo was left out of the documentary, an extremely important travel destination for him, where he has recorded hundreds of records.

“Then again, there were wonderful scenes from Niguliste Church,” Eicher immediately exclaimed, adding that you can’t get more Nordic than coming to Tallinn and seeing great musicians working here. The film features truly impressive scenes from the recording at Niguliste Church, showing, among other things, which unexpected tricks the tandem of Eicher and Pärt use to give the musicians a deeper sense of the nature of the piece.

Yet Nordic nature, something that was not explicitly featured in the film but was still secretly or semi-secretly present all the time, is a particularly important concept here. Over the decades, articles attempting to analyse ECM’s success story have repeatedly referred to it as a factor affecting much of the record label’s production (read: music). When Manfred Eicher brought the Brazilians Egberto Gismont and Nana Vasconcelos to record in Oslo, it was the very first time they had seen snow and the fascinating play of colours painted in the sky by the low shining sun. And the excitement of their experience later also echoed in their music.

There are many similar stories, including how the producer himself became fascinated by the view when he first visited the hometown of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. It is possible that personal nostalgic childhood memories played a role here. In one of his numerous interviews Eicher has hinted that he had his first experience with Nordic nature already as a child.

Manfred Eicher grew up in the Bavarian town of Lindau, which is partly located on the island in Lake Bodensee squeezed between the mountains. He has depicted the silent scenes of nature that have been captured in his memory – the veil of fog over the water, the blurred pastel contours of the mountains, the distances hidden from the eye but expanding in his imagination.

He has also explained how his own mindset greatly influences the music he chooses for release and what attracts him. Often, he is fascinated by poetic music with a melancholic tinge. If somehow all of the ECM recordings could be merged into a single whole, it would probably sound like this – poetic and somewhat melancholy.

And it is possible that in this thoughtful amalgam some semblance to the most characteristic features of Arvo Pärt’s work could be heard. Pärt, for his part, has admitted that as a composer he is attracted to melancholy, and listeners commonly claim to sense sadness in his music. Most of it is also slow. And at the same time comforting and glorifying for the believers.

The mystery of sharing music

In the end, everything in music still comes down to human connections. Nothing grander can be achieved without going through this filter. The vibrations of music circulate among people and occasionally sparks occur in these movements. Sometimes they are larger than life and carry people beyond the limits of being.

That was the case 50 years ago, and this is also how it is now, with music being increasingly spread over the internet. ECM’s first album, Mal Waldron’s “Free At Last” was released in December 1969 as an LP. The advent of CD pushed vinyl records aside because it offered more clarity of sound and silence without the crackling of the record. The first ECM release on a small digital disc was Arvo Pärt’s “most beautiful sound besides silence” – “Tabula rasa”. Back then this sentence about the silence still served as the official motto of ECM.

After the turn of the millennium the internet became available to the masses, and the illegal file sharing it brought about severely ravaged the music industry. ECM gradually lost control over the distribution of recorded music over the years, which also resulted in a drastic decrease in sales and profit. The entire system so far began to disintegrate, and big companies made changes, throwing overboard jazz musicians and other artists who strived toward art, but had smaller audiences.

Of course, the new situation also hit ECM hard, as can be read from the interviews with Manfred Eicher when he was directly asked. Yet he never talked about any specific numbers or explained anything in more detail. “My ideology is to not be against anything,” he said at a public appearance in Tallinn. At the same time he deplored people who think they can get music from the internet without paying for it.

Eicher financed his activity himself and the crisis must have also been painful for him. Yet on the outside everything remained more or less the same. The records were released under the ECM label at about the same pace, and they still are. The music continues to throw sparks.

When Billboard, the music industry’s leading magazine, launched digital sales charts in 2005, it was a signal that the countermeasures against piracy and torrents were gaining ground. ECM did not go along with the digital sale of files, claiming that the audio quality of these music files is insufficient. However, there was also a deeper reason.

Digital sales were made piece by piece. People no longer had to buy the entire album, but just a few tracks from it. Carefully designed aesthetics, album art and the larger whole formed by the sum of smaller parts no longer had a place in the new virtual department store. Then, about ten years ago, music streaming came along, which further eroded the former status of a music album. ECM did not join the streamers until this year, and now their recordings (or rather, tracks) can be heard on Spotify among others.

Albums which for a long time were the most important carriers of music, suddenly fell out of the spotlight, and the boldest thinkers predicted the imminent loss of everything that is tangible in music. An album as a book-like cover-to-cover whole and a meaningful collection of music was the most important expression of ECM’s work from the very beginning. In addition to the miracle of recording, Manfred Eicher believed that a record and its focused listening were one of the best ways to bring great music to people. Now his faith has been shaken.

Due to the internet, music is now circulating more freely than ever before. The abundance of choice and fast lanes to “the music you like” have decreased the value of listening rituals. Yet, perhaps the reality is quite different and the number of fully dedicated listeners has not diminished, while the ‘voting rights’ of superficial casual listeners have expanded explosively. And their number is just so huge that they currently overshadow everything else.

There is no need to ask what this situation has to do with Arvo Pärt’s music and especially the portion recorded by ECM. That should be obvious. The active ingredients in Pärt’s music only have an effect after penetrating the listener’s superficial crust. The deeper structures of this music unravel the continuity of long-standing traditions, and you need to take time and have the desire to focus your attention up to a certain point in order to grasp these processes. Only when the listener reaches a wavelength similar to that of the composer will the received signal actually become meaningful.

Traditions and ideals

Music albums were intended to assist the listener in achieving a certain state and wavelength. Streaming music consumers do not have such an option. They are guided by other influencers.

And the most important point of contact between Manfred Eicher and Arvo Pärt is indeed here somewhere. They have differences, but they are looking in the same direction. Their friendship is underlined by traditions and ideals. They have a sincere mutual sense of gratitude as they look back and also reflect on the future life of their records. A youthful glint appears in the eyes of both of them when they talk about music they love. Both are passionate about music.

And don’t be fooled by the information noise generated by the internetisation of music and streaming of bit sounds. Stories praising the unprecedented availability of music and the numbers of streaming subscribers completely ignore the fact that this all is still centred around an excellent recording, which can make special music even more special. And that a special sound recording is not born by itself or created by a machine, but it requires something extraordinary and human.

Let us end with two perspectives on storing sound as art – two reflections on happiness and music.

Manfred Eicher:

“You can make music based on tiny details. And if you manage to collect these fragments into a single form – a single sculpture, a sound sculpture – and refine it to some meaningful artistic expression, then we are all happy.”

Arvo Pärt:

“Those milligrams, milli-milligrams … between the finger and the key … are very important. And this is actually Manfred’s world. It is his conducting, his composing, his poems, his inner … song. He is such an explosive artist who doesn’t need superfluous words and who reads your thoughts. You have to be lucky to have such encounters. And I have had that luck.”

Manfred Eicher:

“…music never ends with the final note…”

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