50 years of sound over silence: “Edition of modern music” by ECM Records
Once upon a time, in a distant galaxy on the island of Lindau, on Bodensee, the boy Manfred was born. A few light years passed, and he realized that there is power above silence and it is called sound … Time passed and the boy Manfred became the double bass player Manfred Eicher, who graduated from the Berlin Academy of Music. In 1969, in Munich, Manfred created an independent label specializing in contemporary jazz. The words written about him later in the Canadian jazz magazine CODA: “The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence” became the motto of the ECM. The 50th anniversary of the ECM’s activity was marked by a gala concert of the main clip of ECM musicians in November last year – ECM 50th Anniversary Weekend. Alas, the other founding father of the Contemporary Music Edition concept, Norwegian Jan Erik Kongshaug, didn’t live just a few days before this anniversary.
On November 5, 2019, in Norway, at the age of 75, this jazz guitarist and musician died, who played a significant role in European jazz of the 1970-2000s – but not as a performer, but as an ECM sound engineer. Bright memory to him …
Jan Erik Kongshaug behind Rainbow Studio
When describing the native characteristics of “ECM sound,” listeners and critics commonly use the words “transparency,” “ice crystals,” “sound spaces,” and even “noise of ice fjords.” The fact is that the two creators of the “ECM sound” – the founder and main producer Manfred Eicher and sound engineer Jan Eric Kongshaug, from the very beginning of their collaboration, sought to clearly read all the nuances of the sound of each instrument in the sound picture, as well as the whole picture it was completely “swaddled” into the long after-tones of artificial reverb, which creates the subjective effect of the notorious “sound spaces” or “ice fjords” for the listener. Records characteristic of the “ECM sound” are always excellently panoramic Rowan (itself Kongskhaug call this effect “homogeneous stereo sound stage”) and have multiple layers of sound plans – to a large extent by using multiple reverberation effects simultaneously with a long damping period. As the American jazz journalist Larry Eppelbaum once ironically remarked: “when we talk about the sound of ice fjords, we will not forget that in reality we hear not the natural after-sounds of the instruments, but the sound twisted by Ian Eric in the studio to the maximum of Lexicon reverb handles”.
Naturally, twisted to the maximum digital Lex dominates the natural sound of the acoustic composition of the musicians. But the ECM initially had another major assistant.
EMT 240 Plate Reverb
This analog plate reverb cost a hell of a lot of money and required serious space. The first EMT 140 reverb allowed recording engineers to adjust the reverberation time, offering significantly more control than could be obtained from a traditional camera. However, a certain neutral coolness of musical material, coming from Manfred’s producer inclinations, plays an important role in shaping the sound picture of ECM releases in the sound character. Eicher. He actively and toughly works with musicians at the stage of planning the recording script, sometimes interfering quite fundamentally with their creative process. Aicher appreciates the average and slow pace, leisurely development of a musical theme, length of chords, restraint of performing temperament and sound production.
From left to right in the studio: Naná Vasconcelos, Manfred Eicher, Pat Metheny and sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug.
For me, modern jazz began with the work of the ECM, specifically with the great “Return to Forever” Chica Koria. While studying at MARCHI, at that time I was learning the basics of correct jazz at the Moskvorechye Jazz Studio at the same time, and Alexei Batashev, who was giving us an author’s course in theory and history of jazz, showed me a record called “Melodies” with an author’s article on the back.
Chick Koria “Return Forever”
An awkward black font with a diagonal blocked the Petrel’s free flight to the USSR, but what I heard on this vinyl changed me forever.
When this masterpiece became available in the original, I discovered another name in the world of sound: Tony May – the person who created the sound of the first “Return to Forever”.
Chick Koria himself knew about the Soviet record and was proud that it was his material that was almost the first official publication of modern jazz in the USSR. Then, in July 1982, his concerts with Burton did not officially take place, but there was a jam in the Union of Composers, Spaso-Hauz and DK Moskvorechye. Half of Moscow ran in search of at least one Fender Rhodes Piano for Chick, and I managed to extract the first chords of “Sometimes Ago” on the keyboard that had not cooled down after Chick’s fingers …
It is impossible not to notice that “Return to Forever” does not have “ECM sound”, and not only this ECM release. The Gramminous three albums of the “ECM Opening” – Pat Matheny – play in a peculiar way (“Offramp”, “Travels”, “First Circle”), and not only them. Manfred Eicher did not have his own studio for a long time…