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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

ECM - Editions of Contemporary Music - An appreciation to Manfred Eicher's Work

Saint Manfred Eicher is a Man who cherishes (his) musicians and everyone working with him never feel alone: under his immense wing, music is king. No hype, here, folks... it's plain, unbiased truth!

Here is a (quite) recent review of last solo effort of Ralph Towner for ECM but absolutely revealing of ECM's ethics and aesthetic...

"Ralph Towner By Anil Prasad | June, 2006

Ralph Towner is globally renowned as a classical and 12-string guitar virtuoso, but he would rather be known as an aural novelist. His compositional bent leans toward narratives that communicate distinct points of view and movement. Towner’s new solo guitar CD Time Line is a testament to that approach. From the slow-burning balladry of “Always By Your Side” to the haunting, yet fiery “The Hollows” to the emotionally mercurial vignettes comprising the “Five Glimpses” suite, the album’s 12 pieces explore a diverse palette. Several of these tunes are transcribed in Towner’s new book, Solo Guitar Works Volume 2 [GSP].

Time Line possesses an earthy feel that resulted from Towner breaking free from stoic studio environments. The disc was made in a church located in the Austrian mountain monastery of St. Gerold. The church’s natural ambience lends the album a distinctly open and airy sound.

The album is Towner’s fifth solo-guitar release in a vast catalog of more than 20 titles stretching across nearly four decades on the ECM label. His other discs typically favor quartet, trio, and duo formations featuring jazz luminaries such as guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassists Gary Peacock and Eberhard Weber.

In addition to his voluminous solo output, Towner is the principal composer, guitarist, and keyboardist for Oregon, a pioneering, boundary-breaking act known for merging world music, jazz, and classical elements. Together with reedsman Paul McCandless, bassist Glen Moore, and percussionist Mark Walker, Towner has helped the group remain a vital ensemble for more than 35 years and 26 albums. Oregon’s latest CD, Prime, offers some of the band’s strongest material in years, including the gorgeous epic “Monterey Suite.”

Why did you record Time Line in a church?

Manfred Eicher, who runs ECM and produced the record, has recorded a lot of classical works there. He really likes the sound and wanted this record to have more of a classical atmosphere. The room is very large and capable of seating 300 people. It was quite dark and a little cold, and I was alone in the church with a bunch of microphones. The control room was elsewhere, so Manfred and the engineer were only able to see me through a television camera. I couldn’t see anyone, so it was like performing a concert in a huge space all by myself. Recording in a church is dissimilar from the perfect, silent confines of a studio. The room’s ambient sound and natural reverberation affected me quite a bit. I had a natural instinct to project a little further. It’s also important to note I wasn’t wearing headphones during the sessions. When you use headphones, everything is compressed. When you play softer, it still sounds very loud, so you don’t hear the same proportions of sound you hear without the electronic boost from the headphones. By not using headphones, I was able to pay more attention to the guitar’s details and dynamics, particularly between the fortissimo and pianissimo. In addition, I think not using headphones heightens the emotional elements of the music.

Describe your recording setup.

We always use two different stereo pairs of mics, with one positioned on my left side at eye level, a couple of feet away from me, and the other set on the right side, a bit lower, the same distance away. We also used ambient mics—one quite high up and centered at long distance, and another in the back of the church. We mixed between the mics, rather than use a lot of equalization. We avoid EQ because if you make a good enough sound on the instrument, you don’t need to meddle with it. When you use equalization, you can usually hear where something is boosted or cut at certain registers. For us, the best solution is keeping things very live sounding by boosting and lowering the levels between the different high-end Sony and Schoeps mics we used. We recorded directly to Pro Tools and entire session took about four hours. We didn’t do any punching in or other corrections. Before I went in, I thought, “Oh boy, I’m not going to have a chance to fix anything.” I was lucky sometimes to have two or three takes in case I covered something in one take I missed in another. That’s the way ECM always works. You accept what you play and realize it represents who you are as a musician. There’s not a lot of time spent making decisions, retracing steps, or perfecting things to the point where you strangle spontaneity. You live with the results. It’s a very natural experience, and you sometimes have to swallow your pride.

What guitars did you play on the record?

I used a classical guitar by Jeffrey Elliott and Cynthia Burton that I’ve had for eight years, and my old Guild 12-string that the company built for me back in 1972. What appeals to me in an ideal guitar is warmth, a lot of mid-range, and a not-too-bright sound. In the case of the Elliot-Burton guitar, I like the fact that it is very clear and really even. All the notes respond exactly the same way across the fretboard, which is unusual. That uniformity is really desirable, because you know exactly what you’re getting when you play. It has a combination of Germanic clarity and Spanish warmth. I really love the guitar. The Guild I like because it has a very strong sound. Typically, 12-string guitars aren’t that loud, because the soundboard needs to be thicker to support all the extra string tension.

You’re not a fan of using pickups on classical guitars. Why?

One of the keys to mastering the instrument is being able to create a sense of sustain through the way you play it. You can use secondary notes and voices and have them tail off in volume to give more prominence to the note you want to sustain longer. It involves a lot of control over your dynamics, secondary voices, and passing tones. When you add a pickup, it tends to make everything sound the same volume, even when you play more quietly. The sound tends to sustain in an almost electric fashion more than it does when you hear the instrument through a mic. I’m not as fussy about the 12-string. In concert, I’ll use a Fishman pickup on it so I don’t have to pound on it so hard, but I’ll mix the signal with my old Beyer M 160 double ribbon mic that has a very flat response. That combination gives the instrument a lot of power in a live setting.

You employ classical guitar technique with an emphasis on the free stroke over the rest stroke. Tell us about this preference.

I don’t use the rest stroke as often as most players because I’ve developed quite a loud free stroke, and this enables me to attack a string without hitting the next lower one. I can play at the same volume as a rest stroke with the same quality of tone. Basically, the free stroke prevents me from getting tangled up. It more easily enables me to articulate a staccato phrase and work with different note lengths by stopping the note with the next finger I’m alternating with. I think it’s unusual that I manage to employ the same classical technique on the 12-string, so you’ll hear me play real unisons within four- or five-note chords, rather than just strumming them. To achieve that, I’ll also use my little finger on my right hand. It’s very similar to a keyboard sound and technique. I’m also a piano player and that similarity is what drew me to the classical guitar in the first place. In terms of plucking, I always use my nails, even on the 12-string. For me, the nail offers a very clear tone. However, before my nail hits the string, the tip of my finger touches it first, so you don’t hear the “clack” of the nail hitting a moving string.

Provide some insight into your creative process.

What I do is almost all composition-based. I’ll sit and play and eventually stumble across something that is recognizable as an idea as opposed to just being a nice sound. When I find the kernel of an idea, it projects itself with a unique identity and jumps out. As I proceed, the idea builds and builds. When things are going well, the piece tends to take on a character that almost demands that it does this or that. I write everything at once. I start with the melody and then the chords, but everything is inseparable and shaded by the harmony. When I hit a wall and start asking myself “Where do I go from here?” I’ll get up and walk around and wait until I hear the next step materialize in my head. Alternatively, I’ll just leave the piece alone for a while. Sometimes, if you play something too much, you play yourself into a semi-deaf state in which everything sounds the same. It’s also good to get away from your instrument and leave it alone for a while. I usually capture music with pen and paper, but once I get deep into the process, I play the piece into a computer running Finale. I play things into it one note at a time, rather than playing the whole piece. Computers aren’t accurate enough about representing how long a note is held, small passing tones, or rhythms when there are a lot of different time values stacked up.

How do you go about telling stories with your compositions?

Writing a good piece is almost like writing a novel. There needs to be a logic to it. You can’t just have a piece sit there, sound pretty, and then be over. There is often a conflict and resolution within my pieces. There can also be a psychological or subconscious plot going on in terms of how the intensities vary. The interesting thing about music is that you can write so a piece has all of the elements of a literary story without literary meaning. As a composer, you have access to the same emotional subtleties. There has to be development and you’re always holding off some type of arrival. You can use deceptive cadences to indicate you’re arriving at something, when in fact you’re arriving somewhere else, which can be depicted with interesting modulations. The listener interprets all of these subtleties as emotional events. You’re creating expectations. Listeners get very bored very quickly if there isn’t that development going on in your playing.

You’ve said one of your key goals as a musician is to transcend your instrument.

A great example of this is Miles Davis. When you listen to his music, you never say “That Miles Davis is such a good trumpet player.” That’s because when you hear his music, it puts you in a difference space. He was a master storyteller. The distinct atmospheres he created ensured you’re never worried about whether or not he could play the trumpet. Rather, you’re thinking about the feelings the music is conjuring up. So, my goal is to play the instrument well enough so people pay attention to the music and forget about the fact they are listening to a guitar. When people are too conscious of what a good guitar player you are, or how clever you are, it puts things into the realm of a circus for me. Your cleverness should be used to make people be nonjudgmental about the instrument and how it’s played, and become swept away by the story you’re telling."


ECM's sound is something often debated... many hates, many loves it... Manfred Eicher mostly used Rainbow Studio in Oslo and Jan Erik Kongshaug's skill as a sound engineer... only quite recently he began to use acoustic environments and venues... but his aural vision, YES, it's definitely a VERY heavy, coloured, biased I'd dare... his merits are way too great to be missed... but if you listen to... say 10 ECM's discs in a stroke... well, it may happen you'll not listen to ECM's for months...

When I say "I love ECM sound", I sure think about pre-digital, low digits ser. # '70s discs and productions... a glorious, detailed analog sound still unsurpassed... one of my aural masterpieces ever are "CoDoNa" first record, or many Egberto Gismonti's or Ralph Towner's or John Surman's.

The last digitals are much, MUCH better than... say Chick Corea's "Crystal Silence" or Keith Jarrett's "Facing You"... so... confusing?
Maybe... but SO human - i.e. if I like the music, I'll do not blame an awful recording-thing...

One of my ECM's Desert Island discs has always been "Tabula Rasa" by Maestro Part... a disc which owns an urgency, a lava-like calm under the crust... the score contains few notes, indeed... Fratres for 12 cellos and Orchestra is a 12 minutes long glissando... BUT in Tabula Rasa, the two movements 26 minutes long piece, the violin of Gidon Kremer interwoven with Tatjana Grindenko's and the GORGEOUS Alfred Schnittke prepared-piano, like a pagan bell, an echo from the past of humankind... a peana, an homenaje for every and all Men who rest in peace... notes for heart... everytime, I feel me deeply moved, almost in tears... GREAT music.
Sound-wise... the violin is so well captured in the live recording... you must hear no pain in the high pitched overtones, while the piano goes subbass...
I love this music... listening to it, right now, at 7.00 P.M. (GMT).

... are you still here?!?

God is in Details... and care and passion and knowledge!

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