Music exists within silence

The five seconds of silence that precede the music on any ECM album may be the most important statement a record company could make. The pause is a recognition that music exists within silence; only by acknowledging it can a listener become wholly involved.

Manfred Eicher is the author of that silence, and of the silence that appears to surround all the recordings produced on his remarkable label. The quality of that silence is intended to lead us towards a heightened awareness, a contemplative state where we are encouraged to listen harder and more acutely to the music, and to the spaces between it.

When he was asked, almost forty years after founding ECM, if he had any patterns or models in mind when he started the label, Eicher's answer was straightforward: "A very good model, all the time, was for for me the sound of Miles' Kind of Blue and Bill Evans, how he sounded there".
Richard Willams writes in The Blue Moment, a new book which seems to have slipped under the radar of the music community. The proposition that contemporary art music has influenced popular forms of music is well-rehearsed. But in his absorbing commentary, which is provocatively sub-titled 'Miles Davis and the remaking of modern music' Richard Williams' argues that Miles Davis' seminal Kind of Blue has influenced classical musicians ranging from La Monte Young and Terry Riley to Toru Takemitsu. The Blue Moments' index reflects the book's eclectic and inclusive nature, and Brian Eno, Cornelius Cardew, Robert Wyatt, The Velvet Underground, John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett rub shoulders with Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Australian cult band The Necks.

Kind of Blue was recorded in March 1959 in Columbia's studio in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church on 207 East 30th Street, Manhattan, seen in the photo above. This studio was the venue for many classic sessions including Glenn Gould's two accounts of the Goldberg Variations as well as Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Richard Williams' descibes how, in those heady pre-digital days the art of great recorded sound was devoutly worshipped in the old church on East 30th Street.
Its unvarnished wooden floor and plaster walls and ceiling were purposely left untouched, as was a large drape that covered the back wall. Mitch Miller, Columbia's head of A & R, ordered that the floor should never be washed, in order to preserve its resonance (explaining that once the body of a fine violin has been cleaned, its tone is never the same).
My footer photo shows the facade of the Armenian church on East 30th Street. This photo and the one above come from the excellent Reeves Audio Recording website. Glenn Gould's digital 1981 Goldbergs was the last recording to be made in the studio's peerless acoustics. Following the sessions for the Bach this famous venue suffered the architectural equivalent of Pro Tools editing, and was demolished to be replaced by a faceless apartment block.

Ten years after the session on 30th Street in New York, Munich-based ECM released its first album, the Max Waldron Trio's Free At Last. As my opening quote shows Richard Williams, who has edited the Melody Maker, headed A & R for Island Records and writes for the Guardian on sport and music, links the phenomenom that is ECM to the zeitgeist of Kind of Blue, and goes on to identify Norwegian label Rune Grammofon as an ECM-influenced label to watch.

The Blue Moment joins the growing number of fashionable music titles that are creating a new genre of music writing which favours anecdotal narration over academic rigour. Richard Williams' background as a journalist serves him well for this task; but when he embarks on the occasional track by track analysis of the music his prose can be as wearisome as one of ECM's more arcane offerings. But, minor reservations aside, The Blue Moment provides a welcome, if highly personal, European perspective on the forces that shaped late twentieth-century music.

Read about the influence of Bill Evans, pianist for Kind of Blue, on Hungarian György Ligeti here, and about Miles Davis' Spanish-inspired follow-up album here.
Footer photo credit Reeves Audio Recording. The Blue Moment was borrowed from Norwich library and is published by Faber (ISBN 9780571245062). Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk. Version 1.1 28/09/2009


Pliable said…
With thanks to reader Jeffrey for pointing out that my time-line in the original version of this post was wrong.

No excuses, except for pleading that I am still suffering from the internal combustion equivalent of jet lag.

Anyway, now corrected.
Pliable said…
Email received:

A lot of the Early Music ensembles include a lot of silence. I think silence is just as important at the end of a CD as well (some of us still have CD players in which you can hear the “gears” shutting down) because reflecting on a piece of music is just as important. In one CD I issued of the electronic music of Ann Southam, the last work, already tranquil, ends with a very gradual fade-out. I added an extra 30 seconds of silence to allow for peaceful reflection.


David Cavlovic
Unknown said…
One of the more notorious silences in the classical CD trade comes at the end of various recordings of The Art of Fugue. Specifically the wonderful recording by pianist Evgeni Koroliov on Tacet Records has been returned as 'faulty' to me on 4 occasions over the past 9 years after the music stops abruptly (as Bach's incomplete 3-part fugue did) and the CD track continues to play silence for over a minute!
I think the amount of silence is the time it would have taken Bach to resolve the fugue, based on a mathematical formula.
It causes a fair amount of annoyance and it may be one case where silence is not golden.
Pliable said…
Thanks Keith, and in an elegant example of synchronicity the Tacet Art of Fugue, which I bought, of course, from Prelude Records, has the following endorsement on the sleeve.

"...but if I am to be allowed only one musical work on my desert island, then I should choose Koroliov's Bach, because foresaken, starving and dying of thirst, I would listen to it right up to my kast breath" - György Ligeti
Pliable said…
Eamonn Quinn from the Louth Contemporary Music Society comments:

The other person that I think doesn't get a lot of recognition is Gil Evans. Those arrangements for Miles: using French horns etc are amazing.

An excellent point Eamonn, and I have to confess that before reading Richard Williams' book I did not know that Gil Evans was born in Toronto, although he was brought up in California. Canada has certainly produced a disproportionately large number of great musicians.
Maggie said…
a query...
I have been a miles fan since originally being at uni in the late 60's, now I am back studying for a Visual Arts degree...a teachers seem to be hung up (some of them anyway) on John Cage and his importance. I know how important silence was to Miles, and have been searching to see if himself actually/possibly had any deep thoughts about Cage's music...I am not a Cage fan, but would love to know what or how Miles thought of him...

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