ECM: A Cultural Archeology
Attending the exhibition, and spending time in one room devoted to the album design work that has given the label such a strong and readily identifiable visual identity, and a second room which addresses Eicher's connection with cinema and, in particular, director Jean-Luc Godard, put the label's sheer number of releases into perspective. ECM's release schedule (59 releases in 2012 alone), which seems to increase each year despite a relatively small number of people working for the label, demonstrates that it is, indeed, possible to combine quantity and quality.
To further put the sheer scope of ECM's accomplishments in perspective: the idea of listening to every single ECM recordingstarting with ECM 1001, (pianist Mal Waldron's 1969 release, Free at Last and continuing straight through to forthcoming 2013 albums by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet (Wislawa), film composer Eleni Karaindrou (The Athens Concert), saxophonist Chris Potter (The Siren), world music explorer Stephan Micus (Panagia) and a long overdue, complete reissue of Jarrett's 1976 solo work for church organ (Hymns / Spheres)would take, if done without break and without sleep, nearly two months solid; listening to just one recording per day would take nearly four years.
Enwezor and Müller's exhibition, despite the voluminous amount of audio and video archival information presentedand those wishing to really dig deeply into its content should be prepared to spend at least an entire afternoon there; those lucky enough to live in München could easily come back a number of times and find new things to discover with each visitstill manages to retain the same austerity of the label it honors. One room features a number of videos, some with headphones and one through speakers into the air: Jarrett's "Belonging" Quartet with Garbarek, Christensen and Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson in performance on NRK, Norwegian public television; footage of Rypdal's 1980s Chasers trio with bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr and a very young Audun Kleive on drums; a documentary using footage of Norwegian waterscapes integrated with Jarrett's 1976 orchestral work Arbor Zena , with Garbarek and Haden which, if the term "Nordic Cool" has since become overused and abused, is surely evocative of just that, in a perfect synchronicity of sight and sound; and some relatively rare interview footage with a much younger Eicher, who sums up his approach to each recording quite succinctly: "You have to be empty before you come to a recording, and then start again."
Elsewhere, three small alcoves make it possible to sit on a bench in relative darkness, and completely immerse into the worlds of seminal recordings like Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær's groundbreaking Khmer (1997) and Gary Peacock's too-overlooked Voices from the PastParadigm (1982), heard through superb, high-end stereo systems.
Additional films include Meredith Monk's darkly powerful Ellis Island (1981), Dorothy Darr's Home: Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins (2001), which documents the recording of the duo's Which Way is East (2003), a segment of Peter Greenaway's Four American Composers (1983) devoted to a performance of Meredith Monk's Dolmen Music (1981) and, of course, Peter Guyer and Norber Widermer's recent revelatory yet still enigmatic Sounds and Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher (ECM, 2011).
Most moving, perhaps, was Burril Crohn's 1985 film, An Evening of Music and Theatre for Collin Walcott, which documents a tribute to the percussionist, who was tragically killed in a road accident while Oregon was on tour in Germany in November the previous year. Stan Douglas' Hors-champs (1982), a black and white performance of trombonist George Lewis, saxophonist Douglas Ewart, bassist Kent Carter and drummer Oliver Johnson, performing saxophonist Albert Ayler's "Spirits Rejoice," with strains of the American and French national anthems, was also impressive, projected onto two sides of a screen hanging diagonally in the middle of an otherwise empty room of neutral whites and grays.