ECM: A Cultural Archeology

ECM: A Cultural Archeology
John Kelman By

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ECM: A Cultural Archeology
Haus der Kunst
München, Germany
November 23, 2012-February 10, 2013

A trip to München (Munich) is a bit like a pilgrimage for fans of Germany's ECM label, especially right now, with the city's Haus der Kunst hosting a three-month exhibition, ECM: A Cultural Archeology, celebrating the music of this nearly 44 year-old label on the cusp of founder and primary producer Manfred Eicher's 70th birthday in 2013. The exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor and Markus Müller, combines visuals that include video performances and plenty of still images from the label's massive archives, with historical information and listening stations, where it's possible to hear a broad cross-section of the label's history, documented on over 1,300 recording that range from the more straight-ahead but never mainstream jazz of saxophonist Charles Lloyd to the tremendous body of work from Estonian composer Arvo Part.

Eicher—who, in addition to being one of the few active producers left, often assumes the responsibility of sequencing tracks on a recording in order to give it an overarching narrative—has also programmed a series of samplers exclusive to the exhibition. At these listening stations, equipped with high quality headphones, it's possible to sit, relax and absorb the breadth and depth of a label that certainly stands alone as the only one in history to create such a broad body of work that—with Eicher's direct involvement in virtually its entire discography—not only reflects the aesthetics of those artists who collaborate with him (and it is collaboration; Eicher being the third member of every duo, the fifth member of every quartet), but Eicher's aesthetics as well. The often-referred "ECM Sound" may not be the reductionist series of characteristics to which some attempt to attribute an easy description (it's far more complex than that), but it is, indeed, an undeniable reflection of the man who has been at the helm since its inception.

"Okwui called me," Eicher explains, "and said 'I'm in Munich now, and director of the Haus der Kunst.' He said that he was a friend of [pianist] Jason Moran, and he [the pianist] had called him in Munich and said, 'You should make a step towards ECM and see what they're doing.' So he [Okwui] came and talked to me and saw the warehouse. He wanted to see all the tapes where they were laying, and asked me if we would be interested in collaborating with him, because he had the idea to make an exhibition about ECM.

"I said, 'Well, let me think about it,' and so I thought about it for a few days and then said, 'Yes, let's do it," Eicher continues. "So we gave him more or less carte blanche; we opened the archives for the curators, for Okwui and Mr. [Markus] Müller, and they came to the office to select photos and have several meetings. It was then that they decided to limit it to the first 15 years, the early years, without the New Series except, perhaps, for [Arvo Pärt]'s Tabula Rasa (1984) and Steve Reich [whose ECM debut, the now-classic Music for 18 Musicians, was released in 1978]. It was very much focused on those first years and I think they decided to do that because it's better to unify the conceptual aesthetic, because you can't introduce an entire label and 40 years of work; it then becomes too much a kaleidoscope of everything."

Of course, even looking at just the first fifteen years of ECM provides more grist for consideration than any other label, even heralded American imprints like Blue Note and Impulse!. And, had ECM only survived that relatively brief span of time, it still would have made a significant mark in the history of recorded music; that it's lasted nearly another three decades only further justifies its position, like the label or not, as the single most important label in the history of recorded music.

Eicher's accomplishments during those first fifteen years are almost impossible to count, but amongst the many high points during this time were the release of seminal recordings from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and the placement of Norway and Sweden on the international map with the introduction of five important artists: saxophonist Jan Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen, all of whom would go on to significant careers in a variety of constellations as collaborators and bandleaders.

The label has also been the instigator in the formation of groups that exist to this day, like the 40 year-old duo of pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton, and the "Standards Trio" of pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Solo piano recordings were by no means of unheard of prior to the label's emergence, but starting with Corea's Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (1971), Jarrett's Facing You (1971) and Paul Bley's Open, To Love (1973), and continuing straight through the years to recent entries like Craig Taborn's Avenging Angel (2011), Jarett's Rio (2011), ), Jon Balke's Book of Velocities (2009) and Stefano Bollani's Piano Solo (2008), ECM has set a high standard for solo recordings against which all others are measured.

Eicher has also been a significant catalyst for a number of cross-cultural groups including the Solstice quartet, with American guitarist/pianist Ralph Tower, Jan Garbarek, German bassist Eberhard Weber and Jon Christensen; the sublime Magico trio with Garbarek, Brazilian guitarist/pianist Eberhard Weber and American bassist Charlie Haden; and, perhaps most importantly, the CODONA trio that collected Towner's band mate in Oregon, sitarist/tablaist/percussionist Collin Walcott, trumpeter/percussionist Don Cherry (Americans, both) and, from Brazil, berimbau player/percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.

CODONA's importance, in fact, in introducing the concept of bringing together not just musicians, but instruments and traditions from many cultures, and cross-pollinating them in new and wonderful ways, was clearly a touchstone for Enwezor and Müller, as the exhibition commissioned a film from The Otolith Group called New Light, which tells the story of this transcultural trio, largely through stills patiently edited together (since there isn't much live footage of the trio to be found), and its ongoing influence, despite two of its three members now gone for nearly 20 and30 years respectively, in the case of Cherry and Walcott.

"It was a very good work," Eicher says about the film, "because they only had still photos they had no moving pictures from the band, only the photos that were done during the photo sessions by Roberto Massoti, and others. They're very significant for the time, as they tell the very characteristic milieu of that time, how these musicians came together. It was a transcultural kind of event, one could say, coming from different places. It was wonderful to see them, and how they incorporated the moving pictures and what they made aesthetically out of this idea, together with the original soundtracks from the albums. It's quite amazing. I was very pleased to see that.

"I think CODONA remains a very influential group," Eicher continues, "with two members passed away and with Nana Vasconcelos living in Brazil. It's really touching to see them together. This music really is timeless. None of these records will ever age. I listened again to the music that they have chosen for this exhibition, and I was amazed at how much the incredible energy, sensitivity and foreseeable concepts were there in the music. And then we also had this wonderful recording with Don and [drummer] Ed Blackwell, El Corazon (1982). This is also a wonderful statement."

Perhaps the most eminently impressive perspective, reflecting just how big ECM's contribution has been to the world of music was a massive wall containing everything from 2' multi-track tapes to ¼" masters and the Alesis Digital Audio Tapes (ADATS) that represented the early sign of a recording industry moving from analog to digital recording.

Hours could easily have been spent simply examining each and every session reel, from an inauspicious 1977 box that simply read, on the spine, "Pat Metheny—'Quartet,'" but which would become such a massive seller for the label when released a year later as Pat Metheny Group (1978). Tapes from Terje Rypdal's Odyssey sessions have particular immediate significance, since the label only released the full, two-LP set on CD this year in the three-disc Old and New Masters Series box, Odyssey: In Studio & In Concert (2012). Elsewhere, tapes from other successful projects, like Garbarek's first collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, 1993's Officium, juxtapose with lesser known titles of no less artistic significance by artists like the late reed player Joe Maneri, and pianist Larry Karush's simply titled, overlooked little gem of a duet with Oregon bassist Glen Moore, May 24, 1976 (originally released on ECM's subsidiary Japo label that same year)—all reminders of the many fine recordings that, if not exactly forgotten, certainly beg revisitation.

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 recording—starting with ECM 1001, (pianist Mal Waldron's 1969 release, Free at Last and continuing straight through to forthcoming 2013 albums by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko 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 presented—and 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 visit—still 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."


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