ECM: A Cultural Archeology

John Kelman By

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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 Molvaer's groundbreaking Khmer (1997) and Gary Peacock's too-overlooked Voices from the Past—Paradigm (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.

ECM—A Cultural ArcheologyA small but informative printed guide was provided to those entering the exhibition, free of charge, which described each room and the various films and audio samples (in German and English), as well as including some choice photos from the ECM archives. But for those who want more, a new book has also been published to coincide with the exhibition (also in English and German editions), ECM: A Cultural Archeology (ECM: Eine kulturelle Archäologie) (Prestel, 2012)—edited by the exhibition's curators and put together, according to ECM's Steve Lake, in the almost unbelievable timeframe of thirty days. A gorgeous, 300-page black hardback book, with a wraparound high quality paper photo, it includes new essays from Enwezor, Müller, Wolfgang Sandner, Deidrich Deiderichsen, Renée Green, Kudwo Eshun and Jürgen Stenzl; a roundtable discussion between the curators, Eicher, Lake and music journalist Karl Lippegaus; a new ECM timeline, compiled by Lake; and a complete discography of the label from 1969-2012. For those unable to make the trek to München for the exhibition, the book is the next best thing to being there, and a terrific partner to Steve Lake and Paul Griffith's sadly out-of-print Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM (Granta, 2007).

If this were all there were, it would be plenty. But in addition to the exhibition, Haus der Kunst is hosting a series of evening screenings throughout its three-month run, including a number of films which feature ECM music in their soundtracks, like those of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who regularly uses the music of Eleni Karaindrou; Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. who was the subject of a three albums by French pianist Francois Couturier, which wrapped up with 2011's Tarkovsky Quartet; and, of course, director Jean-Luc Godard, who has shared a long partnership with Eicher, who released the audio soundtrack—dialog, music and all else—to Nouvelle Vague (1997), as well as the beautiful five-CD box set that is the complete soundtrack to Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1999), complete with the film's narration in four books, translated from French to both German and English.

ECM: A Cultural Archeology is also hosting a series of live performances throughout the exhibition's run. For the opening weekend in November, Couturier's Tarkovsky Quartet, Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem's Quartet and Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava's Quintet were all on-hand. In January, performances are scheduled for Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch; a double-bill featuring British saxophonist Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Quartet and Anglo/Norwegian duo Food; American saxophonist Tim Berne's Snakeoil quartet; pianist András Schiffl and others, while in February, saxophonist Charles Lloyd will perform in a new duo with pianist Jason Moran, who's been a member of the saxophonist's quartet for the past several years; Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia's trio will perform music from its upcoming follow-up to its sublime River of Anyder (2011), and the exhibition will close with Tomasz Stańko's New York Quartet and a final evening with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.

But for this weekend in December, 2012, it was two classical performances: the first, on December 14, by American singer/composer Meredith Monk, who delivered a tremendous program of solo pieces, duos with singer Katie Geissinger and, for a finale, a quartet piece with pianist Alexei Lubimov and clarinetist Kyrill Rybakov, who would perform the following evening in a program that was meant to be a double bill with cellists Thomas and Patrick Demenga, but which unfortunately had to be altered due to illness.

For a first-time encounter with Monk, the avant-vocalist/composer couldn't have presented a better program. With music dating as far back as 1969, Monk sang alone, accompanied herself on piano and harmonium, and duetted with Geissinger on material traversing her ten ECM recordings, including 1993's Volcano Songs, 1992's Facing North, 2004's Impermanence, 1993's Atlas and the most recent Songs of Ascension (2011).

It's hard to believe the spry and sprightly Monk turned 70 this year. With her long hair tied into two pigtails and dressed as youthfully as ever, Monk also demonstrated that her music may, at times, sound serious, but it's performed with a great deal of fun...humor, even, especially in the duet pieces where Monk and the considerably taller Giessinger played off each other to great effect. Her introductions revealed a woman comfortable in her own skin and life experiences, even the more painful ones, as she revealed that Impermanence was a reflection on the loss of her life partner, choreographer Mieke van Hoek, who died of cancer in 2002, while Songs of Ascension clearly reflects her ultimately coming to terms with that loss.

Often cited as an influence on singers like Norway's Sidsel Endresen, beyond the fact that Monk's material is composed as opposed to Endresen's current improvisational slant, it's also clear that their studies in extending the human voice beyond its conventional capabilities have taken them down completely different paths. Like Endresen, Monk has experimented with the concept of resonance, but has also worked with the idea of creating compositions where the singing amongst its participants is more akin to conversation than harmonizing.

Nowhere is this clearer than on her ECM debut, Dolmen Music (1981), from which she performed its first three pieces. "Gotham Lullaby," was for solo voice and piano. Still, as melodic as its base construct was, Monk's use of sound as language—despite being a language that's not been heard before—has clearly been a touchstone for Endresen's own distinctive vernacular and, in the same way, managed to evoke ideas and emotions despite being linguistically incomprehensible. Broad ululations and high pitched swirls defined her performance of "Travelling," a 5/4 piece that, like some of her other music, reflects her being a part of the same community that included minimalist composer Steve Reich—as did "The Tale," where Monk shifted between laughter and her character looking to celebrate or, at least, assert her life's ongoing relevance: "I still have my hands; I still have my mind; I still have my money; I still have my telephone."

But throughout a show that felt more like informal living room performance than rigorous recital, the most moving moment came when Monk was joined by Geissinger, Lubimov and Rybakov for a closing performance of impermanence's "Between Song," with Monk and Geissinger trading lines as Lubimov delicately delivered the dark accompaniment, with Rybakov layering simple but evocative lines. The full house responded with rapturous applause, and while Monk, Geissinger, Lubimov and Rybakov took a number of curtain calls, there was no way Monk was going to get away without an encore, an a cappella solo piece that explored the myriad potential of something seemingly so simply: a whisper. But that brief final piece epitomized a lifelong career which has explored the intersection of the human voice and experience, and was the ideal ending to a perfect performance.

With the Demenga brothers unable to perform the following evening, the weight fell upon Lubimov and Rybakov to expand a program where, originally, Lubimov was to perform material from his recent Claude Debussy: Préludes (ECM, 2012), and, in duo with Rybakov, the French composer's "Première Rhapsodie pour clarinette et piano."

And Lubimov did, indeed, perform material from the recording, in a solo recital that only served to strengthen impressions from his 2009 recital at the Enjoy Jazz Festival's ECM 40th anniversary celebration in Mannheim, Germany, where the pianist performed in a trio with Rybakov and violinist Alexander Trostiansky. The highlights of that performance were Lubimov's reading of Arvo Pärt's sublime "Für Alina," and his duo with Rybakov on the Estonian composer's arpeggio-driven "Spiegel in Spiegel," and it was this latter piece that the duo added to its München recital, in a set-closer that may actually have eclipsed the Mannheim rendition.

But if the two brought sublime tranquility to Pärt's composition, Lubimov's series of Debussy Préludes evoked even greater emotional resonance. A friend and contemporary of renegade composer Erik Satie, it's no surprise that, amidst the delicate lyricism of his Préludes, there were harmonic elements that somehow spoke of jazz in its nascency, and Lubimov captured those elements in definitive fashion. Debussy's Préludes are a standard part of the classical piano repertoire, just as Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and yet both Lubimov's recent recording of the Debussy and label mate/pianist András Schiff's recent four-disc set, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (ECM, 2012) prove that, just as the standard repertoire in jazz still has plenty of life and potential in the hands of artists like pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Lee Konitz and recently deceased drummer Paul Motian, so, too, do these classical staples possess something that, in the right hands, can continue to be approached and reinterpreted with fresh life and vitality.

Lubimov was as compelling to watch as he was to hear. The delicacy with which, at times, he approached his instrument was something to be experienced even more clearly in performance, where it was possible to see how his right hand gently crossed over his left to caress the lower register of his piano; his hands, at other times, seeming to almost float above his instrument, while still rendering greater power when needed.

It was a superb performance where, faced with a certain degree of adversity in the absence of the Demengas, Lubimov and Rybakov managed to adopt, adapt and improve, making it a memorable recital that continued to resonate as, just a few hours later, it was back onto a plane to return home after a brief but fulfilling visit to ECM headquarters, the ECM: A Cultural Archeology exhibit, and two wonderful live performances. Given how these three days were really a very personal way to celebrate the accomplishments of ECM, Eicher's reflections on the exhibition's title provide, perhaps, the best closure.


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