Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM

John Kelman By

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Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM
Edited by Lars Müller
Softcover; 448 pages
ISBN: 978-3-03778-157-9
Lars Müller Publishers

Long out-of-print, Sleeves of Desire: A Cover Story (Lars Müller Publishers, 1996) has become something of a holy grail for fans of the German ECM label; a book devoted entirely to the label's distinctive artwork, detailing ECM's first 25 years in a gorgeous, oversized, high-quality paperback. In addition to glossy reproductions of cover art (as well as previously unseen associated images and designs) from the label's first 500 releases, the book included insightful analytical articles, presenting new perspectives into a visual design aesthetic that has, since the label's inception, been as instantly recognizable—and equally impossible to pigeonhole—as the unfailingly creative music that it graces.

With Windfall Light, editor Lars Müller examines ECM's accelerated output of the past 14 years. It may have taken the label 25 years to release 500 albums, but since then—in just over half that time again—it has doubled to a thousand. An even larger and more sumptuous book (7.25"x10.25" to Sleeves of Desire's 6.6"x9.4," and 448 pages to Sleeves of Desire's 360), Windfall Light is the perfect complement to Horizons Touched (Granta, 2007), which focused more extensively on ECM's music.

In addition to more glorious reproductions of cover art, interior designs and photographs, Windfall Light provides further insight into the label's long-heralded visual art with five essays. These are written by a cross-section of multidisciplinary experts ranging from publisher Müller, noted German author Thomas Steinfeld and the deputy director of Zurich's Museum Reitberg, Katharina Epprecht, to Time Out London/British Film Institute Southbank Film Program head Geoff Andrew and Norwegian pianist/novelist/poet Ketil Bjornstad—no stranger to the label, with seven releases under his own name, and Night Song, a duet disc with cellist Svante Henryson, due out later in 2010.

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Unlike the bilingual Sleeves of Desire (German and English), Windfall Light has been published in two separate editions. The German version, titled Der Wind, das Licht, loosely translates to The Wind, the Light; not quite identical, but equally suggestive of a similar ethereal connection between ECM's artwork and music. The label's sleeves have rarely been about a direct link to the music they accompany, but instead are evocative of something more tenebrous. Like its music, ECM's approach to visual design is impossible to categorize, but is immediate and recognizable. It's not necessary to be told an album is on ECM; it's instantly obvious from one look at the cover. And while the label's specific visual aesthetic—dovetailing with its aural one—has been imitated by many, it's never been successfully copied.

Full-size cover art, on thick, glossy paper, creates an even more compelling visual journey through the inclusion of artist photographs, additional imagery and occasional two-page spreads of artwork used in smaller covers, such as Christopher Egger's striking waterscape for pianist François Couturier's Nostalghia—Song for Tarkovksy (2006), and Jean-Guy Lathuilière's impressionistic landscape, in provocative harmony to his still used on guitarist Ralph Towner's Time Line (2006). Consistent themes—water, air, earth—seem to crop up time and again; and yet, other than ECM's regular use of a number of photographers and designers, few covers actually resemble each other. Much like the music inside, ECM's artwork possesses a specific aesthetic that clearly reflects a certain austerity, melancholy and isolation, but always in new and unexpected ways.

And yet, even these descriptors aren't sufficient. ECM founder Manfred Eicher's interest in film—in particular, the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Theo Angelopoulos and Ingmar Bergman—is represented throughout the book. That Goddard, for example, has been given full access to the label's music and has used it liberally—and creatively—throughout the past few decades, is reflected back in cover art for albums like singer Norma Winstone's Distances (2008), where an evocative black and white image is drawn from Godard's Eloge de l'amour (2001).

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When the 2007 Portland Jazz Festival created a weekend mini-festival in celebration of ECM, a daytime roundtable discussion on the label's artwork revealed, when studied over time, a number of common themes. Designed to be a visual journey as much as (or more than) a simple document of the label's visual art—and that would have been enough—Windfall Light reveals often serendipitous connections between artwork released years apart; sometimes tenuous, other times surprisingly direct.

For some, artwork is meant as nothing more than an attention-grabber, meant to compel prospective buyers into taking the leap. ECM's design transcends such crass considerations, despite a consistent success at doing just that; instead, it's an adjunct to the music. Sometimes it evokes a mood, through visuals, that is reflected in the music. Sometimes it makes a tacit statement about the music, as in the label's consistent use of plain backgrounds and type fonts (often sans-serif) for Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's work. Like the five seconds of silence that begins all ECM releases released since approximately 1995, the music begins in quietude and builds from there.

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There is also revelation. The cover of The Third Man—trumpeter Enrico Rava's 2007 duet album with pianist Stefano Bollani—has nothing but a third set of feet at the bottom left of the cover that finds the two musicians in conversation; for those who haven't seen the CD's inside liner photos, Windfall Light reveals the untouched photo, with Eicher as the titular third man. It's no surprise, given Eicher's profound involvement in production, that he's often considered an integral member of whatever ensemble he's producing. Far from a silent partner, it's also no surprise to occasionally find Eicher a part of the artwork, and not just in interior photos either; on pianist Paul Bley's 2007 Solo in Mondsee, he can be found walking along a boat landing, barely recognizable with his knapsack, in near-silhouette.

The book also includes an up-to-date, complete discography at the end, with small (1.5"x1.5") thumbnails of every album the label has released...and a few still to come. It doesn't quite make up for not owning Sleeves of Desire, but it comes close. And as a book that celebrates the remarkable artists, photographers and designers who have helped realized Eicher's creative vision for four decades, Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM—a book as lovely to hold as it is to examine—is as much a feast for the eyes as the label's constantly growing discography is for the ears. That the two are conjoined in ways that defy easy explanation, and yet are somehow instinctively obvious, makes closer examination of the label's visual art as captivating—and, ultimately, necessary—as the more commonplace analysis of its music.

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