Thursday, January 13, 2011

Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM

For those of us of a certain age, buying music was once considered something special. It wasn’t only just getting that one song you liked. It wasn’t even the excitement of owning someone’s latest album. Buying music in the last half of the 20th Century – for me, the 1970s and 80s especially – meant getting a record that introduced you to more songs and new kinds of music, with musician and songwriting credits to learn about others who might make more of the kind of music you might enjoy or learn to understand anew.

With the LP format, it also meant getting a nice package. Like those that produce books or magazines, even packaging for food and toys, music manufacturers recognized that many consumers do indeed judge records by their covers. So the best or most interesting music often had some of the nicest covers. Many of the best packaged rock and pop records always contained song lyrics too. Jazz and classical records often featured informed and illuminating liner notes sprinkled with session photography to show the musicians plying their craft.

In these days when individual songs are easily downloaded onto little hand-held devices that fit easily into a pocket or a purse, music no longer has that special something it once did. Even the stores that allowed you to see what was available have all disappeared. Sure, music has always been a commodity. But now music is mostly a commodity of (compressed) sound – something the almost extinct record industry has never found a way to properly tap into or control the way booksellers have – rather than the artful product of my youth.

One of the only record labels that has not only survived but thrived when nearly all others – including many of the major labels – have failed during this tumultuous period in musical history is ECM Records.

Founded in 1969 in Munich, Germany by Manfred Eicher as Editions of Contemporary Music, this fiercely independent label has contributed over fifteen hundred discs, over half of which are even more amazingly still in print, to the musical vocabulary, capturing a surprisingly wide and unpredictable variety of creative music that often defies easy categorization.

Eicher seems to have started the label off as a jazz outlet, allowing such American improvisers as Mal Waldron (whose Free at Last is the label’s very first record), Chick Corea, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett creative flexibility to record in solo formats, something no American company would have allowed at the time. Eicher was also open to the free-jazz sounds of Anthony Braxton, Derek Bailey, Jan Garbarek, who has since recorded exclusively for ECM in many formats ranging from jazz and new age to classical and electronics, and others too.

As with others, Eicher gave American pianist Keith Jarrett a forum to pretty much do whatever he wanted and the two garnered a surprise hit with the 1975 solo-piano album The Köln Concert, which even today continues to be one of the label’s best-selling recordings. Jarrett remains the label’s star jazz player (Arvo Pärt might be said to be the label’s resident composer), having issued dozens of solo and trio jazz records and many classical dates for ECM over the years.

Manfred Eicher soon expanded to document many distinctive worldly soloists and some unusually unique aggregates, capturing and personifying a reflective, nearly Nordic music style (often described as “Northern” – but hard to fix that specifically) its promotional department called “the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence,” a phrase taken from a 1971 review of ECM releases in the Canadian jazz magazine Coda.

It’s easy to hear how these releases not only inspired the “New Age” movement of the 1980s but also the now defunct standard bearers of that sort of music, Windham Hill and Private Music – and, of course, quite a number of ECM musicians ended up recording for those labels too.

Even though ECM had released more classically oriented music by Keith Jarrett and Steve Reich in the 1970s, Eicher launched the “ECM New Series” in 1984 to concentrate on the more compositional works of classical and contemporary composers. These days, the ECM New Series generates as much product as the regular ECM line.

Since its very inception, Eicher has managed to keep much of the ECM catalog available, something which is a feat in and of itself. This is due, perhaps, to some of the best distribution arrangements possible (ECM is currently distributed by Universal Classics, allowing worldwide distribution and a wealth of resources, but the label had previously been distributed by such powerhouses as Warner Bros., Polygram and BMG). Interestingly, Eicher doesn’t license any ECM music to any other label (a lucrative thing most majors endorse), including his distributors, unless it’s specific music he’s chosen for a specific project he believes in.

Another aspect of ECM that has long made the label one of the jazz and classical genre’s most significant production houses is certainly its visual presentation. ECM has always attempted to bring its own vocabulary to package design. Unlike many other labels, ECM successfully survived not only the transition from the 12-inch LP to the 5-inch CD, but ever since the digital revolution, it has seemingly increased its CD output with iconoclastic sleeves that encase the CD jewel box in a cardboard wrap called an “O Sleeve” that adds a measure of distinction as well as the extra expense of production which indicates something significant like the heavily laminated, four-color gatefold sleeves of Impulse Records some half century before and the covers that CTI Records provided during the first half of the 1970s.

Curiously, there is very little that’s consistent about the art of ECM covers – especially during the first three decades of the label’s existence. The majority of ECM’s visual language is conveyed, it would seem, through photographs. Some of these are in color; most, though, are black and white, especially many of the ECM covers of the past decade.

Some photos are top-and-bottom banded, some are matted in differing degrees on all sides and some bleed off all four edges. Many are outdoor shots, some in focused detail and others showing the out-of-focus light and shadow of motion.

Some of the photos are from the artier echelons of the film world, including films by the great visualists Ingmar Bergman, Jean Luc Godard and Theo Angelopoulos. Of the photographs featured on ECM covers, hardly any feature shots of the musician. Such shots (in black and white) are often included behind the cover and inside the CD booklet, and, like the few ECM covers that picture the artist on the front cover, all unequivocally show the artist at their art rather than posed for some phony promotional effect.

Many ECM covers also feature varying works of art by the musician, their significant other, or paintings and sketches by an amazing amalgam of unusual talent. The more one considers these types of artwork, the more they have some resonant connection to the music or the musicians performing the music.

Designer Lars Müller captures much of this in his staggeringly beautiful book Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM, a tribute to the second half of a great music label’s life. This 448-page tome is a sequel to the gorgeous, though sadly out-of-print 1996 publication Sleeves of Desire, Müller’s first overview of ECM cover art (read Tyran Grillo’s recent and beautiful commentary on Sleeves of Desire here).

Windfall Light claims to present the ECM covers that were created since the publication of the earlier book, “arranged here in the form of a visual score that invites personal interpretations and individual discoveries.” Whatever your personal feelings about the music of ECM – and while it’s hardly monothematic, it’s certainly open to as much subjectivity diversity as any other art can bear and the diversity of music the label has actually produced – one cannot deny the truly amazing and historic presentation the ECM Records has made to the aural and the visual media.

From its earliest days, ECM relied on the talents of designers Burkhart and Barbara Wojirsch, whose work was always credited on ECM sleeves as “B&B Wojirsch.” Their first design for ECM was for the 1970 album Paul Bley With Gary Peacock (ECM 1003) – a terrific record that has seemingly always remained in print in one form or another – and the two worked together on a majority of the ECM covers until Burkhart’s death around 1975 (significantly, their last credited cover design is for Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, ECM 1064/65, though only “B. Wojirsch” is credited for the “layout” on the ECM album that precedes this, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava’s The Pilgrim and the Stars). One of Burkhart’s paintings was later featured by Barbara on Paul Bley’s album Fragments (ECM 1320, 1986).

Barbara, who trained as a painter and worked in advertising for a bit but got out because she felt she couldn’t lie about something to sell it, carried on, more or less defining the visual identity of ECM until her retirement in 1999 (Keith Jarrett’s Mozart Piano Concertos/Adagio and Fugue, ECM 1624/25, would seem to be her last contribution to the label).

In those years, Ms. Wojirsch oversaw many, if not most, of ECM’s designs, producing a wide variety of covers that highlighted the photographs and artwork of others and featuring a good deal of her own rather inspired work.

The stunning variety of Barbara’s original work ran the gamut from squiggle paintings (Pat Metheny’s Rejoicing, Jan Garbarek’s It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice) and runic gestures (Jan Garbarek’s I Took Up The Runes, Keith Jarrett’s The Cure) to font paintings (Gary Peacock’s December Poems, Pat Metheny’s 80/81 or First Light, Keith Jarrett’s Tribute) and type-only presentations (effective deployment of mostly Helvetica fonts on such covers as Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, Charlie Haden’s The Ballad of the Fallen, Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and both volumes of Keith Jarrett’s Standards) – a style which continues periodically at ECM to this day (Keith Jarrett’s Up For It, Trio Beyond’s Saudades, Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood, many recordings by Michael Mantler and Arvo Pärt or any of the Selected Recordings compilations).

Dieter Rehm then joined the ECM fold right out of school in 1978 when he impressed Barbara Wojirsch with a photograph that ended up on the cover of Azimuth’s album The Touchstone (ECM 1130). Trained as a photographer, Rehm contributed terrifically iconoclastic photos to many ECM covers and, starting with Pat Metheny’s New Chautauqua (ECM 1131), also contributed to the design of quite a number of ECM covers as well.

Rehm’s best ECM moments include Richard Beirach’s Elm (EC M 1142), John Clark’s Faces (ECM 1176), Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires (ECM 1299), Werner Pirchner’s EU (ECM 1314/15), Gary Burton’s Whiz Kids (ECM 1329), John Abercrombie’s Animato (ECM 1411) and many, many others. Rehm gradually worked more on design only at ECM and seems to have quietly departed from the label at about the same time as Ms. Wojirsch to pursue his interest in painting.

It is said that Manfred Eicher personally oversees the selection of all aspects of artwork for the ECM releases. That may be so, and given the individual brand that ECM has created over the years, it is probably to be believed. But whether this level of product management began in earnest before or after Rehm and Ms. Wojirsch’s departure is anyone’s guess. Chances are Eicher has always been intimately involved in the packaging of ECM’s music.

Certainly, the look of ECM that has developed over the last decade or so had begun several years before Rehm and Wojirsch left ECM. Things at ECM are now certainly far more consistent in ideology and sensibility – to say nothing of design and typography – in the previous dozen years or so than it ever was at during the label’s first three decades.

For the record, Rehm still occasionally contributes to ECM, having done some marvelous covers for Stephan Micus, Steve Tibbets, Steve Kuhn and John Abercrombie’s ECM discs of recent years. But the great Sascha Kleis seems to have since come in for some of the more dramatic color photography featured on so many ECM discs of late, not to mention a sizable number of the striking monochromatic shots the label is known for as well. Many of the ECM covers, though, are of stark “Northern” scenes captured in black and white by any number of tremendously interesting photographers and, of course, filmmakers from Godard to Pasolini.

Personally, I was pleased to discover in this book the ECM covers that bear the signature of Swiss artist Mayo Bucher (b. 1963), who contributed some of my favorite cover designs here: Keith Jarrett’s La Scala (ECM 1640), the Shostakovich/Vasks/Schnittke program Dolorosa (ECM 1620), Rosamunde Quartett’s Webern/Shostakovich/Burian (ECM 1629), Giya Kancheli/Gidon Kremer’s Lament (ECM 1656), Zelenka’s Trio Sonatas (ECM 1671), Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Flux (ECM 1673), Giya Kancheli’s In l’istesso tempo (ECM 1767), the Bach/Webern program Ricercar (ECM 1774), Valentine Silvestrov’s Metamusik/Postludiumm (ECM 1790), the Demenga/Larcher/Anzellotti Conguri (ECM 1914) and Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden’s most recent Jasmine (ECM 2165). These remind me of the signature work that the great Josef Albers did for Enoch Light’s Command label in the late 1950s – covers that stand for art as great as the music contained within.

Another of Eicher’s favored artists, the great German conceptualist of “organic geometry,” Eberhard Ross (b. 1959), has also recently begun contributing commendably to the label with an intriguing swath of inspired artistry that one can only hope will continue, including covers for Stefano Bollani’s Stone in the Water (ECM 2080), the gorgeous cover to Jan Garbarek Group’s Dresden – In Concert (ECM 2100/01), Christian Wallumrød Ensemble’s Fabula Suite Lugano (ECM 2118), Terje Rypdal’s Crime Scene (ECM 2041) and Food’s Quiet Inlet (2163). (There’s a wonderful film short called The Space Between focusing on Ross, scored by Keith Jarrett’s ECM music from Sun Bear Concerts).

Windfall Light does an above average though sadly less than ideal job of presenting all of this. The book’s layout masterfully matches many of the stark sleeve (and subsequent booklet) designs of the ECM CDs. Five essays are presented, commenting on the importance of ECM’s visual artistry. The most incisive and illuminating of these, “Landscapes and Soundscapes,” is by author, pianist and ECM record artist Ketil Bjørnstad. Geoff Andrew also provides an interesting essay, “Luer musique: Eicher / Godard – Sound / Image” on the relationship Eicher hears and sees between music and film.

The text is generous with never-before seen photos of Manfred Eicher, ECM artists and ECM-ish nature photography and also features about 183 CD-sized ECM covers, each on their own page and mostly produced since 1996 (Keith Jarrett’s very first ECM disc, Facing You, is also included here as well as the Jean Luc Godard DVD ECM issued).

Finally, the book’s last 85 pages catalog each and every one of ECM’s thousand plus releases, up to and including Keith Jarrett’s 2009 solo outing Testament – Paris/London (ECM 2130-32). While it’s nice that all of these pages register each cover appropriately in color or in correct black and white, 12 sleeves are compacted to fit on each page, presenting each cover as little larger than 1.25 x 1.25 inches – something altogether too small to allow for proper appreciation.

Sleeves of Desire presented the catalog with six covers per page (on pages of about the same size as these) – not perfect, but much more preferential than Windfall Light, which suggests a full catalog of ECM covers in an appreciable aspect ratio might be too much to hope for at this point in just one book.

Another oddity of debatable importance is that while the book’s catalog presents the CD cover of Keith Jarrett/Jack DeJohnette’s Ruta and Daitya (ECM 1021) and not the original LP cover, it presents the LP covers of both Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus (ECM 1043) and Arild Andersen’s A Molde Concert (ECM 1236), but not the entirely different CD covers each received. There are certainly other such violations here.

While Windfall Light is a gorgeous tribute to one aspect of ECM’s glorious legacy and a much coveted treatise to the powerful visual vocabulary of one particular label, particularly during its more definitely branded later years (the 2007 text Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM touches on the label’s musical contribution), it is probably not the best one could hope for.

It is like my own personal relationship with ECM. I find myself periodically drawn to and fascinated by the music and the artistry of ECM as I can be otherwise put off by it. There are times when I dive into it all like an ocean, wishing I could savor the untold hours of each and every one of the label’s multifarious releases. But the deeper I go, the salty taste and sometimes chilly ambiance beckons me to get out of the water and seek something different. It takes me a while to come back to it. But I always do.

Windfall Light provides an aspect of ECM, not the complete picture. That may be a good thing. It’s like watching the day or night for the right sort of light. You go looking for something you want to see (or hear) and you end up seeing (hearing) it. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s beautiful none the less.


Anonymous said...

Just found your blog. What a great read!

Clearly I am of much the same age and musical interests as you. I note that one of the aspects of ye olden days was that we purchased objects. These objects had their own physical aesthetics and the demands of those aesthetics. You mention the liner notes, and information. This too was collected and accrued; even when the music turned out to be unsatisfactory, we could then note the personnel or the ideas when we encountered them again for better or worse.

Buying an ECM record gave a certain aesthetic frame to the process, rather like putting on nice clothes and going with your lovely wife to have a glass of wine in the lobby before sitting in comfortable seats at the symphony hall. There, amid a certain excitement and nervous tension you await the performance. You've been groomed and prepped for the process.

In a curious way, the purchase of an ECM record provided something similar. The jackets gave you a certain impression, and you frequently looked at the jacket while listening. It was the visual accompaniment. This was true of all LP's, of course, and in a less-manicured way: Jackets that had tough boys in tight pants or those that had comic-book colors and images. These too set their own stage.

I love your description of "diving in" and savoring only to find the setting "salty" and "chilly". I thoroughly concur. One of the things I liked about the ECM experience was the degree to which I was compelled to "get my money's worth" by trying to set aside my own needs or demands and letting the music itself set the ground rules. I might worry, and did, that I had got a lemon. But I'd try again and again. And eventually I would "get my mind right" and acclimate. With some it took a lot of time and thought and the rejection of my own changing ideas as a musician and consumer, at least temporarily, to make the suit fit.

It was an experience. It wasn't like eating potato chips. I had to bring some of myself to the process. That's the way it is with art, but we frequently vacillate between our enjoyment of an artistic experience, and just having fun or passing time.

Thanks for an evocative stroll through my aural history in the 70's and 80's!

Douglas Payne said...

Thank you for your comments blabberblabber. I love the way you describe the energy and clarity of purpose it often takes to understand, appreciate - sometimes even enjoy - some of this music.

I suppose if I were to consider the aural language of ECM, I would have to consider how deeply personal so much of it is. It's not made for the masses. It's made for an expressive purpose that doesn't often communicate as easily as many other tried and true formulas often do.

Even during those few times when ECM records are easily categorized ("jazz" or "classical" specifically), it is neither merely formulaic nor something that is easily put down by/to "the ECM sound."

But such patronage to (of?) art and artistry is commendable and appreciated on so many levels that one can barely find the right words of thanks to bestow on someone like Manfred Eicher, not only one of music's greatest producers but someone who cares more for the music than the commerce the business enforces on so many other producers (his dedication to the art has somehow fortunately permitted him to create even more art). I am truly grateful for the wide range of aural and visual art the label has provided over the past four decades.