ECM 30 Years: A Journey Into Sound

ECM 30 Years: A Journey Into Sound

by Steve Kulak
copyright © 2000 Steve Kulak

Now hear this! I have just been on the most epic adventure. I didn't leave home, never left my room. The best news is that the adventure can be yours too. So where did this adventure take me? I travelled through sonic landscapes which made me gasp, through a labyrinth of sound which coaxed the kind of images from ones brain normally only associated with . . . travel.

What we are talking about here is obviously music, but there's more to it than that. This is and always will be an adventure which assumes greater significance than one would normally associate with such an apparently superficial experience as listening. Yet this journey into sound presumes no compulsory standard of musical appreciation. The only prerequisite for this journey, as with all great journeys anywhere, is only an open mind and the desire to listen.

And listening is what the ECM experience is all about. ECM is a music company that has been swimming in the sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent currents of contemporary music for 30 years.

It all started way back in 1969 in Munich, Germany with a young maverick named Manfred Eicher, a moment of inspiration and a loan. But this is no homage to the guiding light behind ECM, as much as he is inseparable from it. It is a celebration of a music company and the artists who inhabit its space. That space identifies with free jazz, improvisation, chamber music, contemporary classical composition, voice, the avant-garde, theme and solo jazz, solo piano, solo anything, trio, quartet, vocal, string and horn ensemble right through to symphony orchestra. It is a music company which inhabits the future even more than it does the past. Thirty years ago Manfred Eicher could only have vaguely hoped to be thriving in the 21st Century, producing music which belongs more to it than the century it emerged out of. In fact ECM is today one of the most influential music labels in the world. Now that's a journey.

But can anything prepare you for yours? How can you prepare for something like Nils Petter Molver's Khmer? Just as it begins to sound like something you've heard before, it suddenly sounds like nothing you've heard before. Jan Garbarek's Rites will take you places you've been and places you've always wanted to go. Officium, the million selling CD of Gregorian chant and 16th Century polyphony, may already have taken you there. Perhaps only Greece can prepare you for the classical purity of Eleni Karaindrou's film soundtracks Ulysses' Gaze or Eternity and a Day. And where exactly do you place the mesmeric haunting cycles of Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa or Arbos? The long languid light of a Northern European summer diffracted through the prism of Terje Rypdal's guitar (Skywards) could just as richly reflect the vast blue red vistas of another continent's landscape and its own outback reference. ECM challenges the adventurous to journey ever further into sound.

So where do you want to go?

But first a little background music. In 1969, when Manfred Eicher recorded the American expatriate Mal Waldron (Free At Last, ECM 1001) in a free rolling piano, bass, drums trio, jazz was a marginalised music, a condition that did not improve throughout the '70s with the onslaught of rock. After the blistering bandwagon that was the free jazz explosion of the '60s, the youth of the day discovered that the rock music and drug culture which accompanied the revolutionary fervour of their times galvanised them more than the political passion driving the Afro-American jazz tide of the day.

The dominance of rock was complete. What became evident later of course was just how much the culture of jazz had in common with the psychedelia of the age. The idea of the extended jam session was after all, pure jazz. With rock being an intensely individualistic music, it was only a matter of time before the more cooperative spirit of jazz and its improvising traditions crept back into contention. As one of the few truly vital and original musical developments of the 20th century, it was hardly going to disappear because more people might have been listening to the Grateful Dead than to Miles Davis.

Now, if the word "jazz" frightens you, or if the prospect of approaching today's new music intimidates you, it shouldn't. Musically these are the most exciting of times as the influence of a dramatic 20th century begins to seep through the creative mouth, mind and fingers of spectacularly musical imaginations. In any case words like "jazz" are only labels, practical enough to conjure up a marketing image and a reasonably sound connection to it. In the end they sometimes only confuse and alienate those who might actually be attracted to the type of music being produced under them.

Still, what else do you call the one art music form which the 20th century can truly claim as its own and make it stick? More than 30 years ago Manfred Eicher chose Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM) to describe what would in time represent a unique sonic architecture realized entirely according to his design.

So what is jazz today? Everything and nothing. ECM proves jazz can be and can mean anything. The word doesn't really lead you anywhere anymore, unless one imposes a purely classical perspective on it, in which case the sound image and unique roots associated with the word become very specific indeed. In the end it is just another way of talking. Why limit the full range of what can be appreciated by labelling it this or that?

ECM, as one specific vision of Contemporary Music, makes no concessions to the road more or less travelled. Some music retailers choose to create a separate section for it. The implication is not that it is too hard to categorize but instead demands a whole new category in itself. Unfortunately, this respect emanates from the jazz end of the retail spectrum, where only the dedicated or the adventurous familiar with the delights to be found there tend to browse anyway. Much of the new music listed under jazz is lost to too many people who hold a very traditional and time-locked perspective on what might be happening there. As a result they miss the opportunity to discover something new that a leap into the jazz aisles would normally inspire.

One of those discoveries would be ECM's extraordinary list. We all seek something new in the great hope that in discovering it, a little more can be learned about the world we inhabit and more crucially, our place in it. This is precisely why ECM has been so successful. Throughout history, the unfamiliar has always been respected for its potential to enlighten and promote understanding. For 30 years ECM has been celebrated for the ways it enriches those who come into contact with it.

The conformity of our times is creating the false impression that not much else exists beyond the mainstream. But the mainstream is like an oxygen-deprived lagoon choked with algae. Full of water but not much life. Spontaneous outpourings of music represent the clear running creekbeds of our imagination. They are what is vital and truly representative. What the push and shove merchants inflict on us is rarely meant to enlighten or sustain us. AAnd with the standardization of taste, who can blame anyone for choosing only what is made available to them or gravitating towards what they know? Are you ready for adventure?

ECM has over its three decades been described as many things: elusive as silence and time, ethereal and ambiguous, contemplative and lucid, driven, inspired and essential. But not always contemporary -- sometimes veering dangerously close to the future and the unheard. It then transcends "jazz" (not that it was only ever that anyway) and becomes something else entirely. The music of ECM is spontaneous, improvised, heartfelt. It transcends boundaries and labels. It represents an inner landscape and that which might yet prove to be essential in it. It is more than the sum of its parts yet each individual component equals the whole. And with each new release it develops a progressively more modern conception.

ECM thrived throughout the '70s and '80s and been positively buoyant in the '90s. Manfred Eicher's genius lies in the way he positions his record company to float above trends, more likely than not responsible for setting rather than following them. In 1975 ECM released a double album of solo improvised piano, at the time a considerable commercial risk. It was a monumental success and remains so to this day. That record was The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett. The rest as they say, is history. Then came the Estonian Arvo Pärt in 1984 with Tabula Rasa. Then Officium in 1994,the surprise million seller which galvanised the public's taste for Gregorian chant, keeping monks in obscure monasteries in money for years.

The Köln Concert featured an improvising Keith Jarrett skimming and thundering his way around an only partially subservient piano. Recorded live at the Köln Opera in January 1975, it represents the timelessness of near perfect music. Just beyond reach yet accessible and all embracing. With sales now surpassing the four million mark, that record has become the biggest selling solo piano release ever. His Solo Concerts Bremen/Lausanne matches it for intensity and inventiveness, if such a thing were possible.

The first and most striking aspect of the music produced by this conspicuously international label, and the one most commented on by those introduced to it for the first time, is just how good the music sounds. This is often the best sounding music they have ever heard. Anywhere. It is a fact that does not need the acknowledgement of experts, but of course it gets them anyway, along with the awards that go with it.

The other striking aspect is that whichever ECM artist or combination of artists you are listening to, whether John Taylor, Bobo Stenson, Egberto Gismonti, Misha Alperin, Miroslav Vitous, L.Shankar, Enrico Rava or Gorgy Kurtig, it seems the whole world is represented. And always wrapped in that glorious sound! When Jack DeJohnette prances along the ride cymbal in a loose-limbed dance accompanying the great English saxophonist John Surman, you can hear the skimming stones skipping into the distance. When Dave Holland runs his double bass ragged, you are there by his side urging him on. And if the impression of a double bass sound to you is only twice removed from Louis Armstrong and half as electric, then Eberhard Weber (Pendulum) will move mountains for you. And take over your CD player. When Jan Garbarek (Visible World) drifts in and out of clouds, weaving vapor trails and leaving others in his wake, then hang on . . . The journey begins now.

What are you waiting for?

If you need to be transported into one of the world's most intriguing, most exciting sonic landscapes, buy a ticket now. For the cost of a CD, the choice of destination is yours, and you have hundreds to choose from. Venture into the world of inspired improvisation as part of the ECM New Series (Paul Giger, Schattenwelt) . . . or rediscover some less well known contemporary composers (Giya Kancheli, Caris Mere), also on the New Series.Let your ears take you there. The catalogue is open for the first of many journeys with foreign sounding names accompanying you on the trip of a lifetime. Are you ready for that?

The story behind the label is smaller than one would think for so influential an enterprise. It remains one of the few truly independent recording companies in the world yet improbably employs less than ten people in its offices on the outskirts of Munich. Most of the music has always been produced by Eicher himself, these days at the Rainbow Studio in Oslo, Norway with the supremely gifted sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug by his side. The Steinway Concert Grand and the outstanding acoustics of this large studio contribute to the search for Eicher's ideal sound. His persistent fascination with the aura of space has also found him seeking venues outside the studio, sometimes an Austrian monastery, often a church in Frankfurt or London. The different locations spawn intriguing improvisation.

When recording Arvo Pärt's Passio, the wind howling around the church windows became part of the performance. As he intuitively states himself ina recent interview: "To sculpt tone, to discover the architecture of sound, you need the best venues, rooms that have resonance that allows tones to travel." The fact that ECM continues to flourish has not gone unnoticed, yet all takeover offers have been rejected out of hand. There can be no compromise or board of directors when it comes to music of such high expectation and acute vision. And what about the vision? To be true to oneself. To care how a record will sound in ten years, not how many units it will sell over six months. Perfect articulation. Great formal precision. Floating impressionism. Spontaneous expression . . . Just like you would want it to be, right?

Because if it is important to understand anything, it is the value spontaneity has to our culture. Another is the appreciation that it is not only within the limitless parameters of the spontaneous that innovation and creativity lie, but also an exhilarating satisfaction. And true beauty. The artists who represent the ECM label are masters of the spontaneous. It is an increasingly difficult sentiment to maintain in these conformist times where our expectations are very much defined by a strongly determined social boundary. This boundary is not truly rigid in any obvious way but acts as a barrier to further discovery. It defeats curiosity as radio play lists and television schedules feed us the malnourished crumbs of a programmer's stale lunch, purposely denying us journeys into the new.

In this the 30th anniversary year, so much in ECM's catalogue still sounds as fresh and relevant as the day it was recorded. The dense textures and exciting pluralism of the music were always, one suspects, created with a knowing wink to eternity. The sheer talent of the artist register would have ensured it even if ECM did not consciously aspire to it. Ultimately music must aspire to timelessness if it is to transcend the mere satisfaction of a commercial appetite. In the current ECM catalogue nothing from three decades of journeying into sound will be left to fade in the century responsible for nurturing it in the first place. The century will pass, but the rare feast of hundreds of creative statements will survive it and continue to be influential in the next.

Venture where you will with ECM and rest assured David Darling (Cello) and others will sound impossibly fresh whenever you discover them. Increasingly as art, literature, film and music become the beacons of our civilizations, we look to those whose light informs the most inspiring and precious aspects of our culture. Much that is film may prove to be forgettable, consigned to the commercial darkhouse of the sterile materialism it predominantly reflects, whilst great art and literature will continue to maintain a larger than life presence. Their impact will endure as long as civilization continues to treasure that level of its development which can only be described as precious.

The significance of an independent label such as ECM is the support and opportunity for expression it allows the gifted, those able to express in the abstract vocabulary of music that which words alone can never hope to do. As has been noted elsewhere, even art ultimately aspires to the condition of music. This is why it is crucial to support Manfred Eicher's vision because it is a vision which allows music to happen. It is not for our own sake that we do it, but for the future of expression in its most fundamental form.

Whatever we do with our lives, however colorful or mundane, we all want to take the journey that leads us beyond what we know, who we are and where we imagine ourselves to be. But in the complex overload that has become our daily life, we need signposts that lead us to the calm focused center which sits silent and patient at the core of our being. The visionary music of ECM provides one of the most obvious ones . . . a directional arrow pointing the way to vigor, to the spontaneous outburst, the musical quaver on the page which reflects the soul as a pond reflects a self image: to invigorate, sustain, elevate and inspire.

Take the trip. You will never look back again.


"As for my space and time, just to give you an idea: I'm from Sydney, Australia and born in 1957. I've always had an ambition to write and have decided to make it my main occupation these days. I was a working musician for 10 years, gave it away to spend another 10 years travelling the world (Africa, Europe, Asia). Came back here, built my home from scratch, started writing and hope now to make a living from it. Perhaps 'Steve Kulak writes about new music and what informs it' will do as a bio line. The message is important, less so the messenger."

E-mail kulak@one.net.au


C o m m e n t s

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