When the LP Ruled

New book remembers the origins of German label ECM

Pulp

by Jonathan B. Frey

Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM (Granta, $60), a 450-page coffee table paean to the German recording label, summons memories of LPs and Walter Benjamin. LPs because ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music), now producing mostly CDs and downloads, was established in 1969 when the LP ruled. ECM fully exploited that format, arguably the first label to apply high-end recording production to improvised music.

Equally significant, ECM took advantage of the LP cover's ample real estate to present a unique and ultimately branded combination of arty photography and singular orthography. And Walter Benjamin, because ECM presented the perfect antidote to Benjamin's 1935 essay, â“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,â” which railed against reproducible art, arguing that such was always depreciated, disassociated as it necessarily must be from its unique time and space. Maybe so, but to the jazz or new music aficionado, nothing was more satisfyingly artistic, nothing could be more about this particular moment in time and space, than a brand new ECM LP moments after needle met vinyl.

Fans of ECM, especially those who collected recordings in the LP era, often can recall experiencing their first ECM record, such was the uniqueness of its visual/aural synesthetic. Mine occurred when a college friend handed me a beer and an LP cover, simultaneously lowering the needle to the title cut of Jan Garbarek/Bobo Stenson's Witchi-Tai-To . â“Shhh, just listen to this .â” I'd never heard the tune beforeâ"composed by American Indian saxophonist Jim Pepperâ"but have since, and even the original by Pepper himself doesn't measure up. (Pepper, sadly, was never so attentively recorded.)

The Garbarek/Stenson performance isn't long (less than five minutes), and their solos are equal parts parsimonious and impassioned. However, my attention was arrested by the newness of the music, the immaculate sound, and the full-bleed cover photo of a decaying plaster wall upon which cursive writing informally detailed the tunes and artists. Not to mention the tune itself, a wonderfully seductive piece of melodic business that in this performance isn't actually stated in full until the tune's close.

The man behind the labelâ"and indeed ECM is very much the conception of this one manâ"is Manfred Eicher. Borrowing 16,000 Deutschmarks to produce his first record (pianist Mal Waldron's Free at Last ), the then 26-year-old classically trained bass player established a label now approaching the end of its third decade and over 1000 recordings. Both unique and notorious in the music business, nearly every one of ECM's sessions has been fanatically presided over by Eicher, who is enigmatic about his objectives in the studio: â“The crucial thing is for a tone or mood to be createdâ"an atmosphere that sincerely expresses what one wishes to convey of oneself and one's emotions. Music is the art that speaks directly to the soul.â” Taken from Eicher's essay, â“The Periphery and the Centre,â” this comment is just one view expressed in Horizons , which contains essays, interviews, and statements from more than 100 musicians, composers, photographers, engineers, filmmakers, and graphic artists that have been involved with the label.

Edited by ECM producer Steve Lake and music critic Paul Griffiths, Horizons is less an organized compendium than a corralling of commentary, cover art, and photography. For ECM followers, there's loads on ECM's origins and sound, interviews with Eicher and Garbarek, and reminiscences by Jarrett, Metheny, and many, many other ECM recording artists as well as composers such as Carter, Part and Kurtag. Also included are critical essays regarding ECM's influence on jazz, classical and folk music, nearly all penned by European critics (an odd and an unfortunate bias, especially given the label's global perspective).

Running throughout the entirety, which focuses exclusively on ECM's past, nags a question about the future of the label. Paul Griffiths sidles up to it in his essay on modernism, commenting that, â“Thirty years or so ago, new music was disseminated through the old apparatus of live performanceâ Now the case is quite differentâ Once in the can, the piece has come to the end of its active life, to continue as a record, a memory.â” So too does the writer Geoff Dyer in his essay â“Editions of Contemporary Meâ”: â“The ECM sound is as recognizable as Blue Note's from the 1960s. It's a style of music as much as a label; unlike Blue Note it has never become a reductive or formulaic one. Which is why, of course, we are still listening to the old recordsâ.â” For therein lies the question: How does a label whose calling card was its uniquely rich aural and visual presentation survive being digitally reduced to a mere sub-sample of its original self?

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