Arts: It's all there in black and white

For 30 years, ECM has defined an aesthetic, stuck to its ideals and released the odd million-selling disc. How does it stay so cool?

By their groovy covers shall ye know them. Moody images, plain graphics, minimalist expanses of white or grey barely interrupted with a few words of type, all in black and white - always black and white. Winter trees against cloudy skies have been a common motif, as have desolate seascapes and solemn-faced people. To peruse the catalogue of the cult record label ECM is to enter a stronghold of modernist cool at a time when the musical world exists at a much higher temperature.

To say that ECM is not like other record labels is to understate the case. For three decades, under the aegis of the visionary producer Manfred Eicher, it has maintained its idealistic commitment to the newest music, not to mention its commitment to excellence in graphic design, in the face of the increasingly barren conservatism of the industry as a whole.

Perhaps best known as a jazz label, in fact ECM's back catalogue takes in so many nuances of style, from be-bop and wild jazz experimentalism to contemporary classical, various kinds of minimalism, folk, even a smattering of Bach and Brahms, that it fully deserves to be described as uncategorisable. ECM - it stands, logically enough, for Edition of Contemporary Music - was never a follower of fashion, though it has certainly set a few trends in its time.

Neither is it run in a conventional manner. The label issues no contracts, preferring to maintain fluid arrangements with its artists - who, in turn, evince a fierce loyalty to it. Keith Jarrett, to name but one, made his first recording in 1971, and has been a pillar of the artist roster ever since. (In the pages of its chic monochrome catalogue, stars of the magnitude of Jarrett, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny rub shoulders with artists whose obscurity is all but total.)

Distribution people at ECM cheerfully admit many of their releases barely reach treble figures. Since a few sell by the truckload, however - Officium, the genre-busting collaboration of Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek and church-music specialists the Hilliard Ensemble, has racked up almost a million copies worldwide, and Jarrett's Koln Concert is the biggest- selling solo piano record of all time, with three million copies - the risks are outweighed by the rewards.

The label is both brainchild and baby of Manfred Eicher, once a double- bass player with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and a charismatic figure, habitually dressed from head to foot in black, of whom his collaborators speak with a mixture of affection and awe. As one record industry observer put it, Eicher "does what he wants and deals with the consequences later".

And the consequences are often astounding. Two new releases on ECM provide proof that Europe's most cutting-edge new-music label remains as sharp as ever. The first, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, is an innovative take on the songs of the Elizabethan John Dowland, combining the disparate talents of John Potter (tenor), Stephen Stubbs (lute), John Surman (saxophone), Maya Homburger (baroque violin) and Barry Guy (double-bass). The image chosen to adorn the cover of the CD - a desolate seascape - is par for the course. But its musical contents provide a delicious surprise. Around a core of voice and lute, the obbligato trio weaves a delicate embroidery of voices: plangent violin, grumbling or melodically soaring sax, and the unearthly harmonic squeaks and subterranean rumbles of the bass.

The Dowland Project, as its protagonists call it, requires a certain aesthetic readjustment in the listener weaned on "authenticke" treatments of this 16th-century master. The result is not only beautiful, however, but, oddly enough, remains more faithful to the melancholic and intimate character of Dowland's songs than one would have thought possible. This is exactly the kind of innocently audacious venture, flying in the face of artistically correct attitudes to early music performance, that ECM is able to pull off with such aplomb.

After the world premiere of In Darkness Let Me Dwell at this year's Bremen Festival, I spoke to John Potter about the genesis of the project. It transpires that Manfred Eicher put the musicians together, but that the magical results were all of their doing. "It could only have happened on a label like this," he said. "Because Manfred's involved in the whole creative process. It's always a very collaborative effort. I suggested doing Dowland, thinking of something really rather more conventional. And Manfred said great, but what about using Barry Guy and Maya Homburger? So instantly it took another track - something that often happens with ECM."

Potter, a founder member of the Hilliard Ensemble, looks back fondly on the experience of working with Arvo Part on the first recording of his Passio, and with Jan Garbarek on the Officium CD. The phenomenal success of the latter project, which combined early polyphony with Garbarek's saxophone melismas to spellbinding effect, he considers "staggering". "It's full of irony, this whole thing. Because ECM doesn't work on normal commercial criteria. There are lots of releases in the catalogue that nobody buys yet Manfred wanted to record. We might have been one of those; who knows?"

From Bremen, the ECM bandwagon moved on to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, where a second major release of the season was to be unveiled: the first recording of Litany to Thunder by the veteran Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The German label has a strong association with this musically fertile Baltic state, notably through a series of recordings of "the holy minimalist" Arvo Part, which have never been surpassed in intensity of atmosphere. Like the Dowland project, Litany to Thunder represents another of ECM's peculiar intersections of ancient and modern that seem to leap athletically across the 18th and 19th centuries. (If ECM can be defined as anything at all, it is as a flag-waver for anti-romanticism.)

A choral work like almost everything in Tormis's sizeable oeuvre, Litany bears the clear imprint of his researches into Estonian folk music with its hypnotically repetitive "runo-songs" and shamanic incantations. There are echoes of Bartok and Kodaly here in Tormis's search for his roots, and of Britten in his reliance on an essentially simple musical language. The debt to minimalism is equally clear. But the work has a primal power all of its own. Unadorned folk melodies, baleful chanting, guttural shouts and other vocal effects and, not least, the terrifying rhythmic beating of the shamanic drum, combine to produce an experience unlike anything else in contemporary Western music.

At the presentation of the ECM recording of the work, performed by the superbly-drilled Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Tonu Kaljuste, Litany moved and amazed all those who heard it. Kaljuste is, quite rightly, delighted with Litany's transition to disc, particularly since the process was made unusually pleasurable by the enthusiasm of Eicher and his helpers. Even the cover shot - winter trees against cloudy skies - has his approval, since he sees in it a direct reference to the thunder-clouds of Finno- Ugric lore.

"ECM is a unique company," he told me when we spoke after the show, "mainly because of the family language that they have, and we share. They know what we want and what we know, and what's the direction. Our noses meet on the way! The communication culture of Manfred Eicher is very important to me. In addition, he also respects composers and knows how best to represent them. He and his label have done a lot of good things."

Selected Signs, an ECM festival, runs at various venues in Brighton from 6-27 Nov. Highlights include: one of the few UK performances of `Mnemosyne' with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (18 Nov); improvisation with John Surman and Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem (6 Nov), and the Keller Quartet's acclaimed pairing of Bach's `Art of Fugue' with the `Musik fur Streichinstrumente' by Gyorgy Kurtag (27 Nov). Where the Rivers Meet, an illustrated lecture on ECM by Professor Michael Tucker is on 8 Nov. An exhibition of cover art, `Sleeves of Desire', is at the University Gallery, Brighton. Details: Dome, Brighton (01273 709709) or Sallis Benney Theatre (01273 643010) or www.ecmrecords.com

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