Arts: The label with its heart on its sleeve

Do modern record companies really care about their artists' albums? ECM is one that does. For 30 years it has refused to compromise on presentation and retains a distinct visual identity.

Phil Johnson
Monday 15 November 1999 00:02

If record labels can be said to have a sense of place, determining their symbolic location is usually very easy. The jazz imprint Blue Note obviously belongs to the dizzying skyscrapers and bustling sidewalks of Manhattan, while EMI (now Blue Note's owners), is probably closer to Slough than to Abbey Road. The German jazz and new music label ECM, however, is perhaps less of a place than a state of mind. Despite being based in Munich, the company's music and cover art conjure up visions of empty, mist-shrouded wastes, forests, ice-floes and tundra. Like the paintings of the 19th-century Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, it's an internal landscape as much as an external one.

The English seaside resort of Brighton is not, therefore, the most obvious of places to represent the much-debated ECM aesthetic, except perhaps when the sea mist rolls in to make the Pavilion look even stranger than it does already. But throughout this month, Brighton is the location of a remarkable festival celebrating ECM's 30th anniversary. "Selected Signs" includes a programme of 11 concerts by ECM artists (beginning on Saturday with Anouar Brahem and John Surman); a keynote lecture; a symposium featuring the company's founder Manfred Eicher in conversation with The Independent's Rob Cowan, and "Sleeves of Desire," an exhibition of the label's cover art. It's an impressive event that, had it taken place on the South Bank, could have crowned this month's London Jazz Festival.

That it occurs in Brighton instead is due largely to the efforts of Michael Tucker, Professor of Poetics at the University of Brighton and the author of Deep Song - a scholarly study of the music of Jan Garbarek. "About two and a half years ago, I suddenly realised that the company would be 30 soon and I tentatively approached Manfred Eicher about doing something to celebrate it," he says. "He took the idea seriously partly because he'd read some of my work in Art History, whose interest in Nordic culture he shared, and also because the University had been promoting gigs by ECM artists since 1984. Slowly, the idea gelled."

For Tucker, the original attraction of ECM's albums was, he says: "The equivalent of a strong, simple, poem which would grab your attention and sustain it again and again with a kind of focused intensity. I was also attracted by the the label's visuals." But he adds: "It's a question of integrity too. Throughout the years of cynicism and media manipulation, here was a label which didn't seem to bother with any of that. There's a resonance in the music of ECM that invites you into contemplation, into a deeper aspect of yourself."

The history of ECM is certainly unique. Thirty years on from the first release, Free At Last by the American pianist Mal Waldron, the company is still independent and still controlled by Manfred Eicher, who continues to oversee every aspect of the label's productions. Though much has been written about the ECM "house style" or the ECM "aesthetic", what is perhaps most striking about the increasingly diverse range of releases is that someone actually appears to care about them. Odd though this might seem, many albums today betray the feeling that no one involved in the process of getting them from the studio to the shop was bothered in any way at all. In the case of ECM, few records are sold - and in some cases it must be very few indeed - so each release is treated with great respect.

This approach extends to the look of the albums for, since its inception, ECM has retained a distinctive visual identity whose coherence is now more marked than that of the music itself. "We think that the idea of an ECM sound doesn't really exist," says Steve Lake, the British critic who works for the company and helped to coordinate the Brighton festival. "If you think of all the different ways the music is recorded, everything from studio multi-tracking to two-track recordings in a church, no two records are miked in the same way; the further we go, the broader the spectrum."

The exhibition in Brighton was installed by Dieter Rehm, who supervises the production of graphics and artwork for the label. He says that Manfred Eicher retains a strong involvement in determining the visuals as well as the music. "Mostly he chooses the photograph, and he's always interested when we show him our plans. Recently, there's been a big emphasis on black- and-white photographs, and a general theme of darkness and light. Personally, I feel there's a real dialogue between the original work, the eventual choice of cover, and the music. The final result becomes an important part of what Walter Benjamin called `the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction'."

The exhibition includes more than 200 examples of the label's artwork, with original designs and photographs as well as finished covers. Although photography has always been a vital part of the ECM visual identity, the earlier years were also notable for the contributions of the graphic artists Barbara and Burkhart Wojirsch. By 1970 they had already established a rather spare, minimalist, house style whose clean lines, acres of space, and sans-serif typography acted as a powerful visual metaphor for the uncluttered clarity of so many of the recordings.

When Dieter Rehm joined the label in 1978, photography became an even more important element in the process, and Barbara Wojirsch's designs increasingly incorporated the brooding landscape shots that have since come to symbolise the ECM brand image. Whatever the means employed to produce them, the covers of ECM albums are as much works of art as the records themselves. The music, of course, remains the ultimate test of excellence, and with its latest batch of uniformly excellent releases by Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Tomasz Stanko, ECM has just demonstrated a continuing commitment to the highest of standards. In this case, birthday celebrations really are deserved.

ECM - Selected Signs, a music and arts festival to celebrate the 30th anniversary of ECM Records, is on at the University of Brighton until 27 Nov. Information is available from the Sallis Benney Theatre: 01273 643010

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