Great Big Ears: ECM – A Cultural Archaeology – Notes Toward an Exhibition Okwui Enwezor
Barbara Wojirsch, untitled, cover design, 1993 John Abercrombie Trio, Speak Of The Devil (ECM 1511)
Beginnings In the 1960s, the ecology of the arts was in the midst of radical reorientation, conceptual upheaval, and systemic transformation. New spaces of artistic thought and practice were being initiated by artists across all disciplines. They were as richly variegated as they were deeply contested. In contemporary art alone, the successive interjection of new articulations in Pop Art, and the reconsideration of sculpture, stripped to its industrial foundation in Minimalism, proposed two diametrically opposed responses to modernism: one rooted in images of consumerism and commodity culture, the other implying a distance from that culture through a purifying aesthetic reduction, centered on the relationship between objecthood and subjecthood within the space of art. Though Pop and Minimalism were understood as part of the legacy of high modernism, they nevertheless anticipated its liquidation in the practices that followed their inauguration. The sixties was, therefore, the decade when many of the grand ideals of modernism came to be questioned. Alongside this questioning was the artists’ refusal to take on the inherited legacies of modernist formalism that had defined the ethos of high modernism earlier in the twentieth century and up to the end of the 1950s. The contest of meaning between what could be designated the politics and aesthetics of form (two parallel positions of artistic practice that appeared as a consequence of new aesthetic models) reached a climax in the postwar period as the bi-polar, ideological competition between socialist collectivism and capitalist consumerism reached its peak during the Cold War. During this period, contemporary artists were grappling with emergent models of creating the work of art, models that had as their starting point the undoing of the structure of the artwork itself through diverse processes of destructuring and decomposition of form across different disciplinary and theoretical formations. From Fluxus to Happenings, Pop to Minimalism, post-minimalism to anti-form, Conceptualism to process-based art, feminist art to performance art; experimentation with concepts of composition, materiality, and indexicality; the turn toward the archival in performance-oriented procedures; and the linguistic and the lexical in the anti-object position of conceptual art—all indelibly marked the era.
Today, the legacy of decomposition, destructuring, and dematerialization of the work of art initiated in the 1960s still reverberates. In many cases, these approaches have been carried forward by successive generations of artists who continue to grapple with the status of the artwork. Notwithstanding the nostalgic return to a romantic, but exaggerated, high modernism of the artist as a sentient form-giver in the short lived Neo-Expressionist art of the 1980s, today critical regimes responding to the experiments of the 1960s—from the anti-aesthetic positions of the 1980s, 1 to the institutional critique theories of the early 1990s, 2 and relational aesthetics of the mid 1990s 3—all initiated breaks with protocols of distance that informed museological systems. Each of these accounts of recent art has challenged the broad assumptions of the proper in art. And they remind us still of the fertile terrain of critical practice from fifty years ago that similarly shaped the thinking of that generation’s young artists.4 I would like to probe the important contribution of the record label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) to the field of music that emerged in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the splintering of artistic categories just described above. The reasons are obvious: The present exhibition, ECM – A Cultural Archaeology, is organized within the context of a contemporary art institution (Haus der Kunst) that has insistently staged the proximity between artistic disciplines as the foundation of all contemporary art. In this sense, the exhibition offers an analysis of ECM through that proximity. And here, the historical moment of the 1960s is crucial. The cultural and artistic context of ECM – A Cultural Archaeology is therefore, embedded in the upheavals that attended the choices made by artists in developing their work in the 1960s. ECM, the independent record label founded in Munich in 1969 by Manfred Eicher a musician, and Karl Egger, a local businessman, 5 appeared at a time when the production and publishing of a kind of rigorous improvised and avant-garde jazz music in Europe required new orientation and demanded a different artistic framework. In 1969, Manfred Eicher was a little-known, twenty-sixyear-old German bassist who had played in a number of jazz bands and had served as producer on several recordings in Munich. He initially produced music for Calig Records and for several other recording companies, including the legendary Deutsche Grammophon. Karl
Great Big E ars
Barbara Wojirsch, untitled, cover design, n.d. Shankar, Whoâ€™s To Know ( ECM 1195 ) Barbara Wojirsch, untitled, cover design, 1990 Jan Garbarek, I Took Up The Runes ( ECM 1419 )
Barbara Wojirsch, untitled, cover design, 1990 Jon Balke / Oslo 13, Nonsentration ( ECM 1445) Barbara Wojirsch, untitled, sketch, n.d. Jon Balke / Oslo 13, Nonsentration ( ECM 1445)
Great Big E ars
record. Having made the choice of the label’s name along the lines of an editioned work, Eicher needed to go forward to clarify the differences between his approach to producing music and the way other independent labels—such as FMP, ESP, the French label BYG Actuel, and others—did their work. These labels were predominantly American. As a professionally educated and trained musician, Eicher, who studied in Berlin, was not only highly knowledgeable about classical jazz—along with the radical forms of improvised playing that emerged from it in the 1950s in the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others—but also in recordings of the ever forward-looking Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and Archie Shepp throughout the 1960s. In addition to his deep knowledge, and having produced a number of records before founding ECM, Eicher was also fluent in contemporary avant-garde music and European classical music. But beyond that, Eicher’s ear was also open to other musical traditions, including the music of Scandinavia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic region. His great facility in understanding and interpreting formal aspects of modern music and the repertoire of the European tradition gave him a unique insight into the developments in experimental jazz forms. Intuitively, he felt there was something lacking in commercial recordings. Eicher wanted listeners of ECM’s recordings to hear a deeper, tonally richer, spatially expansive, and luminous sound. As ECM historian Paul Griffiths has noted, to hold an ECM recording is to have in your hands “something well made, something composed.” 13 Though Eicher claims to having had no specific conceptual plan, “just an openness to the music,” 14 by the end of the first year of its existence, it was clear that ECM was like no other extant independent record label. 15 The label was conceived as a vehicle for the most advanced and daring recordings by young American and European jazz musicians, such as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Marion Brown, Leo Smith, Terje Rypdal, Eberhard Weber, and others. But beyond that, Eicher’s conception of the studio in his approach to recording and sound mixing created a distinctive, hard–to-emulate luminosity and transparency to ECM’s productions. To hear the music, while simultaneously occupying the space of the music was one of the central innovations of what has been termed the transparency of ECM’s recordings. To achieve such
a feat required not only a change in recording techniques, but also meant bringing a more arduous approach to organizing the recordings by sharpening and shaping the music so as to bring out its full complexity. It was his base of knowledge and the tenacity of his vision (surprising for such an unheralded and unknown producer) that formed the foundation of what would become Eicher’s life’s work. In the more than forty years since he founded ECM, the record label would go on to capture some of the most accomplished musicians of a generation of composers and players to emerge from the 1960s avant-garde scene in jazz and minimal music. The Producer as Auteur In the history of recorded music there are very few instances in which almost the entire production of a record label is so intertwined and linked to the efforts and vision of one individual, as Manfred Eicher is with ECM. While ECM was at first intensely focused on recording avant-garde jazz and improvisation as each new form emerged from the radical rupture initiated by free jazz in the 1960s, in the years that followed—and in 1984 with the founding of the New Series devoted to contemporary written and classical music—ECM’s musical heritage expanded to include a carefully curated range of styles and traditions, musicians and composers, all defined by the artistic consideration of the music. With the first recording in the New Series, Tabula Rasa (1984, ECM 1275), the landmark work by Arvo Pärt, Eicher launched the series at the highest level possible, working with one of the world’s most important living composers. After noting that ECM spent the previous fifteen years recording jazz and improvised music (although the label’s output cannot be classified in such reductive terms), Paul Griffiths nonetheless captures the seminal importance of the launch of the New Series: Then something strange happened: the New Series. What had been preeminently a jazz label, for want of a better word, was now home also to classical music, for want of a better word. There had been some preparation for this in the release of recordings by New York musicians whose work was largely composed: Steve Reich and Meredith Monk. But the arrival of Arvo Pärt in 1984 opened all kinds of new doors: to
Great Big E ars
connections with other composers from the already fading Soviet Union; to Bach, whether played by Keith Jarrett or by Thomas Demenga; to albums from the great early years of chamber music festival at the Austrian castle of Lockenhaus; to troubadour songs sung by Paul Hillier; to Stockhausen and to Schubert. 16 The New Series then, marked not only a new direction for the label, but for Eicher it united and expanded at once all aspects of his complex musical history and intellectual heritage. Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa was therefore much more than a new record and a fresh start for the composer who had rarely been heard in a considered way in the West, outside the Soviet Union, behind the so-called Iron Curtain. ECM’s release of the record finally accorded Pärt’s music a broader public both in a critical sense and a popular one. There is something symbiotic between Pärt and Eicher. As Griffiths stated, “the ECM release gained the composer vastly more listeners, and more opportunities. It was for him, a fresh start, tabula rasa. For the label too. The New Series was born, creating a home for newly composed music replete with history and for older music performed with freshness.” 17 Music replete with history and performed with freshness. The New Series was not all about the search for the new, for what is current, and therefore destined to become commonplace. Rather, the new was about deepening the producer’s commitment to the oceanic art of music, letting the music lead one to wherever and whatever period. The recording history of ECM and Eicher’s rigorous standards of production read like one huge, capacious, but insistently considered oeuvre. Within this oeuvre, the imprimatur of the producer is as distinctive as his choice of music. Even the images and typographical austerity that define the album covers do not escape the producer’s aversion to flash and razzmatazz. The reason for this is fairly obvious: Eicher’s artistic vision not only encompasses the production values of the music itself, but also the logic that the music stands for a complex set of ideas and artistic values that cannot be redeemed by packaging. His directorial approach to the selection of material, the order in which successive compositions are heard, and the close collaboration with each artist, ensure that every recording responds to, and corresponds with, the most demanding conceptions of
the composition, in a way that enhances and heightens the reception and the nature of the music. Every serious reflection on the work of ECM has correctly placed strong emphasis on the music. That is to be expected. However, there is a tendency to regard ECM’s work as the holy grail of exacting and superb recording craftsmanship, of a music produced almost from the viewpoint of pure autonomy, without consideration of commercial success. Despite the justly won accolades that have been showered on ECM, it would be a mistake to carry on this line of thinking that “only the music matters,” without considering the enormous conceptual thought put into the entire representation (the music) and presentation (the packaging) of the recordings. Historically, ECM represents a venture in which some of the most advanced, and oftentimes difficult, noncommercial forms of contemporary music were made available to a broad public that is receptive to it and willing to give time listening to that music. To make the music receptive and accessible, however, required the development of an identity and a distinctive visual program. It is along these lines that Eicher’s vision was further imprinted. The design, photography, and typography of the album and CD covers were all employed toward a distinctive, spare graphic language that sets ECM’s aesthetic apart from those of its peers. The ECM iconographic language has become a sort of visual code for both the seriousness of the music and the decluttering of the visual field in which the music is presented. 18 Barbara Wojirsch’s low-key designs and abstract imagery created a distinctive visual field that became easily recognizable. Wojirsch’s designs avoided a specific formula that would have been followed ad nauseam. Instead, she approached each design the way an artist would. Every record cover, therefore, was shaped in a way that maintained the desired visual austerity, but nevertheless was individual. An analogous example in design would be Peter Saville’s great designs of the late 1970s and 1980s for Factory Records that gave the electronic-driven pop music of the label a thrilling, stylish, minimalist aesthetic. But it must be said that before Factory Records existed, ECM was already there. While the label and the producer are distinct entities, the interdependence between Eicher as producer and artistic director of the ECM label and his relationship to the musicians, composers, and sound
engineers 19 might lead to a consideration of his conception of ECM along the lines of the work of the auteur. More than ninety percent of ECM’s roughly 1,200 albums have been produced by Eicher alone, a prodigious output that can only reinforce a consideration of his work from the point of view of the producer as auteur. The concept of the auteur emerged in French film criticism in the 1950s. Initially associated with the writers and filmmakers such as André Bazin, François Truffaut, JeanLuc Goddard, Éric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol, who were aligned with the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, the idea was that the director creates the conditions and brings together into clear, aesthetic coherence all the varied aspects of a film’s collective and industrial production. Such films tend to be small scale, with aesthetic control and production decisions exerted by the director to shape the final cut of the film, to such a degree as to bring about a distinctive, personal approach. The distinctive, personal approach that Eicher brought to his productions of ECM records could be regarded as similar to the auteur filmmakers’ highly personal vision, which was often ambivalent, and most of the time hostile toward popular commercial cinema. In fact, the connection between auteurism and Eicher is not merely a suggestion of stylistic affinities, but can be found in his own personal taste for certain types of cinema, especially in the cinema of the French nouvelle vague (new wave) of the 1960s that included Jean-Luc Godard as one of its singular figures, as well as the films of Ingmar Bergman. Godard and Bergman epitomized both the heroic figure of the auteur concept’s idiosyncrasy, and the anti-hero of popular, commercial cinema. Eicher’s longstanding collaboration with Godard for more than twenty years (recording and producing soundtracks for Godard’s films, publishing and releasing the monumental Histoire(s) du Cinema [1997, ECM 1706], the DVD and audio versions of Godard’s film Nouvelle Vague [1990, ECM 1600], among other soundtracks for Godard’s Notre Musique , etc.) represents the keenest acknowledgment of how his own motivations as a producer align with those of the auteur filmmaker. This is both a mark of deep respect and love for the values of Godard’s art, but also a tacit acknowledgment that for ECM to thrive, and for his musical contribution to the field to endure, there is no room for slackening on the rigor of his creative vision.
Exhibiting ECM It is the task of this exhibition, then, to trace the network of thinking that knits together Eicher as auteur producer, ECM, and the musicians and composers. Each has provided the material that has shaped the collaborations, and has made the music and the recordings enduring. Despite the view that the figure of the auteur producer might easily overshadow the work of the musicians themselves or elevate the producer over the composer, it is nevertheless apposite to invoke the concept in all the ways that Eicher’s work with ECM touches on the fundamental connection between artistic disciplines in music, film, performance, theater, graphic design, photography, and contemporary art. If we consider ECM – A Cultural Archaeology as an exhibition staged at the nexus where artistic disciplines converge in some of the most profound and rewarding synthesis—linking art, dance, performance, and music as they evolved from the 1960s onward—we will see why it might make sense to treat the notable contribution and work of the producer as essential to the understanding of the creative energies at play during a recording. As I began thinking about this exhibition, the principal question was not how to display music. Nor was it exclusively about exhibiting the story of a record label (especially one notorious for its inarchivist predilections) through documents and artifacts alone. An important concern was how to adequately represent to the public the monumental work of Manfred Eicher and ECM ( Edition of Contemporary Music ) , while making clear that the work is both monographic and polysemic. From the beginning, the idea was to approach the task by deviating from a strictly monographic treatment of the subject, and instead to explore the world-making devices that lie at the heart of ECM’s artistic enterprise, namely the collaborative nature of making music, and to show the extent of the reach of the ideas that are both encompassed and embodied by the music. I wanted to render the relationship of ECM to multiple artistic disciplines, from the films of Jean-Luc Goddard, Theodor Kotulla, and Peter Greenaway; to the concerts of Keith Jarrett and The Art Ensemble of Chicago; to the performances of Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, and Codona; to the graphic designs of Barbara Wojirsch; and the photographs of Dieter Rehm, Roberto Masotti, Ralph Quinke, Andreas Raggenbass, Deborah Feingold,
Great Big E ars
and others. The idea of investigating the work of Eicher and ECM is thus predicated both on the processes of archivization and recension, the release of the archive from archaeological sedimentation. Such a process presupposes a work of excavation of cultural fields inhabited by the label, searching for connections and affinities rather than distilling a singularity. It was always the intention of the exhibition to stage the recording project of ECM at the intersection of musical and visual worlds, particularly those that might lead to the consideration of the responses of a number of contemporary artists to the musical landscape that ECM helped to shape. However, we do this exploration in a limited way through the inclusion of a small number of contemporary artists whose interest in free jazz parallels the productions of ECM. Viewers of the exhibition will find in Stan Douglas’s installation piece Hors Champs (1992), and Anri Sala’s film Long Sorrow (2005), artistic relations to free jazz that connect the musical events of the 1960s and recent concerns of artistic archaeology in the practice of contemporary artists. Renée Green, whose work appears in the project only through an essayistic notation and a series of prints in the catalogue, mines the experience of listening to ECM’s recordings over many years. The Otholith Group—in a newly commissioned work staged in dialogue with material from ECM’s archive and interviews with Manfred Eicher and others connected to the work of the music trio Codona (Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, and Naná Vasconcelos ) —map a reticular investigation of the transculturality of Codona in their new video essay, New Light (2012). Aesthetics and the Politics of Form: ECM and Great Black Music I started this essay recalling the unstable ground of the arts in the 1960s. And I should not end it without further elaborating a number of questions evoked by the significance of that period’s political, cultural, artistic, and intellectual changes. Thinking of this exhibition, then, was not only about bringing into view an array of objective facts and supporting documentation to show that ECM did what and where, and with whom and when. One key proposal was to present the underlying conceptual architecture of the project in the frame of which everything else stands. But the architecture can also function as a compass leading into the complicated geographies of formal artistic decisions and agendas
of socio-cultural disputes within the music. When the Art Ensemble of Chicago employs in the phrase “Great Black Music,” as a banner for it’s brand of experimentation and classicism, what do we do with the silence that surrounds that phrase? If we hear in that phrase the emancipatory position-taking of a beleaguered cultural group, its significance seems to be in its articulating the exilic status of the black avant-garde within conceptions of great cultural traditions and Western-dominated artistic movements. The exilic, that is to say the marginal status of “great black music” within mainstream institutions and canonical systems, infused the Art Ensemble of Chicago and many African-American artists with a sense of urgency to assert their music’s cultural credibility and artistic importance. Frank Kofsky makes this very point in his book Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, a book written in the midst of the revolution in jazz spearheaded by artists like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and others. 20 This was particularly the case for those artists who came to prominence during the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Even in Europe, where there was widespread reception of the music of African-American artists, its lasting imprint in the narratives of the innovations of the ’60s is either smudged or its traces erased. As George Lewis, the trombonist and noted jazz scholar, wrote in his monumental history of the African-American avantgarde collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), 21 “despite the fact that black post-bebop musicians of the 1960s had an enormous and lasting impact on Parisian cultural life, their activities are rarely mentioned in either historical and fictional accounts.” 22 Lewis goes on to note that, “In fact, the period of the 1960s onwards appears to constitute a black hole as far as histories of AfricanAmerican Paris are concerned.” 23 The same is true in other European countries and cities, such as Sweden (Stockholm), Netherlands (Amsterdam), Denmark (Copenhagen ), and Germany ( Berlin, Munich, etc. ) . Despite these lacunae, ECM is one of the strongest canonical acknowledgments in Europe of the work of African-American musicians who emerged in the 1960s. In fact, the recordings of ECM bring the vivid colors of the accomplishments of these artists into high relief.
Back side of Mal Waldronâ€™s album Free at Last (ECM 1001), 1969
Great Big E ars
A page of a musical score by Mal Waldron, “Rat Now” from the album Free at Last (ECM 1001) , 1969
ECM’s first release, Free at Last (1969, ECM 1001) by Mal Waldron (erstwhile musical director for Billie Holliday’s band) stands in sharp contrast to Lewis’s argument of the erasure of the African-American jazz musician’s contribution to the cultural life of Paris during the same period. In his introduction to Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, Steve Lake identifies in the title of Mal Waldron’s album Free At Last, an attempt to structure a belief in free playing, by which he means improvisation. 24 While free playing certainly suggests the freedom to take unconventional paths in making music, there is a deeper underlying meaning to the title of Waldron’s Free at Last that is much more than about playing freely. Given the historical significance of this record as the first in a line of superb recordings, it is necessary not to gloss over the essential and deeper meaning of the title. “Free at last” is more than just a phrase for the wish to play freely. As a choice of title by an African American musician living out his last years in exile in Europe—Munich to be specific—the title cannot but beg for a revisionist reappraisal. At this juncture it might be helpful to return briefly to AACM. The work of the collective and the development of mid-century African-American vanguardist music emerged from the early movement of African-Americans from the rural American South to the urban centers and cities of the North, a process now known as the Great Migration. 25 From the 1920s to the 1950s, people living in black communities in the mostly rural South sought sanctuary in northern cities, away from racial segregation and violence that stemmed from state and local Jim Crow laws. 26 But the epic journey that was the Great Migration not only brought musicians and their families to northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, it was also a migration of sounds, forms, and cultures. This demographic shift would culminate in 1969 with the first visit to Europe by the eight members of AACM (many of whose families had moved North from the rural South), the collective avant-garde group of African-American musicians founded in Chicago in 1965. Incidentally, the group arrived in Europe the same year that Manfred Eicher was launching ECM, and through its recordings would affect and change the relationship between African-American avant-garde music and Europe. Though neither ECM nor Manfred Eicher have explicitly discussed the importance of the confluence of narratives that have both cultural and political implications, the broad trans-
cultural interest of ECM’s record speaks to that critical interplay. Reticent and modest in discussing what he has achieved, Eicher has noted that “those who are serious about culture will try to position themselves at the periphery and see how they are mirrored from there.” 27 Mal Waldron, in a short note written to introduce that first recording for ECM, refers to the bassist on the recording, Isla Eckinger, as having “great big ears meaning the ability to hear and respond to everything that happens inside the music.” 28 He could have been describing the producer of that album. No one has a bigger ear than Eicher, and with that sensitive ear comes also a deep empathy and affinity for great music and musicians. As Eicher has written about his work: The curiosity that leads us, time and again, to draw inspiration from the remotest sources, classical and modern. Seclusion at close quarters means travelling between cultures and languages, but also travelling into history. The result is a roaming tendency, an ever-changing contemporaneity with the Old and the New, with composers of the Middle Ages and the modern alike. 29 Free Jazz and “Free at Last”: Tradition and Its Discontents The roaming that Eicher speaks about, it should be underscored, does not mean vagabondage or itinerancy. This brings us back to Free at Last, and the idea of free playing, between tradition and modernity, formalism and experimentation. By strange coincidence, jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler had recorded a little-known pop-inflected vocal tune called “Free at Last” in the album New Grass (Impulse records, 1968). So certainly, the phrase was already in circulation within the musical world of jazz. How might we translate the concept of freedom within and outside the music of an AfricanAmerican expatriate jazz musician like Mal Waldron living in Munich, where he played in the city’s small but thriving jazz clubs? There are at least three nodes of thought around which the phrase “free at last” can be interpreted. Waldron’s album title touches elliptically on, but also hints explicitly at, a range of questions that
Great Big E ars
preoccupied most advanced African-American artists at the end of the 1960s. First was the fate of experimental formats of contemporary practice and the spaces of production, reception, and engagement with challenging forms of music; the second involved the contested formats of free jazz, a phrase that Steve Lake alluded to in his invocation of free playing; third was the emancipatory processes set in motion by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the postcolonial and decolonization processes of the 1960s. Let’s consider each of these three points briefly. Certainly, the emancipatory urgency of Waldron’s album title speaks to the possibility of creative freedom that might be antagonistic to processes of commodification. Artists within free jazz were resisting the corporate structure that accompanied such commodification, thus seeking to escape the logic of standardized production of uniform commercial products in an advanced capitalist economy. The critique of the commodity form, at least from the position of the new left and Marxist theory, was at this time the territory of all vanguard aspirations. Contemporary artists across multiple disciplines and thinkers of various stripes were contending with how to shape and limn the features of that territory associated with artistic autonomy. Free playing in this sense would have been synonymous with absolute creative freedom. Having that creative freedom without the exertions of the market was what made ECM so appealing to the artists. And working with a producer who made that freedom part of the credo of the relationship between producer and musician cemented that relationship. That most agreements between ECM and its stable of artists have lasted the entire history of the label with little more than a handshake and no contract speaks also to the enormous personal and professional trust earned on both ends. At a time when contemporary jazz was seen to have succumbed to commercialization, a situation that led to pronouncements of the “death of jazz,” 30 ECM was showing the vitality of jazz. The second point suggested by the notion of freedom directly references the radical form of improvisation (free playing) that had occurred nearly a decade earlier when Ornette Coleman’s double quartet (a group that comprised such musicians as Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Haden, who would become deeply associated with ECM) released the monumental and seminal Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation
album in 1960. Free Jazz launched a debate not only about the structure of jazz music, but also about its relationship to preceding canonical work of earlier jazz styles, such as bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, and so on. At the center of free jazz was the idea of improvisation and group dynamics, out of which individual positions emerged autonomously, but nevertheless responded to the collective. Such group dynamics enunciated a truly radical idea of freedom that did not marginalize the collective spirit. Free jazz was not an everyone-on-hisown proposition, but an approach in which individuals cleared territories that prepared the ground for others to enter. 31 Waldron was explicit in this regard. In his liner note, he writes: “As you can see and hear, this album marks for me a different approach to my music. It represents my meeting with free jazz. Free Jazz for me does not mean complete anarchy or disorganized sound. In my vocabulary, disorganized sound still means noise. And don’t forget that the definition of music is organized sound.” 32 Finally, we come to the big elephant in the room, politics and art, a subject matter rarely broached in discussions of ECM. British jazz critic John Fordham, in his essay “ECM and European Jazz,” touches on this issue very briefly, when he writes: Many improvisers around Europe, seeing the process [free jazz] as having political as much as an aesthetic motivation (as Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Sun Ra’s Arkestra or the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra Association were doing in the United States), began setting up alternative infrastructures, soon developing Europe-wide links to challenge the dominance of established jazz promoters and record labels. 33 A European-owned record label working in harmony with musicians across cultural and political fault lines is not new. In fact, it is part of the standard practice in the recording industry that often highlights the tension between those who own the product and those possessing the means of production. It is hardly controversial to admit that jazz music, especially in Europe, does not exist free of the dilemma of exclusion and marginalization that has historically colored the life of African-American
artists. At the end of their interview, when Steve Lake introduced the context of politics to Eicher, in the development of free jazz, asked: “Did free jazz have a political meaning for you in the 1960s—as it did for some players— or was your interest in it purely sonic?” Eicher’s reply was a characteristic non-answer to the question. Instead, he offered a response that goes deeper into the conundrum of the place of the political in free playing: “I felt at home in this music because it was in tune with my thinking— the way I thought about society and life. But then I feel very much at home in music, because music is freedom to me—no matter how strict the form.” 34 Any consideration of the legacy of ECM and of the place of Waldron’s album in that history cannot, therefore, be separated from the specific moment when the label emerged as an advocate for and champion of a number of artists who were rethinking the place of improvisation in contemporary music. ECM was founded at the end of a historically pivotal and challenging decade, an era when the explosive issues connected to emancipatory political and cultural logics were not only reshaping modern society, but also transforming the arts. No account of the arts set in the 1960s can avoid the political turmoil, social upheaval, cultural instability, economic uncertainty, and ideological rigidity of the Cold War that defined that era. Emerging from the ruins of the Second World War and the full-scale postwar reconstruction of Europe that followed in its wake, the idea of a dominant imperial system and colonial power was doomed. All over the world new societies and nations—from Indochina to Indonesia, Algeria to India—were emerging from the smoldering pile of colonialism, while new rules of cultural subjectivity were being written. The world system, the name that sociologist and political theorist Immanuel Wallerstein gave to the emerging global order, was in the grips of an epistemological transformation. It is here that we must return to “free at last,” a phrase that ended Martin Luther King’s compelling “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered on August 28, 1963, during the historic civil rights “March on Washington,” and which culminated on the Washington Mall at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where the speech was delivered before more than 200,000 civil rights marchers. In 1970, James Furman wrote I Have a Dream, an oratorio in tribute to King, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Toward the end of his 17-minute speech, King had
evoked the idea of freedom in a sequence of refrains connected to African American’’ struggles, since slavery, for equality in the United States. The last lines of the speech present the climax, in which King linked AfricanAmerican aspirations and the concept of freedom as it emanated from a pre-twentieth-century Negro spiritual: And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! 35 In these last few lines of King’s speech, it is fair to see why Waldron’s evocation of the themes of the speech carries itself past free playing and leads to the roots of creative autonomy and individual political freedom. A cursory tour of the 1960s therefore, reveals a field opened wide in the wake of revolutions of the Third World, decolonization, the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, labor unrest, student uprisings, and multiple forms of intellectual and artistic insurgency. The fields of music, performance, theater, and the world of letters, theory, philosophy—in short an entire universe of ideas— were fighting to break with an antiquated system of enforced conformity and institutional obedience. In contemporary art, artists were setting new agendas between what could be called the aesthetics of form on the one hand, and the politics of form on the other. The dialectic between aesthetics and politics came to distinguish intellectual alliances and criteria for artistic formats as well. In the arts, skepticism toward humanism gave rise to new considerations of contemporary art, from the proto-postmodern irony of Pop Art to the detached repetitiveness and seriality of Minimalism. In the present exhibition, traces of the ideas of that vanguard, though muffled, will pierce through the shimmering, transparent recordings of ECM.
Great Big E ars
ECM and Interdisciplinary Forms Let me end with another important intersection in the work of ECM: contemporary art, music, and performance. In the summer of 2010, I was invited to a performance given by members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the company’s studios located in the sprawling Westbeth apartment complex in Manhattan’s West Village. The occasion for this invitation-only performance by the company—following the death of Cunningham a year earlier—was the beginning of an archival project geared toward the preservation of Cunningham’s staggering oeuvre. The performance that summer afternoon, by a group of six dancers, was the rarely performed Rainforest, a dance piece choreographed by Cunningham in 1968, just a year before ECM was founded. Rainforest was accompanied by an electronic music score by the composer David Tudor, with set design by Andy Warhol, whose helium-filled silver pillows floated across the dance space. Bounding into the dance floor, the muscular dancers led a charge of powerful, animated movements whose feral quality responded to the archaic growling, bellowing, hissing, and stuttering emitted by Tudor’s score. Watching the dancers’ vigorous movements, their displays of carnal provocation, along with the electronic score’s simulations of sounds and colors from the natural world, gave one the impression that we had arrived at the dawn of first nights. Tudor’s score, made up entirely of electronic sounds, was as unforgettable as the dance itself. Two years after I witnessed that performance, its memory remains vivid. Recently recalling that afternoon in New York got me thinking about how a figure like Manfred Eicher, a visionary and innovator of recorded music who founded ECM during an era of unbounded experimentation, fits into the polyphony of artistic structures of the 1960s, when Rainforest was choreographed. Eicher’s debut as a producer in 1969 was not the mere accident of his artistic enthusiasm for the new—the most radical aesthetic forms that were transforming the spaces of contemporary music and the tension that existed between that music and canonical forms, be they jazz, written music, and classical European repertory of scored compositions. Instead, ECM was conceived as a vehicle for a thoughtful musical idea: to record the most experimental and ambitious artists of the time under the most rigorous
and attentive conditions of studio production solely for the music’s artistic merit. Eicher believed that a new way of recording music would impact its reception and, in time, bring about a deeper understanding of the different sonic concepts driving the performances of, and listening to that music. Eicher’s central innovation and the foundation of his influence was to change the way the music was recorded and heard. However, nothing in his background could have predicted the impact that his work would have in a very short period of time. The connection between Cunningham’s dance, Tudor’s music, Warhol’s set designs, and this exhibition, ECM – A Cultural Archaeology, might not immediately seem obvious. However, they are part of a linked world of interdisciplinary boundary crossing that has been a feature of the relationship between art and other disciplines. The sensation that remained after seeing Rainforest and listening to Tudor’s music came back to me recently while viewing Theodor Kotulla’s See the Music (1972), a rarely screened film of a performance by Marion Brown, Leo Smith, Manfred Eicher, Fred Bracewell, and Thomas Stöwsand in a small Munich nightclub. In the film, a group of musicians are shown on stage in a fever of autonomous improvisations that retain the quality of a collaborative project, even as the performance advances over time. The stage on which the performance takes place is organized in a way that suggests the genre of an art installation. Arranged horizontally across the space are a variety of musical instruments, including domestic kitchen utensils hung on metal racks; flat, thin sheets of metal on the floor; as well as traditional musical instruments, such as double bass, bassoon, trumpet, drums, etc. Along with the performance, the film intersperses interviews of Brown and Smith speaking about their work. The setting of See the Music, as well as the music and the performance that formed the core of the film, was very much reminiscent of Rainforest. The 1960s and 1970s were rife with these kinds of multilayered interactions. Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach (1976), John Adams’s opera Nixon in China (1987), and any number of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater productions all give a sense of the musical and artistic ecology inhabited by ECM. It is therefore crucial to not merely evoke these correspondences but to suggest them as paths into the work of ECM itself. It seems inconceivable to me that a consideration of Eicher’s work as a producer and the
recordings of ECM can be confined within the terrain of avant-garde jazz, improvisation, and contemporary written music alone. Eicher’s work and that of the record label represent an important legacy of twentiethcentury cultural accomplishment. ECM’s work fills a vast space in contemporary cultural imagination that is as unique as it is exemplary. Watching Cunningham’s Rainforest that afternoon in 2010 reminded me not only of the enormous charged landscape of the arts, across all disciplines to which the 1960s gave rise, but also of the horizontal field of collaborations between artists, composers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, filmmakers, and writers that sustained the experiments in, and transformations of, aesthetic logics. Eicher is part of a generation of creative thinkers whose practices have had a profound impact on our understanding of contemporary culture since the 1960s. That ECM and Manfred Eicher are now entering the fifth decade in this experiment in thinking, composing, playing, and hearing is all the more reason to stage this exhibition, which comes on the eve of his seventieth birthday. Through all these years, Eicher has maintained his great big ears. His keenness for great music and sounds yet to be heard remain as sharp as ever.
18 There have been several analytical treatments of the designs accompanying ECM’s album and CD covers, including the use of photography and typography. See Lars Müller, ed., Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010). See also Manfred Eicher, Sleeves of Desire: A Cover Story, edited by Lars Müller (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 1996). 19 Over the course of the existence of ECM, two sound engineers, Martin Wieland based in Ludwigsburg and Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo, have played essential roles in shaping the so-called transparency of ECM’s sound. 20 See Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder, 1970). 21 There is more than a facile connection in the name Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) with the civil rights group National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in the early twentieth century to advance the political interests of African Americans in the United States. 22 George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 220. 23 Ibid. 24 Lake, “Introduction,” Horizons Touched, 1 — 4. 25 For a recent historical account of the epic nature of the Great Migration as seen from the lives of four distinct African American families, see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 26 Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself, 220, 27 Manfred Eicher, “The Periphery and the Center,” in Horizons Touched, 8. 28 Mal Waldron, Free at Last (Munich: ECM Records, 1969). The note is on the back cover of the original LP and on the inside sleeve of the CD. 29 Eicher, op. cit., 8. 30 The pronouncement of the death of jazz could have had some affiliation to post-structuralist and postmodernist theory of the late 1960s, when successive attempts were made to mark the death of the author, the death of God, the death of painting, etc. See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image- Music-Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), 142 — 148. 31 On the underlying philosophy behind “free playing” Jarrett offers an especially considered reflection on the creative power behind the work of improvisation. For a more nuanced reading of the act of improvisation see Keith Jarrett’s essay, “Inside Out: Thoughts on Free Playing” in Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, pp. 239 — 243 32 Waldron, op. cit. 33 John Fordham, “ECM and European Jazz,” in Horizons Touched, 13 — 14. 34 Lake, “The Free Matrix: An Interview with Manfred Eicher,” in Horizons Touched, 224. 35 Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963, accessed October 13, 2012, www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
1 See Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983). 2 See Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009). 3 See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002). 4 For an exploration of the impact of the 1960s on the work of recent contemporary artists, see James Meyer, “Return of the Sixties in Contemporary Art and Criticism,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, edited by Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 324 — 332. 5 See Steve Lake, “Introduction,” in Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, Steve Lake and Paul Griffiths, eds. (London: Granta Books, 2007), 1. For a detailed chronology of the history of ECM, please consult Lake’s chronology of ECM elsewhere in this volume. 6 JAPO Records, named after Jazz by Post, was an ECM-sub-label that existed from 1970 to 1984. The recordings of the label featured productions by Steve Lake, Jack DeJohnette, Manfred Eicher, and Håken Elmquist—with a majority of the projects overseen by Thomas Stöwsand. 7 Please see the Roundtable discussion, pp. 66. 8 Lake and Griffiths, Horizons Touched, 219. 9 Ibid. 10 Ibid. 11 Over the past five decades, several exhibitions have been devoted to exploring the language of the multiple and the edition in contemporary art. Notable among them are the 1965 exhibition “Works of Art in Editions” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and “Ars Multiplicata. Vervielfältigte Kunst seit 1945” at Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Kunsthalle Köln, [Cologne], January 13 to April 15, 1968. It was the first survey of multiples. See Germano Celant, ed., The Small Utopia: Ars Multiplicata (Venice: Fondazione Prada, 2012). 12 Lake and Griffiths, Horizons Touched, 220. 13 Paul Griffiths, “Bread and Water,” in ECM: Catalogue 2009/10 (Munich: ECM, 2009) 1. 14 See the Roundtable discussion, pp. 66. 15 Lake, “Introduction,” Horizons Touched, 1 — 4. 16 Griffiths, “Bread and Water,” 2. 17 Paul Griffiths, “Now, and Then,” in Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa (Munich and Vienna: ECM Records and Universal Edition, 2010), 5.
Stills from See the Music ( 1971 ) by Theodor Kotulla