ECM in focus
Just as Decca is known as the label that lost the Beatles, ECM could have been known as the label that lost John Adams. But, other than triggering Adams' defection to Nonesuch, Manfred Eicher's decision not to travel to San Francisco for ECM's pioneering 1984 recording of Harmonium seems to have done his fiercely independent label very little harm.
While other record companies are cutting staff, orchestras are cutting pay, and radio stations are cutting quality, ECM remains in rude health; despite not a single appearance of the highly fashionable word download on its website, and despite not a single appearance by a young female (or male) violinst clad in a wet T-shirt on its sleeve artwork. While others flounder ECM sticks to the knitting, and this autumn the label celebrates its 40th birthday with a range of releases that stand head and shoulders above the musical equivalent of airport fiction that is now the bread and butter of the corporate classical labels.
Keith Jarrett has made a major contribution to ECM's longevity. His best selling 1975 Köln Concert has bankrolled many of Manfred Eicher's more arcane projects, and this debt is recognised by the release of the new 3 CD Testament set which captures Jarrett playing solo in concert in Paris and London in 2008. You either love Keith Jarrett or you hate him. But even those who are in the former category will be sorely tried by Jarrett's self-indulgent sleeve note for Testament.
Also in ECM's autumn schedule is a follow-up to Norwegian lutenist Rolf Lislevand's 2006 Nuove Musiche album. Jordi Savall's very successful Alia Vox label shares ECM's qualities of independence and integrity, and Rolf Lislevand often performs with Jordi Savall. Nuove Musiche was a rare ECM example of 'if you can't beat them, join them' and recognised the Savall phenomena down to including Savall daughter Arianna and longtime Hesperion XX/XI member Pedro Estevan in its line-up. Diminuito follows the same formula without the Savall sidemen (sidepeople?) and a group of leading early musicians are let off the leash to embelish music from the early Italian baroque. But I am afraid those wordless floating soprano lines are just too far the New Age side of Jordi Savall for me.
Staying with the guitar family, Ralph Towner is joined by Paolo Fresu on trumpet and flugelhorn for a new CD titled Chiaroscuro. I have long admired Towner's solo albums for ECM; but so often his collabarations, this one included, come over as not totally successful attempts to relight the fire that blazed on the Oregon albums he made for Vanguard and ECM. Which reminds me I must write about Oregon, the successors to Codona, sometime.
Phantasy of Spring from violinist Carolin Widmann and pianist Simon Lepper perfectly captures the spirit of ECM. An uncompromising programme of Morton Feldman, Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Arnold Schönberg and Iannis Xenakis gets excellent notes by the composer Raiiner Peters and sleeve artwork (below) which is flagrantly out of focus even by ECM's standards. Phantasy of Spring alone will give more musical nourishment than the entire autumn release schedules of some of the larger labels.
Which brings me to three more new ECM releases that fall into the 'worth walking over broken glass for' category. ECM has been a stalwart champion of Valentin Silvestrov's music over the years, and their discs of his Silent Songs and Requiem for Larissa are treasured by those who prefer individual voices to dedicated followers of new music fashion. In November the Kiev Chamber Choir directed by Mykola Hobdych bring us an album of Silvestrov's sacred a-capella works which will delight those who are in-the-know about Silvestrov ('Arvo Pärt’s favourite composer'), and which will surprise those who have not yet discovered Ukraine's best kept secret after their football team.
It is only a short distance south from Ukraine to another former member of the Soviet Union, Armenia. There is a great musical tradition in Armenia, and the 20th century composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) started a musical renaissance which has been carried forward by some outstanding contemporary composers. These include Tigran Mansurian , and the 2004 2 CD set Monodia brought together ECM house artists Jan Garbarek, American/Armenian viola player Kim Kashkashian and the Hilliard Ensemble to showcase his music. Now comes Neharót Neharót which couples two of Mansurian's works with music from Komitas and from the Israeli composers Betty Olivero (Alex Ross approved) and Eitan Steinberg.
It is unfair to select individual highlights from a disc that in its entirety is one of the musical highlights of 2009. But Tigram Mansurian's Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord for viola and percussion is welcome confirmation that new music can still surprise and delight, while the contributions to Neharót Neharót from the two Israeli composers confirm my view that the Near East is musically where things are really happening right now. The accompanying essay from Paul Griffiths, another ECM regular, provides yet more proof that accessibility and quality are not mutually exclusive.
Over the last 40 years ECM has been largely responsible for rendering conventional music categories obsolete. Contempoary music has been reinvented as a Venn diagram where the overlapping circles represent conventional classical, world, jazz, rock, and folk genres. If there is one factor that can explain ECM's success over the last 40 years, it is Manfred Eicher's unique ability to position his projects in unexploited areas of that Venn diagram ahead of other labels.
Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem's provides a fine example of how ECM artists have moved around the musical Venn diagram like chess pieces controlled by a master player. His debut for ECM, Conte de l'incroyable amour, was very much in the World sector. Since that 1992 disc Brahem has made a succession of acclaimed recordings for the label which have explored different performance styles. He appears in their autumn releases with a new quartet which, with its mix of string bass and clarinet underpinned by a percussion line from darbouka or bendir, repositions the sound towards jazz. I loved Anouar Brahem's The Astounding Eyes of Rita. It sums up everything ECM stands for. But most importantly it shows that Manfred Eicher still has no respect for conventions, even his own conventions. So The Astounding Eyes of Rita features the exquisitely in focus CD artwork seen above. Happy birthday ECM, and here's to another forty years!
* Breaking news - New ECM book:
In 1996, Lars Müller Publishers of Baden,Switzerland, issued “Sleeves of Desire”, the first study of ECM cover art. Now Müller follows up with a new volume, bringing the story of ECM artwork up to date. The 450-page book, to be issued in November, will be available in both English and German editions entitled, respectively, “Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM” and “Der Wind, das Licht: ECM und das Bild”. A stunning collection of ECM photography and graphics, with a concluding section featuring all ECM covers from Mal Waldron’s “Free At Last” (1969) to Keith Jarrett’s “Testament” (2009), the book also incorporates texts by Thomas Steinfeld, Geoff Andrew, Katharina Epprecht, Ketil Bjørnstad and Lars Müller.
Autumn 2009 ECM releases mentioned above were supplied by the label's UK distributor, Proper Note, at my request. All other CDs referred to were purchased at retail price. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk