In our series Art for Trying Times, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.
One day in 1984, a friend and I went to have lunch with my friend’s aunt. She was keen to play us an LP. She put the record on the turntable, and an unfamiliar sound filled the room. Despite her solemn appreciation of the music, my teenage friend and I laughed until our irritated host turned the record off.
Secretly I liked the unusual music, and I loved the album cover. Next to the name of the artist and album title were (in the same sized font) the letters “ECM”. Clearly, the record company was as important as the music it was selling.
Since 1969, Manfred Eicher’s ECM has been the “boutique” label par excellence, specialising in jazz and — through the ECM New Series sister label —Western classical music from the Middle Ages to today.
But such a summary ignores the label’s commitment to transgressing generic boundaries. Its catalogue of over 1500 titles includes folk, electronic music, “world music”, and beyond. Within this variety, ECM maintains an impressively consistent aesthetic, due to the pristine sound of the recordings, and the label’s recognisable visual identity.
Given its serious-minded, prestige-driven character, ECM long resisted music streaming, finally making its catalogue available for streaming in 2017 (while loftily noting that CDs and LPs remained its “preferred mediums”). But one of the beauties of music streaming is the ability it gives the music consumer to configure and reconfigure a label’s entire catalogue.
The hour-long playlist supplied here is not meant to be a representative snapshot of the label. It mostly ignores, for instance, the label’s many straight-ahead jazz titles. Instead, my playlist (initially made without thought of sharing) emphasises simplicity and quiet — two features iso living invites us to appreciate.
“Piano”, as both musical direction (meaning “soft”) and instrument, dominates here, as seen in the opening selection. The playlist begins with Keith Jarrett (whose groundbreaking 1975 album, The Köln Concert, is a high-water mark for ECM) in classical mode. The exquisite opening Adagio from Händel’s second Suite for Keyboard shows Jarrett at his most lyrical.
One of the shortcomings of ECM is the relative lack of women in its catalogue, but two women with a considerable presence are the Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou and the American composer and pianist, Carla Bley.
Karaindrou’s piece, from one of her film scores, is the essence of simplicity: a drone supplied by strings, and two almost childlike figures repeated on piano.
The first movement of Bley’s “Beautiful Telephones” (the title taken from Donald Trump) is not as simple as Karaindrou’s piece, but the interplay between Bley’s piano and Steve Swallow’s bass is a delicate balance of melancholy and humour.
A similar interplay between mood and instrumentation (this time piano and oud) is also heard on Anouar Brahem’s Déjà La Nuit (Already Night).
On Stream by the Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær. also mixes light and dark, with the song-like trumpet part supported by a darker electronic rhythm bed. Khmer (1997), from which this piece is lifted, was a signal moment for the ECM catalogue, powerfully bringing electronica into the label’s purview.
On the other hand, Where Breathing Starts by the Tord Gustavsen Trio (from Norway), with its immaculate sound and tasteful musicianship, could be the archetypal ECM track.
Für Alina:1, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (for whom Eicher launched the ECM New Series in 1984), shows how porous the label’s musical borders are.
Occupying a space between classical, jazz, and ambient, this minimalist piece (performed by Alexander Malter) creates the perfect contemplative space.
Neither morals nor escapism
Similarly, Breathe, from Different Rivers (2000) by the Norwegian saxophonist and composer Trygve Seim, produces an intensely reflective mood through simplicity and repetition.
Spoken-word content in most music other than hip hop is generally looked down upon, though ECM has a small but rich seam of spoken-word material. Here, the text (spoken by Sidsel Endresen) could be a facile New Age evocation: “Breathe, and you know that you are alive.”
But the interplay between human voice and wind instruments (and the airy spaciousness implied by the beautiful, multi-second reverb) is sublime, not to mention timely. In its quiet way, it could be an anthem of the COVID era.
In true ECM fashion, one of the musicians on Different Rivers, Arve Henriksen (another Norwegian!) leads his own ensembles elsewhere in the ECM catalogue. Sorrow and Its Opposite (from 2008’s Cartography) is almost unbearably sad, thanks to Henriksen’s flute-like trumpet playing, and the presence of grainy, melancholy samples.
The final piece in my playlist takes us back to simplicity and piano. The last movement of Hans Otte’s Das Büch Der Klangë (1999) (The Book of Sounds), performed by Herbert Henck, is another intensely contemplative space, dissolving melody and accompaniment, exercise and performance piece. It could be a beginning; it could be an end.
The ECM catalogue doesn’t offer morals for our time; nor is it simply escapism. Rather, the artistry that can be found there allows a degree of abstraction that can be energising.
To concentrate on such music could be mindfulness or a kind of culturally sanctioned dissociation, but for me it is an essential response to living through the real difficulties of this pandemic.