“ECM – A Cultural Archaeology” Marketplace of Visions

The trumpet player Don Cherry, together with the producer Manfred Eicher in the early seventies.
The trumpet player Don Cherry, together with the producer Manfred Eicher in the early seventies. | Photo (detail): ECM Records / Roberto Masotti

In “ECM – A Cultural Archaeology”, the Munich House of Art explores the interplay of visual impressions, auditory perception and aesthetics using the example of the record company ECM, founded in 1969. It focuses on the questions of how music can be made visible and on crossing the boundaries to other arts. A tour.

He looks chic and charismatic. As if he were a model advertising for a fashion chain of our day: this is the impression made by the photo portrait of the late jazz trumpeter Don Cheery on the poster for the exhibition ECM – A Cultural Archaeology. It is an eye-catcher and at the same time points to the idea lying behind this unusual project, namely to fetch music and its discourse into a museum that is usually dedicated to the visual arts and their disciplines. Okwui Enwesor, formerly curator of documenta 11 (1998-2002) in Kassel, of the Biennial of Contemporary Art in Seville (2006) and, since October, director of the Munich House of Art, is concerned here with the visualisation of music, with the crossing of genre boundaries in the form of an overarching artistic principle that, in his view, has been manifested in the work of the Munich record company ECM and its director, the record producer Manfred Eicher.

The producer as author

The entrance area of the exhibition with a poster wall of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. The entrance area of the exhibition with a poster wall of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. | Photo: Haus der Kunst It is therefore fitting that, at the entrance to the exhibition, the visitor is greeted by a projection on the wall of the stairwell of the documentary See the Music by Theodor Kotulla from 1971. The black-and-white film shows Eicher when he was still a musician. Back then he devotedly worked the double bass in the ensemble of the Afro-American jazz saxophonist Marion Brown. Born in Lindau, Eicher studied music at university and played in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra before he assumed the rôle of the understanding producer. The music he took up, Eicher has explained, didn’t only please him; “I wanted to identify with it. It went that far”. That is still the principle governing the work of this obsessive sound director.

Thus Eicher corroborates Enwezor’s thesis. For the experienced curator, Eicher is a “jazz author”. That he started his activities as a producer after the proclamation of the death of jazz and the end of authorship in the 1960s is, according to Enwezor, no accident. Eicher embodies, quite in analogy to auteur cinema or literature, a new type of artist: the producer, who began his work at the end of the 1970s, has created an extensive body of work and so set the crowning culmination to an era. He is not only a supervisor of records, but also an initiator, commentator and co-artist. “Show me another producer”, demands Enwezor, impressed, “who has done about 900 recordings. My God, that’s more than unusual.”

Cover art and video art

Enwezor seeks to make Eicher’s music and his oeuvre visible by various means. There is a wall of shelves filled with the master tapes of ECM productions from the most famous studios in the world. The inevitable black-and-white photos from the 1970s are also not lacking: for example, the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek with short hair and punky leather jacket, quite different from today. The young pianist Paul Bley as a good-looking pipe-smoker. The musicians of the Art Ensemble of Chicago making themselves ready back stage for one of their performances.

In addition to the snapshots of musicians and producer, in addition to the various listening points, there is a gallery of LP covers. Glowing colourfully on the wall of the second room are Jack deJohnette and Robin Kenyatta in picture-filling close-ups – discreet nostalgic reminders of the vinyl age. Also displayed are the highly influential black-and-white photographs of the former ECM house photographer, Dieter Rehm, and the graphics of Barbara Wojirsch, which combine colour and surface in an ingenious and artful manner.

All this was to be expected in an exhibition about a record company that made history. But the exhibition also includes Ellis Island, a video by the multi-media artist and ECM musician Meredith Monk, and a cinematic portrait of her by the director Peter Greenaway. In a glass cabinet lies the Sunbear Concerts Box, ten discs with recordings of five improvised solo concerts by the pianist Keith Jarrett. ECM released them in 1978 in the Edition of Contemporary Music. Hardly another record company has ever again showed so much courage in taking commercial risks.

The Afro-American view

Important moments of the exhibition are the installations commissioned by Enwezor. In an installation by the artists collective The Otolith Group, the puckish hipster Don Cherry posthumously spreads his fascinating view of the world, complemented by an image-sound collage with the text of Gertrude Stein’s The Making Of Americans. The central installation is by the Canadian video artist Stan Douglas. A room that the viewer can enter only after traversing a narrow passage with thick carpeting. Then, on a video screen, he can see musicians playing a composition by the saint of free jazz, Albert Ayler. Ayler never recorded with ECM, but the echo of his spiritual hymns, his saxophone tone oscillating between fairground and shamanism, can be found on many ECM albums. It is this little-known side of Afro-American jazz that Enwezor wants to introduce to the public. That he makes use of Eicher’s ECM label for this purpose, a label that has released several records from the Afro-American avant-garde scene, affords a more than merely monographic view.

It was a great time back then, say many of the exhibits. You missed something if you weren’t there. And so they promote a process of canonisation. Because this not only opens an era to view, but also fosters hero-worship and works on an iconography. There are good reasons for this, for back then artists were still breaking new ground aesthetically and socially. Jazz musicians like Don Cherry and Lester Bowie, but also classical loners like Arvo Pärt, have today received recognition as serious artistic figures. The work of a composer like Steve Reich, whose Music For 18 Musicians first appeared with the ECM contemporary music offshoot label, New Series, has long been eligible for inclusion in a museum. These are signs of acceptance, an acceptance to which the Munich record company has contributed. In summer 2013, Manfred Eicher will be 70 years old. This elegant exhibition in the House of Art is an early tribute to a sound magician who has no plans of retiring in the near future.

ECM — A Cultural Archaeology
Haus der Kunst, Munich
23 Novermber 2012 – 10 February 2013