BY Dominikus Müller in Reviews | 26 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 8

ECM – Eine kulturelle Archäologie

Haus der Kunst

BY Dominikus Müller in Reviews | 26 JAN 13

ECM – Eine kulturelle Archäologie, exhibition view with master tapes from the ECM archive

Since its founding in 1969 by the then double-bassist Manfred Eicher, the Munich-based independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) has probably done more for the widespread recognition of jazz, improvised music, ‘world music’ and contemporary composition than all the world’s major labels put together. ECM is known above all for the precision of its recordings, whose depth and purity are a near fetishist obsession of Eicher’s. Over the years, applying the rigorous production standards of classical orchestra recordings (on which Eicher had previously worked) to the genre of improvised music created the unmistakeable, angelically pure ‘ECM sound’ – the common factor linking releases by Mal Waldron and Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarrett and the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the label’s catalogue with Schumann sonatas and radio plays by Jean-Luc Godard.

It came as no surprise, then, that the show curated by Haus der Kunst director Okwui Enwezor and Markus Müller centred on this sound, presented at countless listening booths. In the stairwell, on the way to the exhibition proper, a newly-restored film by Theo Kotulla establishes the studio as the hub of the ECM universe. Entitled See the Music (1971), it shows recording sessions with Marion Brown, Fred Bracefull, Leon Smith, Thomas Stöwsand and Eicher himself on double bass, and was screened a year after being made in the cultural programme of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Brown and Smith are shown amid a chaos of percussion instruments, metal sheets, horns and rattles, engaged in spirited improvisation and what looks like totally arbitrary bashing. But they also speak of how the perceived ‘anything goes’ ethos of improvisation in fact demands the exact opposite, namely strict discipline.

Great as this film is, it was a harbinger of the way the exhibition as a whole failed to fulfil the expectations of a ‘cultural archaeology’ raised by its subtitle, as it focused too narrowly on the world according to ECM, on the label’s distinctively austere cover designs, and on work in the studio. In many places, it would have benefitted from looking beyond these confines, situating the label within a history and a milieu, embedding it in a discourse, society and geography. As it was, visitors were told nothing about the status of jazz in post-war Germany, the political hopes that were projected in post-fascist Europe onto the apparently non-hierarchical cacophony of ensemble improvisation, or the scene in Munich. In the 1960s, the city was a significant centre for jazz with several renowned live venues. No mention, either, of the Olympic Games cultural programme, which in retrospect exerted a shaping influence on the cultural landscape of the 1970s. And this in spite of the fact that as well as the Jazz Now! festival organized by Joachim-Ernst Berendt, the programme included an exhibition at Haus der Kunst entitled World Cultures and Modern Art exploring the influence of non-European art and music on cultural production in Europe – a golden opportunity missed by an exhibition where it could have been used as a door to a whole range of topics, from ethnic overtones in musical exchanges between Afro-Americans and post-war Germans to the question of what it means to exhibit music in a museum.

The themes of ethnicity, cultural transfer and migration were not entirely absent from the show, however, as they were dealt with by various artists in their contributions: New Light (2012), a film produced by The Otolith Group for the exhibition, tells the story of proto-world music trio Codona; in Ellis Island (1982), the composer and choreographer Meredith Monk – one of the key New Music figures in the ECM roster – examines the history of the eponymous gateway to America for mainly European immigrants; and in his video work Hors-Champs (1992), Stan Douglas deals in the style of the nouvelle vague with the European aestheticisation of jazz via sharply focused black-and-white footage of a band playing Albert Ayler’s free jazz milestone Spirits Rejoice (1965) in a French television studio. But the exhibition did not manage to relate the issues raised in these films to the ECM label and its programme – a programme that draws on jazz, New and Old Music and non-European influences, but which is primarily oriented towards pleasing sounds and inwardness. The idea that this approach might overlook the political and ethnic connotations of a music that always also understood the ‘free’ in free jazz in social terms had no place in the show. No disturbances, no criticism, no contrary opinions like that of ‘German jazz Pope’ Berendt, whose essay _Die neue Faschistoidität in Jazz, Rock und überall_(The New Proto-Fascist Quality in Jazz, Rock, and Everywhere, 1975) compared the immaculate virtuosity of Jarrett’s piano playing, rather brutally, with the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl. A ‘cultural archaeology’ should clearly name such debates.

The exhibition’s final room, with three foam rubber-lined, sound-optimized listening booths where visitors could watch strange coloured waveforms moving in time with the exalted music, was further proof, if more was needed, that what the studio is to the label, the museum is to this show – an aura machine.

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.