Review of ECM: A Cultural Archaeology at Haus der Kunst, Munich

Munich’s commanding Haus der Kunst provided a suitably grand backdrop for the recent, admirably comprehensive survey of ECM Records’ trailblazing work over the past 44 years. The gallery, like the label’s prodigious output, impresses first through its sheer size and scale, then further exploration reveals hidden treasures around every conceivable corner. It’s a clever marriage of site and subject, made even more special a celebration as Munich is ECM’s home city.

Founded there in 1969 by Manfred Eicher, ECM crosses cultural borders, musical genres and artistic disciplines in its commitment to fostering and promoting talent. Predominantly a jazz and classical label, it embraces the myriad forms and styles that these categories encompass, and can count such esteemed artists and composers as Keith Jarrett, Paul and Carla Bley, Arvo Pärt and Eleni Karaindrou among those on its books. Furthermore, in extensive work in the domain of film – an aspect of the company’s focus explored richly in Room 3 of the show – strong associations with such luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Greenaway again mark it out as a label of quality, range and a certain fearlessness when it comes to experimentation.

As one might imagine, visitors to the exhibition were – quite refreshingly in an otherwise silent, contemplative gallery space – greeted first with sound; sound that turned out to be emanating from Theodor Kotulla’s groundbreaking documentary See the Music, a recently rediscovered work charting ECM’s early days. Featuring segments of electrifying improvisatory performance from saxophonist Marion Brown as well as reflections on the music-making process from Brown and his collaborators, the film instantly set the context for the rest of the show, announcing boldly “this is what we do”.

Compounding this effect further still was the fact that the staircase visitors had to ascend to reach the main show was lined with a fantastically imposing black and white still image capturing at once ECM artists in performance, their audience in the act of observing and fragments of the other elements that, particularly in the company’s 1970s and 1980s phase, accompanied the appreciation of live music. Cigarette ends lie in an ashtray, candles flicker, drinks have been consumed: more than just music, the image said, this is a lifestyle.

This concept of music-making as essential lifeblood for ECM and its artists continued in Room 2. Focusing on the period between its late 1960s beginnings and 1984, a great emphasis was placed in this section on ECM’s musicians as individuals, and certain strong impressions emerged of them and their relationship to their label. Candid gelatine silver prints by Roberto Masotti, in particular, had a real intimacy about them, whether depicting artists such as Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut in their quiet, pre-performance moments of applying make-up and getting “in the zone”, or capturing the sheer thrill experienced onstage by an almost Jaggeresque Paul Bley or the striking Keith Jarrett. Love of performing, and the notion of performance as a deeply personal act, were themes communicated vividly in this section, which went on to echo throughout.

The appearance, also, of Manfred Eicher in many of the images, figuring alongside the musicians in shots with a great 1970s hipness, reflected the extent of the bond between the label and those signed to it. This was furthered in Room 3 by Sounds und Silence (2009), a fascinating documentary following Eicher on his many travels, with input from the artists he was working with along the way. Another primary focus was the artists’ relationship with the audience itself. Standing out for the insight it provided in this respect was a television interview with Jarrett – one of ECM’s major artists during this time – presented on a plinth, in which he spoke with intelligence and awareness about considering himself, too, part of the audience. The company and its artists’ painstaking work on behalf of their audience was laid bare in Room 2 and beyond. Detailed, well-thumbed handwritten scores, intricate cover art designs by the hand of Barbara Wojirsch, and walls and grand shelves lined with an astounding array of LP covers and a section of ECM’s multitrack tape archive completed a picture of just how much work goes in to the creation and sustenance of such a vibrant record label.

Moving through, the exhibition continually reinforced this idea of the scope and volume of ECM’s work. On leaving Room 2, a corridor of listening posts set opposite a wall of album artwork was there to greet you. This afforded a marvellous opportunity to experience the variety of music produced by the company, journeying from lilting strains of Haydn to the coolest of cool jazz from the Jan Garburek Quartet, and hearing every colour in between. The corridor, like the three incredible, specially commissioned “sound cabinets” encountered later on, offered something fresh each time, and a space for very personal listening.

All in all, part of the show’s wonder lay in the very fact that you could visit and revisit, and take something new from it on every occasion. This seems cleverly to have reflected that ECM’s diverse catalogue carries this same potential, inviting you to dip into it, starting with what you are most interested in and branching out. It could even be said that the course you took around the show could be as improvisatory as some of the label’s music; while divided clearly into rooms, it still compelled visitors to go back to aspects they’d missed on first glance and rediscover constantly.

With this in mind, the exhibition concluded fittingly with further listening and viewing opportunities, and more space to reflect. Five stations carried iPods that visitors could control themselves, set up for the autonomy and personal choice that ECM encourages, and there were two engaging performance videos to select from. Closing, for the time being, such a treasure trove of audiovisual delights, this was the perfect way of assuring the visitor that they were only at the beginning of their engagement with ECM, and far from the end.

Grace Henderson

ECM: A Cultural Archaeology ran at Haus der Kunst, Munich, from 23 November 2012 to 10 February 2013 and was curated by Okwui Enwezor and Markus Miller. For more on ECM, please visit their website:

All images are courtesy of ECM.
1. HdK ECM Mastertapes wall.
2. HdK ECM Staircase Art Ensemble of Chicago.
3. HdK ECM Don Cherry Amsellem.