ECM – A Cultural Archaeology

Don Cherry ponders and asks his toy trumpet to be quiet on the exhibition poster

Don Cherry ponders and asks his toy trumpet to be quiet on the exhibition poster.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about what stuff and ideas should be turned into exhibitions recently. In the last couple of months I have had to deliver two talks – one dealing with exhibition design and the other with house/museums and I began to wonder if the documentation and communication of some ideas just work better as books or blogs or records. This was going through my mind when I visited ECM: A Cultural Archaeology at the Haus der Kunst in Munich earlier this month. I was also thinking about the Touch event staged in London at the end of last year and about Jon Wozencroft’s heartfelt naming of a significant part of the Touch project as an act of sociability – reaching out to a community. I knew that the ECM display would be cooler…a longer history, a huge catalogue…with far more cultural baggage to be opened up and pored over.

The exhibition guide offered a ‘sensory field’…I liked the sound of this.  There are many pieces of music that have been recorded and released by ECM that I have hugely enjoyed over the past 37 years (I came ‘late’ to them…their first record was released in 1969)…but I have also appreciated the less obviously musical releases such as Jean Luc Godard’s sprawling soundtrack for Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Maybe the exhibition would be an attempt to extend the aesthetic of ECM rather than just document it – I guess I was looking forward to some kind of a Gesamtkunstwerk.  It was maybe with this in mind that I had suggested to my companion, Jon, that we visit the Asamkirche on the way to Haus der Kunst. This is a Baroque church squeezed into the busy Sendlinger Straße in central Munich. Architecturally it is a fairly straightforward oblong with 2 long, high galleries and an apsidal end…but its decoration is where it moves into extreme baroque – dripping with gilding and sculpture, trompe l’oeil painting and draped fabric rendered in stone. As if to order there was an organist practicing as we entered the church but whether it was the repertoire of the musician that seemed to just slide over the surface of the building’s interior or the museum/mausoleum like air of the place, the experience didn’t have the resonance that I had hoped for.asam

The exhibition began with a film from 1971 by Theodor Kotulla: See the Music. This featured Marion Brown and Leo Smith on a winter trip to Munich with Manfred Eicher playing bass. Long thought lost, this was a gem of documentary filmmaking showing the band in rehearsal and walking in one of Munich’s snowy parks. It heralded the best of what was to come in the show…the surprising effect of film in this context. At the same time it was a pre-echo of another dominant theme of the exhibition – the presence and drive of Manfred Eicher as the founder and head of ECM. As if to get it out of the way, the next exhibit dealt with the great behemoth that is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert album. This was the record that cemented the ECM image, making its way into thousands of homes in the 1970s. But it was clear at this point, looking at carefully selected photographs and LP sleeves, that we would not be taking a journey into the socio-cultural nexus of ECM…even at this stage there was a sense that this was edited history…all control and, somewhat perversely, no improvisation. The real delights in this room turned out to be a number of TV programmes with interviews with Jarrett and Eicher, a very staged wall of master tapes from the ECM vaults and the wonderful film by Anri Sala, Long Sorrow. When I saw this film in London at the Serpentine Gallery it was from time to time accompanied by a live saxophone improvisation by Andre Vida…here it was presented on its own…a rather drier affair but worthwhile nevertheless. The film shows the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc playing outside the window of a tower block…the camera roving first around the room and then in space in the open air. The mystery of the levitating musician is never revealed despite the incredibly close examination on film of his face as he improvises.

The other film that impressed me was commissioned from the Otolith Group expressly for this show – New Light. This was a collage piece using documentary images of the group Codona (Collin Walcott, Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos) from the 1970s, mixed with a text from Gertrude Stein and a piece of cinema magic in which moving images are filmed projected onto rapidly moving drumsticks. This seemed like a true piece of archaeology…digging up something largely forgotten and bringing it into (new) light as the title suggests. The long wall outside of this installation was covered in album sleeves in serried ranks…letting the eye drift over these was a pleasant enough experience but ultimately it had the look of an over-scaled stamp album. Opposite the LPs was a row of headphones on which the music of ECM played in endless loops. As a ‘sensory field’ this was disappointing…look at the record sleeves, listen to the CDs. There is no doubting the edifice that Eicher has constructed…an edifice that is composed of many individually beautiful building blocks – but I craved a little more generosity. One of the notes I made just after visiting the exhibition was ‘Nothing outside of itself…’ This seemed to sum up the whole experience…there was no sense here of reaching out to a community…it felt like the hand of a rather benevolent corporation was at work. This was a world built in order to exclude rather than include. So this was not the exhibition it could have been. I am sure there is still the possibility of an immersive examination of sound and place through the eyes and ears of an influential producer and his record label but maybe there has to be a bit more letting go. Some of the influence of all that musical improvisation has to creep into the exhibition space…

(Part of?) An essay by the exhibitions co-curator Okwui Enwezor is available here:


Tim Berne's Snakeoil. Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne. 12. i. 13

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne.
12. i. 13

On the evening of my visit Evan Parker performed as part of the Electro-Acoustic Quartet in the Haus der Kunst’s concert hall. Like the following night’s performance by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, this was a beautifully judged improvisation set…a perfect balance of restraint and energy and impeccable ensemble playing. These concerts gave a vitality to the ECM project that was missing from the exhibition. Speaking to Evan Parker four nights later after his set at Café Oto in London he told me how Manfred Eicher introduced some interesting and unexpected reverb into the live mix at the end of his set. I said – ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ and he replied – ‘No, when Manfred is around you have to accept that he is the 5th member of the band…’

I Remember, part 2.

favourites30. I remember The Swingin’ Blue Jeans and Hippy Hippy Shake.

31.  I remember having an argument with a friend of my parents about Perfect Day by Lou Reed. He said it was too simple a song to be interesting.

32.  I remember trying to get into the Lyceum Theate in London to see King Sunny Adé but giving up amidst a huge chaotic crowd who, like me, were ticketless.

33.  I remember enjoying The Last Waltz, the film by Martin Scorsese about The Band, so much that I said to a friend, ’I didn’t even mind Neil Diamond’. She said, ’Well…I’m not sure I would go that far…’

34.  I remember that, quite recently, I got Neville Cardus confused with Cornelius Cardew and claimed that the latter wrote about cricket as well as composing music.

35.  I remember seeing Led Zeppelin in the Caird Hall in Dundee. 9 years later I was presented with my university degree on the same stage.

36.  I remember going to see the Edgar Broughton Band at the Kinema Ballroom in Dunfermline. If I remember correctly, Edgar Broughton’s mother was on stage for the duration of the performance. I saw Atomic Rooster there too…the amplifiers blew and there was a very long drum solo.

37.  I remember when I bought my first portable cassette player (pre-Walkman) thinking how interesting it would be listening to the music of my choice in different places. Especially away from other people in remote spots.

38.  I remember going to an electronic music concert in the cloister of Santa Maria della Pace in Rome. Speakers were set up between columns so that the sound enclosed the space. Bats flew back and forth silhouetted against the evening sky throughout the concert.

39.  I remember I had tickets to see Wings in Edinburgh and at the last moment decided not to go so I sold my tickets at the door. Years later I missed being introduced to Paul McCartney by minutes at an exhibition I was working on.

40.  I remember the second hand record shops in the arcade in Kirkcaldy but can’t remember what either of them was called. There was a bowling alley at the end of the arcade which has now been knocked down so the arcade now just opens out into a housing development.

41.  I remember going to Raven Records on Fulham Road and watching the whole of the video of Thriller there during my lunchtime. I can remember the name of the shop because it had a large raven-shaped cut out in vinyl on the window.

42.  I remember Skeets Boliver and The Dogs of Peddie Street.

43.  I remember being briefly obsessed with Golden Lady by Stevie Wonder.

44.  I remember cycling around a roundabout in Dalgety Bay, Fife, 100 times singing Cream’s Badge.

45.  I remember Bow Gamelan.

46.  I remember when I played my father Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart he was horrified. With some justification.

47.  I remember I saw Lohengrin at La Scala in Milan and at one point found myself absentmindedly counting the number of people on stage.

48.  I remember when my daughter spent a few nights at a Cambridge college when she was a teenager and she found it hard to sleep because it was too quiet.

49.  I remember attending a concert where 4’33” was performed and the person behind me got a fit of the giggles. As if she hadn’t seen that coming.

50.  I remember an audio puzzle on the radio in Montreal. It was the sound of coins dropping into a cup and the point was to guess the song that this sound referred to. People were always calling in saying it was Three Coins in a Fountain. It wasn’t but I don’t know what the correct answer was.

51.  I remember seeing Cathy Berberian at the Bloomsbury Theatre in the early 1980s. I can’t remember which programme she performed but maybe it was ‘From Salon to Saloon’. I saw Ivor Cutler and Keith Tippet at the same venue.

52.  I remember hearing After Bathing at Baxter’s by Jefferson Airplane round at the Duchesnes’ house in 1968 in Westfield, New Brunswick but I don’t remember ever hearing it again.

53.  In the same year, when our family moved back to Scotland, I remember listening to John Peel’s Top Gear programme on the radio in the dark. We were staying with my grandmother in Glasgow. When I bought Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan she pointed out that there was no hurdy gurdy being played on the record. Furthermore, she said, Hurdy Gurdy men did not sing.

54.  I remember when I worked in an architect’s office in Edinburgh my colleague was trying to find the name of a piece of music that had been used briefly on a BBC television programme. On more than one occasion he phoned the BBC and hummed the music to anyone who would listen and might know what it was. After some weeks he found out it was Chi Mai by Ennio Morricone – a rather sparse arrangement that does not suit humming.

55.  I remember sitting in the atrium of the Lubbock Holiday Inn trying to explain to a group of skeptical, if not dimissive, Texans why Our House by Madness was so good. I had my photograph taken standing next to the Buddy Holly statue in the same town.

56.  I remember the first time I became aware of a skylark. But then maybe I don’t. It was in the late 1980s on a hillside…possibly in Oxfordshire. We walked up the hill to an old pilgrim’s way or a drover’s road. The skylark was singing its continuous trilling song on the way up. At the top there was a copse with a Bronze Age burial site or an Iron Age barrow in the middle. Obviously, I am not sure of any of the details but whenever I hear a skylark now I can see the copse in my mind’s eye.

57.  I remember when we went to see the sunrise at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley the air was filled with the sound of electronic clicks and bleeps as photograph after photograph was taken of the slowly changing landscape.

58.  I remember on the day after the General Election in 1992 I went to the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop in search of, I suppose, some solace. There was a Nancy Sinatra record playing which I bought. Sugar Town from this album became one of the songs that I put on my two-year old daughter’s mix-tape. One day I must ask her just how scarred she was by this.

(to be continued…)

On Re-watching/Re-listening to L’Atalante

julesOf the various films I watched over the last two weeks a number seemed to be significantly concerned with sound. I watched Woman of the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara with a fully integrated soundtrack of sounds and music by Toru Takemitsu. I saw Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, with its two separate scores – one created for the British release by Benjamin Frankel and one for the USA by Franz Waxman. And there was L’Atalante.

Made by Jean Vigo in 1934 I had never considered this to be a film ‘about’ sound…maybe writing here has made me tune into these things in a more concentrated way. The story deals with the marriage of a young barge captain (Jean, played by Jean Dasté) to an innocent country girl (Juliette, Dita Pardo) and their subsequent travails as they argue, separate and re-unite. The narrative is beautifully simple and moving but it is also about modernity (the pull of the big city) and about a fragile way of life. Juliette is charmed by a pedlar who offers her an illicit trip to Paris and soon after she goes off alone to see the city. On her return the barge has sailed and she has to try to make her own way.

Music and sound thread in and out of the story throughout. The opening scene as the couple walk from the church is marked by both snatches of music and the sounds of the canal. Bells, clangs and whistles are a recurring theme in the soundtrack. Even the pedlar/one-man-band jangles as he runs off after trying to seduce Juliette. But Juliette and Jean are characterized largely by silence. He is dumbfounded and she is awestruck.

The eccentric mate (Père Jules, Michel Simon) who acts as a foil to the starry-eyed lovers has an exotic collection picked up on his travels. In one scene he shows Juliette the objects he keeps in his cabin and the sound of the music boxes merges into the music of an automaton conductor. He shows her his gramophone but ‘it’s broken…needs some work’. In fact he has already been seen examining a record offered by a passing junk man…looking closely at the grooves as if he could summon sound out of them. Then, later, he is seen running his fingers around a record and the sound of the accordion is heard…it is, of course, the cabin boy playing a trick but he says: ’…laugh, but there are things as weird as playing a record with a finger…’. And magically this seems to fix the gramophone as it now works and is used in a parade around the deck of the barge in an attempt to cheer up the despondent captain.

record cats deck
























Père Jules decides that he must go and search for Juliette in Paris if the captain is to be saved. He walks by the ‘Palace Chanson’ where music comes from a gramophone horn in the street (visually echoing the one back in the barge) and realizes this is where he will find Juliette. She is inside listening to songs on a proto-jukebox as if, like Jules, she too had been craving the sound of the record and the gramophone all along. As Juliette steps down into the cabin there is the sound of a single bell and a whistle welcoming her back.

horn dial phones IMG_1908