unpublished article* for The Guardian,1989
by Paul Oldfield and Simon Reynolds
This year Germany's ECM record label celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Because it doesn't promote itself, ECM has always had a low profile: this despite its commercial success in the Seventies with artists like Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, and a current roster that ranges from acclaimed improviser Jan Garbarek to the Estonian composer Arvo Part. This relative obscurity stems from the
label's founder, Manfred Eicher, who has zealously preserved his vision of ECM as an island apart from the modishness and market-consciousness of the music industry, whose output he characterises as "environmental pollution".
But it's this very "apartness" that has proved so attractive to the increasing number of pop musicians who have fallen under ECM's spell during the Eighties. David Sylvian left behind his glam icon past as lead singer of Japan in order to pursue a solo career in 'ambient pop', and has recorded several albums with musicians from the ECM stable. 'Dreampop' experimentalists A.R. Kane have explicitly cited ECM as an influence, and other groups (Cocteau Twins, Talk
Talk, Durutti Column, Hugo Largo) have much in common with ECM's quest for "the most beautiful sound next to silence".
As well as it's influence on the pop avant-garde, ECM is important because of the way it illustrates what both "New Age" music and "world music" (those buzz concepts of the Eighties) could and should have been like. New Age music tends to be the aural equivalent of a Radox bath: it's therapeutic, a palliative that helps sustain the listener against, but also within the demands of modern, capitalist life. Like vitamin supplements or homeopathic remedies, New Age records are little capsules of pastoralism that enable the stressed-out executive to cope with urban life. New Age's soothing emulsions of sound, like Transcendental Meditation for businessmen, are a tranquiliser rather than a path to enlightenment. But ECM's tranquility is debilitating rather than restorative: it's about fixing your consciousness on
something until you lose all sense of yourself and your separateness. The crystalline, open structures of John Abercrombie's or Ralph Towner's music suggest not so much withdrawal as a hyper-alert state of suspension, heightened
This meditational aspect of ECM music is close to the Eastern idea of nirvana: the serenity that comes with the cessation of desire. In his later years, Freud came to believe in the existence of a "nirvana principle" or "death instinct" inherent in all organic life: a drive that seeks to return to the lowest possible point of tension. Freud believed that human anxiety was caused by the repression of this natural death instinct, resulting in a futile pursuit of immortality through wordly achievement. Nirvana is the state-of-grace that comes with the recovery of contact with the death instinct: a sublime inertia where you're wide open to the world rather than restlessly engaged in leaving your mark upon it.
Nirvana is, in fact, a kind of living death or life-in-death. So it's interesting that Manfred Eicher describes ECM music in terms of entombment, of sound that is "burying itself in a crypt of its own making". It's a metaphor that
connects with the very funereal/Egyptian images of cool jazz found in Miles Davis or Sun Ra. Other sources of this meditational/monastical condition are the pervasive
Mediaevalism of ECM (its interest in liturgical, devotional music) and also its attraction to the Romantics, with their awe before the "sublime" and "terrible". (ECM's Russian pianist Valery Afannasiev talks about music that should be
fatal in its beauty, such as Gesualdo's madrigals).
ECM suggest this blurring of boundaries, this blissful oneness with the world, by their recurrent use of LP cover images and titles that suggest immense, undifferentiated spaces - polar landscapes, tundra, deserts, barren cliffs -
expanses that are unchanging over the millenia. ECM's artists never seem to have any referents, no locus in time or space. This nomadism, exemplifed by titles like Wayfarer and Paths, Prints, is based in the intuition that true
bliss is to be nowhere, bewildered in the wilderness. (It's revealing that the root meaning of utopia is nowhere).
This placelessness distinguishes ECM from the world music that it has supposed to have prefigured by a decade or more. ECM do draw on ethnic music, but this is world music without any of the Western, liberal ideologies attached to it: there's nothing rootsy, convivial or feistily authentic about it. Different cultures are crossed at will. An artist like Stephen Micus uses instruments from every conceivable time and place, and even invents his own. These ethnic or ancient musics are often inauthentic too: where music hasn't been written down (e.g. for the albums of Mediaeval songs) new music is composed, or music from completely
different times and places borrowed for the accompaniment.
Nor is there world music's slavish adherence to Third World or folk sources. ECM musicians also borrow from elitist, court cultures, as in Paul Hillier's troubador courtly-love songs from 12th Century Provence, or Micus' use of instruments from early European orchestras. Or there's Arvo Part, who gave up writing serial music, and turned to a minimalist, neo-Mediaeval partsong. Or the improviser Keith
Jarrett playing a Bach stripped of baroque mannerism or modern musicianly interpretation and "feeling". Unlike world music, ECM doesn't try to rediscover pop's Dionysiac values elsewhere; unlike authentic classical performers, it
doesn't try to recreate music as it was.
ECM music, then, is a quest for nirvana through the transcending of time and place. ECM music offers the listener a gentle apocalypse (an "end of history" and an "end of geography"): a tiny foretaste of eternity. Perhaps this timelessness is actually the most timely phenomenon today: perfect rest at the heart of the pop world's hyper-active clatter, an endless end to pop's relentless turnover of the new.
* I'm not sure if this the article itself or a proposal for an article that got really out of hand. At any rate it never ran but was meant to be a sort companion piece to the critique of World Music we did for the Guardian (reprinted in Bring the Noise). It would have been the third in a series of pieces Paul and I co-wrote for the Guardian; the second article, on modern music that simultaneously glorified and (inadvertently) deconstructed masculinity, is something I'll probably put up here at some point.
This reissue of this here "unreleased track" was prompted by reading in the Wire that Ricardo Villalobos is a massive ECM fan. Big up to David Stubbs (whose copy of Jan Garbarek's Paths, Prints I taped back in the day and thereby got turned onto the ECM thing in the first place) and to ECM-head Jonathan Bowen (who turned me on some more in that odd lacuna-like year of 1989).