Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

We’re coming up to the first anniversary of a slightly unusual and unexpected musical event – or to be more accurate, ‘music business event’. On 17 November 2017, the record label ECM made virtually all of its catalogue available on streaming services for the first time.

For anyone unfamiliar, ECM is a Munich record label, founded almost 50 years ago – and still run – by producer extraordinaire Manfred Eicher. Initially the focus was on modern jazz music, but in the mid-eighties Eicher established the parallel ‘ECM New Series’ imprint to cover classical music.

It may be because the boss is a producer that ECM Is famed for exceptional recording quality and detail. It’s tempting to think that the New Series seemed at once boldly contemporary (featuring composers linked to minimalism, like Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich) and wilfully archaeological (the exquisite early choral recordings of Trio Mediaeval or the Hilliard Ensemble), because these ‘extremes’ of classical music particularly benefited from such finely-wrought clarity.

This wide variety means that while there isn’t an ‘ECM sound’ as such, there’s definitely an ECM aesthetic. As well as making the records sound gorgeous, the label’s sleeve design – even into the CD era – has a largely abstract austerity that totally fits its musical output: enigmatic yet welcoming, arty, classy, attractive, open to wide interpretation.

This strong identity is arguably what kept ECM away from streaming platforms for as long as possible: the physical object, played on the best equipment you can muster, is part of their ideal. However, the fact that Eicher and co have now given in means you can at least explore a remarkable range of beautifully documented music at great leisure (and little or no cost) – hopefully on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, as a shelfful or so of ECM releases is a truly joyful sight.

Perhaps treating all of its artists with the same sonic respect, whatever the genre, is the engine behind another distinctive feature of ECM’s output: inspired collaborations. Eicher seems to delight in bringing musicians on the label from both jazz and classical camps together, resulting in highly rewarding joint releases, without compromising the spirit of their individual recordings.

This is a key theme in my very personal ECM playlist. There’s a run of three tracks where Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek first plays with a group of Pakistani musicians, followed by a selection from his celebrated partnership with the Hilliard Ensemble – then we hear the Hilliards on their own performing a striking contemporary piece in contrast to their original ‘early music’ idiom.

Latterly, the Trio Mediaeval have recorded an album with trumpeter Arve Henriksen – a record that, while very different, seems to rejoice in a similar spirit, and a choice from this starts the whole playlist off. Bringing proceedings to a close is John Surman – another versatile saxophonist who can career from furious hard bop to drones/electronica and all points in between. However, his two albums with a string quartet are real jewels in ECM’s crown, as I hope ‘At Dusk’ proves.

Along the way, I’ve tried to bring in some of ECM’s most arresting characters. There’s Stephan Micus, who seems to learn and compose on a different array of instruments from all over the globe on each release, yet here foregrounds his own voice. Or Nik Bartsch, a Swiss pianist who describes his work as ‘ritual groove music’ (about four minutes into the playlist track, you’ll hear why). He records mainly with two bands, Ronin – who feature here – and Mobile, depending on the configuration of musicians the material needs. The distinctive, unhurried and wonderfully delicate piano of Marilyn Crispell, followed by the atmospheric vocalising from Susanne Abbuehl.

And much more… I could have carried on and on but thought I had better stop at 20 tracks (and 2 hours)! As you will find if you explore ECM further for yourself, I could have gone off at so many tangents: used Ralph Towner as a springboard to fellow guitarists John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny or Terje Ryphal; or followed Alexei Lubimov into the label’s roster of esteemed classical pianists (including Sir Andras Schiff). Keith Jarrett’s recordings alone must provide more than 100 hours of listening (some 90 recordings, including a few multi-disc sets).

I hope you enjoy this rather focused selection, then, and feel inspired to find ‘your ECM’ among the label’s near-limitless riches.

Adrian’s ECM playlist

 


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

A post for John Cage’s birthday (5 September 1912)

A piece in which the performer is directed to remain silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds made American composer John Cage famous – and infamous. His 4’33” is as much a piece of conceptual art and a profound musing on the nature of silence as it is a piece of music: through it, Cage challenged traditional notions of what constitutes music, performance, a concert and above all, silence….

Read more and listen to my Essential Cage playlist

There’s a unique intimacy in the piano duet and a special etiquette must be observed when playing. For this reason, you need to be on friendly terms with your duet partner! The players sit very close together at the keyboard, often their hands will touch or cross over (Debussy’s Petite Suite contains much hand-crossing between the players), and each must be alert to the other’s part, sensitive to details of tempo, dynamics and musical expression, while details of pedalling and page-turns need to be agreed in advance. While some works for piano duet are undoubtedly aimed at children or junior players, many are highly complex, technically and musically challenging, such as Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands and works by Rachmaninoff and Messiaen. Some of the greatest pianists of the 20th century have enjoyed the very special relationship of the piano duet, including Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, and Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, the great British piano duo from an earlier era.

Listen to the playlist

(not available in the US and Canada)

The dance is as old as music itself, and many dances for keyboard or piano have their origin in folk dances such as the Mazurka, Polonaise, Polka, Tarantella and Tango. These folk dances and their characteristic rhythms and metres were taken by composers such as Fryderyk Chopin and elevated into refined salon pieces which are popular with audiences and pianists alike.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

Listen to the playlist

How do we define “virtuosity” in a musical performance? I believe that when one hears it, it is as if one’s level of consciousness had been raised, and that it is impossible to ever think of the piano in the same way again. Such experiences are highly personal, revelatory, memorable and almost impossible to describe.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life” – Franz Liszt

It is during a performance by a true virtuoso pianist that we, the audience, enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being.

I hope this selection will demonstrate some of the very special qualities of each pianist chosen.

Listen to the playlist

 

First published in 2007 ‘The Rest Is Noise’ by Alex Ross, music critic of the ‘New Yorker’, charts twentieth century Western classical music from the dying embers of “fin de siecle” Europe and the years prior to the devastation of the First World War to the present day. In many ways, the book is less a history of classical music than a history of the twentieth century as told through its remarkable, often shocking and epoch-making music.

Playlist curated by Frances Wilson.

Listen to the playlist

(This playlist is not available in the US and Canada)