Not your average label sampler, ECM’s Selected Signs III – VIII was originally compiled to accompany the winter 2012/13 Haus der Kunst, Munich exhibition ECM – A Cultural Archaeology, a showcase of the German label’s “artistic endeavours in music, graphic art, and photography and its creative interchanges with film, theatre and literature”.
The six new volumes of Selected Signs (volumes I and II, now available only as downloads, came out in 1997 and 2000) were first sold individually during the exhibition run; now they come boxed in minimalist white card: six CDs containing seven and a half hours of music. I don’t know how closely their sequencing mirrors the hang of the exhibition, but label founder Manfred Eicher and co-compiler Steve Lake have taken an unorthodox approach to programming their judicious selection of tracks.
Each strand of ECM’s catalogue is represented, with two CDs apiece dedicated to the composition-focused New Series (volumes III and IV) and the label’s trademark fusion of ambient minimalism, jazz and nu-folk (VII and VIII). Individual artists are mostly represented, as you might expect, by just one or sometimes two tracks, but, conceptually, at least, volumes V and VI are more interesting.
Of the more conventionally compiled volumes, volume III begins, after a short narration of a text by Heiner Muller, with an extract from Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”. This is followed by two pieces from Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa: “Fratres” (played by Gideon Kremer and Keith Jarrett, it’s the latter’s only contribution to the set) and the title composition.
Where Reich might yield nicely to, say, Nick Bartsch’s Ronin (who are not represented), the flow from Reich to Pärt is uncomfortable. Also, although both Pärt compositions more than merit inclusion, when sequenced together they dominate the disc to the detriment of its eclecticism. A brief Kurtág piece, which immediately follows, makes a good case for less as more, but, after these distilled riches, a Tigran Mansurian quartet sounds cloyingly saccharine.
There’s more Pärt on Volume IV, one of two short pieces from the Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium Novum collaboration with Jan Garbarek. But where Bach was the presiding spirit on Volume III, here it’s Shostakovich, whose “Chamber Symphony” and “String Quartet No. 15” are excerpted. Pärt’s more astringent counterpart Giya Kancheli is also represented here, alongside two movements of lyrical opacity by Ukrainian Valentyn Sylvestrov, and a brief excerpt from John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle”, a rather bland offering, on loan from Harmonia Mundi.
Volume V is a showcase for ECM as arthouse multikulti. It begins with a full twelve of the eighteen tracks from Eleni Karaindrou’s Concert in Athens, plus two more chamber pieces from an earlier recording by the same artist. Jan Garbarek’s “Dis”, a ‘duet’ for wood flute and windharp—on his more familiar saxophone, he’s a featured soloist on the Athens date—bridges these tracks to a brace of Moorish alchemy from Jon Balke’s Siwan and four baroque variations from the Rolf Lislevand Ensemble’s Nuove Musiche.
Volume VI is divided pretty evenly between ten pieces from Andrey Dergatchev’s soundtrack for The Return, and Nils Petter Molvær’s 1997 album Khmer, presented almost in its entirety. Only its last track is dropped in favour of a more recent piece by Khmer guitarist Eivind Aarset.
The inclusion of large portions of selected albums is mostly effective. I could live with less of the Athens Concert—some parts are vivid, others pedestrian—but I appreciate that a smaller sampling could not represent its full variety. Generous helpings of Balke and Lislevand are necessary for balance, and the disc holds up as a coherent whole, offering a holistic, though still necessarily partial picture of third stream European art music.
At the time of its release, Khmer was a milestone recording for ECM. Its production was a riposte to anyone decrying the perceived conservatism and uniform gloss of the label’s style. But Khmer‘s beats now sound rather dated, and anyway there isn’t enough variation, track to track, to merit the inclusion here of the whole album. I would prefer half of it dropped, in favour of similarly progressive music from, say, Jon Hassell’s Power Spot or, better still, David Torn’s electrifying Prezens; but there’s no point playing that game. Anyway, the volume does work very effectively as a whole; certainly, it’s displaced my old copy of Khmer from my collection: does anyone want it?
Hassell is present and correct, playing for Balke, but there’s no Torn; no sign, in fact, of any of the ECM’s burgeoning post-‘downtown’ NYC contingent. America’s west coast is represented, however, by Steve Kuhn, who essays Coltrane’s “Spiritual” with Joe Lovano, but there’s no Snakeoil, Michael Formanek or Craig Taborn; no Fly.
Two nice touches: separating the tracks from The Return and Khmer, “Wolf” is a short, vivid field recording of, yes, a wolf and its habitat. On volume III, “River” links an extract from Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” to Meredith Monk’s “Sacred Song”. Neither field recording is either credited or otherwise annotated.
Monk, incidentally, is one of few vocal artists included: contrast her breezy minimalism with two non-standard jazz treatments from Norma Winstone’s songbook on volume VII, and two more delivered in an earthy Scots burr by ex-Invisible String Band bard Robin Williamson on Volume VIII.
The set’s two final volumes are satisfyingly unproblematic. Volume VII, although varied, focuses on au courant piano-centric chamber jazz (Stefano Battaglia, Tord Gustavsen, Colin Vallon, Christian Wallumrød), while volume VIII looks deeper into the music’s evolution, with older pieces by Jimmy Guiffre 3 and Old And New Dreams (their version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”) rubbing up against new Norwegian music (Sinikka Langeland and Frode Haltli, whose selections count among the entire set’s highlights).
The last two tracks on the last disc are perhaps not typical ECM, but each distills its inclusive essence: here are fine, moving solo performances by Wadada Leo Smith, on trumpet and cymbals; and Robin Williamson, hymning verses penned by Henry Vaughan.
I’ve done my best to quibble, but no matter how well you know ECM, you’ll unearth some treasure here you’ve neglected. I’m left wondering why I’ve never really listened to Meredith Monk, or how I’ve managed to overlook Gary Peacock’s 1981 album with Jan Garbarek, Tomasz Stanko and Jack DeJohnette. I’ve been searching high and low, since hearing Barre Phillips’ “Mountainscapes V”, for a physical copy of its 1976 parent album: with John Surman and Dieter Feichtner on synths, it’s one of the few pieces here, besides the Molvaer, and a single serving of Food + Fennesz, to incorporate electronics.
I haven’t mentioned the following artists, but they are all represented: Heiner Goebbels, Rosamunde Quartett, Betty Olivero, Kim Kashkashian, Keller Quartett, Amina Alaoui, Rolf Lislevand, Egberto Gismonti, Ralph Alessi, Anja Lechner, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Tomasz Stanko, Paul Bley, Evan Parker.
For full details, see ECM’s Selected Signs III – VIII microsite.