Book review: Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM

Photographer Garry Corbett has a look at the
latest volume to celebrate CD cover art


Windfall Light : The Visual Language Of ECM (Lars Muller Publishers)

There are a few record labels in the history of contemporary music whose visual language is instantly recognisable and so interwoven with the musical content it packages as to be inseparable in the minds of the ardent fan. Blue Note, Impulse! and CTI spring to mind. Each label with its own visual identity as strong as its unique sonic landscape. To hear a Blue Note album from the 1950s conjures up instant black and white images to the mind, Art Blakey at his drums, Lee Morgan, horn aimed at the camera in full flight. Sound and images fused in the imagination of the listener.

So it is with German contemporary music label ECM who since its first release in the early ’70s has set a standard in both sound and packaging which speak of quality. The sleeve designs entice the potential listener, often with their simplicity and a stillness which echoes the music within.

It was the photographer Alfred Stieglitz who coined the phrase “The Equivalent” in photography. A concept which explored the idea of photograph as metaphor and not merely about the subject placed before the lens. This concept was further developed and explored by American photographer and teacher Minor White, who took up the baton from Stieglitz, developing a near Zen-like approach with his students in championing the concept of “The Equivalent”.

ECM as a label seems to have absorbed this concept naturally. Each ECM cover photograph hints at a meaning beyond the mere image it carries. At its best it shows an equivalent to the music contained within. Following on from its predecessor, Sleeves of Desire, Windfall Light : The Visual Language of ECM further explores the development of the label’s cover designs bringing the story up to date. The format is similar to its predecessor though the book itself is physically slightly larger. Contained within its soft covers are 447 pages of esoteric food for the ECM gourmet.

The bulk of the book features single page single sleeve design images reproduced at full CD booklet size complete with original ECM catalogue number and brief description. These are interspersed with an opening poem by Edmond Jabes and a sequence of five original essays on the art of ECM by a variety of writers including ECM recording artist Ketil Bjornstad and publisher Lars Muller. The remainder of the book is taken up with a complete ECM catalogue illustrated by all sleeves in miniature and finally a page and a half of biographies of those involved in the project.

On one level Windfall Light : The Visual Language of ECM might be seen as a glorified catalogue. As such it is flawed by being already out of date. On another level for those who love the whole ECM aesthetic it is a contemporary photographic and design exhibition between soft covers. Either way it is a visual, sumptuous treat. As such it comes highly recommended. © Garry Corbett 2010

Prviously reviewed at thejazzbreakfast: Horizons Touched: the Music of ECM



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