Private Label

Sasha Frere-Jones on Warp and ECM

Manfred Eicher and Arvo Pärt. Photo: Roberto Masotti / ECM.

IN 2019, WARP RECORDS TURNED THIRTY AND EDITIONS OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC (ECM) HIT FIFTY. The connection felt superficial, and then it didn’t, though I couldn’t immediately figure out why. Both of these independent labels have seeded the air for decades. They didn’t cash in, scale up, and abandon what made them good, like Atlantic and Def Jam and other indies before them. ECM and Warp both stuck to the daily grind of personal relationships, careful record-making, and consistent business practices. This isn’t to say that the two present as similar: ECM generally puts out albums created in real time with acoustic instruments while Warp Records releases work largely made with machines and recorded on nonlinear digital platforms. But there is a survival mode and an aesthetic intensity linking these two, an echoing ethos. Warp and ECM are small-batch, independent institutions.

Born in Bavaria in 1943, ECM founder Manfred Eicher played double bass as a teen with classical ensembles in the ’50s and worked as a production assistant for the genre’s preeminent label, Deutsche Grammophon, in the ’60s. After producing iconic free improvisation albums like the Peter Brötzmann Sextet’s Nipples (1969) for a Munich label called Calig, Eicher teamed up with Manfred Scheffner of the Jazz By Post mail order company—“a proto-Amazon for the improvisers’ community”—to cut a record with pianist Mal Waldron. On November 24, 1969, they made the first ECM album, Free At Last, a Mal Waldron trio date that still sounds alive. ECM has continued to put out jazz-adjacent and improvised performances since then, and, in 1984, started releasing notated music through the New Series offshoot. In 2010, Eicher explained to Richard Williams of the Guardian that these two branches are, in many ways, just one: “For me it’s very good to bring the demands of written music—phrasing, intonation, dynamics—to improvisational recording, where the approach is looser and more spontaneous. And vice versa, to bring some of the spirit of an improvised music session into a recording of written music, to get some empathy into it, so that it doesn’t become an academic-circle record.”

ECM covers, clockwise: Mal Waldron Trio’s Free at Last (1969); Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert (1975); The Music Improvisation Company’s The Music Improvisation Company (1970). Bottom left: The Peter Brötzmann Sextet’s Nipples (Calig; 1969).

In 1975, ECM released Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, which still holds the title of bestselling piano record of all time. In 1994, Warp released Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which feels like a sequel to The Köln Concert even though it sounds nothing like it. Jarrett and Richard D. James (Aphex Twin, to the consumer) are both exacting technicians who pushed the dominant equipment of their day with a focused articulation that remade the language expected of their gear. For Jarrett, it was a piano; for James, it was a series of samplers and synthesizers. There is another link between the two musicians that caught me: Both Jarrett and James have strained relationships with their own fans. Jarrett is clinically sensitive to crowd noise and has reprimanded dozens of non-compliant coughers and chatters. James gets tired enough of his very loyal audience that he retreats from performing for long stretches of time. ECM’s and Warp’s biggest stars aren’t interested in being stars. At work is a faith in a slightly old-fashioned model: craft over persona. These labels continue to survive by ignoring or rejecting most pop business wisdom. Social media, an unstable collider of personae, is not central to either label’s approach. The musicians on both ECM and Warp are generally absent from social media or present only in an obligatory fashion. (Pianist Kelly Moran’s Instagram stories on skating competitions are pretty informative, though.)

Both labels established niches, though that word implies a sneaky relationship to the landscape, as if they make records in a cave. Think of Warp and ECM as fertile crescents that pass through phases of wider popularity while growing mainly because of small fanbases. These territories are protected by hermetic enclosures, design that uses abstraction as a strengthening bond rather than as a deflection. Both Warp and ECM have cohered around a graphic sensibility that visually responds to their musical cohort. In December, Eicher told me that, when the label started in 1969, he “wanted to avoid the jazz cover clichés. I was influenced more by images from film—the French nouvelle vague in particular—and from painting (Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Walter De Maria) and from Swiss graphic design (Frutiger), and this was subsequently reflected in our covers.” This approach worked well enough to become its own cliché. Today, if you center a black-and-white photograph on a white field and place a modest bolt of sans serif in the corner, you’ve got an ECM cover. Warp emerged in 1989, a moment of raves and intense dance record production, when default album art design involved Area 51 bioforms and curvy fonts ripped from an Alvin Toffler paperback. Warp reacted by presenting solid, muted colors and quiet type, along with photographs that wouldn’t be out of place on an ECM release. (Autechre’s 1994 Warp album Amber has a cover loyal to a straight ECM party line: a scalloped hillside under a blue sky and two words set in Futura.)

Both brands place faith in the value of audio fidelity and instrumental skill. In a 2007 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Warp cofounder Steve Beckett said that the label signs artists who “have mastered the instruments for whatever form they’re working in, so the instruments and technology don’t get in the way of their personality.” He elaborated that “the personality of Aphex Twin or Boards Of Canada start uniquely coming through the music they’re creating, so people can hear that direct emotional contact with the artist, rather than just hearing what the equipment is.” Moran, now signed to Warp, told me that “technical proficiency on my instrument is key to my identity as a musician. I would say all of the Warp artists are technically proficient in their own way, even if it doesn’t apply to playing an instrument traditionally.” Additionally, Beckett and cofounder Rob Mitchell encouraged people who had been making twelve-inch singles for the dance community to take a cue from indie rock bands. “With the rock labels we looked up to from the indie side, like Mute and Factory, they had a whole look and really developed the artists, recording albums, sending them out on tour,” Beckett said. “We took that model and applied it to dance music, so LFO were the first people we worked with where we were like, ‘Come on, guys. You’ve got to make an album.’”

Warp Covers, clockwise: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994), Squarepusher’s Ultravisitor (2004); LFO’s Frequencies (1991); Autechre’s Amber. (1994).

One key aspect of Eicher’s blend was bringing the engineering expertise common to classical recordings into the world of improvised music. Many releases in ECM’s first five years were free jazz, including The Music Improvisation Company, a haywire 1970 recording guided by guitarist Derek Bailey. The resulting LP is a beautiful rendering of exuberantly ugly guitars, electronics, reeds, and drums. “The search for clarity and transparency in music was part of the work from the beginning,” Eicher told me. “I was joined in that goal by engineers like Jan Erik Kongshaug, Martin Wieland, and Tony May, all of whom helped to convey the vividness of the interplay.” These engineers are rarely discussed, yet remain central to ECM’s legacy. If the label’s image is easily imitated, its sound is trickier. On ECM albums, sonic events suggest the dimensions of physical space. The dutiful copycat would probably give you solo instruments resounding in a large room. Eicher himself put it well in Sound and Silence, a 2011 film about him and his label. “For me, the luminosity of sound has always been a goal,” he said. “A beautifully ringing tone, for instance, is like the streak of a comet, like a falling star that discharges a light and leaves a tail behind. This is how I would like to capture certain sounds in music.”

Part of the ethical wiring, the stuff that undergirds the aesthetics, is how these labels’ small teams have stayed in touch with their artists. Eicher occupies a seemingly unparalleled position: He is involved in every release on his label, many of them as producer. He’s been with ECM since he started it. “As a producer, I’ve tried to encourage logical consistency and create coherent atmosphere in a recording,” Eicher told me. “An album should tell a story from beginning to end, with a dramaturgy loosely comparable to that of a film, play, or novel.”

There are albums on both labels that reach over to the other, that confirm my speculative connection. Tom Jenkinson, who does business on Warp as Squarepusher, started releasing records in 1995. In his hands, the hypersonic breaks and jigsaw edits of drum and bass become expressions of fractal possibility rather than triggers for dancing. Turning the form into some variant of jazz isn’t Jenkinson’s idea alone, but he’s stuck with it longer than almost anyone. His forthcoming album Be Up A Hello not only returns to the sounds he made twenty-five years ago, it also goes back to the gear he used (including a Commodore computer). As a fretless bass player, Jenkinson reminds me of Jaco Pastorious, the bassist on one of ECM’s most remarkable releases, Pat Metheny’s 1976 trio album Bright Size Life. (For me, this title forms a holy trio of trio albums along with John McLaughlin’s 1969 release Extrapolation and the Minutemen’s 1986 double album Double Nickels on the Dime.) About half of the 2003 Squarepusher album Ultravisitor could be ported out onto ECM, especially the delicate, almost madrigal instrumental “Andrei,” played on fretless bass and acoustic guitar.

ECM covers, from left: Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1984); The Christan Wallumrød Ensemble’s Fabula Suite Lugano (2009); Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s Re: ECM (2009).

The album that makes the connection between these labels most clear—the reason all of these affinities rattled around so loudly—is Re: ECM by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer, a 2011 ECM release and one of my favorite records of the decade. Villalobos is a Chilean-born DJ and musician who in the late aughts was using ECM LPs in his DJ sets. The one he’s cited most is Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, the 1984 release that has become a defining record for the label, a classical work that appeals to a wide audience as both music and as pedagogic tool. If you don’t particularly like or understand classical music, Tabula Rasa has the kind of moderate pacing and sharp arrangements that allow chord changes and harmonic shifts to register clearly. This Pärt composition has been called “holy minimalism,” and those aren’t the worst keywords. In the fall of 2009, Villalobos and Loderbauer, a synthesist from Munich, began working with individual stems from ECM albums to create something new. Villalobos described it as a process of combining “the functionality of reduced electronic structures with the living textures of ECM productions.” The result is a record I play constantly.

The duo chose bits of recordings by Pärt and Russian composer Alexander Knaifel as well as older American titles by Bennie Maupin and John Abercrombie, but the album they drew from more than any other is a lesser-known jazz composition by a Norwegian group, the Christan Wallumrød Ensemble’s Fabula Suite Lugano (2009). Villalobos and Loderbauer repurposed a solo harp piece called “Blop” twice, turning it into a minor theme for the whole album. The urge to combine acoustic instruments with electronics is increasingly common; it rarely creates anything as unified as Re: ECM. In addition to isolating instrumental passages, the duo sampled moments of silence from ECM records, meaning that they actually worked with the ECM sound itself, which is really just what interior spaces sound like as signals die off into nothing. There is no genre for Re: ECM, which is patient, impossible to predict, and bright-eyed. It sounds like music slinking through the corridors of other music, or instruments talking behind a curtain before a performance. It’s really friendly, despite these descriptors, and could absolutely be an album on Warp. It just happens to be on ECM.

Listen to Sasha Frere-Jones’s playlists culled from the two labels’ catalogues: Warp | ECM.