You can usually spot an album cover from the jazz-classical label ECM the moment you see it: minimalist design, modern san-serif type, and, often, a photograph of—well, it’s not always clear. It might be a dance of shadows, a slice of the night sky, moonlight on waves, a blurred landscape. It is almost never a portrait of the musician, it never shouts at you, and it is never test-marketed. Love or hate this rigorous approach—I have moments of both feelings about ECM’s immovable aesthetic—it is proudly design for art’s sake, and it has remained remarkably consistent since the late ’60s, when Manfred Eicher founded the label.
The design magazine Creative Review writes about a new book of post-1996 ECM cover art, Windfall Light, tracing the ECM aesthetic straight to Eicher: “Eicher still holds true to his main objective—described in the new book by pianist and composer Ketil Bjornstad as ‘rendering an expressive idiom visible’—and the work collected here is a testament to a truly committed vision.”
Eicher told Jazz Times in 2001 about the roots of this vision:
“As a passionate moviegoer I have always been interested in photography. [Graphic artists] Barbara and Burkhart [Wojirsch] and I developed an idea to go for a certain kind of cover design. It was not intended to be different from others but we wanted something more austere, sparse and maybe a little more clarity to the direction of how the music could be enveloped. It was never the idea to illustrate the music but more to be a counterpoint to the music.
“I want to present an idea I feel, or that my colleagues feel, as good—unlike the general tendencies of record companies, which attempt to fabricate things in order to please an audience. Nowadays we see more and more business people taking charge: packaging and marketing are the key words. But that’s not what it is about. We need to trust our instincts, have something to tell and say it with the force of our convictions.”
Of course, many music listeners aren’t bothering with album art at all these days, except perhaps as one more tiny navigation enhancement on their handheld player. International design magazine Eye questions whether album art even has a future:
However much designers want to create design for music, the fear remains that album covers—perhaps albums themselves—may prove to be a historical blip, a short detour in the long history of music. “The Rite of Spring” didn’t need a sleeve design, nor did Duke Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Oo.” With hindsight, the 78s of early jazz and folk music, with their ever-changing formats and anonymous paper bags … are closer to today’s downloads than more recent music products. “Does the visual add something?’ muses [designer] Stephen Doyle, talking about the ‘incredible shrinking’ that has taken place during his career. “Maybe it’s the ultimate freeing up of music. Is the album cover the cord of the telephone?”
See Utne Reader’s recent coverage of ECM releases: a review of Keith Jarrett's Testament: Paris/London and a sample track from Rolf Lislevand's Diminuito.