ECM and Jan Jedlička. The Cartography of Constant Change Pavel Klusák

There is no Czech artist or graphic designer who has so deeply influenced the appearance of music albums that have flashed their way around the globe. The collaboration between ECM Records and Jan Jedlička has been going on for thirty years and is featured in the Jedlička retrospective at the Municipal Library.


As a publicist, Pavel Klusák focuses mainly on music, sound and their social contexts. He also publishes articles on contemporary art. His programmes are regularly broadcast by Czech Radio Vltava. As a dramatic adviser, he leads festival projects for the Ji.hlava IDFF and GASK Kutná Hora. His latest book Uvnitř banánu [Inside of a Banana] (Fra, 2021) examines the relativity of values in music through both fictional and real stories. He is the editor-in-chief of Qartal.

There are music labels whose graphic design quickly makes it clear that they are not only concerned with music, that the publisher’s conception is informed by ideas, feelings and cultural societies which, along with the music, can be projected into the art form, into the accompanying texts; and even grow into a catalogue as a story of interrelated references. Such labels have the potential to affect the wider cultural public through their literary and film references and through their ties to traditional cultures as well as to avant-garde movements. Jan Jedlička became part of this enterprise when he met producer Manfred Eicher in the late 1980s.

The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence

Eicher has been managing ECM Records (Editions of Contemporary Music) since 1969. To briefly characterise this groundbreaking label is to say that it helped to find the identity of European jazz and very quickly went “above genres”, combining jazz improvisation with elements of chamber music and traditional cultures. It provided space to key American personalities (such as Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett), discovered for the world a number of great names (Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell…). In the early 1980s, it added classical music to its portfolio: to this day, the great minimalists Meredith Monk and Arvo Pärt premiere their music in the classical music series called the ECM New Series.

It quickly became clear that the visual art side of the label’s music media would be both bold and connected, conceptual in fact. Designer Barbara Wojirsch made her mark on the label with her use of drawings and typeface, her exuberant style sometimes showing the inspiration of Cy Twombly; Dieter Rahm, another of their leading graphic artists, also contributes photographs that almost never have a direct connection with the musical content. “There’s always something mysterious about a landscape without a human,” Eicher says of the scenes he chooses for his covers.

The graphic side of ECM, with its decades of variation, also has its critics: the purity and aestheticism are said to distract from concrete reality. But the label, which has never lost its independence during the fifty years of its existence, takes care to move in the interspaces rather than at the poles. The exhibition projects and book monographs of ECM (Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM or Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM) draw on visuals easily, extensively and convincingly.

A Shark’s Fin of Light

When Jan Jedlička was working on his film Echo Vocis Imago in the late 1980s, he very much wanted Arvo Pärt’s music to be played in it. He actually made a trip to Berlin and rang the doorbell of this Estonian exile, who was experiencing the first decade of his global fame at the time. Pärt  looked  at  Jedlička from behind his hermit’s beard and said after a while: “You can come in.”

Jan Jedlička showed him some of his work: photographs, paintings and drawings, which he would leave his Swiss home to create, mainly in Maremma, a region in southern Tuscany. Pärt studied them intently, but frowned at the mention of film music: Ich bin kein Stravinsky, I don’t write film music to order! He reportedly said. However, he declared that he had to think it over and with those words he parted from his Czech colleague. At his next meeting with Manfred Eicher, he showed the producer and moving spirit of ECM Jedlička’s books and reproductions. By doing so, he did more for Jedlička than if he had consented to compose the film music.

Eicher, who approves the artistic appearance of each ECM album, soon contacted Jedlička. First, he immediately ordered ten or fifteen copies of his books from him (which he then distributed to “his” musicians) and he was also interested in cooperating with Jedlička. On the first title they made jointly, there is a “Shark’s Fin of Light”, a triangular light shape on the shadowed wall of a house in Maremma: originally, it is a photodocumentary snapshot from the film Echo Vocis Imago in which Jedlička records the movement of light on a wall using time-lapse photography. The black- and-white scene, satisfactorily empty and referring to something outside itself, fits into Manfred Eicher’s vision: reduction, an abstract constellation that can refer to both micro- and macro-levels, the landscape as “the inner landscape” (this is Eicher’s own expression). The photo was used on the cover of viola concerts by Alfred Schnittke and a Georgian composer, Giya Kancheli, released in 1992.


The cooperation had begun. It lasts to this day. Jan Jedlička and Manfred Eicher meet now and again; Eicher looks at his new work and makes his choice. It is characteristic of the ECM concept that photographs, paintings and drawings are equally usable. Exported stills from films are also used: for example, this is how the disturbing and solemn scene of grass-burning froze into a photo cover for the album From The Green Hill by trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.

Jan Jedlička himself, who is satisfied with the collaboration, does not influence which of his works Eicher chooses and with which music he connects it. For the Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM book monograph, he made this comment: “I came to realize and respect the fact that ECM is a creation of Manfred Eicher’s personality, his intuition. The way he looks at pictures and listens to music. This makes me always very curious to see what he has chosen.” Sometimes there is closer communication: during  the  publication of Leoš Janáček’s complete piano works, performed by András Schiff, the producer asked the artist to provide photographs of the Czech landscape. Inside the booklet, there is thus a series of pictures that Jan Jedlička took as a student in 1963, before emigrating. Photographs from another time and place resonate with the title of the whole album (after Janáček’s composition) A Recollection, i.e. a Memory.

The photo study of the architecture of St. George’s Basilica at Prague Castle, originating from Jedlička’s Basilica series, ended up on one of the few truly Czech ECM titles: on a recording by the Prague Philharmonic Choir with choir master Josef Pančík (the repertoire consisting of music by Dvořák, Suk and Eben). This painting evokes the mid-1990s, when Jan Jedlička was first being more widely discovered in the Czech Republic. In addition to exhibiting his works at Prague Castle (at that time seemingly self-evidently open to culture and the public) for his project he also photographed and filmed places where the light falls which are precisely oriented by the old architecture of St. George’s Basilica.

Winter Journey to an Intuitive View

In 1996, ECM started to publish books because of Jedlička. The first volume is his photographic series A Winter Journey to the Sea. Of this project, Jedlička writes: “I took the train from Basel to the Hague, with a few brief stopovers, between the 5th and 8th of February, 1995. At the time, I was reading some texts by Vilém Flusser on the philosophy of photography and the emergent age of technical images. Wishing to put certain theoretical assertions or insights to the test of personal experience, I brought along a Nikon AF automatic camera and a roll of black and white film. I was interested in exploring my own cursory ways of seeing during the journey, and the role played by the camera. The series of paintings is arranged chronologically in the book and no selection was made.”

The photo book, which represents a single exposed film from start to finish without any intervention by the author, is de facto a polemic with Flusser: it shows that the authorial style of experienced photographers, their personal view, does not disappear completely, even when they press the shutter instinctively. “I was testing,” the author recalls, “what’s left of me when I eliminate a number of variables: composition, for example – at the speed of the train you’re shooting from, it’s not possible to compose an image in the usual way.” When he reached the sea, Jan Jedlička took – no longer from the train – three pictures from the shore as the conclusion. The last of the pictures appeared on the cover of Jan Garbarek’s album Visible World. Of the albums with “Jedlička’s covers”, the four albums by the Norwegian saxophonist are among the most successful titles: they have spread the artist’s vision of the landscape in hundreds of thousands of multiples around the world.

Movement in Landscapes (of Beethoven)

The specific story is related to the use of cartographic drawings. Producer Manfred Eicher discovered at Jedlička’s extensive exhibition at the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, a series of outdoor drawings that Jedlička created while walking in the countryside. He walked about two kilometres and gradually drew “things that are not visible at a glance”. Since the individual drawings capture the changing state of a single place in time (and transformations, such as the temporary saturation of the countryside with water, can be observed well), Eicher read the drawings as a kind of score and suggested that they be used as a series. Eight cartographic drawings thus accompanied, in their movement, an edition in eight volumes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas performed by the world-class performer András Schiff (2005–2008).

Exile is a common theme for both András Schiff and Jan Jedlička. “I’m interested in the never-ending transformation,” says  Jedlička of the processes in the countryside, and this is obviously a consequence of his travelling through the world, his departure from his original homeland. Schiff has experienced a number of departures:  after  emigrating from communist Hungary, he tried to get US citizenship but was not successful (due to long concert tours during which he was outside the United States). He later got Austrian citizenship and lived on and off in London and Salzburg.

However, he renounced his Austrian nationality in protest at the rise of the far right. Let us consider the fates of other exiles (Arvo Pärt), ECM’s support of American and post-Soviet artists suffering  from  poor  conditions  in their homelands, and also Eicher’s many years spent in Oslo and Italy where he recorded music: all of this is witness to the proximity of Jedlička’s lifelong observation of the world in motion and transformation to ECM’s ideas. When the recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was being made, András Schiff proved he was not only a piano virtuoso: he wrote a short theory about colours for the recording and asked Jan Jedlička to accompany it with a visual. Jedlička – obligingly, though rather freely – provided the booklet with a polyphonic structure of vertical fields. The fifteen-colour constellation resembles Jedlička’s famous “colour swatches” – an overview of colour pigments that the artist obtains by crushing and leaching rocks found and dug up in the countryside. The whole process, essential for Jedlička and charming even after many years, is illustrated not only in Petr Záruba’s documentary Jan Jedlička: Traces of a Landscape (2020), but also in a short film made by the publishing company itself, which covered five decades of ECM’s activity with fifty portraits of the ECM50 series.

The Label as Concept and Gallery

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of ECM’s cooperative projects; the latest of their covers was published four months before the opening of  the  exhibition  at the GHMP (with this title: András Schiff / Jörg Widmann: Johannes Brahms – Clarinet Sonatas). ECM Records, of course, collaborate with a number of original photographers, some of whom have their own distinctive features: Jean-Guy Lathuilière and his night shots featuring a thick, disorienting blue; in the images of Greek photographer, Fotini Potamia, tangles of branches and their shadows, falling impassively on the human world, repeatedly appear. Gérald Minkoff looks at landscapes that are somewhat empty: we expect something that is almost missing, something  complementary  to  the  whole, from the music inside the cover.

However, none of these artists relate to the landscape in such a continuous range of techniques as Jan Jedlička does: black-and- white photographs appear here alongside colour Polaroids, water colours and drawings. The pigment field can be as monochrome as the photographer’s view of a grey-blue sky. The direct documentary of a photograph and the author’s subjective testimony stand here side by side so self-evidently that we no longer perceive the boundary between one and the other.

In Jan Jedlička, Manfred Eicher found someone who helped him to express ECM’s identity. The Czech and European artist, on the other hand, gained a medium in ECM which, over the years, gradually, rather like the sedimentation of layers in the countryside, offers an interpretation: it explains what his work is.