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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Image and sound : the visual strategies of ECM records Holm, Erik


Commercial recordings - CDs, LPs - are familiar objects. However, discussion about them has often attempted to conceal the fact that, as communicating objects, recordings pose special problems due to the fact that they unite text, image, and sound in a material commodity. This thesis examines the role of the visual in the production, circulation and use of recordings. The album cover is the primary category of study, with an emphasis on its functioning in relation to the recording as a sonic and material commodity. The label ECM, a German company which has been producing recordings since 1969, provides the main focus in this analysis. The basis of this investigation lies in the questioning of the assumptions and categories that have historically guided the activity of cover design and the discourse about it. Traditionally, recordings have been understandably seen primarily as sound-carriers; their visual aspects, even when celebrated, are most often relegated to a peripheral status, despite the fact that in certain contexts the importance of the visual can overwhelm that of sound. The usual hierarchical opposition between these elements is here questioned through an examination of both the marketing of recordings and their circulation and use. ECM provides a pertinent case through which such questions can be elaborated. Its visual marketing strategies can be characterised in terms of a desire for difference. ECM's attempt to set itself apart has resulted in a "look" which rejects many conventions. It has also resulted in a complex, conceptual group of visual strategies. In its particular use of landscape photography, blank space, and gestural markings, ECM constructs ideas of space which relate to the potential for performativity and creativity. Through the combination of these strategies, the label deemphasises creative personality of the musical performer and emphasises the space occupied by the looker/listener. In doing this, it also questions the traditional boundaries between music and the visual. ECM's covers cause these categories to become indistinct and allow new conceptions of the recording as a material commodity to emerge. One effect of this is a construction of the apprehender's subjectivity that fails to fit within the marketplace's traditional categories. The thesis considers how the visual has been implicated in more concrete processes such as the negotiation of taste and practices of consumption and use. The niche that ECM attempts to carve out for itself is considered in relation to the tension in the marketplace between the desire for distinction and the recording as a massproduced commodity.

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