Aspen Edities: The Album as a Work of Art

Jakob Baekgaard By

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We notice that some people collect the Aspen catalogue, no matter who the musicians are, just to have all the covers on their LP shelf. —Ruben Machtelinckx, Niels Van Heertum and Sanne Huysmans
It's a paradox of the digital age that it has spawned some of the most beautiful physical editions of music, but perhaps it's quite logical. In an age where almost everything becomes available digitally, it's a good thing for a physical product to distinguish itself. This is exactly what the records from the Belgian-based label Aspen Edities do. Run by musicians Ruben Machtelinckx and Niels Van Heertum and writer Sanne Huysmans, the label has released delicate editions that are a feast for both eyes and ears. Unlike so many other records, the artwork done by distinguished and upcoming artists isn't disturbed by the names of the musicians or the record title. Instead, each cover becomes a canvas where it's possible to enjoy the visual element fully as a work of art itself and often the editions come as beautiful gatefold sleeves that enhance the visual experience. However, the label owners are not purists when it comes to formats. They release the music digitally and on CD as well as LP. Most of the records have been printed in limited editions with pressings of around 500 CDs and 300 LPs.

A young label, the story of Aspen Edities is still unfolding and it started when the musicians wanted to take control of the artistic process and take another step as curators of their own label.

All About Jazz: Growing up, what kind of labels did you admire, and which labels do you consider kindred spirits now?

Aspen Edities: Early on we collected the records of ECM and Winter & Winter. They represent a significant part of jazz and improvised music in the last decades. Now we love labels like Hubro, Folkways, Sofa, Ideologic Organ, Rune Grammofon, to name a few. Seeing them spread their music, we are hopeful to be able to do the same with our artists the coming years. And there are some labels run by artists that we appreciate, like KLEIN (Joachim Badenhorst) and granvat (Stijn Cools and Bert Cools).

AAJ: When did you form the label and was there any particular reason why it happened?

AE: We published our first edition in September 2017. As musicians we used to work with other labels, and we couldn't decide certain aspects of the record making process. We had such clear ideas about aesthetics, content and approach that we didn't want to make compromises any more. Another main reason is that you evolve from being a musician, working only on your own projects, to being a curator, going one step up in terms of the scale you work on.

AAJ: What's the story behind the name of the label?

AE: It's a tree and a ski resort. No, frankly there is no story. We liked the sound of the word 'Aspen,' both in English and in Dutch. The 'Edities' refers to the idea of making every product into a small piece of art.

AAJ: How would you describe the sound and aesthetic of the label? It seems to me that there's a strong influence from folk music and avantgarde jazz, but also a very lyrical approach to the music.

AE: We like to call it integral music. In contemporary music there is a growing segment that falls between traditional genres. It is music without a name and it moves between jazz and improvisation, contemporary classical music, pop and folk influences, and electronics. Above all we support 'real music.' Honest and from the heart. Who cares what the genre is?

AAJ: You are artists yourself. How has that influenced the way you run the label?

AE: We don't know anything about financial stuff. So we tend to choose options that make an edition better and prettier without thinking about the costs. It's a great advantage for our public and a disaster for us.

AAJ: How do you find your artists? What kind of artists are you looking for?

AE: Like many things, it started in our intimate circle, with people we know and love. Along the way other doors open and more people are being involved, particularly our events are a great way of getting to know artists, musically and personally. Both are important, because we do aim to form some kind of 'family' of artists who think alike but create in their own particular way. In general Aspen can only thrive if we collaborate with good people. People are starting to get to know Aspen, so lately we are getting requests from people we don't know more often.

AAJ: Looking back so far, could you share some of the most memorable anecdotes about your life in the record business?

AE: There is hardly anything romantic to say. The nicest moments are us lining up with some friends to create an assembly line to unpack and number vinyls, to add inserts and sleeves. We tend to end up with homemade pizza and delicious gueuze beer.

AAJ: You are Belgian label. Which jazz venues would you recommend in Belgium? Are there any places where artists from your label often play?

AE: Big venues with an adventurous music program are quite limited unfortunately. Handelsbeurs in Ghent, deSingel in Antwerp, nona in Mechelen. Luckily there are smaller initiatives that are often very lively and have great programming. Such as Walter in Brussels, Het Bos in Antwerp. For Aspen and our artists both types of venues have their value and charm.

AAJ: Do you feel that you are part of a specific sound or scene in Belgium or do you think of yourself as a transnational label?

AE: A bit of both. We feel blessed to be part of a generation of Belgian musicians that is rather entreprenurial: developing musical experiments, but also running labels, organizing concerts and setting up interdisciplinary projects. For example, fellow initiatives like granvat and Troika. At the same time Belgium is so small. Many of our bands include artists from abroad, like Ingar Zach, Nils Økland, Shahzad Ismaily. Long live globalization, for that matter.

AAJ: What is your take on the use of digital technology? Do you see it as an opportunity or a hindrance? Could you imagine Aspen Edities being a label that only released downloads or is it important to you that there is a physical product?

AE: Digital technology is one of the best things that ever happened to music. There is one condition though: people shouldn't forget to keep paying for artistic, crafted, decent music. This is what makes the crucial difference for our artists to be able to live from their art. Sure, Aspen could have a solely digital release. It is important to follow such developments in society, it's even nicer to do something creative with it and offer the product in a slightly different way.

AAJ: These days, the opinions about streaming services seem to differ a lot. What is your take on this issue?

AE: Like we just said: it is crucial that artists are being paid. There is a fault line that divides digital platforms, one part going more and more towards free services, another part contributing to a good attitude from listeners. We love Bandcamp for example. Things are moving so fast these days, it's very hard to predict what will come next, how people will connect to music in the future.

AAJ: The artwork seems to be very important for your releases and I've noticed that the artwork is a self-contained unit because there's no disturbing elements of information like the band name or title of the record. The art is experienced on its own. Could you talk about the role of art in relation to the music?

AE: It started from a personal motive. Visual arts have been an inspiration in our own artistic work. The way visual artists work, which processes they go through, why they make certain decisions. As musicians and composers, it can be very intriguing to bring some of these elements into our own work. Also, there is always a visual aspect to an LP or CD, because of its shape and material. You can choose to use it as merely a carrier of information, or you can make it part of the artistic content. We opt for the latter. The crate digging music lover in a record store has an immediate impression of a record, so as a publisher we want to make it intriguing, significant and pretty.

AAJ: Elaborating on the artwork, could you talk about the artists you have worked with and how you got in touch with them. How do the visual artists participate in the process of making the record?

AE: We have worked with a broad range of visual artists, Belgian and international, established artists and young talents. It started with Ante Timmermans. Ruben had worked with him before and we met at his studio several times to develop the Aspen logo. He ended up doing the artwork for our first edition, mono no aware by Linus + Økland/Van Heertum/Zach, as well. Ante is someone who understands what we are trying to do and what the music is about. So his work fits perfectly. Some visual artists we know personally, and we ask them if we think their work suits a particular project, like Tatjana Gerhard and Charif Benhelima for example. From others we know their work and we try to get in contact, that was the case with Thomas Müller and the Philippe Vandenberg Foundation. We also have some great advisors on the matter, people who point us in the direction of new artists we didn't come across yet such as Loïc Van Zeebroek, whose paintings are featured on the latest Karl Van Deun release almadies.

AAJ: Do you also include liner notes and photography in your release? Your website says that there is a textual element in your releases. Could you elaborate on this?

AE: Aspen is run by two musicians, Ruben Machtelinckx and Niels Van Heertum, and a writer, Sanne Huysmans. Besides being a literator, Sanne has a background in philosophy. She adds her domain to the interdisciplinary whole of an edition. So far in the form of a quote that is included in every edition. A fragment from a song, poem, letter or text that is related with the music and the artwork. It's a sentence that brings in its own world. It insinuates something about the meaning of the music, but in an opaque way. Besides that, we try to be frugal with words on our editions.

AAJ: Could you tell about some of the studios you use? What is the perfect sound to you? Do you prefer the studio or live recordings?

AE: First of all: obviously that is up to the artist. Secondly, there is a broad spectrum in between the cinematic sound of mono no aware or Niels Van Heertum's side of sea legs / hum back and the extremely detailed, minimalistic sound of our latest edition, let's drink the sea and dance by Poor Isa. Both extremes need a different approach.

AAJ: What is your role when it comes to the music you release and what kind of activities are you involved in as a label owner?
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