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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?

AE: There are three main tasks, apart from the productional work. First curation, like we mentioned before. We have to guard the consistency of the editions. Musically there is a big gap between the free improvisation of Frederik Leroux and Kris Vanderstraeten and the jazz, almost songlike improvisations by Karl Van Deun. We have to make sure every edition makes sense in the catalogue. Towards the artists we have two other tasks: distributing the music in as many record stores as possible and helping them to develop their international career with international reviews or tours.

AAJ: How would you describe the listener you try to reach and what do you do to spread the word about the music?

AE: Of course we have to reach the adventurous music lover. Because it is such a small niche, we have to look at Europe and the world even. But we are more ambitious -or more naive -than that. To enjoy integral music you don't need anything but an open mind. We never underestimate our public. At our events for example, it becomes clear that people that aren't connaisseurs can enjoy more complex music if you bring it in the right context. It is not easy to reach those less experienced listeners. We struggle to make it happen, but we keep looking for ways to do so.

AAJ: Have you experienced any interest from art lovers because of the high quality of your record covers or is it mainly music listeners who discover the label?

AE: Yes, we have. Mostly through the artists and their galleries. For them it's an unexpected way of spreading their work in an accessible way, reaching people who might not buy a painting but are interested in art. 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.

AAJ: What are your ambitions for the future and are you optimistic when it comes to the future of jazz? How do you see yourself as a part of the jazz tradition?

AE: Jazz will keep following its course, like a river that keeps on finding its way downstream even when there are obstacles. Interesting things will always happen in jazz and improvised music. How a label like Aspen will fit in the future cultural scenery is uncertain, but that is of secondary importance. Most of the artists on the label have a background in more traditional jazz, but have moved to different musical areas. In a way it is a normal evolution these musicians went through. But some might not see a link between the music that we issue and the jazz tradition, and that's understandable as well.

AAJ: Finally, could you tell about your release schedule and some of the future releases on your label?

AE: Being artists and running a label on the side, we don't plan so well. We had a very busy spring, with three releases and a special label night, so we might take some rest. There are always many ideas, some realistic, some wild. A couple of them will get real, but you shouldn't expect new editions before the end of this year. Two projects that are more concrete are a new quartet by Ruben Machtelinckx with Joachim Badenhorst, Bert Cools and Toma Gouband, and a quintet by Niels Van Heertum with Shahzad Ismaily, Jozef Dumoulin, Joao Luis Lobo and Ruben Machtelinckx.

Aspen Edities: A Discography with Comments

Linus + Økland/Van Heertum/Zach
mono no aware
Aspen Edities
2017

The high lonesome Norwegian sound of Nils Økland's hardanger fiddle introduces the gentle, experimental folk-lyricism of mono no aware, the first release on Aspen Edities. The album is a collaboration between Økland, euphonium-player Niels Van Heertum, percussionist Ingar Zach and Linus, the duo of guitarist Ruben Machtelinckx and saxophonist Thomas Jillings. Together they make melodic, acoustic soundscapes with banjo, clarinet and trumpet added to the mix. The artwork of the album is provided by Ante Timmermans.

Veder
evergreen
Aspen Edities
2017

Both Ruben Machtelinckx and Niels Van Heertum show up again on evergreen, the album by the group Veder that also includes saxophonist and clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst and trumpeter Eivind Lønning. Except two improvised pieces, "hemlock" and "die immergrüne," all the music is written by Van Heertum. A quote by the philosopher Spinoza graces the inner sleeve: "everything endeavours to persist in its own being." True to the quote, these pieces create their own slowly unfolded universe. The burnished brass of Lønning's trumpet and the cool Konitz-like elegance of Badenhorst's saxophone add a jazzy touch to the experimental folk-ambience of the album. The cover is a drawing by Thomas Müller.

Ruben Machtelinckx / Frederik Leroux
when the shade is stretched
Aspen Edities
2017

The subtitle of the third album released on Aspen Edities, when the shade is stretched, might have been called Together Alone. Like all the other releases on Aspen Edities, the album is best experienced on vinyl. Not only because the usual high standard of original art can be seen in large format, but also because the release is divided into two sides. One side is a solo album by Ruben Machtelinckx and the other side is a solo album by Frederik Leroux. They are all alone playing different instruments, but they have a dialogue in the way they shape an atmospheric narrative through sounds and melody like an updated version of Ry Cooder's soundtracks and they both play the banjo! The artwork is provided by Charif Benhelima.

Frederik Leroux + Kris Vanderstraeten
zonder webben
Aspen Edities
2018

Whereas the collaboration between Ruben Machtelinckx and Frederik Leroux was not a real duo project with the musicians actually playing with each other, zonder webben is an actual duo where Leroux teams up with another sound explorer and musician, Kris Vanderstraeten. Both "play" the guitar, but rather in the sense Fred Frith does than in the style of Jim Hall. They seldom play classic chords and notes in a conventional style. Instead, they explore a wide range of sounds, using the guitar and other sources. Like explorers picking up shiny stones, they find many different things and throw them away. The cover reveals that all pieces were improvised. That information is not needed. It can be heard. A quote by Herakleitos on the inner sleeve describes the music beautifully: "what was scattered gathers. What was gathered blows away." It does not make sense to get a hold of this music. Instead, it's better to just dive right in. The cover by Bert De Clarcq further underlines the nature of the music with different abstract color formations in several layers.

Karl Van Deun
almadies
Aspen Edities
2018

Unlike the guitar playing of Frederik Leroux and Kris Vanderstraeten that primarily shuns the recognizable representation of the instrument, Karl Van Deun plays guitar in a classic, beautiful style, but still improvises. The instrument he plays is an Eastern European instrument with special nylon strings. The recording of almadies took place in Dakar on an evening in 1995 at the spur of the moment. At that time, Deun, a prominent guitarist well versed in different styles, had not played for many years, but when he was handed the instrument to play music to pass the time, suddenly the music flowed like a stream and his friend, Pierre Van Dormael, was there to catch it on a cassette recorder. The result mixes oriental arabesques and classical figures in a special kind of jazzy folk blues. Deun is a deeply lyrical player whose music can also be enjoyed on another noteworthy record with Ruben Machtelinckx, Shapes (el NEGOCITI Records, 2016). Here, he is just by himself playing the guitar and bending the strings in beautiful shapes like the green trees depicted in Loïc Van Zeebroek's striking cover painting.

Shahzad Ali Ismaily / Niels Van Heertum
sea legs / hum back
Aspen Edities
2019

sea legs / hum back is another split release on Aspen Edities. This time it's bassist and multi-instrumentalist, Shahzad Ali Ismaily, and euphonium-player, Niels Van Heertum, who get a side each. They share a common theme: the exploration of the sea through sounds, and, naturally, a quote by the great sea author, Herman Melville, is printed on the inner sleeve: "I love all men who dive." Surely, these two musicians dive deep into an ocean of sounds. There is an enchanting quality to the acoustic music like singing sirens. The simple and yet evocative sound of a shaker, banjo and mysteriously floating euphonium notes and whispering conch shells. The sea has secrets and Ismaily and Heertum seem to reveal them through their abstract sea shanties. The cover is graced by fragments of paintings by Tatjana Gerhard which add further atmosphere to the album.

Poor Isa
let's drink the sea and dance
Aspen Edities
2019

The sea theme resurfaces on let's drink the sea and dance where Ruben Machtelinckx and Frederik Leroux once again team up, but this time as an actual duo with the moniker Poor Isa. Using prepared banjos and woodblocks, they create complex acoustic drones and soundscapes with attention to the tiniest details. The use of space and silence create a landscape with subtle rhythms and percussive variations like slow drops of rain. Sometimes the banjo strings are gently plucked as in "isu," a poetic little piece. On the other hand, "seagarden" comes across as a minimalistic organ drone. It's a record that seeks the wonders of sound and sometimes emulates nature like a buzzing fly. It's a fine example of the uncompromising range of releases on Aspen Edities and once again the artwork, this time by Philippe Vandenberg, adds another dimension to the music. Releases from Aspen Edities are works of art.

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