Crammed Discs’ avant-garde ‘Made To Measure’ series has recently reactivated to serve up reissued classics as well as new releases. We meet Crammed boss Marc Hollander and some of the Belgian label’s always idiosyncratic artists 

Belgian label Crammed Discs are one of music’s great outliers. They may have released nearly 400 albums in the four decades they’ve been in existence, but
they remain gloriously oddball and always on the fringes – give or take the occasional million-selling Bebel Gilberto record. Far removed from the Anglo/American cultural axis, both sonically and geographically, Crammed have embraced internationalism and fostered a spirit of cooperation where music is always “sans frontières”.

Run by the affable and ever-alert polymath Marc Hollander, Crammed have earned themselves an impeccable reputation for both quality and consistency, gleaned from the four corners of the earth with ne’er a regard for commerciality. Acts on the roster currently include Kasai Allstars, Konono No 1 and Koçani Orkestar. And that’s just the Ks.

And yet, for all of Crammed Discs’ experimentalism, in the early 1980s Hollander still didn’t feel they were going quite far enough into the realms of the unknown. That was soon remedied with the launch in 1984 of their ‘Made To Measure’ series of releases, which has been positively nurturing flights into the outer limits of acceptability (and accessibility) ever since, give or take the odd 20-year pause. 

The oblique ‘Made To Measure’ offerings are usually presented with artwork on the cover and pegged to a soundtrack or dance production, spurious or otherwise. ‘Vol 1’ features a sleeve painting by the late Fernand Stéven and four Crammed bands – Brussels outfit Minimal Compact, the Belgian composer Benjamin Lew, Hollander’s own collective Aksak Maboul and the San Francisco synthpunk band Tuxedomoon. 

According to Hollander, ‘Made To Measure’ is “a good alibi”, where artists are free to experiment without having to present a project as the all-important “next album”, with all the baggage and expectations that come with that moniker. It takes the pressure off and creates the right conditions for the spectacular to occur. 

“It’s all about people getting inspired by what’s around them and just blending it into music,” he explains. “Blending things doesn’t mean they’re always going to work, and fusion can be horrible, but sometimes fortunate accidents do happen, and it’s often because you don’t quite know how to do something properly.”

When Crammed Discs started in 1980, they were seen as a cool new-wave label, but became synonymous with world music after working with Congolese musicians. It’s a classification Hollander disparages.

“Until recently, you’d find Piaf in the world music section. Brazilian hip hop is world music for some reason. It basically just means the music of the rest of the world. We have a lot of artists who perform in different languages and styles, and we don’t necessarily know what to call it, but you always get pigeonholed.”

The Iranian-born composer, vocalist and ‘Made To Measure’ contributor Sussan Deyhim agrees, claiming the categorisation is “colonialist”. 

“Some people want ethnic people to fit into their criteria of what world music is,” she avers. “They tell them how to be authentic, but they can’t possibly know more about world music than someone who has it in their blood. It’s often done with the best of intentions, and there are some great people in that area, but it’s a kind of hippie projection.

“I’ve been judged so many times – ‘Oh, she’s not doing the pure version of the classical tradition’. I’m not interested in doing the pure version. I’m interested in Wagner and Pygmy singing, Bollywood, Sudanese music, throat singing. The human voice is an astonishing landscape.”

Originally leaving Iran to take up a dance scholarship in Brussels shortly before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Deyhim met her partner and collaborator, the award-winning American composer Richard Horowitz, in New York in 1980. She soon slipped into an artistic milieu with people like John Cale, La Monte Young, Bill Laswell, Ornette Coleman and Hector Zazou, who also contributed to the ‘Made To Measure’ series. 

Deyhim and Horowitz released ‘Desert Equations: Azax Attra’ as ‘Made To Measure Vol 8’ in 1986. It’s an extraordinary ritualistic soundscape of global and ethereal voices and instruments, aided by a Fairlight synthesiser and a sincere belief in the power of magic, and featuring Horowitz’s strong Moroccan influences – he once lived in Tangier with Beat Generation luminaries William S Burroughs, Brion Gysin and his mentor Paul Bowles, and subsequently became obsessed with North African music. 

“Richard came from free jazz and classical music, and he fell in love with tribal rituals in Morocco,” recalls Deyhim. “And so we recorded the album in New York, where we lived, but we were kind of someplace else.”

Operating initially for a decade, ‘Made To Measure’ had many surprise contributors. American actor John Lurie’s soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Down By Law’ was one of the earliest. Other artists included the late great Lebanese-French actress Delphine Seyrig reading poetry over music made by Tuxedomoon’s Steven Brown, and Brion Gysin, legendary art mystic, inventor of the “Dreamachine” and initiator of the cut-up technique favoured by his Beat pal Burroughs.

“Gysin did some recordings with Ramuntcho Matta, son of the famous Chilean painter Roberto Matta,” says Hollander. I didn’t actually meet him in person, but I did see him once when I was playing with The Honeymoon Killers at a poetry festival in a disused coal mine in southern Belgium. It was a pretty wild show, and Gysin was there in the audience shaking his head. He was with the French conceptual author Georges Perec, who’d write novels based on constraints like writing without one letter.”

Lurie and Matta’s contributions have gone out of print, and Steven Brown’s album with Seyrig is hard to find, although Brown is a serial collaborator who has infused the ‘Made To Measure’ series with a number of musical experiments. One notable partnership that bore fruit several times was with Benjamin Lew. Lew had worked on a book about Burroughs and the cut-up technique, and sold it with a floppy disc featuring his music mounted on the cover. Hollander gave Lew an 8-track TEAC to capture the sound of his new KORG MS-10, and later introduced him to Brown.

“I was working as a bartender in a fancy juice and cocktail bar when I met Steven,” says Lew via email in French, unwittingly mimicking The Human League’s monster hit. “He had just arrived in Belgium, fleeing the United States of Ronald Reagan.” 

The pair’s first long-player together was ‘Douzième Journée – Le Verbe, La Parure, L’Amour’, released way back in 1982, and then re-released as ‘Made To Measure Vol 15’ in 1988. It’s an atmospheric, minimalist classic, which the NME called “elusive and fascinating” when they first got wind of it in 1983. Lew says his main influences were Gavin Bryars and Brian Eno.

“And Eno is the name of a digestive powder that used to sit on my father’s nightstand by his bed,” he quips.

The two-decade pause in ‘Made To Measure’ releases was not due to a lack of inspiration, but because Crammed Discs’ resources were stretched during the mid-90s when the focus was on international talent and the various genres were divvied up across subsidiaries like SSR, Language, Selector and Ziriguiboom. In the internet-savvy 21st century, these divisions have come back together again under the Crammed umbrella. The idea of reanimating the series had become increasingly appealing, and then last year ‘Made To Measure’ became fully operational again, with a campaign of re-releases and, crucially, a slew of new tracks, too.

The highest-profile of the new records is ‘Vol 46’, Aquaserge’s thrilling ‘The Possibility Of A New Work For Aquaserge’, featuring compositions by avant-garde titans like Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman, with homagesto György Ligeti and Giacinto Scelsi. The intention was to perform them for a special concert in Paris, but Covid put paid to that. 

Eventually, the event was video-streamed with the core of Aquaserge and an ensemble of classical musicians, but no live audience. With the band already signed to Crammed, Hollander immediately saw the project would be the perfect fit for the series. The cover, incidentally, features a self-portrait of the 16th century Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola – a rarity in the history of art, as Anguissola was a woman. 

The album’s name is a wry play on Morton Feldman’s 1966 composition, ‘The Possibility Of A New Work For Electric Guitar’. The piece itself was performed live by Aquaserge, but its many silences make no sense on a record and it was therefore excluded. 

Photo: Philippe Lévy

“The funny part is that Morton Feldman wrote this, but wasn’t happy with it because he didn’t really like the electric guitar,” says Julien Chamla, Aquaserge’s founder and drummer. “But as a rock band, the guitar is kind of the main instrument, so it was great fun for us to borrow this title and build bridges between popular and classical music.” 

The melding of auto-didactic rock musicians with classical performersis one of the factors that makes the work so fascinating. Chamla argues that the songs they perform on the album are “pop”. While the description might not instantly resonate, there are certainly strands of melodies to cling to and moments far more accessible than you might typically expect from such challenging composers. 

Edgard Varèse’s ‘Un Grand Sommeil Noir’, for instance, is light and airy and not really that Varèsian at all. Written to a Verlaine poem, the chanson somehow evaded the flames. Varèse, once described as “the stratospheric Colossus of Sound” by Henry Miller, was infuriatingly self-critical and destroyed much of his own work, leaving relatively little. Despite this, he’s still regarded as the father of electronic music.

‘Comme Des Carrés De Feldman’ was performed from a score of graph paper featuring squares, mimicking Feldman’s early working methods, while ‘Hommage À Giacinto Scelsi’ imitates the Italian composer’s penchant for the ‘A’ note. Scelsi recovered from a breakdown playing that note sporadically over a number of octaves and excluding all others, his scores doubling up as a kind of self-therapy. When Aquaserge performed it on the live stream, they weren’t prepared for the seance-like atmosphere they’d be creating as musical conduits.

“Something very strange happened,” says Audrey Ginestet. “The music was very strong, and we felt as if we were being conducted by a spirit when we played. And Scelsi was super, super strange. I mean, we were
like, ‘What are we doing?’. Ghosts and stuff… we really felt like we were opening up something with the music.”

There’s plenty more to come from ‘Made To Measure’ in 2022 and beyond, with Marc Hollander bringing out more Aksak Maboul, as well as inviting other composers you might not expect would collaborate with artists associated with this label. Hollander has to be deliberately vague at this stage, but the twinkle in his eye suggests we should be excited.

Meanwhile, Belgian über-pop producer Pascal Gabriel (S’Express, Kylie,Bomb Da Bass, Ladyhawke) has been contributing ambient soundscapes to the series in the guise of his alter ego, Stubbleman. His 2019 ‘Mountains And Plains’ is a sonic diary of his trip across the United States, while his forthcoming project, ‘1:46:43’, is both high concept and high altitude. It’s based around his personal best cycling up Mont Ventoux – the gruelling Provençal peak where British cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died during the 13th stage of the Tour de France in 1967.

“Mont Ventoux is probably the most famous climb for people who are into cycling,” says Gabriel. “And I did it in one hour, 46 minutes and 43 seconds, which is not bad.”

For ‘1:46:43’, he took data from four graphs representing his speed, pedalling, cadence (pedalling rate) and percentage of flow during the ascent, converted them into modular sequences and composed the music around them. With Ventoux an outlier from the French Alps – geologically a part of them, but standing isolated from the range – Pascal Gabriel’s new work is perfect territory for the outlier world of Crammed Discs’ ‘Made To Measure’.

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