Label Watch: Cortizona

There is little that is not weird about Cortizona, the label that Philippe Cortens inaugurated with reissues of holy grails of strange Belgian music and which has since become positively unpredictable. If you dare to be surprised, this one’s for you.

Being a music journalist has many perks, but also quite a few downsides. Besides the salary and the constant online vitriol, this includes regularly finding great music that no-one pays attention to. Radio journalist Philippe Cortens has turned this upside down with his label Cortizona, providing a platform for previously unheard-of music and records that would otherwise go unnoticed from different eras and corners of this world.

Cortens grew up in Belgium with his hands browsing through his parents’ record collection and an ear tuned to the medium which is still a crucial part of his life. When not recording songs from the top 30 to tape, he listened to Krekelgeluiden, a show that saw his host Bert Bibber read out love letters from his fans and serve as their agony uncle.

Then, things changed. »It was punk, industrial, and EBM music as a youngster in the early 1990s that changed my way of listening and perspective on music,« Cortens says today. »These tapes with the music of Negazione, Disorder, Throbbing Gristle, Butthole Surfers, Mark Stewart, Einstürzende Neubauten, Front 242, and Klinik were mind-blowing and opened up an exciting new world of record digging and going to crazy concerts at a young age.«

He made a career out of it. Having worked as a music editor and selector for stations such as Studio Brussel and Klara, he put together a compilation of live performances by artists such as The xx and Jamie Lidell for the former and was in charge of reissuing a live recording of the Belgian band Evil Superstars performed for the latter. These days, he puts on gigs and works as a curator.

And he is, of course, the owner of a label, whose own body of work also includes a few music documentaries. Cortizona was started in 2017 after a serendipitous find: »I discovered the original reel-to-reel version of ›Planètes‹ by Jean Hoyoux,« he says. »The wonderful and mesmerising music on these tapes combined with the amazing history of Hoyoux’ life made me decide that this was the perfect moment to start the label and see where it takes me.«

A surprise always takes two

Following up on the first official reissue of this cult classic of early 1980s Belgian electronic music, Cortens quickly hit the ground running with further reissues of no less seminal material: a live recording of the jazz giants Freddie Hubbard Quintet from 1973 as a special audiophile vinyl pressing, another Hoyoux album and the »Noises« compilation, originally from 1977, were among the first Cortizona catalogue numbers.

An intimate recording of Frederik Croene’s »Cul de sac,« a suite of four post-minimal piano pieces, marked a watershed moment in the label’s history in 2019 as the first release featuring contemporary music. »I was totally flabbergasted when Frederik played the compositions live in his garden shed for me, so I just had to release this piece of bliss on vinyl,« remembers Cortens.

»Most of the time the art that I love is going against the grain and has a very personaI perspective on the world.«

Philippe Cortens

Ever since the release of »Cul de sac,« Cortizona has become been what could be called a hybrid label. Here’s a collection of recordings of the avant-jazz vocalist Patty Waters from the 1970s rubbing shoulders with a record on which Andrew McKenzie’s The Hafler Trio presents finished versions of pieces originally created with the late Genesis P-Orridge, there’s the playful improvisational music of composer Pak Yan Lau or the meta-pop of Céline Gillain.

When asked about this cheerfully anarchic and—at the surface, at least—somewhat confusing mix of musical approaches and aesthetics, Cortens shrugs. »I don’t want to think too much about genres or a musical direction in which the label has to go,« he explains. »I love to be suprised by music and art in general. Most of the time the art that I love is going against the grain and has a very personaI perspective on the world.« If he has one piece of advice for his listeners, it’s this: »Dare to be surprised!«

Outstanding from Belgium

Several artists, among them Gillain, but also former Evil Superstars member Tim Vanhamel’s plunderphonics beatmaking project Comité Hypnotisé and conceptual artist Ann Eysermans, keep returning to Cortens’ label. »I try to build a relationship of mutual trust, which hopefully results in fantastic records and gives space to create more stunning music.« This sustainable approach and Cortens’ passion for the idiosyncratic is mirrored in the imaginative and detailed artwork of the vinyl records released through his label. It’s the kind of stuff that will stick out for years to come.

Idiosyncrasy is generally the keyword for a lot of music that has come out of Belgium in the past decades. »The Philips Pavilion at the Expo in 1958 with works by Varèse and Xenakis, Front 242, new beat, the Sherman Filterbank, the Antwerp free music gang of WIM and Fred Van Hove, decap organs, the punk and new wave scene in the 1970s and 80s: Belgium has quite a rich, weird and exciting music history and there is still a lot going on over here, so I guess that also resonates a bit through the spirit of Cortizona,« says Cortens.

He quickly points out that releases by Twinkle³ together with David Sylvian and Kazuko Hohki, Bernard Szajner, and BRAHJA make his label a decidedly international one. So while there is a concert planned for the 2024 edition of the ever-reliant Meakusma festival in Belgium’s city of Eupen, other plans for the future have to do with Japan or African electronica. »But I don’t want to jinx my plans by talking about them too much,« he laughs. A good music journalist, after all, knows perfectly well when to shut up and let the music do the talking.