The Touch 30 interview, part three: Vectors

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In the final part of my interview with Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding from Touch, we are totally in the digital age, with Touch adapting their modus operandus to new formats, culminating in their new app for iPhone and iPad. Their network continued to expand, and through working with new artists like Eleh, they built conduits from the present back to the past. As for the future, they tell me more about their plans for the Touch 30 celebrations in 2012.

 

30 years in, you are still making new connections, and hence the lineup of artists who have released for Touch still continues to evolve. How did you come across Eleh?

Jon Wozencroft (JW): I’ve a friend, Matt, who was a student at Imperial College and then working at Honest Jon’s record shop in Portobello Road, who used to come to my sound seminars at the RCA. When the first Eleh 12” came out on Important Records in 2007, he wrote to me and went “Jon, you’ve got to listen to this!” By that time it had sold out, because Eleh only produced 300 copies or something. So I got the second one, and I thought it was amazing. So I did the classic thing. It isn’t looking up someone in the phone book now, it is finding the email address, I sent an email to Important Records saying “Dear Eleh, your release is one of the very best things I’ve heard all year, congratulations and happy new year”. Just a fan email. And then he wrote back saying “Oh, are you from Touch? Let’s start talking”. At that time Eleh was dedicated to a particular way of working, everything was expressedly tone generated and analogue/vinyl. It took a good few months to convince him that we would do a good job with the CD format.

Mike Harding (MH): Eleh denies saying all this, he says he always knew it would work on CD – wise after the event maybe.

Have you met Eleh?

JW: Eleh and I have sent photos of each other, but we haven’t met yet!

MH: I haven’t met Eleh either, but I have spoken to him. Eleh played at Mutek, he asks for complete darkness, but there is always something, an emergency exit light or whatever, so you can tell that Eleh is of a certain sex, a certain ethnicity, a certain age group…but nevertheless Eleh does not want the personality to get in the way of the work. And, why not? Why aren’t all artists like that? It is not about them. A good artist is a vessel for ideas. It doesn’t matter who he is.

 

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You can see why Eleh would appeal. I’ve looked at the waveforms for his records, even without hearing them they look amazing. This point about the beauty of analogue takes us back to your thoughts on the golden ratio. But I feel there is a lot more depth to his work than that – how does it affect you?

JW: It does have a particular sonority. Deep within a lot of the things we were coming out of – Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and so on, as well as subsequent work with The Hafler Trio – was this idea not of the occult, but of there being something metaphysical, something beyond the process of capturing sounds on records and tapes – experiences we had. Psychic TV would call it “magick”. Andrew McKenzie [The Hafler Trio] was very frustrated that his work wasn’t always given the same level of attention as Psychic TV or Current 93, who both foregrounded this “magick”, whereas he didn’t in the same way, even though much of what he was doing was deeply entwined with that. One of the things that immediately struck me when I heard Eleh was that it had this purity, this kind of engagement with metaphysical concerns that was very straight, and not mediated with anything. And I thought this was a very strong development. Eleh is also a good example of the kind of work which slows things down, it has that meditative quality that gives you stability, yet it is like a magnetic field. On the one hand it’s indebted to Pauline Oliveros’s notion of ‘deep listening’. Eleh’s music functions almost like a standing stone, he just resonates this stuff, and you either get it or you don’t.

MH: Let’s talk about Stonehenge and Avebury and standing stones! I grew up around there, any time off was around Silsbury Hill. The only photo portrait of me I could find for university was of me in a long barrow.

JW: I’m doing this research project called Landscape and Perception. About five or six years ago Martyn Ware, who used to be in the Human League, got in touch to say he was involved with this project, The Future Of Sound, which was backed by the Arts Council. I agreed to take part in one of these events, which involved a whole range of people giving 20 minute presentations on what they thought was the future of sound and music. It was crazy and impossible. There I met this guy Paul Devereux, whose work I’d known for a long, long time. He helped invent this area of investigation called archaeoacoustics, which is the role of acoustics in prehistory. We set up this research into this phenomenon of lithophones, which are stones that are embedded in various sacred landscapes and elsewhere, stone circles et cetera, which have acoustic properties. When you hit them they sound like bells, or tin drums, or bamboo. We are working on a proposition that acoustics are or were a significant feature in the construction of these sites. We got some money from the Royal College Of Art to set up a pilot study, and we have been building this project up for the last five years. We are looking at the outcrops in Preseli, South West Wales, the long barrows of Avebury, and ultimately we hope to get access to Stonehenge to test the acoustics there. But we are not going to do that until we have firmed up our proposition and fieldwork – in any case, it could be a letdown, maybe Stonehenge has no acoustic properties. But it will do, I suspect. The thing with these lithophones, is we anticipate that they might sound best when they are free-standing, relatively speaking – ie. in the wild. Fixed into the ground, they could lose their resonant quality. So the acoustic aspect demands you think more progressively about what these sites might represent. Incidentally, Mike studied history, and a lot of what we are interested in concerns the rootedness of things, keeping those roots watered and supported!

 

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Another interesting figure who came into your orbit recently was Tom Lawrence, who recorded a couple of Touch Radio sessions for you. He tragically died recently after releasing his Water Beetles Of Pollardstown Fen CD on the Gruenrekorder label. Could that relationship have gone somewhere?

MH: I’ve actually known Tom for quite a while through Chris Watson’s workshops, he is really good at capturing sounds in the time honoured field recording tradition. I think I was hoping over time to get a bit more of the artistic side out of Tom, rather than just capturing sounds– I think he was a little stuck in the academic world and didn’t have the confidence to move on from there. He had been doing a lot of recording round the famine tower in Ireland, a monument to those who died in the Irish famine, with their names inscribed in it. It is by the side of a quarry, and there is no public access to it, you have to get a key. The thing about the famine tower is that something really spooked him there, and he got a little bit obsessed by it, so would go there at all hours. One day he didn’t come home for dinner, so his wife sent out the Garda, and they found him at the bottom of the quarry. There was no-one else there… It is dangerous business this field recording. Chris fell down a crevice in Iceland, and was lucky to get away with bruised ribs, Jana is frequently going under glaciers and coming out to see a sign saying “Danger of death – do not go in here”. They put themselves in exposed positions.

JW: I remember a great story Strafe Für Rebellion told me. Bernd [Kastner] and Siggi [Siegfried Michail Syniuga] wanted to record aircraft coming in to land and taking off at Düsseldorf, so they got up early and negotiated the perimeter fence, lay down next to the runway, and recorded the aircraft. It is the most incredible sound – it’s on “Abendhimmel”, their Leonard Cohen cover version on the Vögel CD from 1990. There’s obviously no way you could do that now, and what is it, a little over 20 years…

Aside from the fan email situation with Eleh, how else have you come into contact with the new artists you’ve worked with recently? Is this partly where the support network we talked about earlier comes in?

MH: Hildur Gudnadottir was recommended to us by Johann Johannsson, in the same way that Fennesz recommended Oren Ambarchi. Our A&R is out there. Jana Winderen met CM von Hausswolff in Oslo where she had been involved with the freq_out project, but had since became involved with field recording. The Sohrab linkup on the other hand was a classic case of the right email coming at the right time in the right way. This man from Tehran sent an email with an mp3 attached, which normally ends up in the spam folder, or you have an automatic reply because you just can’t deal with them all. However, this one immediately got my attention, as the story behind it was so interesting. He is really pissed off at what is happening to his country. He is one of the 70% of Iran’s population who is under 30, it is a real powderkeg waiting to go off. If you form a band – and they have a lot of punk music in Tehran – someone will report them, the police go in, it gets busted straight away. So he went through all of that. It is important to realise that taking on new artists has to be done slowly, and there are only two of us. I’d rather say no if I think I won’t be able to handle it, even if it is really good, because if you do a bad job, it messes everything up.

 

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Changes to the technology around the music are a big theme of this conversation, from Touch’s early days of duplicating batches of cassettes through the pristine CD era, to digital downloads, and now you’ve got the new Touch iPhone app. Does this feel like some sort of logical “next step” for Touch?

JW: It is quite tricky. If you think about the apex of analogue form, the golden section – how can there be some harmonic relationship established in the digital realm, which is infinitely mutable and totally chaotic? On one hand you’ve got the issue of scaling. You start with the 12”, then you go to CD, then down to the size of the iPhone screen, and eventually you go down to the tiny blob on the iTunes site which shows you the image that goes with the sound. Where is that going to end? There is a scaling down, one that is in inverse proportion to the scaling up which is happening to the distribution and the nature of the listening experience. However, what we have realised is that, for whatever reason, my work looks really good on this format. Maybe it is the recent updating of the image quality on iPhones and iPads, there has been a breakthrough in that respect. Maybe it is kind of to do with what I build in, and what the medium brings out. I hope so. Everything in print is based on a reflected image – the light hits the paper and bounces back to your eye. On a computer, there is no reflectivity, it is projected, sent to you through the pulsing light of the screen display. I found out that the nature and origination of these images lends themselves very well to being projected. I found this out because previously I always worked with slides, it is a fantastic optical medium.

MH: I had the great fortune to go to Manningtree in Essex the other day to interview two old codgers who work with the BFI on early films. One got out a home movie projector which had footage of the Kaiser from 1913 and projected it against the wall. It totally changes the way you see things, rather than being a passive medium, it seems like you are actively part of it. There is a Touch radio show up about this with some recordings of the machines, and how they developed. One of the guys I interviewed, Nigel, was saying that he doesn’t think that the innovation which is going on now, since the advent of digital, is anything like what happened in the 1890s and 1900s, when we had the aeroplane, the car, electricity, attempts to contact the dead through wax cylinders. Now, he is asking: “what is the fundamental change that is happening now?”

JW: Well, I don’t agree exactly.

MH: …and I’m thinking that Jon won’t agree. But is a very interesting point of view. There was such a fundamental change to society, to our perception, when we started seeing ourselves for the first time, hearing ourselves for the first time.

JW: I agree with that. But I think that the change at the moment is revolutionary because people barely realise what it is that is happening. There was an another example of that yesterday in the newspapers where they were talking about banning calculators in schools because kids can’t add up any more. We are in the digital age, and kids can’t add up? What is going on? Are everyone’s brains being scrambled by this stuff? Is WiFi the new tobacco? Susan Greenfield has been hammering on about this for years, and many people just think she is a crank.

MH: No, they don’t. But I would respond by asking if you watched Michael Mosley’s two programmes on frontline medicine recently? It is unbelievable what is happening. They did an operation with one guy who had lost his arm, they got a dead man’s arm, and they put it on, they attached the nerves. And he is now making tea and everything. There is a long way to go, but it works. But that was nothing compared to what they then showed you with the pig’s bladder matrix and the regeneration of dead cells. The pig’s bladder is thrown away by the agricultural industry. The medical establishment takes them, and scrapes off the skin tissue to give this pale hessian type thing which contains the ability to tell cells what to be, whether to be a nerve or tissue or whatever. They make it into a solution, inject it into the wound, the matrix then tells the cell to be a nerve, and the nerve then begins to regenerate. It was extraordinary to watch. You ain’t seen nothing yet, the whole prosthetics industry is going to be about regeneration not repair. I think future technology isn’t going to be about machines, or robots. It is going to be about artificial life. This is the most excited I’ve been in years about new technology. Historically in retrospect, I am not convinced by Jon’s argument that the fundamental change is happening. I think that is yet to come, we are on the verge of something.

JW: I agree that there is a revolution round the corner, but the engines are already in place, in the form of the algorithms and processing speeds used in the financial world.

You mentioned the Touch radio shows – I’ve listened a lot to those since I downloaded the app – live Philip Jeck sets, talks, field recordings – does that feel like it has become a catalogue in its own right?

MH: It is now a named collection in the British Library, which is amazing. Paul Wilson, the radio curator contacted us and said they were very interested in having it as it gave them en bloc a collection from the whole electronic era, and they thought it was well curated. We were frightened off by the legal aspect intitially, as they wanted a contract for every single episode, and there was 60 of them at the time. Once we got over that hurdle, we were up for it.

The funny thing about having your work available on this format is that I’ve read that Jon is no fan of the iPod…

JW: It isn’t the iPod as such but the way they are used. They shut people off, and in a world where there are all these amazing sound events happening all the time, you’re not going to hear any of them, because you are plugged into your own private world. And it is that which is the problem, not the iPod itself, the iPod just facilitates that. And I think it’s extraordinary to witness how the iPod and the iPhone have changed peoples’ behaviour in public spaces, which are themselves becoming increasingly privatized, and of course I think there’s a connection. People aren’t hearing themselves think, to get back to Mike’s comment! However, if you think back to our first release Feature Mist, that is a like an iPod shuffle playlist, you go from New Order to Soliman Gamil to Mayakovsky to Death and Beauty Foundation to early Simple Minds. That is the shuffle aesthetic 20 years before its time. Curated shuffling, that is what we do.

 

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You celebrated your 25th anniversary by taking everyone down to Mike’s local boozer in Balham to watch Fennesz play live. What are the plans for the 30th anniversary?

MH: There are discussions to do something on that level again, something fun, more personal and more intimate. Though we only just got away with it last time, things started to go wrong with the equipment. I’d like to put a good multi-channel sound system into a place like that. There is a website, 30.touchmusic.org.uk, and every two months or so the next batch of events will go up. The plan is that at the beginning of December, the anniversary of the first release, there will be a three day Touch festival with three curators: Jon one night, me one night, and then a guest curator. We’re also doing something for the AV30 festival. One of the best festivals I’ve been to in the near past was AV2010, that was really well organised and extremely well curated. It was a really well balanced festival, and I came back enthusing about the place of spoken word in an arts festival. After the Arts Council cuts, the money wasn’t there to get us up there, but Vicki Bennett (People Like Us) is curating a month long radio show, and we’ve got 30 hours of that, in the form of Jon’s cassette compilations of his favourite stuff, and I’ve responded to that with 3 hours of my favourites, three radio pieces. There will be a Spire event in St Botolph’s Church in London on June 21st, the longest day, with Philip Jeck and BJ Nilsen working with a singer for the first time – a tenor called John Beaumont. There will be a Spire event at the Passionskirche in Berlin too, with Jana Winderen, and Eleh.

And what new releases will there be in the anniversary year?

MH: The new Oren Ambarchi will be the first release of 2012. It is called Audience Of One; the front cover photo relates to Bletchley Park and the first computer, the Colossus. The CD has numerous guest artists on it: Paul Duncan on vocals, Brendon Salt, Elizabeth Welsh, James Rushford, Eyvind Kang, Joe Talia, Cris Cole, Jessica Kenney, and Natasha Rose. It is very different, he is really developing. Hildur Gudnadottir is also doing a multi-channel live recording in York University with Tony Myatt. If this is the end of the CD album era, one thing that is missing is the multi-channel, 24 bit file. Bleep.com did a version for Autechre, and they have approached us to do Touch stuff in multichannel 24 bit. So we are making sure that is possible with the Hildur one, as that is a good way forward. BJ Nilsen has been working on a new record for some time now too, but I don’t suppose there will be another release from Chris Watson for three to seven years! Two Touch Sevens, from Biosphere and from me are just out, and the next white label 12” is by Jana Winderen.

 

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After 30 years of releases, and at the risk of asking you to choose between your favourite children, which is your favourite release on Touch, and why?

JW: You are absolutely right, it is like choosing one of your favourite children. It may not be my favourite, but I listened to Hazard/Fennesz/Biosphere’s Light last night, and it was really good.

MH: Someone asked me to submit a wish list for an event in Glasgow, and one of the first things I put down was to get Rosy Parlane over. He lives in New Zealand, and only gets over about once every ten years. It is a shame, because I think he’d have really developed as an artist. I think Fennesz’s Venice is my favourite Touch album, but Rosy’s Iris is one I keep going back to. There are others, it is unfair to name names, they all have something. It is very personal, we’re not in the music business, it isn’t about units and getting into the charts.

And what artist do you wish you could have worked with over that period?

JW: I would have loved to have worked with Rhythm & Sound, I love the work they did for Basic Channel. But they do it so well, there is absolutely no need for anyone else to be involved! Their aesthetic, their whole way of working is so right for what it is. It just works. Also I tried very hard to get Jon Hassell to do something with us – he’s another slow worker, so it might still happen…

MH: I’m more interested in spoken and written word, I think. I think I’d have liked to have been around to work with people from the 1890s to the first world war era, when there were so may different industries developing. The radio pioneers. I’d have liked to have worked with Eric Thompson, Emma Thompson’s dad, who was on the Magic Roundabout and Noggin The Nog. That generation where for them radio was the main medium, hence their use of language.

JW: I’ve always loved Ivor Cutler, especially his radio pieces. In 1982 or 83, very early on in the Touch story, I noticed that he was doing a performance at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. So I went down there, saw the performance, went to the bar afterwards and waited for a quiet moment. I was really nervous, but went up to Ivor and gave him the spiel, just exactly as I’d done to New Order, saying “it would be really great if you could record something for us etc etc”. He went “Hmmmmm….why would I want to do that?”. What could I say? It really upended me. I rang up Gilbert and George once, I found them in the phone book. They invited me round for tea, and I made some recordings of them reading their writing. On a subsequent occasion, they took me to their local curry house in Brick Lane and ordered 4 litres of wine between the three of us. We got completely hammered. But to conclude: my three favourite bands when I was young were Wire, Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. And members of all those bands have recorded for Touch, and are now my personal friends. Wire’s last record, Red Barked Tree, is as good as anything they’ve ever done.

MH: We come from very different backgrounds. Jon is from London, and had access to all these bands. I’m from the countryside, I’m a farmer, I didn’t hear any of this until I went to University. But it is about how we see things. We express things in a very different way, disagree about things, but we converge on the most important things, like how to treat people and deal with people. The values are more important than the opinions. In the end it is how and why we do things which keeps us going in the same direction.

The Touch 30 interview, part two: Contact

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Part two of my interview with Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding of Touch picks up where part one left off: the CD era. This was a fertile period for Touch, in which they linked up with artists of the calibre of Ryoji Ikeda, Philip Jeck, Biosphere, Chris Watson and Fennesz. During the 1990s, a number of important side projects and relationships with new collaborators also developed, though the most important relationship remained that between the audio and the visual. In this part of the interview, we discuss how these points of contact helped Touch to continue to grow and evolve.

 

The mid 90s seemed to be an important time for Touch, when you made contact with a lot of artists, and built networks which were to sustain you through to the present day.

MH: Yes, the building blocks you now see were put in place in the 90s. Philip Jeck, Chris Watson, Fennesz, Biosphere, Ryoji Ikeda, Mika Vainio, Oren Ambarchi.

JW: I think the late 90s was a golden age. This was a time when the music that we were involved with was quite revolutionary, progressive, and ambitious. mesmervariations was released on Ash International in 1995, and just look at the people on it: Ryoji Ikeda, Peter Rehberg, CM von Hausswolff, this is just before the laptop music thing took off. There was an optimism about the digital developments, a feeling between 1995 and ’99 that there was going to be this really critical engagement through laptop music. Laptop music is a misleading term in many senses, because it gives you the impression of a bloke standing in front of a laptop, playing Upstairs At The Garage during the late 90s, with nothing for the audience to look at, except the upside down Apple logo (the company changed this configuration on subsequent laptops – I like to think we had a hand in that). The important thing was that musicians could all of a sudden produce high quality recordings without recourse to expensive studio time. Obviously there is more to it that that, but we had been at the forefront of home recording initiatives – Mike even published a book about it with the other Mike Harding from the band 1000 Mexicans! Now we can see how home recording opens up the floodgates.

 

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Philip Jeck is clearly interesting in that up to this point you’ve been talking about taking the crackle and hiss out, and he is putting it right back into the music. How did you come into contact with him?

JW: I saw Philip Jeck on a daytime TV programme in 1992 or 93 being interviewed about Vinyl Requiem, and I just thought it was amazing. We met him at a concert he was doing with The Hafler Trio at the Goethe Institute, said “we love your stuff, do you want to do a CD with us?” and he said yes. The significant thing about Philip is that his latest work is better than ever. His trajectory from Loopholes in 1995, through Surf and Stoke, to An Ark For The Listener is an extraordinary narrative. And that is such a lovely thing, that you work with someone over a period of time and the work just gets better and better.

And you’ve been working with Chris Watson for almost as long, 15 years, but you must have known him even longer, given his history in music.

JW: It took ages to persuade Chris to do something for us. I’d had little contact with him in his previous situation in The Hafler Trio, but then I had a three year correspondence with him to persuade him to publish his wildlife sound recordings.

MH: It took you even longer to persuade Biosphere to come out of retirement! You could say the same about Chris’s work as you did about Philip’s in terms of the way it has developed. The way Chris perceives himself is the key to that, as well as his relationship to us, and to the rest of his world. His role is so different in everything he does, it requires completely different mindsets. He has just come back from Namibia, one of the remotest places on the African continent, with his film crew, and then with us it is clearly a completely different setup.

Do you feel you’ve played a part in that development?

JW: Our role is to be like a framing device, and also this horribly overused word, curation. The artists are the ones that have the grapes that make the wine, and if we know the right shape for the bottles and the labels to put on it, that gives it some context, a way of it being received in the world. People often ask me about the artwork, but for me it is like a portal which you can pass through to experience and appreciate the sound. And the important thing about our work is that we’re not working with bands, it is by and large instrumental, there aren’t lyrics, there aren’t narratives being flung at you directly about what you should be thinking about when you listen to it. And so my work is giving it that aspect. It is like a location, taking the idea of field recordings and sounds, and applying it through photography. The first Fennesz release, plus forty seven degrees 56′ 37″ minus sixteen degrees 51′ 08″ is an example of this, you have you have two fields – the music recorded by Christian in his garden at home (the title of the release is the grid reference), and the images from a trip I was taking at the same time he was recording it (in Portugal, where I first met him), so you have this parallel journey.

MH: I’d go further than Jon. I know that when Philip is working on an album, he actively thinks about it as being “for us”. The inside of his record decks has little quotes, little prompts about us. So does Chris, he is out there thinking “this would be great for Touch”. I think we’ve given them confidence that when they do something, it will be treated in the right way. But that relationship takes time to build up.

JW: The framing is also about the way it is compiled and edited, even the titles. Some artists are very good at titles, some aren’t. And the cover is also like a title. The difference between the vinyl and the CD is that vinyl is very distinctly front and back in terms of its layout. Whereas with the CD, we use three panels very often, you create a narrative from that. The most important image might not be the one that is on the front.

Are some artists will involved more and some less in the dialogue about the visual side too?

JW: Just as Mike said, where our artists have a specific mentality when it comes to knowing that something is for Touch, I’ll make work for specific artists. I’ll find a location, take a photo and I’ll go “that is Fennesz”, or “that is Chris Watson” or “that is Philip Jeck”.

MH: Sometimes an artist will come in with their own imagery, and Jon will say “that’s a nice photo, but what about this?” and they’ll go “Oh god, that’s brilliant, far better than mine!”. Sometimes not though, Phill Niblock and Mika Vainio are very dynamic with imagery. Mika’s cover for In The Land Of The Blind – that was his image. And Phil, being a visual artist anyway, gives us about 100 jpegs.

 

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Alongside the relationships with these artists, there are other side projects which have developed over the years – associated labels like Ash International and OR, projects like Spire, which have involved various collaborators. How important are these projects?

MH: It gives you room to breathe sideways. If someone is particularly busy doing something, it gives us freedom to do something else alongside it. As long as it is growing and evolving, everyone is happy.

JW: Ash was a way of getting Mike away from doing the accounts and talking to distributors. This couldn’t happen unless Mike and I were happy to do different things.

They are very collaborative – for example, Ash was started by Mike and Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner. How did that happen?

MH: Scanner was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Robin (Rimbaud) was working in a library in Fulham. He’d had some books published, had his fingers in a lot of pies, and had lots of energy. He had a really good idea, in that he wanted to release a record of mobile phone intercepts. He became the face of this new thing, and the NME trivialised it by having him dressed as a gnome with a fishing rod over the city. As well as the Scanner idea, he also brought Runaway Train, which was an amazing recording, and oddly he also brought the idea of doing something with Electronic Voice Phenomena, because he has a cassette of it. I tracked down (EVP expert) Raymond Cass’s number and he had all these EVP recordings, so the Ghost Orchid CD followed, along with the Parapsychic Acoustic Research Cooperative (PARC). Ash is tailor-made to deal with things like that very well, the vinyl had such beautiful artwork.

And with OR you were involved at an early stage with Russell Haswell, who has gone on to become a significant artist in his own right. How did that happen?

JW: Russell Haswell was only 18 when I first met him, a total fish out of water. He is a networking genius, absolutely gifted with language, incredibly on the ball.

MH: Russell wanted to do a computer music label, experimenting with formats and design. I’d like to stake a claim for OR being one of the first artist-curated labels. Peter Rehberg is now doing it really well with Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label. I really like that idea, it is a good way of doing it, because the artist doesn’t know how to make it work, you need someone to come in with that expertise.

JW: Russell has so many ideas, and in those days he couldn’t sit still for 5 minutes. He wanted to be in the art world, a noise musician, he wanted to be a fine artist, he wanted to be a graphic designer, and he is great at all these things. He got himself into a bit of a mix-up. But not in the bad sense, because he does what he wants and this is what we all want to do.

Given how extreme the music is, I was amazed to see a recent Haswell and Hecker album pitch up on the Warner Classics label! It reminds me of an interview with Christian Fennesz a couple of years back in which he said he felt that music which was considered difficult in the late 90s would be considered much more accessible now. How does it feel to you, not just across the decade, but across the 30 years of your existence? Have tastes changed?

JW: [Fennesz’s] Endless Summer was a freak wave at the perfect time. It was always in his work, that melodic element, but suddenly it came to the surface. The relationship between Endless Summer and the other things he has done is quite misleading. Plus forty seven degrees, where we started with Christian in 1999, was a difficult album, very demanding and abstract, but recently he has just had one of the tracks he recorded from that period, “Surf”, used for a Hollywood trailer, a film called The Grey! But this brings us back to another integral part of Touch and the range in which we operate. There is something I always tell my students about sound and music which has a very particular relationship to taste. When you play certain kinds of music, you get an immediate reaction based on taste – “I don’t like it”. How do you know you don’t like it? You are not even listening to it. But we have learned how to listen to and appreciate and enjoy difficult music. When you place certain things together alongside it, you can start to become more tolerant in the way you listen and respond to things, and out of tolerance and taste, one develops a critical mind. It is also to do with the time and space you give yourself to digest something unusual and to look at things from a different point of view.

MH: It isn’t the same world. An idea which worked then may not work in the same way now. 30 years is a natural cycle, a generation, an economic cycle. 30 is a magical number, with all sorts of properties attached to it.

JW: When you are 30, you go through what is called the Saturn return, which is meant to be the final shedding of your adolescence and youthful instincts. It is also a harmonic number, we always work in threes, everything we do is triangular in one way or another. You are tapping into something unpredictable, therefore in movement. One of my starting points is how to use sacred geometry as a way of trying to counteract the numerical fascism of digital, which is just ones and zeroes. In digital, everything is stuck in squares, in pixels, but if you work in the ratios of photography, which are 4:3 and 16:9, then you’re starting to work in 3s.

 

to40_1fennesz

 

This idea of the audiovisual narrative is clearly of utmost importance to you, which must present some issues when we begin to talk about the move to digital formats.

JW: What we are really trying to defend isn’t the physical object as such, but the narrative you develop from a certain way of working. There is a highly compressed narrative in the relationship between the consumer and the object of consumption with digital downloads. There was a chain of events and a production process that one used to go through that was quite complex and involved, that was a narrative in itself. When you relate back to Ritual, which took 2 years to complete, now we are in the situation where everything has to be instantly delivered. It’s a concern to resist all of that and try to take a more painterly approach. In the old way of doing things, the investment of care and attention somehow becomes part of the thing itself, it is like a kind of polishing something until it is ready to be put out in the world. If nowadays you just put something on the site and someone downloads it, it is like everything is compressed and you are losing all of these stages. I’m not saying we are against downloading, but I do think that we have not found a way yet to create these narratives in a digital zone. And there’s obviously the musical equivalent of a drunken post at 3am on a Sunday morning!

MH: There has been a weird shift though. To illustrate this, when we first got the option to do digital commercial downloads through Kudos, I emailed all the artists about whether they wanted to do it and they all said no (except one). When I asked them again two years later, they all said yes.

I read a – seemingly very prescient – interview with Mike 7 years ago, where he talked about the “crisis of capitalism”, and the imminent collapse of the music “industry” as we then knew it. How does this collapse appear from your vantage point as outsiders of the industry, in particular in relation to what has happened in the digital era?

MH: It was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? It didn’t have any form then, people still had their heads in the clouds. But when Rough Trade went bust, the music business really changed for us, it fragmented. Now, it doesn’t exist.

JW: I think this is almost looking at it through the wrong lens, because the collapse of the music business and the incompetence with which they responded to the digital question is not nearly as important as the fact of what has happened to people as the result of digital. Music has lost its value, and young people today think they can get everything for free as a divine right. When we were coming up through the ranks, you had very little music on TV, you had John Peel, there were one or two embryonic pirate initiatives. If you wanted to find out about something you had to go out, get off your arse and go and source it, like my example of phoning Tony Wilson. And this whole thing about being a fan – I would be there on the day of release waiting for the album in the shops, and go “wow, it is the new Wire album, amazing”, and there would be this ritual and this relationship between you and the object and what it represented, and that has all been dissolved.

MH: Yes, but I think that old rituals have been replaced by new ones. I just feel like we’re in an in-between weird period where the rules haven’t yet been established.

JW: Digital culture is dissolving all of the steps on the path between the creation of a work to its distribution, and the understanding and participation in it. In the process, you have to go through various stages to do with scale. Everything starts in a room, usually your bedroom. Your bedroom becomes a rehearsal space, a mate’s place, a garage. The room gets bigger and bigger as you get better. You first start to play to 20 people, then you play to 50 people and so on. Then you start to branch out on a national and even international level. You go through making a demo tape to making a single, to a first LP. What digital tells you is that you can go from the start of that process to the end in one step, which is a total distortion. The thing with the music business is that is a behemoth, it has no way of responding to that disturbance in scale. Dubstep is possibly the latest and last example of this generative principle – rooted in the vinyl and now having to come to terms with commercial exposure and karaoke versions of the basic intentions. We like the idea of anti-commercial exposure, as we said before, we’re still quite naïve and idealistic! Kode 9 promised he’d do us a Touch 7 – he’s a busy man – but we did do an amazing concert together two years ago at the Atmospheres festival at the Museum of Garden History. There was a power cut half way through their set, but the energy levels remained.

Does this short-circuiting of the process in some way diminish the value of that end product?

MH: For the Phill Niblock generation, releasing an album is a big statement of their work, a serious thing, whereas to younger people it is far less important.

JW: We’ve always had a conversation with certain artists regarding the frequency of their releases. The Hafler Trio and Richard Kirk were the best example of this. They had the attitude that they were like journalists making reports from the front, and if they wanted to put a CD out every week that is what we should do. And we tried to create a mechanism for that to happen with the Hafler Trio, with the Spiral series, and Richard developed so many different personas for his work that you didn’t know which was which and what was what in relation to the other. One of the things that record companies always used to function as was as gatekeepers or editors or calibrators for what the market would stand, and the general rule was that a major artists would do a record every 18 months to two years.

MH: Accompanied by a tour!

JW: Now in the current era that no longer applies at all. We have artists like Fennesz who are incredibly ecological about how often they release, and you have people saying “Oh my god, when is the next Fennesz album coming out?” as soon as the last one is out. The audience needs to be given time to appreciate things and to let something resonate for them. I used to love as a young music fan those albums that you don’t get until you listen to them ten times. Whereas now I feel you have to “hit” within the first ten seconds of the CD.

MH: I’m not sure you need to “hit” within the first ten seconds, but I think you’ve got to intrigue somehow in that opening section. I’m also involved in drama, and at the moment it is hard to get anything commissioned if you haven’t got an immediate setup which intrigues. There is no drone in drama! No one would commission Waiting For Godot. No one would commission Beckett. It just wouldn’t happen now.

JW: I was a creature of the 1960s, and I bought records at a very early age, and I loved everything happening in pop culture at the time, The Kinks, The Beatles – so into it. Then at about 13 or 14 I suddenly started getting very intrigued by the idea of difficult music. So I bought Bitches Brew, because of the cover, and thought “what the hell is this?”. My favourite band when I was 15 was the Mahavishnu Orchestra because it was so challenging and kinetic and breaking all of the conventional ideas of melody and rock and so on. I always come back to these question when I’m listening to new works that are presented to us: what happens when you really dive into the depths of it? Does it reveal all of these other layers? Do you have to give something of yourself over to it? And this was the thing I thought was really fascinating with Burial. Here was something that was deeply introspective, almost misanthropic, very alienated and yet on the surface it was so nice. Of course everyone thought “Yes! This is it!”, because you had the idea of difficulty of emotion so superbly packaged within the zeitgeist of what was happening at the time with the Hyperdub scene. It was like Fennesz’s Endless Summer, but more towards the mainstream. But for me the latest Burial record sounds like the first one. It is the Burial sound. He was a friend of one of my students, and made a intervention at one of my Royal College of Art sound seminars, with Kode 9. I want him to do something abstract for Touch, but he is incredibly hermit-like. No difference to Christian in some respects, but Fennesz has a firm relation to his musical output in a way that I imagine a sound signature like Burial would learn a lot from. It’s an example of cross-fertilization that might take a while to develop.

 

ttw01

 

Before we get further into discussions of digital formats, I just wanted to ask you about one more analogue, physical point of contact you have: what is Touch’s relationship with the mysterious Tapeworm?

MH: I just offer administrative support to that, The Wyrm curates it really efficiently, and calls for help when he needs it, whereas something like Ash is much more hands on. It is a stand-alone idea. We sell the product through our shop, and have opened up our contact books of artists to him.

When he came up with the idea, it must have been one that was very attractive to you, given your history?

MH: Yes, cassette culture! We are actually still waiting for Jon’s Tapeworm – number 33. There has never been a Touch 33 or a Tone 33 either – they are all reserved for Jon. He is slower than Chris Watson!

JW: Slowness is good, and potential is the most important thing, you need to have the knowledge that you are still learning, which is why Mike and I have the most dynamic discourse with our artists, we all want to make the work better. And to this day the relationship with suppliers, printers, the business side of things is more fractious than ever, so it’s a continual learning curve. As a wise man once said, it’s never perfect. For example, I still personally regret the printing error on the Ritual Magnetic North book that credited “Josephy” Beuys.

The Touch 30 interview, part one: Ritual

Ritual+Magnetic+North+ritual

 

In 1982, Touch was established by Jon Wozencroft, Mike Harding, Andrew McKenzie and Gary Mouat. Pointedly not a record label, they initially produced audiovisual magazines, in which the images and text were given as much prominence as the music on their cassette compilations. Over the years, they have moved onto releasing vinyl, CDs, and digital downloads, by artists such as Fennesz, Chris Watson, Philip Jeck, Phill Niblock and Oren Ambarchi, but their ethos is as it was when they first started.

Touch remains under the curatorship of Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding. To mark the beginning of their 30th anniversary, which will feature a number of events around Europe and the US, they agreed to be interviewed by me, the first time they have been interviewed together for over ten years. Given that the number three is of symbolic importance to Touch, it seems appropriate that this interview will run in three parts. Part one covers the genesis of the project, and how their core creative values saw them through the changes in technology which took place in the 1980s.

 

30 years old? It seems longer than 5 years since the 25th anniversary celebrations. What do you consider to be the official beginning of Touch?

Jon Wozencroft (JW): The official entry is 4th March 1982, when I met Mike at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, though I had established the idea of doing some sort of avant-garde magazine with sound in 1981. I knew Andrew McKenzie [The Hafler Trio] when I was at University, and he was working the shrinkwrap machine in the Virgin Megastore in Newcastle. We were into the same sort of weird music – we both loved The Residents – and had the idea of doing something. Meeting Mike was the catalyst for doing something about it, because he had some kind of infrastructure that we could use as a starting point.

Mike Harding (MH): Unrelated in any way to Touch, I had a label which had published two vinyl releases. And around that there was kind of a small network, so we already had a little system.

JW: So then having decided to so something, my starting point was “what is my favourite band in the world right now?”, which was New Order. So I got the Granada TV number from directory enquiries, called the switchboard and asked to be put through to Tony Wilson, who told me to speak to Rob Gretton, their manager. They were doing a concert in Newcastle, so I went and by hook or by crook I got to talk to the band after the concert. I literally did a pitch in the dressing room to Bernard, Steve and Hooky, with Rob in the corner. I finally emerged at 2am, by which point all my friends had gone home and the transport had stopped, and had to hitch back from Newcastle to Durham, where I was staying, in the driving rain, finally arriving back at about 4:30 in the morning.

When did you hear back from the band?

JW: The following Monday I gave Rob Gretton a call, and he said “they’ll do it”. But do what? This was the really difficult thing – how were we going to pay for New Order to go into the studio? Anyway, I’d see them quite often at gigs, and Bernard said to me one day “we’ve got this thing that we’ve done that you might like, but on the other hand you might want us to go in the studio and record something new for you”. Given that my whole pitch had been that this project was going to be something different, when he offered me something different I felt I had to go with it. But we still didn’t know what this was going to be. In May they were doing a concert at Pennies in Norwich, and Rob told me he’d give me the master tape at the concert. So Mike and I drove up from London together, saw the concert and Rob gave us the cassette. We went out and immediately put it on in the car’s cassette machine, and went “what the fuck is this?”. It was a 23 minute long techno instrumental [“Video 5-8-6″], we didn’t know what to think.

Were you even sure it was them? That they hadn’t just given you a random tape?

JW: Well they had done “Everythings Gone Green”, but nothing else was like this at the time. I had some close allies who were New Order fans, and I played it to them, and they’d initially go “what the fuck?”, but slowly, one or two of them began to say “That’s amazing. That’s really amazing”. It was a real grower. We decided we’d go with it.

 

T1feature

 

So you had this really special piece – how did you go about turning that into your first release, Feature Mist?

JW: We went round the houses with it a bit, because we didn’t know how to accommodate a 23-minute track on a 60 minute cassette. We had to get New Order to agree to let us split it into two parts. We gradually put the pieces together after that. One of the big things was getting Tuxedomoon to make something for it, who were very big at the time, and they did a beautiful track. And then there was this connection we had with the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith, who were doing a retrospective on Futurism, Russian Constructivism and Mayakovsky. We then mastered the tape in the autumn.

Was the technological side of that a bit of a challenge?

JW: We were just learning as we went along. The biggest difference in those days was access to recording and mastering facilities – it was super expensive, there was no way you could play around with it and experiment. Andrew thought he knew what he was doing, and he had a four track tape recorder, and was starting to learn how to perform various tricks with it – editing and looping and what have you. So we went down to a friend’s studio with all our tapes, compiled it into two track Revox, which then had to be bounced back down to a cassette, which you would copy using one of these old high speed copying machines. And so the first real problem we had was dealing with tape hiss. Now everyone is trying to put it back, but we were trying to take it off!

You had told New Order that this was going to be something different – what was it that differentiated it?

JW: We had this big idea that we’d sequence the tracks so it was like a journey, almost like a documentary, by putting in these little inserts. It was before people started doing it with hip hop and sampling, because that hadn’t really arrived – I mean it was happening, but we didn’t know it was happening – so that turned out to be quite a revolutionary thing to do. Suddenly you had a musical item which was almost like a TV show.

MH: Or a radio show, rather. We were responding to what was around, the media at the time. It was a very different world.

Aside from the music, the visual aspect of what New Order were doing must have been a huge influence.

JW: Design is intrinsic to labels like 4AD and Factory Records. If there was a catalyst for me, it is Factory, and what that represented as an idea – not just the music or the artwork, but a completely wild and maverick idea of what constituted record company practice. I guess we’re like Factory but with better business sense! However I think a bigger influence comes from trying to work out what you could do that other people weren’t doing. Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett and Neville Brody and all of these people were doing really strong visual work, but these were just simply record covers. I was struck most by the developments that Cabaret Voltaire and Human League had started to do with the idea of a visual element alongside the sonic. I asked myself what could be done to extend that into another area of practice? The whole idea was to make the visual element as much a compositional force as the sound. That is why we keep bleating on about how “Touch is not a record label”.

MH: We called it an audiovisual magazine in the early days.

JW: What Touch was set up to be was like a radio programme, and the booklet was like the Radio Times. You see it as being three components that the user or listener puts together themselves – the sound, the image, and the script. It becomes an interactive thing, the audience becomes a participant in the way something is digested rather than just a passive consumer.

And that is where the name Touch comes from, isn’t it, the idea of a meeting point between these different worlds? How did this idea develop over the next few releases?

JW: The name also relates to the idea of the tactile being potentially the most powerful element. The way the structure works, when we commission musicians or sound artists to do something, we give them some text or photographic input. When we commission a photographer we give them some musical input, so there are all of these interpolations, connections being made in the composition of the product.

 

T33

 

MH: Touch 33 immediately followed Feature Mist, and that was in retrospect a really important release.

JW: That was just a cassette, and that was done in the most economic way possible, a two-colour cassette liner card, and all of the sound was made up of stuff that people had given us. People don’t really realise this, but we published the first ever Current 93/Nurse With Wound track. We didn’t realise how potentially important that was going to be. We also published the first Test Department recording. And Geoff Travis had been sent this stuff from Laibach in Ljubliana, and he said “I don’t know what this is all about, see what you can do with it”. So we used that as loops and elements of Touch 33. It was also the first item, through our connection with Soliman Gamil which expressly made the connection between world music and weird music. By the time of Meridians 2, our cup was overflowing, and we had to do it in two parts. So we did the weird part and what we thought would be the more commercial part, with the booklet.

MH: Which had to be put together by hand over many long days.

JW: That was a complete nightmare. Each of the pages of the magazine were separate sheets. They’d be in the racks of the Virgin Megastore, and people would take them apart, and try to stuff them back in the plastic sleeve. You couldn’t shrink-wrap the magazines because they came in these plastic wallets that we had custom made. If they got messed up, then no-one would buy them.

MH: And there were 5,000 of them, it took weeks to make and it cost a fortune. It was naïve, but it was a really tricky thing to do. We should point out that there were other attempts at cassette magazines around at the time, not just in the UK, but to this date no-one still has really cracked the combination of the audio and visual in a satisfactory way for me yet, shoving a CD inside the front of a book or whatever.

JW: The next release was recorded in 1983, released in 1984, I spent 2 months in Indonesia between Bali and Java just with a tape recorder, a Sony Walkman which was just out then.

MH: Then, as now, technology was enabling stuff that couldn’t have been done before without lugging heavy equipment around. This is also stuff that Chris Watson and David Attenborough talk about in relation to their work over the years.

Yes, I saw the great talk they gave last year at the Royal Institution, and the photos of David with his huge battery packs powering his recording equipment.

MH: And they couldn’t actually record anything because of the noise of the camera! So new technology was really opening up at the time what you could do.

Did it feel like you were involved with something revolutionary at the time – not just in terms of Touch, but in terms of the wider musical scene?

JW: The whole point of Simon Reynolds’s book Rip It Up And Start Again, was that post-punk was far a lot more revolutionary than punk. The music coming out at that time was much more experimental than what had preceded it just three years earlier.

MH: And the system in place to support it was strong, with Rough Trade and Chain With No Name, that was 17-20% of the market, selling large numbers of records. Unthinkable now. The structure was in place, the culture was in place, everything was feeding off each other, it was a really fertile time.

JW: There was an energy in the early 80s, an optimism that you could change things. It all started to change with the advent of that wonderful thing, the personal computer, which solved some problems, but created so many others. I was working very much in graphic design with Neville Brody, so we saw this coming, all of these dot-matrix and bitmap aesthetics that were hideous. It took us two years before we went “right, we’d better do something with this”.

You seemed to have taken a conscious decision to be somewhat outside of the prevailing system.

MH: It didn’t interest us. We thought we could exist alongside that. To this day, we are still ignoring it (laughs).

JW: We were in a difficult situation after Meridians 2 because it had cost a fortune. At a certain point you are forced into an economic decision about whether you are going to become a proper “record company”, and if you do, you have to work with bands, managers, personalities and expectations, and all of the infrastructure of the music industry, things we really didn’t want to deal with. It did become a problem because certain bands would say “we want to make an album with you”, and we’d have to say, “that’s great, but how are we going to do it?” We could have gone to Rough Trade and asked them for £20,000 so we could make an album with, say, Test Department. To this day we don’t make money out of Touch, which is biased in favour of the artists. It is easy to say that 30 years later, but in 1983 or 84 when we had to try to exist by whatever slender means we had, it was more difficult.

MH: Not just the costs of recording, but the sheer physicality of making it, you had typesetting and printing costs. Typesetting costs were huge, really huge, hundreds of pounds.

JW: And you had to get it right first time. You couldn’t afford to keep going back to the typesetter. You’d ask for ten point on twelve, they’d give it to you ten point on twelve, and you’d think “I really should have done that ten point on fourteen”. Also, people forget how expensive telephone calls were back then! We used to have situations where the phone bill would come in and we’d wonder how we were going to pay it.

How did this first era of your existence come to an end?

JW: The end of part one would have been Ritual in 1985. Until that point, Gary Mouat and Panni Charrington had been involved with the design and photography. Then Gary went off to live in Germany, and later Panni went off to live in India, so I was left holding the baby. We did 3,000 copies of Ritual, as we couldn’t afford to print 5,000. It came with a 100 page book, and took us about two years from start to finish. This was the first time anyone had mixed different paper qualities like this. Some of the paper was very unstable, it often cracked and tore, so the printers hated it, but we loved it, because it was matte on one side and glazed on the other. But the juxtapositions between this and the photography and illustrations and the stories and the artworks was like a summit for us. We really thought that this was as far as we could push the cassette magazine idea without bankrupting ourselves. We made a profit on this – for nearly two years work – of £200.

 

sea org

 

So then you moved from the tapes and magazines into other formats. How did you preserve the link between the audio and the visual?

JW: With The Sea Org, the first release we did for the Hafler Trio, you have this rather lavish booklet . The interesting thing to note is that we are still very much in DIY land, see all this Letraset text here, you can see that it’s a little wobbly. It is also very prescient, in that it also has The Hafler Trio incorporating sounds into the images – sonification before people were really up for investigating that sort of thing.

MH: You can also relate this idea to the split screen film that the Hafler Trio made that was played on Channel 4 called Alternation, Perception and Resistance.

JW: Another key release was Andrew McKenzie’s recording with John Duncan, Contact. This was for me really a breaking point, moving from working with typography and graphic form into the photographic., and taking the idea of noise within information as typography, putting it through all kinds of different visual distortions, using photocopiers and scanners. I just used to really love the way you could get this poetry out of distorted photography and images. This is also interesting as it was the year before Photoshop came out, so this was the last non-Photoshop cover.

MH: There didn’t even have to be music involved. We published a translation of Jean Baudrillard’s “Xerox and Infinity”.

JW: This was quite important the time because it was completely outside the realm of experimental music, but it was taking the visual languages we were trying to explore in the likes of The Sea Org to extremes, using just scanners and copiers again.

MH: The first version was homemade. I remember photocopying tracing paper, trying to get tracing paper through the apertures. It didn’t always work.

JW: Me and my girlfriend at the time, Catherine, who was French, were really into Baudrillard’s work, and we noticed that one of his works had been published in a magazine in France called Traverses, and no-one had bothered to translate it. As it was called Xerox and Infinity, we thought “lets just do it ourselves”. Catherine translated it, I edited, and we basically just doorstepped Baudrillard and said “we’ve translated your work, can we put it out?”. We got his number from the Paris phone book.

MH: And since it was called Xerox and Infinity, he could hardly say no!

How did you feel when the industry were getting behind the CD format in such a big way in the second half of the 80s?

JW: The funny thing is that, going back to our earlier point about hiss, the CD seemed to be a solution to all of these problems.

So you viewed it as a positive thing initially?

JW: Yes. We went to Abbey Road with our reel-to-reels and said “we want the best digital mastering that you can offer”. We did The Hafler Trio’s Thirsty Fish CD at EMI’s cutting studio in Germany, specifically because they cut Kraftwerk! I went on the plane with the quarter-inch masters. However when we came to do the CD of the Soliman Gamil record, which had been out on vinyl and cassette, I took the quarter-inch masters to the Exchange cutting studio in Camden Town on the tube, and during the journey they got demagnetised. It suddenly sounded really dull, the recording had lost its top end. So we had to master our very first CD from the vinyl! The next CD was the Hafler Trio’s Ignotum Per Ignotius, which was immediately an attempt to break the jewel case format, by using a booklet.

MH: Ugliness is a big influence of ours, we have to break it!

Viral Mutations: An interview with Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto

Noto Sakamoto by Scott McMillan

Through their four collaborative projects to date, the German experimental artist Carsten Nicolai, operating under his Alva Noto pseudonym, and the Japanese pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto, have explored the space between the acoustic and the electronic, and between music and noise. In doing so, they have not just invented a language, but continued to refine its grammar and syntax. After their last release _utp saw them expanding their tonal palette, by working with Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, they have pared the sound back to its basic elements for their new piece summvs. In advance of its premiere at London’s Roundhouse on 12 May as part of a showcase for Nicolai’s Raster-Noton label, I spoke to them about how their working relationship had changed over the years, and how that working relationship had changed them.

 

Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – Trioon I from Karl Kliem on Vimeo.

You are both people who collaborate often with others, but what first attracted you to each other’s music? It is, on paper, with its mixture of classical analogue and modern electronics, not an obvious combination.

Ryuichi Sakamoto (RS): In any genre of music or maybe art there are a few good ones. Probably when I first heard Carsten’s music, I was not very familiar with this area of music, but I could immediately tell he was good. He can tell, I can tell, we creators are like that.

Carsten Nicolai (CN): It was the first time I came to Japan that we met. I was working in really extreme high and low frequency ranges, and a young community started that was picking up on this kind of extreme sine wave composed music. From when we started with the very first song for Vrioon, this combination was totally unusual – the acoustic instrument and this very extreme way of dealing with minimalism, the sine wave frequencies and very short impulses of sound. It was unusual, but it was challenging – the collaboration went on, we’ve recorded five albums now, it is still a topic that is interesting to explore.

Do you think it is too easy to categorise the analogue side as the human, warm, emotional element, and the digital as the artificial, cold, logical one, when in fact the opposite may be true?

RS: More than 30 years ago when we started Yellow Magic Orchestra people would automatically say the music was cold: because of the image of the band, because we used synthesizers and computers, and that was rare and new then. Looking back from now, the music of YMO is very organic in a way. We creators or artists are naturally trying to escape from the stereotypical aspect about how we are categorised.

CN: This is our advantage – we are not thinking in these categories or making these connections. That is the reason you can say the answer is either way. It is quite obvious that the specific music, however it is made, can be emotional or not emotional; it is a personal sound, not about whether it is analogue or digital.

RS: Emotions are very individual things. Some sounds would be very emotional for some people, and very cold for others.

Has working with Carsten influenced your solo career, Ryuichi? Your last solo record in particular seemed very interested in the border between sound and noise.

RS: Actually, yes. The exploration of the area between noise and sound is kind of a familiar subject since John Cage, who I have been a big fan of since I was a teenager. More recently since I started working with Carsten I’ve been sending him my piano recordings. I was recording my improvisations, and when I hit one note I just wait until it completely vanishes. But the area of vanishing point – is it noise or still piano sound? Physically you cannot tell. That experience is very, very fresh to me, and it automatically reminded me of the subject of John Cage of course, so it is like a big circle to me, returning to my teens, and was a very inspirational experience. So yes, that influenced me a lot.

Likewise, Carsten – since you’ve started working with Ryuichi, you’ve been involved with some more obviously musical ventures recently (such as with Michael Nyman and Blixa Bargeld). How has working with a musician like Ryuichi changed how you approach your work?

CN: Specifically, when we started touring and playing together I learned of course a lot about the classical notation system and tonality, and as well I noticed a little bit of a fear of melody. This collaboration introduced melody as a very strong element to my work. Maybe the Xerrox albums would not have been possible had this collaboration not happened before. I think this exploration of memorisable melody lines and working intentionally with melodies did not exist before in my work, I was really avoiding that in many cases, looking more towards noise than real sound. And I lost this fear, basically. It had a big impact.

 

Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – Berlin from Karl Kliem on Vimeo.

_utp felt very different to the albums that had gone before, larger and more complex. How has the way you work changed over the years, right up to the date of the new album, S?

CN: It was a challenge to work with Ensemble Modern on _utp, but finishing it was a really big amount of work. We both longed for the moment when it could be more simple again. It would be great to step back to where we have less people on stage, and have less elements, and just work how we did when we started.

RS: From the beginning, album by album, we’ve been trying different approaches. On the first album Vrioon, he did not touch my piano recordings at all, he just added his sound. So it started in a simple way. Then on the second one he manipulated my piano sound, so the collaboration went deeper. And so on. Then Ensemble Modern came, which was a big challenge for us. I still feel we didn’t consume all the possibilities we had, so there would still be some possibility of working with Ensemble Modern again, or working with other acoustic instruments, rather than just the piano. The possibility is always open. But yes, as Carsten said, on this fifth album, we kind of returned to this collaboration between just us, maybe because _utp had such an impact on us.

So this isn’t necessarily going to be the last collaboration between the two of you?

RS It isn’t stopping yet. It is not even at a conclusion.

CN: It shows a circle. We are writing a sentence and making a full stop. But it doesn’t mean we won’t write again, or that there are no sentences to come after that. Maybe the fifth album just marks a circle. I’m sure when we are touring, some new pieces and some other ideas will come. So, as Ryuichi was saying, there is always a window, a view outside, a perspective. It doesn’t mean we are stopping.

RS: But on the other hand, we liked the idea of using the word virus [the first letters of each of their releases], it is a nice word. But it wasn’t our intention at first. We only realised we were making the word virus when we were making _utp, it was pretty late. So that is why it sounds like we are stopping, but no.

CN: Maybe like I said, it is like a word now, and it will become another word. You never know.

Your previous shows, as documented on the Insen DVD, have had a very strong visual element. Are you working on something similar for the new piece? How important do you feel that these visuals are to the overall experience?

CN: In a way the live show will be similar to the Insen show, it will have a visual component. It is a very tactile, very beautiful element that can add another layer of abstraction to the live show, and I always say it is building a bridge, as it can visualise or show something of the action we are doing. It has some possibilities.

Being given a chance to take over the historic Roundhouse venue for an evening of your label’s music must feel like a vindication of what you are doing with Raster-Noton, Carsten. How has the label maintained its position of artistic strength for such a long time?

CN: Basically, Raster-Noton is an artist-run label, we are artists ourselves, releasing our music. That has created this strength, this identity. Our packaging and design from the beginning was very serious, straight and unique, this is something we’ve kept on doing. In a way, without knowing it, we created inside of this experimental electronic music a label that people recognised for putting out a specific kind of music with a specific aesthetic, creating an opportunity for people to follow us. If you like one of our releases, or if you like how we think and present things, you will probably like another. It is, of course, a pleasure to be at the Roundhouse, other people have been telling me how important the Roundhouse is. It has a great history, and we are looking very much forward to being part of that history.

All Possible Words: an interview with Icarus

Icarus

Since their emergence in the late 1990s, Icarus have followed their own fascinatingly twisted path, which has led them away from drum’n’bass and breakbeat and into live improvisation settings. Their Not Applicable label, originally set up as a means for them to self-release their own work, has now become an incredibly fertile community of like-minded experimental musicians and film-makers. The Liminal caught up with Sam Britton (SB) and Ollie Bown (OB) ahead of their forthcoming Cafe Oto appearance to talk about how their involvement with Not Applicable has shaped their thinking, what their plans are for the forthcoming year, and robot musicians.

You are playing at Cafe Oto on February 2nd as part of a Mystery Plays Records event. How did that come about?

OB: Whilst playing in Australia, we hooked up with a lovely man called Shoeb Ahmed, who runs hellosQuare Records out of his spare room in Canberra, and performs fantastic lo-fi live electronics music. The remix request from Inch-Time came via Shoeb.

The last time I saw you play at Cafe Oto, the combination of the sounds you made, the visuals, and the volume was menacing, even positively evil at times. Should we expect something similar this time?

OB: We’ll be loud and chaotic, but not as loud as that. We’ll largely stick to the live tools we’ve been using over the past couple of years, but be trying out a few new ideas. Straight after that we’re off to a residency at STEIM where we’ll certainly take the opportunity to develop fresh performance tools, ideas and material.

SB: The Oto gig from 2009 is documented on our live album All Is For The Best In The Best Of All Possible Worlds and we were definitely very pleased with it. I think it really achieves a synergy between large scale form and improvisation that we’ve been interested in developing for a long time in Icarus and I think part of that came as a result of the decision to use the series of concerts we did in 2009 to work up entirely new material. The format for the current album project is for us very much about building on those developments and seeing how we can best represent that kind of fluidity and potential for difference elsewhere in what we do. Where that actually leaves our live show is a different matter, but I wouldn’t expect the same material to come up in future shows.

Icarus: Uke ‘Em from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

So can expect a new Icarus album this year? Is there a title and release date?

OB: Yes. It will be a concept album: there will be lots of versions of it. We still don’t know whether it will be on a label or a self-release. The art of self-release seems to be becoming increasingly appropriate, and we’re experienced at it, with Not Applicable. No title, no release date, but you can expect something before the middle of the year, as well as a handful of remixes that are emerging at present, and also a split EP with our Danish friends Badun, which is coming soon. We’re very excited about that.

What do you mean by lots of versions? Do you mean the actual music will be different?

SB: Basically, yes. We’ve yet to work out the details, it will probably involve spending weeks rendering out projects on multiple computers. This is another reason why a regular CD release may not be so relevant for this record.

It has been quite some time since the last studio release. Why the big gap, and why does it feel like the right time to return?

OB: The last few years have been great for both of us because we’ve both really expanded what we do, with collaborations, PhDs for the both of us (Sam is finishing his), marriage (Sam’s, I was best man), and research related to computer music. The nice thing is that Icarus has been ticking along during this time, and the motivation has always been there to get back in the lab and do what we’re doing now: a dedicated session. No distractions. It feels so fresh because we have such a solid connection about what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

SB: In fact, our last entire studio record was in 2004. I think it’s fair to say that across the musical industry in the last few years, there has been an emphasis on live performance as a result of the fact that it has become incredibly difficult to sell and distribute records; this coincided quite nicely with our increased nomadism and the scaling down of the tools we used to create music such that we no longer felt the need for a studio at all and were quite happy with laptops, some microphones and a soundcard. To be honest, not a lot has changed now, we’re not in a situation where a label has come to us and given us the money to produce a record, far from it, but what has happened is that after the last live record, we sat down and thought more concretely about how we could represent the processes and strategies we’ve developed more coherently as a record. Our intention this time round is to see the record less as a document and more as vehicle for those ideas. Conveniently the ideas we have also coexist with the album’s new found liberation from a physical format and our interests in strategies for indeterminacy.

By indeterminacy, I take it you are referring to the thinking of the likes of John Cage, of ceding some creative control over your music to chance. In practical terms, how do those ideas feed into your music?

SB: I did hesitate to use “indeterminacy” there as it has become an increasingly loaded term, I think to a certain extent as a result of Cage himself who in many ways inadvertently politicised it in his writings. However, I do feel it is the right word, not in that it specifically refers to Cage or his philosophies, nor in the sense that there is some toolkit that can be followed to invoke it, but in the sense that increasingly, a lot of the work I seem to be involved in doesn’t try to predict its final state, whether that’s in terms of how it is presented to a wider audience or in and of itself. This state of deferral, as long as it is constantly the subject of some critical evaluation, is intensely practical, as it promotes an openness and discourse across a broad spectrum of intentionality, from software and programming to performance situations, politics and aesthetics. Analytically, it also opens a discourse with critical concepts such as deconstruction and différance – something I am concerned with in my PhD.

OB: Also, it’s not just chance that you can hand over control to. There are many perfectly deterministic computational processes that you can set up that operate beyond your control, something that was quite central to the thinking of the group I have been working with for the past two years in Melbourne (Centre for Electronic Media Art).

Schneefall from Brittski on Vimeo.

While it seemed to start as a label, Not Applicable is now more of a collective. How did all these individuals, from such disparate backgrounds (yourselves from electronic music, Lothar Ohlmeier and Tom Arthurs from jazz, Maurizio Ravalico who has played in Afro-Cuban and funk bands, the visual artists Martin Hampton and Britt Hatzius) come together?

OB: As with anything like this, there was a lot of happenstance (for example, I was living in the same street as Tom Arthurs, and so was Britt), but also a certain amount of necessity. For years I’d viewed electronic music incorporating live instruments (or vice versa) as falling badly between two incompatible practices, but suddenly it seemed like an acceptable sound did emerge, which had a lot to do with the “realtime-ification” of electracoustic music and free improvisation (which has always been very open to electronics). A lot of the motivation behind the collaborations in Not Applicable was to explore this amazing new territory.

What was it about the integration of electronic music and live instruments which so appalled you, and can you remember the first time you actually thought that you could make it work?

OB: I remember seeing bands I liked who did great stuff on recordings with live instruments and electronics, but finding their live shows lacking. I think the problem was that there was nothing live about the way the studio tracks were made so playing them live was always problematic. One of the perennial problems is the fact that the electronics have to lead, where metronomes or fixed recordings are involved. Squarepusher was maybe an exception, screwing around with prerecorded tracks and going nuts on his bass, and it was undeniably engaging, a very honest approach too. It changed as people became more capable of improvising with electronics, particularly with things that run off metronomes. I think it also just took time for the sound to mature.

What sort of software are you using? Do you develop it yourself?

SB: I use Max/MSP with various framework extensions developed by IRCAM, CNMAT and others for live stuff and algorithmic composition, also Digital Performer, Ableton and Pro Tools. For scoring I use a combination of Lilypond MaxScore Illustrator and InDesign.

OB: One day about two years ago I had an irresistible urge to make my own computer music software library. I was working with Max/MSP and writing objects for that in Java, so I decided just to make a Java library for realtime music performance. To my own surprise I got as far as something I’m happy to use for live shows. It’s called Beads, and is also free and open source. However, I think the ecosystem surrounding Max/MSP and Ableton Live is so powerful now that it’s irresistible (for example, the IRCAM and CNMAT tools Sam mentions), so I am drawn back to these.

Flat Home from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

Some of those films that have been produced under the Not Applicable label are really striking. How important is the visual aspect to Not Applicable, and how do you feel it relates to the musical side of what you are doing?

SB: There was no real strategy with this, but the fact that music is so amenable to contextualisation grants it a certain freedom in its association with other art forms, something that can not only change your perspective as a musician, but by association, can in turn rub off on other artists. It’s something that I’ve always found refreshing, in fact: some of the most inspiring concerts I’ve seen have involved musicians improvising to silent films, in part because the interjection of a different extra-musical context alters the musical performance in a very particular way. So in this sense, it just seemed like a natural thing to do.

There seems to be a real element of getting people out of their comfort zones, and into very different (and challenging) situations – the live soundtrack work you mention, Maurizio Ravalico and Oren Marshall jamming with nature on In Thunder Rise , Sam’s incredibly complex modern composition record Ohka under the Isambard Khroustaliov name. Is this the intention?

OB: Sometimes, to some extent, but you can’t only do that. None of us are interested in being aggressive or purposefully unpleasant or extreme. You see a lot of bands who seem to be trying to do that and although I may be missing something, I tend to hate the idea. That said, in our music the “chaos-frenzy” is a popular theme. There’s no doubt we want to achieve music that is surprising and engaging by being different, but I think even the most popularist artist is also trying to do that, it’s the nature of music.

Oh, and while we are on the subject Sam – “Isambard Khroustaliov”? What does that name mean?

SB: It’s a name that hopefully throws up a few questions…

Questions like this one?

SB: Maybe also some about personal brands, identity and intentionality…

TRAUM from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

The most obvious parallel I can think of to what you are doing is that of Spring Heel Jack, who I guess were once contemporaries of yours on the experimental edge of electronica/drum & bass, who’ve thrown their lot in with the free improvisation scene on their Treader label. Can you relate to what they’ve done?

SB: I’ve played at Ashley Wales’s ‘Back In Your Town’ nights that used to happen at the Red Rose in Finsbury Park and thoroughly enjoyed them, they were a really great melting pot, where all of the normalising factors of the various different types of musical practitioners involved were suspended and some really amazing musical combinations and performances occurred. I think Spring Heel Jack really put that kind of collaboration back on the map for a lot of people, ourselves included and it’s great to see that kind of initiative actively taking place outside of the remit of Arts funding bodies. It’s also great to see the body of work and discussion fostered by the community of free improvisers over the last 40 or so years being celebrated as a model for the future, it makes you realise just how valuable grass roots, self organising movements like this are.

Has your involvement with Not Applicable changed how you approach working as Icarus? If you were to take your forthcoming Icarus release and compare it to early releases like Kamikaze or Misfits, how do you think you have changed over the years?

OB: Our drum’n’bass background may seem like a misnomer these days, it is an awkward place to be, but for that reason it is also very stimulating. Our music has a breakbeat backbone carried through into a free improvising experimental milieu, and we make a lot out of that. It’s fun and challenging living between sometimes very incompatible worlds, and you find that being in a situation like that, which is partly of your own devising but also very much to do with history beyond your control, creativity is often just to do with making sense of what you ended up with on your plate. We’ve managed to carve a very odd identity out of that

SB: In more than one respect, I think Not Applicable has consolidated our intentions. By getting involved with a lot of other musicians and artists and developing shared approaches, we’ve been able to build a kind of lexicon that feeds back into what we do as Icarus. I also feel that our early inquisitiveness, evident on Kamikaze and Misfits has only been able to survive through developing approaches like Not Applicable. I only wish that this was something that the independent labels we have been involved with over the years had had the courage to support themselves. It seems pretty telling to me that the labels I currently get the most out of listening to these days are almost exclusively those run by artists or collectives of artists, I think there’s a lot to be said for that.

Which labels, artists and collectives are you talking about, Sam? We’ve talked about how you’ve been influenced by classical and jazz artists from the last century, but who, outside your own collective, is inspiring you?

SB: In no particular order: Kammer Klang, The Loop Collective, Gravid Hands, Room 40, hellosQuare, 12k, Slowfoot, Audiobulb, Incus, Psi, Matchless, Tzadik, Alivism, Trytone, Interlace, Placard, Dorkbot, Audioculture, L’An Vert, Rump Recordings, Text, Jazzwerkstatt Wien, Cave12. I’m also very excited about a new label on the horizon called Drumble.

Strecken from Brittski on Vimeo.

What forthcoming Not Applicable projects are in the pipeline?

OB: It’s going to be a busy year for Not Applicable and Icarus. I made some music with some fantastic musicians whilst working and living in Melbourne – Brigid Burke and Adrian Sherriff – on the Not Applicable live electroacoustic tip. A record called Erase, with Brigid (on bass clarinet) will be coming out soon on Not Applicable. I also made some folktronic tunes with singer songwriter Adem a while back and these will appear on Not Applicable soon too. Sam and I also experiment with autonomous music systems, and a piece based on these was premiered at the North Sea Jazz Festival last year, with Tom and Lothar from Not Applicable performing alongside them. A recording of this will also come out this year and we intend to continue to develop this project.

That piece at the North Sea Jazz Festival took the idea of ceding control to an extraordinary extreme. Your names were on the bill, but you weren’t actually there. I remember talking to you afterwards, and you had no idea if it had even worked, never mind what it had sounded like. Didn’t that feel in the least scary?

SB: Scary in a good sense…it’s one thing to be in a situation that is undefined and quite another to put your work in the hands of people you trust and respect. It’s a little like providing the rules for a game, you can predict the types of interaction that might occur, but not the actual play or the result. From here it’s not such a big step to conceiving of a robot player.

OB: Actually, we’ve done lots of experimental shows running up to this, but usually we are hovering over our laptops making sure nothing goes wrong. But as Sam says, with a bit of practice the idea of something “going wrong” gets replaced by it just doing something a bit different than you expected. You get to know the parameters of the system, so you do basically know what is going to happen, just not “exactly” what is going to happen. One thing that we both recognise about this field that is reinforced each time we do this is that the idea of AI is very vague really, and on the inevitable path to “truly” intelligent robot musicians (ours are far from that description), entire genres can arise out of the weirdness, failures and discoveries that occur along the way.