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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.