Touch 30 at Beaconsfield, December 2012


“All these changes have crept up on us like imperceptible noise, like buzzing”. In his introduction to the London leg of Touch’s birthday celebrations, which have also taken in trips to New York, Glasgow and Madeira amongst others, Jon Wozencroft was referring to the authoritarian instincts of successive British governments since the 1980s. He might as well have been talking about the changes in technology which have impacted upon Touch over that period, from how graphics are designed, to how sound is recorded, and to how we as an audience consume and appreciate art.

I picked at a number of threads related to this in a discussion I had with Touch co-founders Wozencroft and Mike Harding for The Liminal this time last year, such as those that connect the analogue to the digital, the audio to the visual, and the sound to the place. This two day Touch 30 event, featuring panel discussions, films and performances from a number of artists and individuals linked to Touch, twisted these threads back together into a continuum, a thick rope that stretched back from the Beaconsfield Arts Centre in late 2012, all round the globe and back through time to the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead in 1982, where Harding and Wozencroft first met and began to work on what would become Touch.

There was a large element of reflection on that lengthy history across the two days, much of which was driven by Wozencroft. While this could come across as self-indulgent at times, such as during an unfocused chat with Edwin Pouncey (Savage Pencil) about their respective record collecting habits, you did get the impression that Wozencroft was a fan as much as a curator. He was keen to explore Touch’s relationship to all that was around it, and to assert its place in a cultural lineage that stretched from the Beatles (his first record purchase) through New Order (who featured on his first release) and beyond.

The connection to New Order and Factory Records who, like Touch, were another intersection between audio and visual art, was made even more explicit by the involvement of New Order’s sleeve designer Peter Saville in a discussion on the links between graphic design and art. While Saville was quick to refute the premise of there being a link at all (entirely separate worlds, he argued, drawing on his own difficulties in breaking into the art world), his own revelations about the need for tactility, and audience participation in his art did have echoes with much of Touch’s premise. In his musings on the relationship between his photography and Touch’s music, Wozencroft was to stress the importance of constructing parallel narratives that necessitated the active involvement of the audience.

Philip Jeck at Touch 30

To allow further light to illuminate the historical narrative, the two days were perforated by a series of sharp audio interventions, tracks and performances from Touch’s archives. A particular highlight was David Toop reading from the relevant chapter of his book Ocean Of Sound, over an audio backdrop of his recordings of Yanomamo shamans undergoing transformative (and seemingly rather painful) rituals, released on the Touch Travel compilation in 1984. It served to remind us how important not just narrative has always been in the Touch catalogue, but also, through the status afforded to field recordings, to that sense of time and place.

This archival nature of Touch 30 was picked up on by Philip Jeck. Jeck’s sets often reflect his surroundings – I have fond memories of him using a selection of jazz records as the basis for his performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years back – so it was perhaps unsurprising that he was to utilise vinyl recordings by Touch artists, including a flexidisc of the cellist Hildur Gudnadottir. Her string parts were hauled from amidst grainy drones like a memory coming into focus, before fading once more into static. Underneath, he used a slowed down James Last hook to provide further emotional heft, as if in riposte to Wozencroft’s earlier dismissal of Last during his record collecting segment.

In contrast to this perception of Wozencroft as the preserver of Touch’s heritage, Mike Harding was more excited by the future, in particular by the possibilities of new technology. A discussion on future formats, with the University of York’s Tony Myatt and the audio designer Seb Jouan, entered the realm of surround sound, exploring these planes with a view to them becoming the format of the future. Some of the concepts Jouan raised were particularly startling, including the ability to recreate the precise sonic characteristics of places, even those that no longer exist, such as long-destroyed churches. Elsewhere, discussions on the role of the internet and mobile technology raised the (distant, I’d assume) possibility of a Touch album being released as an app.

Fennesz at Touch 30

We had brief glimpses of Touch’s (nearer) future with the debut of as yet unreleased work from Fennesz and Biosphere. Fennesz’s new material sounded like a slight step on from his Black Sea album, louder and more aggressive, destructive even, with loud, glitchy intrusions on a field of buzz and static sounding like trees being felled in a digital forest. However, to my ears Biosphere’s 4/4 reconfigurations of Schoenberg felt somewhat rigid and even dated given the freedoms and forward thinking practised by so much of the Touch repertoire elsewhere.

In their introductions to the event, Wozencroft and Harding made it clear that Touch was a partnership: it relied on the two of them doing the things that the other couldn’t (or at least didn’t want to) do. But any notion of this partnership requiring a strict division between, say, the creative and the administrative was comfortably dispelled by the nature of their curatorial contributions to this event. There is a meeting place between the two, and that place is Touch. It became apparent to me that this meeting place is the now: the celebration of where we (the artists, the listeners) are right now was not just the key motif of Touch 30, but perhaps of their entire 30 year history.

Hildur Gudnadottir at Touch 30

In the aforementioned panel discussion on future formats, Hildur Gudnadottir talked about the motivation for the hi-spec surround sound recording process of her luminous Leyfdu Ljosinu album: to capture not just a space, but a sense of movement within that space – and how it had to be recorded in one take so as not to “cheat” movement and space. She performed the piece over Beaconsfield’s quadrophonic sound system, using looped layers of voice and cello, building and swirling it from lullaby to hullabaloo. At times, the sawed, stacked rhythms clacked like a train, feeling like a reference, deliberate or not, to Beaconsfield’s railway arch location: the passing of a train had earlier caused her to pause and check her progress.

In Touch’s exploration of the now, the status of field recordings is key. Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sound at the British Library, talked on a panel about the resurgence in “listening for listening’s sake” (along with the resulting problems this causes her in quality controlling thousands of birdsong submissions). It is in this way that the sound recordist’s Chris Watson’s work makes perfect sense in the context of more conventionally “musical” releases. An in absentia playback of his “Brussels-Nord” piece (as featured on the new Touch 30 compilation), recorded in the train station of that name, was the richest of delights in Beaconsfield, the low end train rumble that was a distraction for Gudnadottir working in perfect synergy with Watson’s own recordings.

Thomas Koner at Touch 30

A similar effect was observed during Thomas Köner’s set. Until their coming together for this year’s sombre Novaya Zemlya release, Köner’s exploration of (in his case, dark and remote) soundscapes had occurred in parallel to Touch’s. While he had been billed as performing a new work, Köner instead chose to reprise his 2003 masterpiece La Barca, a fantastical expedition across times and spaces, big on bass, Basinski-esque melodies, and buried echoes of the past. In the brick-clad Beaconsfield arch, he achieved something sublime: a haunting, ache-filled reach from our time and space back to others, ultimately merging them all with a deep resonance. In that, it felt like a continuation of the quest for a shared moment that both Wozencroft and Saville said they were searching for with their art, what Wozencroft had earlier described as “felt experiences in a particular time and place”.

Set against the likes of Köner, Fennesz, Biosphere, and Jeck, Carl Michael von Hausswolff may seem a relatively minor figure, having released just the one record through Touch. Von Hausswolff, however, is the obelisk who watches over many of the major landmarks in Touch’s history. For his set at Touch’s 25th anniversary he draped unadorned sine waves in the air for the audience to hang onto. Five years on, he was still producing these beautiful, precise low tones, but this time embellishing them with the sound of his own breath, sampling it and layering on top. You could tell that von Hausswolff really felt this, as he hung onto the knobs of his equipment as if his life depended on it, lost in the moment, this time, this sound, this place, but compelling us to come and find him. As an act of listening for listening’s sake, it felt like a compelling summation of the event, and a fitting reminder of what Touch are. Here’s to another 30 years of now.


The Touch 30 interview, part three: Vectors


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,, 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. 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.

The Touch 30 interview, part two: Contact



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.




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.




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.




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.




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



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.




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.




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!

Chris Watson – El Tren Fantasma


The title of the sound recordist Chris Watson’s new CD, borrowed from a Mexican film from the 1920s, translates as “The Ghost Train”. The name makes reference to the fact that the recordings were made while he was working on the BBC show Great Railway Journeys, where he took a ride on one of the very last passenger trains which ran from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the Gulf on the other side, a journey that since 1999 can no longer be made. However, as you listen to it while studying a map of the route, from Los Mochis in the west, through Chihuahua and Mexico City to Veracruz on the east, you begin to trace a number of branch lines which lead off from the main line. You find yourself making connections, hitching your wagon to a number of different trains, in order to chase down some fascinating – and very resonant – ghosts from Mexico’s history.

The record starts with the gathering roar of a train, approaching at speed from distance. In this instant, Watson has captured the excitement of the early days of steam trains, and I already find myself listening with an almost child-like glee. Construction of Mexico’s train network begin fitfully in the 1830s, but gathered pace in the 1870s as the result of foreign speculation – English, French, Belgian companies all seeking to profit from Mexico’s expansion. Its last great act of construction was the spectacular feat of engineering which is the train line through the country’s Copper Canyon: 390 miles long, with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels, allowing the train to climb from sea level to around 2,500 metres. Watson captures the speedy procession across the plateau in a most musical way, the whine of the train swelling almost orchestrally over its metallic percussion. He then lingers awhile in the canyon’s Sierra Tarahumara to record the sound of heat rising from its floor, hummingbirds being tossed around in its thermals. In these glorious moments of hazy near-silence, Watson is diverting himself from this onward linear rush to find something completely timeless, a Mexico recognisable to early natives like the Aztecs and the Tarahumara indians – a people who still practice their traditional ways in these parts of the country, and who are named, appropriately enough in the circumstances of this album, for their long distance running abilities.

As the train progresses further along those tracks, Watson records it passing into one of those many tunnels, and everything becomes noticeably darker and more intense. The decline of the Mexican railway system began, it seems, after the Mexican revolution, the railways being taken into state ownership in the 1930s. The costs of maintaining the railway system became increasingly out of proportion to the revenues they were generating, what with competition from road and sea, and they slowly started to decay. When Watson reached the journey’s midpoint, the city of Chihuahua, he chose not to record the noise of the train itself, but instead to take his microphones inside a huge, echoing train shed, cleaving the record in two with some suitably serrated metallic scrape and grind, the sound of industrial distortion and collapse on a monstrous scale. The tone of the record is far more subdued thereafter: even as it passes through Mexico City, one of the most frantically bustling cities in the world, it feels strangely lifeless, and I feel quite alone as I listen to the steady, muffled rumble of wheels on track.

The endpoint of this journey came after the Mexican economic crisis of 1994, and the sudden devaluation of the peso, when the state abdicated ownership of the railway system, handing the loss-making enterprise back to the private sector. The private sector, as you might expect, instantly closed huge swathes of the network down, leaving a handful of unconnected stubs of freight and tourist lines (that incredible section through the Copper Canyon still exists, thankfully). Watson’s train finally limps towards its destination on the shore, wheezing and rattling and spluttering and clanking, sounding in every way like a train on its very last journey. El Tren Fantasma may be no more, but by reappropriating its tracks Watson has engineered his own route, one which traces a fascinating track into Mexico’s industrial history – and beyond.

Chris Watson and Marcus Davidson – Cross-Pollination


Cross-pollination is the germination of one species using seed from another. More specifically, the name of this album comes from an event that was held on the South Bank a couple of years back, which sought to combine human voices with the sounds of insects to produce new musical hybrids. As part of this, the sound recordist Chris Watson and the composer Marcus Davidson created ‘The Bee Symphony’, which took recordings Watson and Touch’s Mike Harding had made at bee hives, and set them in a choral context. The production of this piece came at a time of increased focus on the relationship between bees and humans, thanks to the worldwide spread of Colony Collapse Disorder, the causes of which are still unclear, but which are more than likely man-made. A quote is famously (if perhaps erroneously) attributed to Albert Einstein in which he was purported to have claimed that if bees were to entirely disappear from the planet, then humans would be extinct within four years. Without their role in the pollination process, the plants which we rely on for food (or to feed the animals we rely on for food) could die out, with terrible consequences. It is an extreme example of how one species can not just make convenient use of another to prolong the life of its genetic material, but actually be entirely dependent on another for its continuation.

A version of ‘The Bee Symphony’ recorded at a later performance in York is is one of two pieces on this new CD released by Touch. The above context aside, there is a clear musical logic behind the work, with Davidson finding that the insects on Watson and Harding’s recordings “sang” in clusters around the note of A during the day, dropped down a semitone as the day progressed, and rose back to a stronger unison A when their hive was threatened. And so ‘The Bee Symphony’ begins with the bees buzzing tunefully and rhythmically amongst birds in the morning, human voices gradually mixing in – the singers are not imitating the bees, more finding their own harmonies, making notes and sounds that fit, from long fluctuating sequences to short clipped yelps. The symphony becomes noticeably darker and more sluggish later, the voices sliding down that semitone, the sound of the bees (the “drone drone”, if you will) now processed, becoming increasingly muffled and indistinct. Finally, both bees and humans are silenced. ‘The Bee Symphony’ isn’t just a third of an hour in the life of a bee, it is an entire life cycle in twenty minutes, and a stark warning about the fragility of ecosystems.

You can read similar themes into the other piece on Cross-Pollination, which is entitled ‘Midnight At The Oasis’. It isn’t a cover version of Maria Muldaur’s hit from 1974, you may or may not be pleased to hear, but rather a set of recordings from the Kalahari desert. Watson is famous for recording sounds that you just wouldn’t be able to hear with your own ears, but on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ he is going further, to create an entire sonic event you couldn’t ever actually experience, by layering and concatanating an entire night’s worth of recordings into a continuous thirty minute piece (he did something similar with his rainforest installation ‘Whispering In The Leaves’ at Kew Gardens last year). Despite temperatures which can reach into the high forties celsius, the Kalahari is surprisingly full of nature, though its presence is felt more obviously in the welcome cool of the night. Flies dance wearily between the last rays of that raging-hot sun at the start, to be joined by birdsong and the onset of what is to become a very intense burst of insect stridulation. The desert floor seems to be teeming with an incredible variety of species, each with their own distinct sound, and the recordings are rich: full of different frequencies, and different pulsations. Some Japanese monks believe that the voice of Buddha speaks through crickets: listening to the immersive ‘Midnight In The Oasis’, I can certainly hear why they would choose to meditate to these sounds.

However, one thing you don’t hear on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ is any human activity. You might think that was a given, because of the harshness of the location, but in fact the Kalahari desert is home to the San bushmen, one of the oldest genetically distinct races of human on the planet, with their own sonically fascinating language of click consonants. These people have long been completely dependent on the desert, on its climatic cycles, and on its vegetation and wildlife. However, this balance is under threat, with the Botswana government forcibly and illegally relocating them from their ancestral homeland so that they can make more money through exploiting its tourist potential. A tribe can live for millennia in the most unforgiving of conditions, and amongst some of the most dangerous animals on the planet: ultimately, their enemy is not nature, but other men. As ‘The Bee Symphony’ reminded us, perhaps the delicate harmony that exists between humankind and the environment is one that we should be leaving undisturbed.

CM von Hausswolff – 800 000 Seconds In Harar


This may be the audiovisual artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s first solo album for Touch, but he’s been an integral part of their community for some time: indeed, he recorded with The Hafler Trio (in his Sons Of God collaborative guise) as far back as 1993. My own first encounter with von Hausswolff was in 2006, when he played after Fennesz and Philip Jeck as part of Touch’s 25th birthday celebrations, which shows you just how highly they rate his work. And quite rightly too: his performance that night was the one that I still remember most vividly. Wisps of cigarette smoke and pure sine waves curled into the night air, people lay on the floor with their eyes closed and let this succession of tones wash over their heads, like waves breaking on the shore. It was a vivid demonstration of just how powerful the most minimal of music can be at the hands of a skilled exponent of the form, marrying the scientific (the precise combinations of frequencies) to a blissful emotional resonance. That isn’t to say von Hausswolff has been inactive in the intervening periods, far from it in fact. In recent years he has created audiovisual installations around the world in cemeteries, ruined buildings and train sheds, documented his interest in Electronic Voice Phenomena (recordings which purport to contain messages from ghosts living within buildings or even electricity grids), and ruled over his conceptual Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland, which comprise the border spaces between countries, and between the conscious and unconscious. These themes of travel, place, architecture, communication, death, and liminal space are all worked into the 2,437 seconds of 800 000 Seconds In Harar

The album was conceived in response to a request from theatre director Ulrich Hillebrand to compose a soundtrack to Michael Azar’s play about the life of Arthur Rimbaud entitled “Jag är en annan” (or “I is another”, the title taken from the famous lettre du voyant sent by the poet). Von Hausswolff sought and found inspiration from the last years of that life, from the 1880s and 1890s, in which the poet’s travels took him to Harar in Ethiopia, where he became a friend of Ras Makkonon, the father of the future emperor Haile Selassie, and where he settled as a trader (a trader of coffee and weapons, no less; a far cry from his middle class roots in Charleville). He spent ten days, which is indeed roughly 800,000 seconds, within the city’s walls, collecting sounds, investigating native instruments, and researching the poet’s time in that place. From these samples, sources and ideas he stitched together a soundtrack which is comprised of two long drone-based pieces, the second of which explicitly references the title of one of Rimbaud’s most famous works, his symbolist poem entitled “Le Dormeur Du Val” or “The Sleeper In the Valley”.

That piece is actually the one which is most reminiscent of the set from the aforementioned Touch show, being constructed entirely from von Hauswolff’s collection of oscillators, and demonstrating a similar kind of sonic architecture. It starts off with a 60Hz electrical hum, before this is joined by a succession of pristine, overlapping sine waves at increasingly high frequencies. This creates a three-dimensional sound space that I can happily spend some time wandering around, exploring the different levels and the intersections, noticing the changes that occur when I move around the room I’m listening to it in (the effect is lost on headphones, naturally). Under all of this appears a quiet, low-pitched buzzing which quickly reveals itself to be morse code, which would have been commonly used at the time Rimbaud was in Harar to carry radio messages. And the message being carried is actually the text of The Sleeper In The Valley itself, though it is of course highly unlikely that you’d pick out its tale of the unravelling of a soldier’s life, from an introduction “foaming with light” and warmth, through to a cold sleep which is finally revealed in the denouement to be a bloody, watery death, all couched in a language of grass, flowers, and herbs, even when the drones fade into silence to leave just the dots and dashes. It seems at first listen to be a particularly futile attempt to communicate, across great expanses of time and distance.

The other piece, “Day And Night” is in three sections, and is constructed quite differently. Instead of his oscillators, Von Hausswolff uses the sound of a krar (an Ethiopian lyre) to produce the drone, bowing at it rather than plucking or strumming, while field recordings from Harar are interspersed throughout.  It begins with the warmth of “Day”, a sonorous low note being joined by a bustle of natural activity: the chirp of crickets, the buzz of bees, the voices of Ethiopian children, the sound of plants being caressed by wind. These all vanish to leave just the stillness of the krar, and the piece takes a darker and colder turn when the “Night” section begins with a constant dripping, which is actually the sound of leaking taps in von Hausswolff’s hotel room, an initially puzzling choice of sample. The intensity edges up to dramatic levels during the closing section, which gradually layers on increasingly high bowed notes to create a jarring chord, a horrible shriek of alarm, a musical “Alas!”. Taken as a continuous whole, it seems to be a subtle musical symbolist reading of “The Sleeper In the Valley”, from life, sunshine and optimism through stillness, and the gradual, horrifying realisation of just what that dripping must represent. When this is understood, the following morse code-based track takes on a different tone altogether, as if it’s a transmission from that very particular border area, the afterlife, perhaps even a communication accidentally captured via one of von Hausswolff’s Electronic Voice Phenomena devices, a voice of the dead hidden amongst radio static. Once again, from sources of such seeming simplicity, he has created something remarkably resonant.

Sohrab – A Hidden Place


For we are all, like swimmers in the sea,
Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate,
Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.
And whether it will heave us up to land,
Or whether it will roll us out to sea,
Back out to sea, to the deep waves of death,
We know not, and no search will make us know;
Only the event will teach us in its hour.

The Shahnameh (Tales Of Kings) is the poem by Ferdowski from around 1000AD which interweaves the history and myths of Greater Iran in its 60,000 verses. One section of the epic poem is devoted to the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab, in which a young warrior of mixed Tartar/Persian descent goes into battle against the Persians. He ultimately comes up against his own father, who does not recognise him as his own, and who mortally wounds him with a spear. It is a tale which has obvious attractions for the displaced, the unwanted, those who do not belong. It was turned into an opera by Loris Tjeknavorian, a man who was born in Armenia, and who spent his formative years in Iran, but then exited pre-Revolution to live in Austria and the US. The latest artist signed to Touch is a twenty-six year old unquiet heart from Tehran named Sohrab, after the character from Ferdowski’s poem. Touch say that he “like so many, is displaced within his own country and occupies a similar internal cultural isolation”. The intolerance of musical performance in Iran in particular – his only gig prior to a recent Touch-sponsored event in Berghain being broken up by the Iranian police – understandably make Sohrab feel that he does not belong there. In fact, while he managed to assemble the album there, he is no longer in Iran, having since been geographically displaced to Berlin, where he is claiming political asylum.

The whole issue of Sohrab’s displacement inevitably takes on more significance when you hear his debut release A Hidden Place. As a piece of experimental electronic music, perhaps predictably it doesn’t sound recognisably like the product of Iran. But then again it doesn’t sound much like the product of any particular culture, country or scene. One thing you can say is that it somehow manages to resemble a Touch release or, more accurately, several Touch releases. The combination of field recordings with electronic soundscapes is perhaps most reminiscent of Biosphere, at least Biosphere in Geir Jenssen’s earlier more percussion-free days. Opening track “Susanna” trickles into view like a stream over smooth pebbles, its gently ebbing rhythm gradually being carried into increasingly expansive spaces. However as the piece progresses, odd noises emerge from deep in the mix, noises which sound like garbled snatches of communications, like misfiring mobile phone reception or even glitchy cable TV reception. These feature even more prominently, along with some harsh electronic hum, on “Pedagogicheskaya Poema” a track which is texturally more like BJ Nilsen’s Invisible City, an album which sketched an unidentifiable city through its networks rather than through its inhabitants themselves.

But it isn’t the rhythms or the textures which linger in the mind most: it is the moods, or rather the contrasts between the moods. A Hidden Place is at times quietly optimistic, but more often it feels pessimistic, even threatened. Around each and every neon-lit corner there is a shadow and a tangible mood of fear. The title track is a disconcertingly barren, wind-swept plain, only interrupted half way through by some yelling – perhaps excited, perhaps panicked – voices; the only time that the recognisably human intervenes on this otherwise conspicuously deserted album (the album’s artwork adds to this feeling of abandonment, with its photos of derelict buildings and empty, dark corridors). This isn’t even its most jarring moment: that belongs to the two seconds of scabrous static in the middle of the otherwise merely mildly menacing “Pedagogicheskaya Poema”, two seconds which make little sense in the context of their immediate surroundings, two seconds which feel like they have been excised and dropped in from elsewhere, a sudden and severe displacement which serves to remind the listener that nothing about where this record comes from or is going to can be taken for granted. It could be said that, as a result of all of these sudden switches in mood, A Hidden Place is slightly lacking in a sense of its own identity. But isn’t that, after all, where we came in?

The album finally bleeds onto the shore, scattering birds as it does, with the melancholic, echoing chord progressions of “Zarrin”. However, it is unclear at present where Sohrab will wash up. As I write, he is spending the festive period in a refugee camp in Brandenburg. He possesses some limited freedoms, the means to communicate, and the means to continue making music. What he is not in possession of is his own destiny, his fate being in the hands of the German authorities. I hope for a peaceful ending to to this particular stanza, and that he is able to build on the considerable promise shown in A Hidden Place.

Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil’d circuitous wanderer – till at last
The long’d-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.

Philip Jeck, An Ark For The Listener (Touch)

An Ark For The Listener

The SS Deutschland set off from Bremerhaven, Germany, on 4 December 1875. Headed for New York via Southampton, it ran aground in a blizzard on the Kentish Knock, a shoal situated about 30 miles east of the Thames estuary. 78 of its passengers died when the ship broke up in the storm, including five Franciscan nuns who were fleeing Germany after the passing of the anti-Catholic Falk laws (the graves of four of those can be found in Leytonstone cemetery, only a few miles from the parish in which I currently sit). The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (who lived in Hampstead, a couple of miles in the other direction), wrote a poem on the subject almost immediately after its sinking. Hopkins’s biography is a fascinating one; he converted to Catholicism seemingly as an extreme response to his own homosexual impulses. On conversion he burned all of his previous work, and stopped writing for seven years before he was moved to write The Wreck Of The Deutschland. The poem is famous for its innovations in metre and rhythm, but the content is equally startling. It takes him 12 stanzas to even mention the boat (yes yes, I’ll get to the album soon), never mind the nuns; the entire first part being a celebration of Christian faith. The work is dedicated to “the happy memory of five Francisan nuns”; Hopkins’ faith meaning that the drowning of the nuns is in some way as much to be celebrated as the survival of so many others (actually, their fates are deemed barely worthy of a mention). So here we have an innovative work with themes of religion, death, rebirth, joy, sorrow, and, of course, water. Enter Philip Jeck. Continue reading

Eleh, Location Momentum (Touch)

Location MomentumObservations

The front cover of Location Momentum has a ghostly image in night-vision purple, somewhere between folds of fabric and coils of smoke. Suitably dark and mysterious, it straddles the barrier between the tangible and intangible, between the real and the imagined, much in the manner of the sound it contains. The twelfth release by the individual lurking behind the Eleh name – and you’ve got to wonder just how much longer they can keep up the secrecy – is a continuation down the same path right into the heart of analogue sound. Except that he/she has chosen for the first time to release it on a digital format. The honour of releasing the first ever Eleh CD falls fittingly to sonic obsessives Touch, who also released his/her Observations and Momentum on a split LP late last year.

The change in format feels like some sort of concession to the listener, permitting deeper inspection of the precise application of Eleh’s modus operandi, revealing fresh levels of detail amongst these drones. The preferred method of listening to Eleh is, as ever, to play it loud, letting the waves flood in and fill the space. The sound takes on physical form, a towering structure that the listener can explore at leisure. And what a structure it is: opening piece “Heleneleh” feels like an entire church, with the millisecond after the organist has stopped playing stretched out to twenty minutes. The reverberations shift and mutate at a speed that even death would consider a bit on the unhurried side, occasionally vibrating nearby objects (in my room? In that church of my imagination? Just in my imagination?), causing them to shiver and groan. After this meditative magnificence, the hard hand on the volume control of “Linear To Circular/Vertical Axis” feels particularly brutal, snapping the track into equally-sized but entirely different-sounding slices. Recent Eleh releases have started to hint at an interest in not just sonic phenomena, but in the sonic phenomena of nature itself. “Circle One: Summer Transcience” takes some of the high-pitched insect-like chirp last heard on Retreat/Return and sets it amongst the most gentle gasps of wind, before these mutate into sinister-sounding gaseous hisses on “Observation Wheel”. Such interests make his/her – and I’ll tire of writing that before too many more releases – current relocation to the Touch stable, where they will share hay with the likes of Chris Watson and BJ Nilsen, seem all the more appropriate.

The release of this collection of microscopic events is an event in itself, for given that this will be the first full Eleh album not given a hideously-limited release, it is likely to be the starting point for many. It is an excellent introduction to someone who has risen with utmost stealth and secrecy to a position of pre-eminence in his/her (sigh) field, for there is no-one else who can make so little sound like so so much.