Touch – Isolation – Natural Selection

In the early days of the coronavirus lockdown, Touch launched their Isolation project. In exchange for a nominal subscription fee, Touch began offering bi-weekly emails containing two previously unreleased tracks (and one back-catalogue track) from their line-up of artists.

To anyone familiar with the Touch label, this was something to be excited about.

Now that they’ve reached the end – twenty-eight tracks, totaling three and half hours of music and sound – I can tell you straight: if you can afford to, buy it. Touch is offering the entire collection as a one-off album. To call it a worthwhile investment is to grossly understate its actual value. What they’ve assembled is a both a perfect distillation of their ethos and output as well as an essential compilation for anyone interested in the ways that music and sound engage and hybridize while creating something new in the process.

By purchasing this, you’d also be helping out a lot of artists whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by COVID-19.

Starting in the natural world, Isolation opens with “Surge,” a head-clearingly windswept track from Jana Winderen (whom I’ve written about elsewhere), recorded at a family-owned farm in Sweden where she’s been staying with relatives since the start of the lockdown. (I should mention that it’s worth your time to look up the stories that go along with many of these recordings, all of which can be found on the musicians’ individual Bandcamp pages, and are accompanied by gorgeous photos taken by Touch co-founder Jon Wozencroft.) Chris Watson follows Winderen with the brooding “Gobabeb,” which uses field recordings captured in the Namib Desert in Southwest Africa. Bana Haffar, a new addition to the Touch line-up, is next with “Conference of the Birds,” offering a tense standoff between seething, pulsing static and the simple calls of an array of birds before settling them into an ethereal rapprochement.

And then we’re off, expanding the parameters of approaches to the project. With “Rewilding,” Mark Van Hoen (one half of drøne, a band he shares with Touch co-founder Mike Harding), combines a sub-vocal radio broadcast (intoning such phrases as “Your fundamental nature is beyond your choice…”) with some simple chords on his piano and the wildlife sounds recorded around his house, which had become more pronounced thanks to the lockdown’s reduction of traffic. Next, “Away,” from Richard Chartier seems to eschew any notions of “natural” field recordings altogether by creating, as he’s done in so much of his work, an enveloping, granulated sound that suggests something both empty and teeming. In the process he subtly calls into question ideas about what nature actually is: A swamp? A tended garden? A concept?

Zachary Paul’s “Aeolus” is the epic, heart-rending sound of forty-seven layered violin tracks, and is matched in beauty by the comparatively austere guitar/piano follow-up,  “Kizuna,” from Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And at that point we’re only seven tracks in.

To be honest, this compilation is overwhelming. And I haven’t said a word yet about ELEH or Geneva Skeen or Simon Scott or Oren Ambarchi or UnicaZürn or Bethan Kellough or Strafe F.R. or Philip Jeck or Rosy Parlane or Claire M Singer or Heitor Alvelos or Charlie Campagna – all of whom contribute many more highlights.

To reduce these tracks to bytes or blurbs would be a disservice. They really need to be experienced firsthand. The trouble is – and this is the best sort of trouble – most everything on the compilation is fantastic.

Isolation is a bounteous, polyphonic gift to Touch fans, newcomers to the label, lovers of field recordings, lovers of music, or anyone feeling starved for contact with the world outside. Listen to it straight through. Listen to it in reverse order. Play it loud or dial it down. Anywhere you dive in, you’ll be met with work that’s gritty, smooth, jarring, soothing, warm, cool. I can’t stress enough the rewarding impact of it. I urge you simply to get it. It’s something I know I’ll be returning to long after this lockdown is over.

Jana Winderen – Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone – “New Worlds to Gain”

Touch has just re-issued sound artist Jana Winderen’s Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, a startling and movingly intimate exploration of subaquatic life in the Arctic. And not a moment too soon.

The recording begins with excerpts from an interview with marine scientist and ecologist Carlos Duarte describing what happens during the annual spring bloom in the marginal ice zone of the Arctic, the transitional space “between the open ocean and sea ice,” according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Owing to the general deep freeze and the lack of steady warming sunlight during the winter season in the Arctic, there’s relatively little biological activity beyond extant organisms feeding off leftovers from the preceding season. But starting around February each year, the sun slowly re-emerges, melting off snow cover and thinning out ice, and with that the spring bloom is on. Within a few weeks, ice algae begins to photosynthesize, and diatoms and plankton begin to bloom, depleting the carbon dioxide in the water and creating the largest carbon sink in the biosphere. No small thing, as this also helps sustain life – the phytoplankton alone produces half the oxygen the human race relies on. Through various levels of food chain predation, those diatoms and other organisms ultimately become meals for birds and mammals indigenous to the region. Once stripped of their nutrients, what remains sinks to the ocean floor and is consumed by the organisms there that are in turn fed on by other organisms, and so on.

Life, in other words. Non-human life. Not that the Arctic has evaded the crushing impact of a human touch. It remains to be seen what effect the climate crisis will have on the region but the prognosis is dire. To go back to Duarte, he states near the end of his interview that while the rest of the world is looking at a two-degree threshold for an increase in global temperature as a kind of limit for our chances to contain the effects of global warming, the arctic has already blown past that to become the leading area for developing climate change. He sees the region losing all of its ice in the future, sea ice as well as glaciers on land, with no way to prevent any of it from disappearing. Anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention to news like this knows that dangerous rises in sea levels are just the beginning of what we can expect to come our way…

Rather than collapsing in despair in the face of such information, Winderen captures the sounds of this crackling, chirping, whooping ecosystem in full swing. Moaning seals, singing whales, the sounds of blooming plankton, clicking crustaceans, and melting ice are all pristinely recorded and cast in a multi-dimensional 35-minute symphonic drift. Two versions are offered: a headphone mix and a speaker mix, with slight differences between the two in terms of material. In terms of affect, I’d have to recommend the headphone mix. From the comfort of my chair, it was a unique pleasure to be submerged into the unexpected warmth of the marginal ice zone, a place teeming with life forms I felt sure I could have leaned forward and plucked from the speculative space Winderen opened in front of me. It’s a rich and strange world, well beyond the reach of most of us, so getting contact with it, even in this form, is a rare gift.

And it’s a pleasure to be reminded that we are surrounded by life and mystery, not just greed and cruelty and hopelessness.

The time may already be here when we, as a species, will have to think beyond ourselves when we think about the future. Many of us won’t survive the destruction of the natural world that’s coming. What can we do to ameliorate some of that destruction? To preserve at least some of what makes this place so singular and precious?

Spring Bloom is a work of both inspiring imagination and deep compassion – things that seem to be in dangerously short supply right now. Do yourself a favor and check it out.