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.

Thomas Köner – Motus – Motus Operandi

For the sake of argument, let’s say there are two fundamental styles to musician and installation artist Thomas Köner’s body of work. On the one hand, there’s his low-frequency soundscape material, best represented by the shockingly prescient, early ’90s arctic trilogy, Nunatak, Teimo, and Permafrost. (1997’s Nuuk could be easily folded into that group as well).1 These are extraordinary, almost psychic renderings of brutal, unforgiving landscapes not normally conducive to human habitation, music that is creepy, comfortless, and convincing in its authenticity. Köner’s early sound – rumbling, chthonic drones, menacing pulses, and metallic swells, all impeccably recorded – was developed here, and it’s astonishing to listen to any of these albums now and realize how profoundly influential that sound has been. Nunatak, for example, was released in 1990 and it sounds comparable to anything of its ilk coming out today only much, much better.

Untitled (Track Three) – Thomas Köner – from Nunatak

On the other hand, there’s Porter Ricks, the minimalist dub techno outfit Köner operates with Andy Mellwig. Their first album, the also hugely influential Biokinetics, built from long, looping, layered club tracks, was released on Chain Reaction back in 1996, and helped establish the aesthetic for everything that was to follow on that legendary label. Twenty years later, Porter Ricks released the Shadow Boat EP on Tresor and then the full length Anguilla Electrica in 2017. Where Biokinetics feels thematically and stylistically unified if also the product of a particular period in time, these later works feel both updated and diversified. Energetic, edgy, even at times slinky and sexy, they stand, with Biokinetics, in considerable opposition to Köner’s solo work.2  

“Shadow Boat” – Porter Ricks – from Shadow Boat EP

Yet if there’s something besides Köner himself that connects these two approaches, it exists in the form of the unheimlich, the unsettling, unexpected touches and effects that he secretes into so much of his music. Squelching, rubbery, tactile sounds, unnervingly present, juxtaposed with off-kilter rhythms riding steady beats. Strategically placed incursions of gritty, fizzing, smudged, or serrated effects that provide oddly sensual texture and surprise. Choices that seem inappropriate when you first encounter them but that when you listen to them again seem absolutely right.

Köner’s latest album, Motus, on the Mille Plateaux label, presents an innovative synthesis of his moves toward both sonic topography and the dance floor.

It’s a murky, mysterious thing, full of secrets, contradictions, and questions. The cover art alone might tip you off to all that, but if that’s not enough, the eight track titles further mystify, coming off like a match test with no right answers:

EXTENSION (Attack)

COGITATION (Decay)

POTENTIAL (Sustain)

EXPRESSION (Release)

SUBSTRATE (Binaural)

OSCILLATOR (Luminous)

SUBSTANCE (Suicide)

SYNTHESIS (Carnal)

It’s like a smoke screen designed to push you toward concentrating on the music. As for the music, the steady submerged rhythms here and there represent the Porter Ricks style but the unrelenting, churning, earthbound atmosphere put it in Köner’s soundscape camp, only the terrain explored here seems purely speculative. As for the unheimlich, this music throbs and gyrates and mutates on a cellular level. It’s from this world but not of it – you feel it beneath your skin like a subdermal merging of a subway system with your lymphatic system. It’s hard to single out individual tracks as highlights because the whole thing coheres so completely that to isolate one unit of it feels like vivisection, but the longer tracks, EXPRESSION (Release) and SUBSTRATE (Binaural), work to really pull you in and rearrange your chi. (Unfortunately, I’m unable to load any tracks from this album.)

The first time I heard Motus, it slipped right by me. I wasn’t focused – I wasn’t listening – and it wasn’t grasping at me either. It just was and it was up to me to come around to it. Now that I get it, I find more and more in it each time I listen.

FOOTNOTES:

1. I also feel compelled to mention 2012’s Novaya Zemlya, named after an inhabited island off the north Russian coast that served as a nuclear test site. This recording presents another hostile soundscape, one poisoned by human interference. A subliminally quiet album – though not without its shakingly subterranean depths – and a beautiful one, Novaya Zemlya is a continuation and expansion of Köner’s unique approach to soundscapes, and highly recommended.

2. To those of you already familiar with Köner’s oeuvre, I’m aware of the absence here of a number of his works: La Barca, Tiento de las nieves and Tiento de la luz, for instance, as well as Kaamos, Zyklop, and Daikan. There’s much to say about all of them. Perhaps some other time.

Soundtrack for an Empty City: A playlist

Before getting off the bus, I take a look around to see if anyone else has been riding with the driver and me for the last twenty minutes.

There’s just one more, a mountain of a man asleep in the back, taking up two seats. His legs are open wide and his head is tilted into the corner behind him. His jaw hangs low as if he were asleep in his living room. From the looks of him, he should be snoring but he’s not.

We’re at the last stop, the stop where the driver usually tells everyone to clear off, but tonight he doesn’t say a word. Then again, there’s a yellow plastic chain separating him from the rest of the bus, so I don’t know if he’s actually said something. That, and he’s got a mask over half his face.

Approaching the curb, I look up for traffic. I already know there probably won’t be any cars, just food delivery people wrapped from head to toe silently whipping past on e-bikes.

But there is one guy, short, thick, jacketless, with a Ray Davies “Come Dancing”-era comb-back. He’s standing in the bike lane of all places when there’s nothing but empty space around, yelling into his phone:

“I TOLD YOU, YOU CAN CHANGE EVOLUTION.”

Any other day, I would’ve let the moment pass. But with everything about city life that on a person-to-person level I’ve grown accustomed to – taken for granted even – suddenly gone, the indie movie cliché of the crackpot with a leaky theory about what’s really going on around here, man, stood out. Behold, your newly unemployed security guard, losing his shit with nobody around to notice or care.

I do that city thing though, and keep walking.

I turn the corner by the bank and head to Cooper Square plaza, a space that’s usually busy with skate boarders, pot-smoking bike messengers, residents like me walking to or from work, folks out for the night.

There’s nobody around. A fresh breeze gusts from the south and smells surprisingly clean. Less traffic, less pollution: one silver lining. Without all the headlights and ambient light from apartments and restaurants, the traffic and street lights glow with an almost sentient intensity. It’s beautiful. All of it. The silence, the surrounding darkness, the emptiness.

Beneath all of this is a horror story. And as I walk, I see ambulances parked mid-block on every other street, with warning lights whipping and flashing…

This playlist is an attempt to reflect some of the uncertainty permeating the city. The feelings of abandonment, of isolation and fear and doubt. It’s also an attempt to catch some of the unintended beauty revealed in the wake of all the people who have gone inside or gone away or gone missing.

I miss them. I miss us. In some way, I’ll miss this version of the city when it’s gone. Yet I can’t wait for all of this to be 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.

drøne – The Stilling – Shattered Atlas

It makes sense that it starts in medias res, with a welter of traffic noise and an amplified voice in the distance singing indistinctly. Up close you can make out snatches of laughter and echoing crowd sounds, the rumble of panning engines and blatting horns. We’re indoors and outdoors. In a market. At a festival. Or perhaps it’s just another day in the thrumming city. And while one listens, trying to get bearings, a drone slowly builds – a low tone and a high tone in the same key. Something that sounds like a teletype machine kicks in, getting louder as it goes, while under that a static-choked voice mumbles on a radio. Then suddenly we’re in a restaurant, with the random ding of a delivery bell (or a bicycle bell?), a woman’s voice taking orders, perhaps, or chatting with a customer, and the gentle rattle of what sounds like a register drawer. The drone, however, is still there, hovering, menacing.

Then it’s all shredded by an unidentifiable blast and we’re somewhere else entirely.

Welcome to The Stilling, the latest album from drøne, aka Mark Van Hoen and Mike Harding.

The Stilling is a work you submit to. A bricolage of locations and dislocations, moods and moments made from decontextualized field recordings, radio static, and synthesized sounds that stretch and bend and build until they collapse, then rebuild or mutate or disappear altogether. Here and there, a compact string section provides keening emotional counterpoint that contributes to the anxious psychic states that Van Hoen and Harding whip up. As a whole, the effect is disorienting and jarring and altogether mesmerizing.

“Vitula”

I’ve been a follower of Van Hoen’s eclectic output since 1994 when I first heard Weathered Well, an album I still listen to and love. He had a sound that was uniquely his own, but what always grabbed me were his gorgeous melodies. His partner in drøne, Mike Harding, along with Jon Wozencroft, is a founder of the massively influential label Touch, home to forward-thinking, innovative sound artists and musicians, such as Simon Scott, Christian Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, and Hildur Gudnadottir. Chances are I might not be working on this blog if not for the hundreds of hours I’ve happily spent coming to grips with the music and ideas that Touch has exposed me to.

No single track can do justice to the totality of The Stilling and anything taken out of context runs the risk of misrepresentation. Here’s a little more anyway, to give you a taste:

“The Stilling”

If you’re curious, you can try the whole thing here.

While the title refers to the phenomenon of the generalized stilling of the winds around the world – something that may or may not be happening – I think it might also be referring to the need to retreat, to disengage from the apocalyptic vortex of the media in order to still one’s racing mind and heart.

Or, as the artists themselves put it:

Scream – it’s all you can do now. Overwhelming, scatter-gun information delivery has us confused, bowel churningly fearful and appalled at the nature of the changing times. We are biologically, psychologically and emotionally able to cope with slow evolutionary change, but struggle with revolutionary, violent distortion or mutation. This leaves us anxious and even desperate for a firmer footing. Fight or flight.

Or maybe both. The Stilling is an essay of sorts, a take on the fragility of our species, the fragility of our planet, our home. It’s a short run, around 35 minutes, but it will sweep you up and take you to another world that, curiously enough, is somehow still our own.

Simon Scott: Harvesting Sounds

At this point, eight years down the road from the initial release of Simon Scott’s 12k debut, Below Sea Level, it’s ritual that when the first hot days of summer arrive, when the early mornings are submerged in a bit of haze and it’s quiet enough outside my city windows to eliminate distraction or worry, I play the album and luxuriate in the shimmering bliss of it. I know the critics’ favorite word luminous gets pasted over every last person, place, or thing as if they all were emanating some kind of holy spiritual glow, metaphorically speaking at least, but I think this music is actually deserving of it.

Below Sea Level was recorded in part at the Fens, a vast area in England covering nearly 750,000 acres that serves, among other things, as a vital hub for the production of food, owing to its rich, peaty soil. Scott (who also plays with Slowdive) lived near the Fens as a child in the 1970s, and in 2010 returned to it while searching for a new approach to his music making. Over the next two years he wandered the area, laden with recording equipment, capturing everything from the sounds of bird life to ringing echoes inside a drain tunnel to the erratic rhythms of a metal cage around an electrical box buffeted by the wind. He then blended these field recordings with guitar and effects in a studio, then re-recorded those recordings in the fields of the Fens, picking up another layer of ambient sound over mixes played on portable speakers. The result is a fantastic immersion in – and an interpretation of – place, as well as an investigation of music and sound and where the two cross-pollinate.

Sealevel 1

Scott went back to the Fens and came up with a new take on Below Sea Level. Where the first version radiates a bucolic haze around itself over seven tracks ranging in length from five to seven minutes, the update is one extended 34-minute piece that conjures up an uncertain terrain of menacing voltage buzz and whispery static, shot through with clips of staccato bird calls, chittering insects, and the echoing crepitation of trickling water. The presence of humans is more apparent in the new recording (the panning splash of a passing car, the footsteps of Scott himself on dry reeds, the drone of an overhead jet, even the palpable breath of someone’s dog), and it creates a kind of tension that’s markedly absent from the original. It’s the same Fens but from a different point of view, and Scott suggests with both works that a phrase like “the same Fens” doesn’t actually mean much; that in fact it’s too vast, too diverse, too changeable to ever be one single, knowable, quantifiable place. He ends the new version with a return to more of that hazy, insulated, luminous music found on the first recording and it makes for a lovely, dreamy exit.

Cut to the recent conflagration in Australia. Or the continued, rapid disappearance of the polar ice caps. Or the recent floods in Indonesia. It’s clear we’re killing the planet. What can you do, as an artist, with that information in your consciousness, in the face of such an enormous crisis? Keep on doing your art. Especially now.

Scott’s new piece, Emergency Exit, put out on the Touch label, is a haunting two-track EP that’s brief but no less powerful for its brevity. Once again, Scott has gone to the Fens for inspiration, this time to record the sounds of flood waters there as well as the crackle of fire and the warning, echoing cries of birds. Any notion of the “musical” is nearly absent in a conventional sense from Emergency Exit. But the evocation of mood and place is potent. A coarse, corrosive wind blows through, buttressed by hard-to-identify rumblings and elongated moaning sounds. The human presence from before has been replaced by a post-human absence.

Scott is making a point here about the climate crisis and ecological ruin and what stands to be lost as the planet collapses beneath its human burden. The end of the world may have already happened. Like the Fens, it isn’t reducible to a single event. It happens gradually here and there and then all at once and everywhere. Emergency Exit is a document of the process of the ending and of the end. It’s recorded at the Fens but you and I, wherever we might be, are in it too. Give it a listen and get involved.

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