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Touch at 30- A feel for sound, an ear for vision [2012-10-30]

It’s hard enough to think of an independent label that has lasted thirty years, yet alone one that has consistently behaved like a curator of modern art, publishing pioneering work that goes far beyond mere entertainment with an uncompromising regard for sound as the equal of any visual or literary medium for artistic expression. From its audio-visual magazines of the early eighties that juxtaposed electronic experiments with what is now known as world music, through the sonic rituals of the post-punk underground, to today’s polyglot parade of rarefied recordings, Touch seems stronger than ever.
As its 30th birthday celebrations draw to an imminent close with their biggest event yet in London in early December, Musique Machine chats with co-founder Mike Harding (MH) to try to find out the secrets behind Touch’s peerless (though much imitated) prowess in the fields of music, art and design.

Happy birthday and congratulations on Touch reaching its third decade!

4th decade, actually (smart-arse, me), but thank you!

In that time, with several recessions combined with the so-called digital revolution, so many labels, distributors and record shops had to cease operations. However, instead of merely enduring, Touch feels like it’s in a rude health and growing with ever more abundant crops year after year – what’s your secret?

No secrets really. I think it is because the core values and ideas underpinning Touch work in any cultural and economic environment… and since many labels are unashamedly amateur, and healthily so, run by fans of the music primarily, it appears that with a modicum of economic organisation, Touch appears to be more professional. But actually we have run Touch like a cottage industry for all of our history - low overheads, for example. We still see ourselves as a small label, so we remain flexible and can bend to the winds of change.

Does it feel harder now, though, to bend in the current winds compared to any previous period/s in Touch’s 30 years?

MH:I would say it’s a bit easier, perhaps because we are more in control of our destiny, to some extent. Against this there is the speed of change and the constant nagging feeling we are being manipulated by the technology companies, who are holding back and drip-feeding us with the latest stuff...

Over the years you have been clear in positioning Touch as a curator, or an “art project” but “not a record company” and, as such, you don’t accept unsolicited demos. How would you describe your curatorial style? What criteria and methods do you tend to use to discover new work?

Totally instinctive on my part… I think Jon also feels that we have to be moved in some way by what is on offer… that can take multiple forms, of course, but it’s got to be in the gut on some level...

In what ways do you and co-founder Jon Wozencroft most differ and how does this affect your working relationship?

We have quite different personalities, of course, and complement each other in many ways. Someone described me once as fire and earth to Jon's air and water - I knew what they meant, but of course these kinds of observations obscure as much as they reveal. We just don't have the resources for any A&R, and we have taken several decades to build up a roster we are now very comfortable with.

With Touch’s reputation for largely electronic music allied with a strong, consistent visual framework based around Jon’s photography and typography, how have you adapted to digitisation that has so strongly affected both design and music production over the past fifteen or so years? Have the implications felt more of a threat than an opportunity? Have you observed any parallels between the way the two disciplines (design and music) have been affected?

MH:We dispute that our reputation is largely for electronic music. Where does that leave Chris Watson? Hildur Gudnadottir? Jana Winderen? Philip Jeck? And even BJNilsen? But this is a hugely complicated area and I suggest you come to the daytime events during the Atmospheres 4 in December - this is exactly what we will be talking about…

One of the things which has changed has been the method of production. In the 1980s we had a close relationship with our manufacturers, especially the printers. We were always pleased to attend the actual printing process and make adjustments, sometimes small but crucial, in the printing process. If something could be improved or was not working, we could make decisions on the spot, which was a great luxury. Now this is simply not possible. The production by remote which we have now is strangely unsatisfying. We have always tried to use local manufacturers, but this is getting much harder now, so we sometimes manufacture in a different country, which does not suit us very well, I'm sad to say. But so too has design changed with the arrival of the desktop computer. Gone are the days of time-consuming and exacting paste up and preparation for camera-ready artwork - and it shows… It’s impossible to recreate the layered effect in computer design.

I quite agree. I feel it also means some (or, perhaps, most) designers without experience of pre-DTP technologies work strictly and unquestioningly within the parameters established by leading software of the day (Quark, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign), ultimately making things look the same, albeit consistent and “professional”. Are today’s true creatives the developers of such software and could the same be said for the production of the music itself? Does it matter?

MH:This raises fundamental issues about what 'creativity' means and how it can be appropriate today. I remember asking an American artist what sort of artist she was, and she replied: “I use Photoshop”. These days anyone can call themselves an artist, and be perceived to be creative. But for me, there is no choice about whether you are or not. It's what gets you out of bed and drives you on. Maybe there's a gene... now there's a thought!

You recently introduced the New York wing of Touch’s 30th birthday events remarking that there were “no computers in sight” among the various performers’ set-ups. In view of this and the recent revivals of both cassette and vinyl formats does it feel like things might be changing again? In previous interviews both you and Jon have cited the post-punk environment of the late-seventies, early-eighties as being key in encouraging you to release music – the period’s DIY ethic forging successful distribution networks that enabled the likes of Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire to flourish – is there any evidence to suggest that we might we see similar structures again?

MH:No. Things are fundamentally different. Digitisation and The Internet has totally altered the experience of production, distribution and 'consumption'. Also, now that we have got over the laptop bubble, musicians are seeking a much wider palette - its back to where it ought to - anything is fair game in the avant-garde.

Throughout the history of experimental electronic music the role of academia has been essential in developing new technologies and approaches to sound. Touch seems to have developed strong links with universities: both you and Jon are lecturers with Jon currently senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, while you have been speaking and conducting workshops at various ivory towers around the globe. How important is academia to Touch? What role does it play?

There has always been strong crossover between academia and culture…  for obvious political reasons.

But has academia grown as a source of (or a set of signposts to) new blood for Touch in recent years, perhaps?

MH:Not really... I think any response from that world has issued because we now have a history, and therefore a perspective which is important to students... it wasn't long ago that we left the analogue world (although CEEFAX has only just been turned off) and it’s important that students realise that what seems to them maybe fundamentally revolutionary may not actually be so. I think the period when electricity arrived at the end of the 19th Century was a far more radical time given the effect it had on so many different areas of life.

You started TouchRadio in 2005 which has continued to provide between six and thirteen free and exclusive recordings per year drawn from your roster (and beyond). As much of this output matches the quality of your fully-fledged releases, do you ever feel that you might be giving it away or has it made a noticeable difference in raising the label’s profile?

That's an interesting question and it may still be too early to judge. I think the role of curating again works here - I would suggest that the episodes which are published complement the body of commercial work by any given artist. In other words, TouchRadio is a portal for folks to explore further. And since it now has a permanent home at the British Library as a "named collection", then it no doubt suits researchers and academics who may need to discover what is there and use it as a permanent reference point.

These days all your releases are mastered by one man, Denis Blackham – why is this?

MH:Not QUITE true, but pretty much… for us, Denis has the mastering instincts, skills and techniques which suit the sounds we present him for mastering. But bear in mind that every job is different and each album or release has different requirements. He approaches each task in hand with respect to the source material and doesn't try to make everything sound the same.

With all the changes in music formats – tape to vinyl to CD to mp3 to 5.1 etc. – and the way this affects the mode of listening – mono speaker to stereo speakers to headphones to multi-channel sound environment – what would you suggest is the ideal listening environment for Touch’s releases?

It purely depends on the intention of the artist… it’s pretty pointless listening to Ryoji Ikeda on iTunes, or Jana Winderen and Chris Watson, for that matter. If the recordings were made at an extremely high sampling rate, then what is the point of compressing the sound right down and omitting frequencies which the artist intend to be present?

Ideally, how would you have your listeners behave, though? I’m thinking that the sorts of music on Touch are, in a way, the inverse of ambient music, where full attention and engagement with the sound is required, as opposed to the more common applications of music: to have it on in the background while working, traveling, reading, doing the ironing etc. And, in an ideal world, would you have a preferred playback system that ensured all those intended frequencies get transmitted?

I can only speak for myself; I am still taken by surprise when I hear a Touch release out of my normal context... I engage a different aspect of my brain then and you may be right; it is not ambient, but it can be and can work in that environment... I think one of the reasons we have hung around so long is because of the longevity of the work, both audio and visual.

One specific issue I can address is multi-channel work; if, say, Chris Watson or Jana Winderen prepare a piece for multi-channel then it seems pretty pointless to play it back in stereo... so we discuss the format, space and playback options when required... and then, of course, someone asks for a mp3 version for their website and we have to say, it’s not possible... this doesn’t work in two channels at low res audio... it’s a learning curve for many.

Chris Watson is one of your longest serving artists and focuses purely on field recordings, while many other artists on your roster either do similar or incorporate sounds from the natural world into their music. Why do you think such sounds have become so vital for composers these days?

MH:Part of the reason is access - the technology for this discipline has altered immeasurably recently. The equipment is smaller and lighter and therefore more portable. Where before you needed a truck and a portable generator, now batteries and feet suffice.

The vast majority of your artists are male. Why do you think there is such a disproportionate amount of females working in experimental electronic music?

MH:Historically that is true in all professions - and it is changing fast.

You recently mentioned you’re “involved in drama” – what sort of work is this, theatre or film, perhaps?

Advisory at this stage - my partner is a writer, but I also get the occasional opportunity to have some influence over the sound design of, say, a radio or tv drama. I would, of course, like to do more…

How has the licensing of Touch Music to theatre, tv, film etc. grown over the years?

It has and is now an important part of the artists' economy. We have had requests from independent film makers, such as Lynn Ramsay, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier, The Royal Ballet (London), Terrence Malik, Morgan Matthews and long may it continue...

Have you noticed any particular patterns and what’s the most surprising request/s you have had?

No patterns that I can discern. The surprises for me are when we are not asked for something which is totally suitable... Fennesz was used on a trailer for a Hollywood movie, but not in the actual movie itself, which seems bonkers to me...

You grew up near Avebury and its standing stones and long barrows, and Jon recently hinted that you were both involved in investigating the possibilities of stone circles having been built with intentional acoustic properties. How is this work panning out and will you be sharing any results or outputs from it in the near future?

Watch this space! Some of Jon's work is published on the website

Touch’s 30th birthday celebrations are due to conclude with a two-day festival in London in December. Can you give us a bit of a preview of what to expect?

MH:We are curating and hosting two full days at Beaconsfield in London on December 5th and 6th and we have a fantastic and exciting line up… It might be best for your readers to follow a hyperlink for more details - - but we have 3 main performances per evening, including Fennesz, Biosphere, Thomas Köner and others, and in the daytime various events, panels, talks and so on… It’s far and away the biggest live event we have ever hosted… Don't miss it!

How do you envisage the next thirty years for Touch?

Ask me in 30 years time...


Many thanks to Mike for taking the time to answer our many questions.

All information on Touch’s activities, past and present can be found here:

Photo credits: Blurred picture of Mike Harding in a subway taken by Sandra Jasper. All other pictures by Jon Wozencroft, all of which have  been used on past Touch releases

Russell Cuzner
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