California Dreaming: The Underlying, by sound artist Bethan Kellough and light breaker, by the anonymous venoztks, offer two very different sonic impressions of California.
For Kellough’s contribution to Touch’s Displacing subscription service, that impression was informed by field recordings made at the edge of Salton Sea, not far from the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mexico border. We hear birds, insects and a gently unfolding natural ambience, but we also hear an undercurrent of something darker – the drones and white noise from a nearby geothermal power station. The power source, heralded as one of several sustainable alternatives to traditional oil and gas, is nevertheless obtrusive and impactful on the environment that surrounds the power plant.
Kellough’s sleight of hand is to take those two sets of sounds – the delicate vibrancy of nature and the omnipresent hum of the power station as she approaches it – and augment them with a sensitive arrangement of sounds that somehow resonate much closer to the choruses of birds and insects than the mechanical interjections of the power stations.
light breaker is the latest missive from venoztks, an artist who doesn’t so much operate at the margins but within the interstitial frequencies of shortwave radio. The fifty-minute piece that light breaker consists of (‘Indent’) is structured from captured radio recordings – voices overheard as fragmentary mid-conversation non sequiturs, howling white noise, brittle static and resonant bass sounds that ebb and flow as menacing slow-motion pulses. The effect is like listening to an intense analogue synthesiser improvisation, but everything you hear came from the radio and the manipulation of its dials.
As well as being an intriguing, absorbing listen from the outer edges of found sound, the album also acts as a highly effective sonic screen. I found myself listening to this while undertaking an array of tedious domestic chores, where the barrage of abrasive, sculpted sounds and found drones also provided a useful means of drowning out the tedious mumbly hip-hop music that my wife was playing far too loudly elsewhere in the house.
The Underlying by Bethan Kellough was released August 27 2021 by Touch. light breaker by venoztks was released August 26 2021.
As things like self-isolation and social distancing became phrases and concepts the majority of the world has quickly become accustomed to, it’s been the art of the hasty pivot that has characterised lockdown: businesses that relied on face-to-face interactions suddenly thrust themselves into the hitherto unknown territory of digital engagement, restaurants suddenly offered take-out where they previously relied on seated diners, wholesale retailers suddenly became direct-to-customer operations; we have moved from the need to see, touch and meet people to drinking espresso and gin over video conference, walking in the middle of the road to bypass another pedestrian walking toward you, and following authoritarian one-way systems around supermarkets. None of this we could have conceived of a few months ago, yet we are now all – mostly – suddenly expert.
The way we consume and enjoy music was almost immediately disrupted by the measures governments put in place. Gigs and festivals were cancelled; release dates got put back; pressing plants shut down; critical calendar entries like Record Store Day were postponed; venues were almost immediately shuttered. These are existential events for artists, bands, labels, designers and the countless individuals and businesses that support the music industry.
In response, all manner of COVID-19 projects quickly sprang up: compilation releases to support frontline essential workers; isolation playlists were hastily assembled, often comprising lots of soothing ambient music; live-streamed solo bedroom gigs delivered your favourite artist into your front room; noodling Soundcloud tracks appeared with high velocity, the product of idle fingers, a need for expression, boredom and the advantage of a broadband connection.
One very special and highly distinctive project to emerge from this is Touch: Isolation, announced last week by Touch. “The pack of COVID-19 cards came down quite quickly, and we wanted to respond to some immediate problems many of our artists were experiencing,” says Jon Wozencroft, who founded the label 38 years ago, later bringing in Mike Harding to work with him.
Available through Bandcamp for a minimum £20 subscription, all of which is divided up among its contributors, Touch: Isolation consists of at least twenty tracks from Touch artists, each one mastered by Denis Blackham – that, in itself, an example of the label’s dependable obsession with quality presentation despite the speed with which the project was conceived and realised. At the time of writing, releases have already come through from Jana Winderen, Chris Watson, Bana Haffar, Mark Van Hoen and Richard Chartier with tracks incoming from Howlround, Claire M Singer, Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi, Philip Jeck, Carl Michael von Hausswolff and others who have issued released material through Touch.
“By the nature of what we do, it’s quite hand-to-mouth,” Wozencroft continues. “For Mike and I, the project is also a declaration of intent in a personal sense because we’ve both been experiencing some highs and lows in recent months.” Those lows are self-evident and are common to most of us, yet uniquely personalised to our own lives; the Touch highs include recent releases like Eleh’s brilliant Living Space, nurturing new artists on the label and Hildur Gudnadottir‘s success at the Oscars. Wozencroft justifiably calls it the “culmination of years of collaboration and shared ambition”. The idea of Touch going on hiatus just because normal life has been paused would thus have been a terrible, terrible notion.
“Between Mike and I it was kind of a Eureka decision to step ahead and do this,” he continues. “In effect, we pressed the switch in the third week of March and in no time we had a strong response from almost everyone we asked.”
A critical signifier of Touch has always been Wozencroft’s photographic accompaniment to the imprint’s releases, which presented a challenge for Touch: Isolation. “I had to think hard about how the Isolation series could be given a visual counterpoint, given the lockdown restriction,” he says. The result is a series of photographs of trees, leaves, pools, each one of something strangely quotidian yet now, thanks to the lockdown, mostly off limits; each one was taken on March 25 on Hampstead Heath’s West Heath and Golder’s Hill areas, just as the lockdown began.
“I’d been going to Hampstead Heath since being a teenager growing up in North London,” Wozencroft continues. “It was always a special trip, and so it was a challenge to make this familiar space reflect a certain unreality; the suspended state of beauty in the full gleam of the recent sunshine. But also its rarity and rawness as an urban environment in the current conditions. I was also remembering the damage of the Great Storm of 1987 – seeing the evidence of regeneration and a landscape transformed, and that sense of faith in the future.
“For me,” he concludes, “it’s about hope and detail, the hidden and its brilliance.”