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Touch Music: A revolutionary British imprint celebrates 40 years of sublime independence

Written By: 
E. Little
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Touch Music celebrates 40 years with a three day festival at 2220 Arts produced in collaboration with dublab.

Touch Music, notes the company on its website, is “not Touch Records because we are not a record company.” The British imprint, which was founded in 1982 by Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft, is celebrating its 40th anniversary across 2022 – including Touch.40, a three-night event at 2220 Arts+Archive on March 11-13

Current or former home to artists including sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda, guitarist-composer Christian Fennesz, Hafler Trio, Sandoz, Oren Ambarchi, Chris Watson, Philip Jeck, and Phill Niblock, among hundreds of others, Touch releases work that touches on ambient, minimalism, noise, and electronics-driven experimental sound, and has done so with a consistency that’s as impressive as it is singular. 

A music and publishing concern whose passion for their artists is rivaled only by their belief in the importance of creative expression, the label’s philosophy is captured in part of a Touch treatise published on their site:

We have seen the momentous shift from analogue to digital, and the re-exploration of analogue audio by many sound artists, the revival of vinyl and cassettes as a format option for releases; lighter, cheaper equipment and air travel have opened up opportunities for collaborations and field recordings for artists which were not there previously. We have witnessed huge changes in design, production, distribution and point of sale issues as well as the meltdown enabled by digital technology of the supply of artists into the marketplace.

But “Digital ‘freedom’ has actually had the opposite effect; fewer artists can earn a living compared to the 70s and 80s. Even fewer have the opportunity to reach a wider audience with the saturation syndrome of streaming platforms and promotion-based social media. In amongst this swirling effect of confusion, Touch has stayed consistent, with wit, energy and durability, all qualities which creative people need in their lives.”

Here’s Harding, who divides his time between Los Angeles and London, explaining Touch’s mission in a recent interview:

We see ourselves much more as a publisher and we’re publishing editions and the editions can be any format. There doesn’t have to be any sound involved at all. Of course, largely it does involve some kind of recording but it certainly doesn’t have to; we’re not restricted. Hence the name, Touch, is totally open. It doesn’t reveal anything about its format. We’re not Touch Books or Touch records. We’re just Touch.

Below, a few projects connected in one way or another to Touch.

In 2017, Ryoji Ikeda teamed with Red Bull Music Academy to produce A [100 Cars] in Los Angeles. Performed on the top floor of a parking garage in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Ikeda gathered 100 lowriders and “conducted” them playing sine waves through their cars’ massive sound systems. Touch was instrumental in Ikeda’s ascent.

Experimental guitarist Christian Fennesz has long been releasing work through Touch. In 2015, he performed a memorable 45-minute piece as part of a Boiler Room x St. John Sessions live session.

Musician and producer Clare M. Singer performs at Union Chapel, London, in Dec. 2020 on an  organ built by Father Henry Willis in 1877.

Longtime Touch affiliate Anna von Hausswolff’s Pomperipossa Records released this piece by  drøne (Mark Van Hoen and Touch co-founder Mike Harding) alongside this comment: “Scream – it’s all you can do now. Overwhelming, scatter-gun information delivery has us confused, bowel-churningly fearful and appalled at the changing nature of the 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.” 

Touch’s brilliant artist Zachary Paul performed at Zebulon in 2019. This is part of that performance.

This Chris Watson sound piece is a score to a classic British landscape painting by John Constable. The notes on Touch’s YouTube channel explain:

Constable is renowned as one of Britain’s greatest landscape artists. He is known principally for his paintings of Dedham Vale, Suffolk, England, the area where he grew up and now known as “Constable Country”. Never commercially successful in England, when his painting ‘The Hay Wain’ was exhibited in Paris in 1821 it was highly praised and admired. His work greatly influenced the Barbizon school of painters and the French impressionists of the late 19th century. 

On April 8th 1826, Constable sent a large landscape to the Royal Academy. This painting portrayed cornfields, a country lane bordered by trees and a young shepherd with his sheep. Constable referred to it familiarly as ‘The Drinking Boy’: we know it as ‘The Cornfield’, one of his most famous works. 

On Friday 14th May 2010 at The National Gallery, London, Chris presented and performed his soundtrack for the painting “The Cornfield” by John Constable.

Below is the official flier for Touch.40. 

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