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Colm McAuliffe , November 19th, 2012 08:53

We talk to the label's founders about their upcoming 30th anniversary mini-festival

Touch.30 Live at Beaconsfield

Since 1982, Touch has curated a remarkable and inspiring body of work, ranging from audio-visual texts to music from Chris Watson and Fennesz and Phill Niblock among others, combining the output of an independent record label with documenting and challenging the flow from analogue to digital and providing a context for a critique of the wider cultural age. Defiantly not a record-label, founding members Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding are about to celebrate their thirty years of existence with a two-day mini-festival at the Beaconsfield venue in south London on December 5-6. The event features talks, performances and screenings from Thomas Köner, Jon Savage, People Like Us’ Vicki Bennett and many more luminaries associated with Touch.

This year has already seen a range of events in honour of the anniversary across Europe and the US and I visited Touch HQ in Balham to discuss with Wozencroft, Harding and John Kieffer (who is assisting Touch with their 30th anniversary) the two day event, the origins and the defining ethos behind their vision.

The Beaconsfield event is very much the culmination of not just the year’s celebrations but also serves to bring together some of the key artists in Touch’s thirty year history. Can you elaborate on the events at the festival?

Mike Harding: Well, Fennesz is working on some new stuff for the event itself. With Philip Jeck you never know what he’ll do, but there's always a reference within his work to what's going on around him. CM von Hausswolff and Biosphere are headlining on the second night…

Jon Wozencroft: Biosphere will be doing a new piece that we worked on in Seattle which was a premiere - he's used this as a transfiguration of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and it's really amazing. It's somehow both expressive of our desire for him to move towards a more classical idiom but at the same time it's got this fantastic beat on it. It starts like a dance rhythm and slowly wanders into this very strange string sample and cut-up/fucked-up atonal, one long piece. And then we've got this set of audio interventions [featuring Bruce Gilbert, Edwin Pouncey, among others], some of which are scripted, and others not. Throughout the daytime sessions, we're going to try and create this seminar/café society atmosphere around two major developments: firstly, how digital platforms have affected music and secondly, the relationship between visual culture and music which is, of course, one of our big things and I've persuaded Peter Saville to join us for that.

Mike Harding: Also we’ve got Denis Blackham talking to Fennesz about digital mastering with specific reference to the Venice album. And there's a multi-channel discussion with Tony Myatt who is now a Professor of Sound at Surrey University.

John Kieffer: I was a fan of Touch before being involved a little bit this year and one of the great things is that attention to detail in terms of the sound and the visual elements. It is no accident that Touch stuff is so high quality.

fennesz wozencroft "Liquid Music" [excerpt] from Touch on Vimeo.

Touch has always been incredibly aware of itself on a conceptual level; how has this been reflected in terms of the celebrations this year and in terms of your representation as an organisation outside the mainstream?

MH: People historically looking back on this generation are really going to struggle to find accurate sources of information. A lot of the stuff I've read about this is wide of the mark. It misses the point. It became very clear right at the beginning that none of us were going to get swimming pools out of Touch. Not that we all wanted this; we were very realistic about the economics of it. But we've never had a penny funding.

Can you envisage a scenario where an organisation like Touch will become funded to an extent?

JW: I'm ontologically anti-funding; I came from a generation in the 1980s which was a pretty well established independent network. It wasn't perfect but there was an infrastructure that was based on selling products and making things work commercially as well as artistically and what funding does for a lot of people is encourages self-indulgence and very insular work. We are trying to show people that you can exist without going down that road. The social context of the music is what we're trying to maintain and we've tried to carry an audience through a series of developmental and technological changes but at the same time keep open to people who will come to it for the first time and say "wow, that's interesting! I didn't know that existed, there's all this to investigate". So it’s like a mixture between developing a long term project but also being always flexible, on your feet and open to changes. Jacques Attali stated that noise and prophecy is a way to signal what might be around the corner, what's in the future and being able to anticipate where all this is heading. Culture and music is very, very important in keeping people’s minds open to new things.

Touch always seemed like a long-term project from the off, everything seems pre-disposed to maintaining longevity.

MH: There was no doubt that we'd be here after thirty years; that happened materially because we never over-extended ourselves, we kept tightly controlled. I still feel that we've barely started.

JW: We're starting to get some things right. It takes a lot of time to keep an ecology that is thriving and to keep people at their best. When you're working with a lot of different artists, you have all of these conflicting energies to deal with and another reason why we survive is that Mike and I found out very quickly that we didn’t have an infrastructure that would work with groups. To put out records by bands determines a particular kind of business approach where you’re not only dealing with a very volatile, insular group but you're also having to get them out on tour. And when bands go on tour, it becomes very, very demanding of a company to support that kind of activity without the proper financing and marketing system

MH: It's also a mindset - there's only two of us [at the helm]. And dealing with four or more band members can be difficult. Most bands don’t have that level of organisation.

JW: So that’s one reason why we did compilations – it enabled us to work with bands without having to be in their sphere of day-to-day operations. We've been fantastically lucky - all the bands that Mike and I have admired have ended up working with us.

MH: Well, you earn your luck. If you stay positive and do the things we've done, they do gravitate towards you.

JK: You don't get a lot of businesses that have a body of work like this - it's quite unusual, it doesn't fit the standard indie label thing. It's not a label - it's an art organisation but it doesn't get any money. And it probably wouldn't still be an art organisation if it had got money.

MH: This is exactly why the British Library added Touch Radio to its collection of archival recordings because for them it was a ready-made, containing all the stuff that they have not gone anywhere near.

More so than anything else, Touch seems to operate as an entirely curated organisation itself.

JW: That's what we do. We anticipated a lot of the crossovers of design into art, this huge schizophrenia between design and working within a commercial context. We signalled that all the way through our early years through the work we did with Gilbert & George, Derek Jarman - all of these people had their feet very firmly planted in the gallery scene and we counter-pointed that with developments in new electronic music, developments in world music, the use of the spoken voice, the use of the poetic idiom - Mike and I are both quite literary in some respects - and tried to create this series of counter-points where things can be seen to be what they are but when they rub against each other you get these interesting frictional events happen.

On the other hand, we are not proclaiming Touch as a model of inter-disciplinary work - I'm very critical of that, the way you get to do everything all at the same time and become a jack of all trades, master of none – but what we are trying to say is that there can be a rigour in working within this 'eclectic' context. It takes a lot of fine-tuning and fine-balancing to get this right. We don't have a system for it, we just have developed a sensibility and it’s that kind of aspect that’s very difficult to explain and for years and years we wouldn't because we felt it was pretentious. But we want to provoke change without necessarily saying to individual people what that change should be. This is related to my own experience when I was young - I used to love listening to weird stuff but, at the same time, I was a big fan of pop. I was watching Top Of The Pops at the same time as listening to Miles Davis.

JK: And pop music has changed in the interim. The complexity of pop tunes has changed - there was a comparison of an Elton John song with an Adele song and basically, there was all kinds of movement and interesting stuff happening harmonically in the Elton John song but nothing happening at all in the Adele thing, which was flat, and that is also the backdrop to this ethos.

Artwork for Biosphere & Jon Wozencroft - 'Substrata 2.1'

The writer Jon Savage has also touched upon this friction and counter-point; what will his role at the Beaconsfield event comprise of?

JW: Jon and I used to do a lot of stuff in the 1980s for various fringe organisations. We thought of one that we did which would be a good thing to re-present in this context, which was a pirate radio station for Network 21. They were the first pirate television station in 1986 and you had to re-tune your television monitor to receive it every Friday night. Of course, they got busted and called out for some assistance and because we'd been on the programme, we were only too happy to help. So we did this radio show for them and I found the master tapes last week – it’s like an early example of Spotify before it existed. And the interesting thing is that most of the music on it you couldn't get for love nor money at the time because there was no internet: the songs were so obscure, you had to be there at the time to get hold of them and it’s very strange that now you can find a lot of this stuff readily. But Jon had this amazing record collection and we made a cocktail of music thinking it would be a really, really good comparative piece to what's going with the way people compile and assemble music. So, on this tape you've got psychedelia, Jon reading from a Touch Ritual text he wrote, some early breakbeat stuff, crazy hardcore punk, all these genres all colliding into each other. But it’s not a retromania that Simon Reynolds is talking about, it's an occult suddenly becoming visible through availability.

And I think it's a very interesting thing, this whole business of the internet - the promise that everything’s available. A lot more is available - I was astonished to find things uploaded on YouTube only three or six months ago and was shocked at the quality. I’ll give you an example - someone has just uploaded the very last recording session that Brian Jones attended at Olympic Studios - filmed in super quality because it was going to be part of Godard's Sympathy For The Devil film but that's by the by. But in this film, Jagger is recording the first take of ‘Sympathy…’ and Jones is there, in the corner and obviously told to keep away and he's desperately trying to engage with the band and desperately trying to be useful but they are basically saying "fuck off out of it". It’s the most incredible film and it suddenly appeared out of nowhere from 1968! What it is is that people of a certain age - i.e. us - have got this stuff and are going "we better share that with everybody" so all these things are popping out of the woodwork.

To go back to Network 21, it's to take something which is full of this weirdness and re-present it to a contemporary audience and say "actually, there's a whole load of chemical and strange combinations which still are there to be pushed forward and explored" because, in spite of all of the listening habits of young people, they stay generally within a narrow remit.

JK: Having everything split into all these genres and sub-genres, gives the impression that there's a very broad spectrum but there isn't.

Artwork for Philip Jeck - Stoke

This event at Beaconsfield is certainly the culmination of thirty years work but is it also the springboard to similar mini-festival events?

JW: What's next for Touch completely contradicts what we said earlier. But what you have to intuit at the moment is that if you say you're not a record company and you say you're not going to exist within the world of funding, then what are you going to do? And how do you respond to a product-based market? In five years time, our output won't be based about cd sales and a lot of these events this year have been testing the audience to find a kind of hybrid between a live show and an education event which takes a lot of the social energies you get at festivals but does it in quite a manageable way because a festival is a complete logistical nightmare.

I try to think of this Touch at Beaconsfield as a [precursor to a] digital Woodstock for three hundred people. We've always been very aware of the economies of scale and we'd always much rather have a very dedicated audience of 1,000 rather than a lazy audience of ten thousand, or whatever. So what we've been trying to find out is how to present this chemistry we have between film, sound, music, field recording and writing – combining all of these elements, not into an academy-based model, but one which is like an one of those old moveable archives or one of those mobile libraries that used to turn up in villages.

MH: I'd love to find a way of packaging every element to what you will find on December 5-6 into a manageable non-loss-making event. That would be fantastic. And then - the next question where would it work?

JW: Property in London is such a fucking nightmare and you think this is impossible, but you look further afield and you can - there are lots of spaces opening up in the UK and abroad which are perfect for what we want to do. It’s just that London has this crunch of real estate values that make it very difficult. But we are very optimistic about Beaconsfield because it has this kind of world like a walled garden, where you've got your performance space, exhibition space and café, so you can hopefully create a energy.

MH: It's unique in London. In fact, the whole thing is very exciting and equally terrifying!