The Touch: Isolation project is one of the best things to emerge from lockdown. The project began as a means of providing income to furloughed musicians, but quickly developed into a real-time reflection on the COVID-19 crisis. The first phase is now complete, with 28 tracks representing 3 hours and 28 minutes of field recordings and music. Most pieces contain a bit of commentary, and Jon Wozencroft‘s photography deserves to be in a chapbook of its own. When the crisis is over, we’d love to see a boxed set, and knowing Touch’s attention to design, such a thing may indeed take place.
Field recordings have become a valuable sound source during the crisis, both as documentation of a changing world (reduced noise pollution, animals emerging from hiding) and as consolation (the healing properties of nature). That’s why we were happy that the very first release was a soundscape: Jana Winderen‘s “Surge.” Winderen samples a spruce tree on the family farm, where she has been staying throughout the crisis; the tree has lived through five family generations, including two World Wars, a depression, a nuclear arms race and now a pandemic. Today it continues to stand, offering comfort and a sense of consistency. This release is followed by Chris Watson‘s “Gobabeb,” recorded in the Namib desert; while listening, one may intuit the winds of change, or the lonesome sound of isolation. The field recording angle continues in “The Conference of the Birds,” which references a famous fable; Bana Haffar accompanies the piece with a list that may be interpreted as a poem. During the lockdown, many people have reported that the birds “are louder,” but scientists say they are actually quieter, no longer needing to fight for sonic space. They only seem louder because the soundscape is softer. The combination of rumble and birdsong in Haffar’s piece is akin to landscapers returning to work while avian activity continues unabated. Mark Van Hoen extends the theme in “Rewilding,” ironically highlighting the “greater clarity” of nature sounds while adding music and a monologue!
Richard Chartier‘s “Away” is one of the few tracks devoid of description, but the music is descriptive enough: a hollow, developing drone that sounds like distance, separation, and aridity. In contrast, Zachary Paul records “47 tracks of violin” on the quarter-hour “Aeolus,” which comes with a Homer quote. The piece is a reminder of all the voices we miss while in isolation, and the thought that we have already multi-tracked such voices in our own minds. The growing buzz is also akin to levels of anxiety and despair, although when heard from another angle it may resonate as voices massed in comfort. By the sonic peak of the ninth minute, the timbre has grown majestic.
Seeing the name fennesz sakamoto, one might think, “What a great name for an artist!” But it’s both famous names performing together on guitar and piano. Restive music has also found new audiences during quarantine, as a balm to listeners’ souls. And such things are needed right now, as explained by the long title of farmersmanual‘s contribution (see photo to right). In one area, isolation is saving lives, but it’s causing suffering on the back end. Every approach has a consequence. The abstract tone of this trio’s piece reflects such uncertainty.
ELEH‘s prose is a personal favorite, as he writes about restoring his grandfather’s workbench, rerouting streams and planting evergreens, The artist remains optimistic while experiencing the “deep, sad feelings” that come with reminiscence. “Still, Not Waiting” is meditative, even holy. When Elah asks, “How are you doing? Are you able to get out for a walk?” the questions feel personal, highlighting the shared moods of a global crisis. Anthony Moore zeroes in on the feeling of “absence as presence, and presence as absence” by filtering piano through pick-ups; the title of “Isoladrone 2020” says it all. Commenting on the subject, Daniel Menche quotes Proverbs 18:1 ~ “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment.” We suddenly remember another angle to isolation, that there is a difference between shutting others out and staying away from physical contact. In short, we need not be emotionally or spiritually isolated, even when apart. The static waves break like unanswered messages. More directly, Geneva Skeen includes a quote from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche regarding love and loneliness, indirectly referencing the longing many feel during lockdown, the wide-ranging reactions of single people and the difficulty of connecting with others, even within one’s own house.
In “Stridulation,” Simon Scott presents an immersive drone laid atop water recordings from the Fens. Crickets and birds get in on the action as well, justifying the title; a dog makes a guest appearance late in the piece. A more difficult vocabulary word is “Sbagliato,” which means “mistake” in Italian but led to a tasty alcoholic beverage. While there’s nothing in Oren Ambarchi‘s piece that sounds like a tonic, one may attach either definition: the many mistakes made by governments, or the need to unwind with a drink. UnicaZürn‘s tempo-driven pulses seem like rapid heartbeats, and “Mission Creeper” is one of the more ominous pieces here, giving way to the crackling fire and dramatic strings of “Lines of Flight.” Bethan Kellough‘s piece, recorded in Death Valley, is one of the highlights of the entire collection.
Strafe F.R.‘s “Reeflex” may boast a title reminiscent of Duran Duran, but trust us, no one will confuse the two. This angular piece screams agitation, like that of being cooped up inside for way too long, thinking restrictions are about to be eased, and then learning the expiring lockdown date has been extended once again. Seeing the title of the ensuing piece, “The Elation of Protest,” one expects a raucous track, but Yann Novak is known for calm and delivers it yet again. The theme is “the opposing feeling of joy and sadness” when people are connected by protest yet wish the need for protest had never developed. Those looking for something louder need wait only one track, as Howlround brings the dissonance on “Insula Acid,” letting loose some of that pent-up energy in a healthy fashion. The same holds true in “Solo Dance For Dewa Alit,” as so many of us are, to quote Billy Idol, dancing with ourselves right now. Little in Carl Michael von Hausswolff‘s piece suggests dance, but when one is moving slowly, one can dance to anything.
It’s great to hear Philip Jeck again, although we’re a bit concerned about his level of paranoia as he insists he is being “Followed By Bells.” There are worse things to be followed by, and we trust Jeck is followed instead by the thought of bells, beautifully injected into this recording. As local churches and cathedrals are closed, their peals continue to roll out, a sign of normalcy in an untenable situation. While Jeck is a tough act to follow, Rosy Parlane is up to the challenge, presenting a gorgeous, slow-growing ambient piece in “Awa.” Then we receive a very human reminder. Through soft static and rising strings, OZMOTIC‘s “Oxygen Particle” throws us back to the front lines, where health care professionals are trying desperately to preserve life, ventilators are in short supply and patients are struggling to breathe. It’s a sobering piece, mitigated in a small way by the image of an ancient tree with many branches. After this, the listener needs a little respite, which Claire Singer provides in the form of “Rionnag a Tuath” (“Northern Star”). This piece, recorded in Union Chapel, centers the listener in the transcendent tones of organ and cello, constant as the Northern Star, reminders of things timeless and true.
“Aviation” is one of the project’s outliers, a meditation on the effects of reduced air travel. The ecosystems are recovering as an industry lays in waste. Did we fly too much and appreciate it too little? Once we recover, will we do so with care? Heitor Alvelos’ cacophony of layered field recordings is a sardonic comment on the planes, who once dominated the aural air. Sohrab‘s “In the World” is another outlier, a reading from Gorky, who in this excerpt yearns for a transformed society in which people love and care for one another. It’s a beautiful glimpse of one possible future. Then fennesz reappears (where’s sakamoto?) with “Per Aspera (ad Astra),” an upbeat and hopeful piece that briefly served as the set’s conclusion until the surprise late game entry of Charlie Campagna‘s “Earth Day Isolation.” Recorded at the Joshua Tree National Park, this piece brings the project full circle, underlining the need for action on climate change while underlining the dual meaning of “isolation.” What we fear may instead be a global treasure.
Touch: Isolation was originally presented as an unfurling collection, with new pieces unveiled twice a week. Those who subscribe now will receive all the tracks of phase one and can expect new material to appear down the line. No matter what one’s take on isolation, one will find empathetic artists here. During the crisis, artists have needed funding and listeners have needed encouragement. Through this project, and the biweekly communications of the label itself, Touch has provided both. Even the name of the label is a celebration of what we miss, and hope one day to regain. (Richard Allen)