Various Artists ~ Touch: Displacing

12 months, 12 tracks, 3 hours and 42 minutes of sound: this is Touch: Displacing, the subscription series that followed Touch: Isolation and is now offered as a complete set.  The focus is on extended tracks; only one is less than ten minutes long, while another lasts half an hour.  In order to enjoy this collection, one needs to be invested.  

This is the theme as well.  Over time, humanity has displaced populaces, rivers, forests, areas of sustainability, and threatened eradication.  From Native Americans to the Amazon Rain Forest, once proud cultures and areas are diminished, cordoned off in the name of progress, known to some as a code word for commerce.  Now we are all affected.  Climate change, xenophobia, gerrymandering and too many other destructive forces continue unabated, while our minds are displaced, drawn to TV adverts, sucked into culture wars, self-absorbed and thus harmless to the status quo.  If the music has one thing to say, it is this: COVID was the latest threat, but not the last.

Sohrab begins the set with “Kharabat,” a track rich in narrative, given the space to breathe by its extended length.  The set’s first sound is that of water, which continues to thread through the piece, beneath the drones, alongside the sung prayers, accompanying flute and filter, intimating that the water will be here long after we are gone, irradiated or not.  Waves lap, boards creak, bells toll.  Late in the piece, a single sentence through the drone, the hope of seeing light in the darkness.  Olivia Block‘s “Wuther” injects a holy note via church organ, the title meaning to roar, as the wind.  Call these the winds of foreboding or the winds of change; they rush through the pipes like seeping gas or unanswered prayers, increasing in volume in the fifth minute, demanding attention.  The opening sequence of Bana Haffar‘s “Intimations” connects to “Kharabat” with ceremonial song and “Wuther” via organ.  Did the artists know what the others were doing, or did the sequencers look for commonalities?  In this piece, a restless soul is hard at work, immune to the peaceful call of wind chimes.  Eventually there are movements of melody, rain showers, a passing train, a looped phrase: drink the rest of my cup.  The noise of humanity seems meaningless.

Again the sinews connect.  Chris Watson‘s “Station Chapelle” is “a ghost station on busy tracks.”  Watson seeks psychic residue in the peeling walls, the passing cars, the announcements to no one.  The piece was released a day after New Year’s, a day of little clean-up, the loneliest celebration of the millennium.  Who knew Watson was still making dance music?  In the station, no one is around to dance.  The beats pause for the ghosts to converge, then restart, issuing an unanswered invitation.  Richard Chartier chases the drums away with the restrained “Recompletion (3-1),” a filigree drone that at times seems ready to dissipate before drawing new energy.  The composition imitates the timbre of last breaths, water evaporating from an arid river bed, the silence of bottomless well: a feeling extended by Robert Crouch in “A Drowning,” which is dedicated to the memory of a loved one.  Crouch combines beauty and distortion, heaving all sound into the center before allowing it to re-erupt in a rush of memory and regret.

“The clap of the fading-out sound of your shoes” begins with that very sound, folded into layers of gurgle and flow.  Geneva Skeen‘s piece is intricate in design, recorded “throughout a city on pause, though not silent.”  This is not the famed L.A. of Hollywood and hoops, but its hidden underbelly, a latticework of concrete and steel, water and soot.  Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” is nowhere to be found, but Geneva loves L.A., cherishing these sudden, sullen opportunities.  She even hums and sings.  Will we ever hear these sounds again, sounds that became apparent only when others were removed?  After 11 months, Carl Stone was finally able to return to Japan, where he recorded his selection ~ one which we will not name as the artist insists his titles are random.  Instead we write that it sounds like suffering, followed by relief, as a slow, wordless song rises from inertia,  stretches for the heavens, and in the tenth minute (!) finally begins to dance.  At least Stone has his happy ending, unlike the many who tried to cross a stretch of the Baltic from 1961-89 under strict border controls, many dying during the attempt.  They are immortalized by John Eckhardt in “48k,” originally a sound and light installation, as seen below.  Eckhardt dedicates the piece to “Peter Döbler, who in June 1971 swam 48 Kilometers straight to the island of Fehmarn.”  The hydroponic recordings bear the echoes of souls, the bass like the long sinking, connecting to Crouch’s “A Drowning,” further evidence of the set’s internal consistency.  The piece is somber, an echo of the arduous crossing, a reminder that refugees still travel across barren war lands only to be held at the borders.

This is the hour of lead-, writes Emily Dickinson, a diagnosis adopted by Philip Jeck in the work of the same name.  Too many false starts and fragmented hopes have taken a toll on the populace.  The piece seems fractured, its early notes like sheep without a shepherd until Jeck reels them in.  It’s unusual to hear Jeck proceed from active to passive, rather than the other way around; in the seventh minute, he descends into silence before starting to climb back out.  While the music never reaches cacophony, it does reach turbidity: church bells and choirs embedded in a persistent fog.  After this, Bethan Kellough‘s “Underlying” arrives as sweet relief, but ends in agitation.  The artist cleverly begins with the sounds of the Salton Sea: seabirds, insects, a happy calm.  But something wicked this way comes: underwater rumbles that surge into the ocean, disrupting migrations and communications.  A bird refuge cannot coexist with a geothermal power station, no matter how much the station contributes to charity.  Kellough’s musical lament is Displacing‘s most emotional sequence: we know what is being lost, even as we listen.  The organ no longer speaks of spiritual themes, but of the lack of spiritual awareness, a contrast between sound and action.  Just as the drone threatens to engulf everything within its path, Kellough relents, drawing back the sonic curtain to reveal a final stretch of birdsong.

Now only Oren Ambarchi remains, his half-hour “Celeste Confit” the album’s final impression.  It’s telling that Touch decided to place this piece last, as it is the series’ only ebullient entry, a gorgeous series of generated chime tones that glint as they tumble.  Perhaps the organizers realized that an overload of challenges can produce a feeling of learned helplessness, while a little encouragement can go a long way.  In many cases, what has been displaced can still be returned and restored ~ not always, but often enough to provide the essential motivation.  (Richard Allen)

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