Graphic designer Jon Wozencroft founded Touch in March of 1982, making it one of the longest-running experimental labels in the world. In the initial years, Touch focused on multimedia and text-based projects, including an edition of Jean Baudrillard’s “Xerox and Infinity” and several cassette/zine releases. Since the ’90s, however, with their musical endeavors taking center stage, the label has consistently released some of the most important experimental records to date. Their track record is remarkable if for no other reason than its seemingly inexhaustible inclusiveness. They’ve covered every field superlatively–stylistically (featuring traditional Egyptian music to pure computer techno to field recordings), geographically (with artists hailing from Iceland, Japan, Austria, Australia, England, and elsewhere), and in terms of pedigree (members of Wire and Cabaret Voltaire are represented, among other luminary solo artists). Touch is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a series of events that can be found here. For our part, we’ve taken on the unenviable task of listing a representative selection of ten of their most prominent releases. Listen to our Spotify playlist below, and let us know what records we’re missing in the comments section.
Soliman Gamil – The Egyptian Music (1984)
Let’s start at the beginning. Even though Touch was founded in 1982, their first proper LP release did not come until a couple years later, with Soliman Gamil’s The Egyptian Music. Touch describes Gamil as “the composer for the National State Theatre in Cairo who trained his own troupe to perform and record traditional Egyptian music annotated from documents found in the Pyramids.” For music found in the Pyramids and recorded almost 30 years ago, this record still sounds amazingly fresh to modern ears. Especially check out “The Sinsimia,” which sounds as drugged-fueled as an acoustic Wooden Shjips or Vibracathedral Orchestra.
Ryoji Ikeda – +/- (1996)
Ryoji Ikeda has had several albums come out on Touch, but perhaps the most exemplary of his super-minimal, super-technological sound is +/-. If you’ve ever wondered what it would sound like if computers actually gained consciousness and created music, this is what the result would be. Some of the tones here are fairly harsh, but all the cold, mechanistic beeps and static add up to something surprisingly hypnotic… and warm.
Mika Vainio – Onko (1998)
Ikeda and Vainio have a couple of things in common: aside from having releases on Touch, they’ve both worked with German minimalist mastermind Alva.Noto. This is a good place to start when approaching Vainio—his work on Onko works perfectly as the uncompromising (or obnoxious, depending on your opinion) counterpoint to the more rhythmic, song-based approach of his peers. Vainio garnered much more acclaim from his work with Panasonic (the Finnish electro manufacturers, not the Japanese electronics manufacturers—they understandably changed their name to Pan Sonic after a confrontation with the latter). His solo work, though, is much more intriguing for its sheer absurdity. Onko moves from the pure computer tones of “Jos (if)” to the sampled sax muzak of “Onko Parts 1-11 (is It)” with elegant, if unsettling, ease.
Philip Jeck – Surf (1999)
Surf is Philip Jeck’s second album, and it exemplifies the playful plunderphonics style that he shared with notables like Christian Marclay. Jeck got his start as a turntablist, and he was perhaps best known in the ’90s for his performance art installation “Vinyl Requiem,” which featured 180 turntables. By Surf, however, he became interested in sampling and experimental recording techniques. This is most evident on tracks like “Tilting,” which comes off as a bizarre combination of Steve Reich and Tim Hecker—repetitive, reverbed-out, and completely engrossing.
Johann Johannsson – Englaborn (2002)
Johann Johannsson’s debut album Englaborn was originally meant to accompany Havar Sigurjonsson’s play of the same name. As the play is graphically violent, Johannsson decided to temper its mood with soft strings, glockenspiels, piano, and electronics. This binary of violent/tender was paired with another binary of electronic/acoustic (or modern/ancient) after he discovered the Latin poet Catullus’ poem “Odi et Amo” (or “Hate and Love”). The album opens and closes with a Speak & Spell-style tenor voice singing the poem in its original Latin, immediately cluing the listener in on the combination of classical instruments and subtle electronic flourishes prevalent throughout. It’s a brilliant, if somewhat strange, debut—one that not only showcases Johannsson’s talent, but Touch’s impeccable foresight.
Chris Watson – Weather Report (2003)
Chris Watson, who was a founding member of both Cabaret Voltaire and the Hafler Trio, left music in the early ’90s to record for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and then worked on a series of nature documentary and film projects. These projects left him with a glut of found sound recordings, which he used to return to the music world. In a series of releases for Touch starting in 1996, Watson has edited together his found sounds into long-form tracks that take the listener to obscure locales around the world. Far from the new-age “nature sounds” albums meant for insomniacs, though, these discs are meant for audio junkies. On Weather Report, for instance, Watson is interested in presenting the most unique (and sometimes unsettling) sounds he encountered in a Kenyan savannah, a Scottish glen, and an Icelandic iceberg.
Fennesz – Venice (2004)
Although Fennesz’s breakout record Endless Summer was followed by a live release and a collaboration with Jim O’Rourke and Peter Rehberg as Fenn O’Berg, Venice is the true heir to that album’s ascendant pop. Venice is not as unabashedly poppy as its predecessor (the lack of Beach Boys references can attest to that), but still mines much the same vein. It was marked by critics at the time as a move away from the relatively robotic music spawned by the IDM craze of the late nineties. Instead, its melodic, emotive tracks foresaw an electronic music that could be purely human.
BJ Nilsen – Fade to White (2005)
Fade to White is the first album BJ Nilsen released under his own name after laying to rest his Hazard moniker. While this does signal a change, it’s not as drastic as one might think. His work as Hazard relied heavily on field recordings of wind that Chris Watson provided him. Here, the process is the same, but instead of Watson’s recordings, Nilsen provides his own. His recordings are further-reaching in terms of both content and style. Whereas the Hazard albums Wind and Land set out to blur the boundaries between natural and artificial sounds, here the electronic processing is at the forefront. And if Wind is the best example of his Hazard project, Fade to White the best example of his newer work. Although Nilsen went on to record several more LPs for Touch, this is the best introduction to this phase of his career.
Eleh – Location Momentum (2010)
Nobody knows who Eleh is. What we do know, though, is that he/she/they are updating the first wave of minimalist experimenters (La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, even Josef Albers) for the 21st century. Eleh use oscillators and synthesizers to experiment with sine waves, oftentimes employing frequencies that aren’t playable on laptop speakers. As such, they release their albums exclusively on vinyl. That is, their albums were exclusively on vinyl until Location Momentum. With this album, Eleh seemed to be relaxing the strict vinyl-only rule, as the immensely influential Floating Frequencies/Intuitive Synthesis series was remastered for CD late last year as well. Location Momentum remains the only album originally recorded for the digital medium, however, which means that it is a particularly intriguing entry into their discography. It also means you have to play it really, really loud.
Oren Ambarchi – Audience of One (2012)
This year’s Audience of One, by Oren Ambarchi, is a strange bird indeed. Its four tracks encompass a 30-plus minute minimalist meditation and an Ace Frehley cover. However, what looks like disparate source material on paper doesn’t sound disparate on record, as Ambarchi’s vision stays consistent throughout. This is more of a consolidation of his previous work than a series of experiments. These four songs each work well on their own, but considered as a record, they inform one another in surprising ways. Of course Ambarchi is the centerpiece here, but numerous collaborators, including Sunn O)))’s Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang and Warm Ghost’s Paul Duncan, add much-needed counterpoint to his stark, sparse guitar work. And not to get too obviously metaphorical here, but this can be read as a microcosm of Touch itself: An Australian collaborating with musicians from all over the world on tracks that shouldn’t work together but do. This is the same ethos that brings traditional Egyptian music together with Japanese micro-minimalism on the same label without losing focus.