Tone 18 – Star Switch On

CD – 8 tracks – 33:34

Every two years or so, Touch has produced a sampler giving an overview of our current activities and affiliations. Following Touch 00 (2000), and even prefiguring its release, we wanted to make something that reflected the increasing reliance on the already recorded, whilst suggesting a more lateral approach to the use of source material. This first tendency is manifest everywhere, from tribute bands, to remixes, to updates or clones of earlier sound successes (Oasis and Blur vs. The Beatles and The Kinks, and so on). Another syndrome has developed whereby sounds are transformed by various software programmes, and what seems to be an innovation soon reveals itself to be generic.

“Star Switch On” is not an answer to such questions, but it is a reflection of the current obsession with ‘mapping’, ‘storing’ and ‘modulating’. We were interested in what would happen when artists were given a ‘carte-blanche’ to work with recordings that had a definite and undeniable subject, location and atmosphere – the wildlife sound recordings of Chris Watson published on “Stepping Into the Dark” (TO:27) and “Outside the Circle of Fire” (TO:37) – imagining a perverse take on library music, sampling, remix, all inadequate in denoting the soundscapes we hoped such a brief would encourage.
“Star Switch On” features two new recordings by Chris Watson, alongside Biosphere, Fennesz, Hazard, Mika Vainio, Philip Jeck and AER. Chris Watson, former member of Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio, has many credits to his name, not least the series of wildlife programmes made by David Attenborough to which he contributed. In 2000, “Outside the Circle of Fire” won a distinction for ‘Digital Music’ at Ars Electronica. Currently, he is on location in Kenya working on a new series of the BBC’s “Big Cat Diary”.

Track list:

1. Mika Vainio: Outside the Circle of Fire
2. Philip Jeck: Capriole
3. Hazard: Debugged
4. Chris Watson: Cassarina
5. Fennesz: Pannonique
6. AER: Goat Behaviour no.3
7. Biosphere: Night & Dawn
8. Chris Watson: Wolves

Reviews: (UK):

Star Switch On – sleeve detail taking Chris Watson’s field recordings of wildlife on Outside The Circle Of Fire and Stepping Into The Dark as their starting point, six artists were ask to do what they willed with the source material, partly as a resonse to the observation that Watson’s recordings of animals bore a certain relationship to the glitchery emanating from musicians’ and sound artists’ laptops. Mika Vainio’s crackling minimalism is a sparse abstraction of Outside The Circle Of Fire into a hollow-filtered rise into dense arrival at a point of Zen fulfilment. Philip Jeck brings two of the avian subjects of the same disc together as foregrounded loops and dubs as electrical background noise crepitates in asynchronous reverbed parallel to a fragmentary melody to rumbling, hallucinatory effect. “Pannonique” is Fennesz’ channelling of “Mozambique Nightjar” by way of valves into a piece which is unnervingly similar to the modulation and resonance adjustment of an analogue synth, a placid pastorale which peaks into a short sharp dissonance. “Goat Behaviour” provides AER with a rhythmic source of clattering bells and the deep, rumbling wingbeats of owls to create a suitably Pannish piece of caprice, the hoots resonating eerily into the jangle. Hazard uses hyenas and deathwatch beetles for his measured “Debugged”, where warm plateaux of low-end wash to the swarming irritant of electronically-treated insect life and the arpeggiating laughs of the scavengers; likewise Biosphere’s cicada and bird choral arrangements flicker into life as a multi-layered evocation of circadian rhythms on “Night & Dawn”, charging the result with a celebratory joie de vive. To compare and contrast, Watson also contributes two new recordings: timber wolves howling hungrily in the forest as they hear a human hunter’s rifle signal a new source of meat, and the voices of animal herders in Rajasthan carried and Dopplered on gusts of warmed air as dusk approaches, and the interplay of environment with inhabitants both human and avian again reveals the music of the ecosphere in all its glory – perhaps even to the comparative detriment of the human rearrangements on Star Switch On themselves. [Richard Fontenoy]

The Wire (UK):

The Compiler –

A vast secret world of natural sounds was revealed on Chris Watson’s last two releases for Touch, Stepping into the Dark (1996) and Outside the Circle of Fire (1998). The fruits of his travels across the globe in search of untainted audio footage of wildlife and unique atmospheres, those discs documented everything from vultures feasting on a zebra carcass to East African Hippos at dusk, all captured in disturbingly close focus. Watson’s productions were kept as ‘factual’ as possible, consciously avoiding human interference. For Star Switch On (Touch Tone 18 CD), however, Touch invited various artists to rework this remarkable source material however they wanted. The eight short pieces here (including two new recordings by Watson) may no longer carry the authority of being untouched natural documents, but the most effective contributions stay true to their sources, increasing rather than distorting their impact. Fennesz takes the call of the Mozambique Nightjar, plugs its elastic tempo-stretching oscillations through a homemade valve amplifier, and comes out with a heavily compressed, mindbending aural strobe effect. Philip Jeck morphs Capercaillie and tinkerbird sounds into brutal rotating industrial loops, cannon blasts and fuzz storms of grainy ambience. Chris Watson’s contributions are equally haunting. In “Cassarina”, voices echo at each other across a chasm blessed with the strangest acoustics, while the closing “Wolves” is like visiting Hades, with its hollow tapestry of lost souls howling for their next meal. It works out of context on a purely ‘musical’ level, as well as being a brilliant reflection of a reality that few get to hear. ‘Jerome Maunsell]

Boomkat (Web):

New project from Touch artists (Mika Vainio, Fennesz, Philip Jeck, Hazard, AER, Biosphere and Chris Watson) joining the dots between Chris Watson’s close up wildlife recordings (in this case from the amazing ‘Outside The Circle Of Fire’ and ‘Stepping Out Of The Dark’) and baring out the similarities to modern laptop composition. Mika Vainio explores micro processing – haunted intent, Phillip Jeck amazes, transforming the sounds of ‘Red Rumped Tinkerbird’ into a shooting range at a backward touring funfair. Hazard adds warmth into the late night undergrowth exploration. Chris Watson splices together his own recordings and adds a new recording >> “Timber wolves respond quickly to changes in their environment. This pack has learned to associate the sound of a rifle shot in the forest with the opportunity of a forthcoming meal. They gather in the creeping darkness using scent and their awesome voices.” The Fennesz re-recording of ‘Mozambique Nightjar’, adds eerie background noise and sonic tweaking. Lastly AER conjures up deep sleep dreams of goat herding and Biosphere coats the transformation from night to dawn in his usual brand of sleepy ambience, lush. An incredible document. Highly recommended.

Phosphor (Netherlands):

Chris Watson, who was involved in Cabaret Voltaire (1972 – 1981) and Hafler Trio (1981 to 1984), is a sound recordist with a particular and passionate interest in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres from around the world. When his second album “Outside the Circle of Fire” (TO:27) was released, Touch thought it a good idea to give musicians carte-blanche to do what they liked with recordings that had a definite and undeniable subject, location and atmosphere – the wildlife sound recordings of Chris Watson. Every artist featured on this album has a different approach. Mika Vainio, who was the first to respond, contributes a very minimalistic piece with fine-tuned digital sequences adding a pulsing sound as if a submarine is slowly approaching. Philip Jeck, who used two recordings as source material, delivers a much noisier track with lots of scraping sounds and heavy irregular beats. Benny J. Nilsen (aka Hazard) chose “Deathwatch beetles” and “Spotted hyena” for his piece, in which a dark drone interchanges with gentle clicks and a sample of a howling hyena. “Cassarina”, by Chris Watson himself, is dedicated to the moment that the herders drive their animals to the domestic circles, which must be done before dark, when the hillside is left to the leopard. Fennesz keeps close to the original, by transforming the “Mozambique Nightjar”, feeding its call through a home-made valve amplifier. This track reminds of Francisco López’s album “La selva”, transforming the jungle nightlife into digital bits. AER also keeps the typical atmosphere which Chris Watson records intact. AER’s track puts the listener in the middle of a grazing herd. And Biosphere combines his typical soft pulse with the sound of animal life. With the help of S.E.T.I., People Like Us, and Oren Ambarchi, the artists featured deliver a marvellous compilation that proves that Touch releases excellent music.

Other Music (USA):

From what I understand these are the field recordings (from two previous releases) of former Cabaret Voltaire member Chris Watson, ground back into aural paste and freshly re-canvassed by the all-star Team Touch (Biospere, Fennesz, Hazard, et al). One of those recordings of Watson’s, just to apocryphally point out, was of a dead zebra or some such carrion being feasted upon… recorded from the inside! The quizzical beauty and banality involved in wild, natural things going on all the time seems to be a starting point here. Now on this release we see a combination of random processes both axiomatic of the Serengeti AND the G4. Alternately wondrous and serene. [DHo]

Incursion [USA]:

A loosely gravitated compilation of sorts for the Touch label, it gives former Cabaret Voltaire/Hafler Trio member Chris Watson’s luminous field recordings over to their current roster of stars in order to rework them as they will. Mika Vainio takes some fizzing dabs of flies and transmits them into a cold dark outer space, emitting low levels of reverb-radiation. Philip Jeck is a bit more ballistic, with his tracers streaking across the night sky in slowly revolving motions. Hazard moves in the spaces between the cold crinkling spacesuit and human skin heat, mixing the temperatures to a fine stasis. Taking frogs far away from the their boggy terra firma, Fennesz’s “Pannonique” chirps and floats exotically above the pond, albeit too pithy for proper personal spacing. Always an alien-sounding music form, the Balinese metallic clouds that AER observes hover exquisitely, if not too precisely, in the far distance. The looping and cycling that Biosphere is so intimate with shows in the graceful ripples of “Night & Dawn,” which is neither dichotomy nor dichotic, but a continuously blissful blurring of the two extremes of day. Watson’s most recent globetrotting excursions, “Cassarina” and “Wolves,” both bisect and end the all too brief proceedings. [andy beta]

stylus (USA):

sifted through by tobias c. van veen
Rare indeed is the compilation that exceeds its remix possibility and exercises the limits of its potential. Yet even more rare is the gem in the rough, diamond in Africa, an assembly of acutely talented sound.artists, sculptors of the sonic, that are gathered here to give reverence and homage to the field recordings of Chris Watson. This album is composed of treatments by AER, Biosphere, Fennesz, Hazard, Philip Jeck, Mike Vainio, and Watson himself. Drawn from wildlife recordings whose ‘originals’ can be found on Stepping into the Dark (Touch 27) and Outside the Circle of Fire (Touch 37), Star Switch On is a spherical molding of the sonic, a cupping of the hands in the gesture to hold water. I wish to say that it is “careful” in the sense we receive from Heidegger: that our nature is to care. For this is an album of wildlife recordings. Nature recordings. Not city drones and traffic interruptions, although the treatments—treatments not in the sense of the medical establishment’s abuse of the word, but treatments in the way that a painter treats a canvas—open themselves up to their fractured technologies and the realities of the digital remix, the particle-ular of sound.
Each in his own way, each sound sculpture holds up the ‘sounds themselves’ for contemplation in the way that John Cage spoke of. Sounds be themselves and become themselves. That the sounds often become other from what one expected them to be, or become, is testament to the sound sculptor’s witnessing of something-other than their technological mastery. Deleuze thought of this as en-devenir. Here, I can enter my ears, where the rest of my body follows, into something-other that molds me as I mold it. Each sound sculptor softly shapes their particular instinctual imprint into aural actuality… Watson echoes voices across a desert beach, I imagine from L’Etranger; Fennesz opens crickets and hums and trilling night-bugs in what is one of his quietist and most understated works to date; AER submerses the night to a chamber of tonalities and sonorality that twinkles and sparkles just beyond the range of vision; Biosphere beckons us in so slowly that we speak Russian words of Nostalghia, like it was Patashnik filmed by Tarkosvky; and we should not forget that to begin with, Mike Vainio drops us gently with a bee-bomb into a silent hint of living underground, of becoming-bug through the sonar-pings of the wolfseeker; that Philip Jeck destroys this myth with blasts from the shotgun while licking bloody wounds of beauty; and that Hazard lets loose the lonely cry of the indeterminate animal that has remained, la bête.

I dislike encouraging any reader to buy anything; I dislike even more acting as traditional reviewer and passing judgement on sound. I can only witness great moments of affect, of body-kissing, of muscle massaging. Your own personal La Monte Young, sometimes here, mixed with a restraint particular to Cage. Dig, deeper, soil, and hands: live these sonic becomings.

VITAL (Netherlands):

Was it last week, when I wrote: remix CDs, who needs them? Much else I said last week, might apply to this compilation. Seven people remix Chris Watson’s wildlife recordings (one of them is Chris Watson), but I must assume none of these artists come as big surprises, nor do I think that say the Fennesz fans never heard of Chris Watson or his releases on Touch. So it’s all a bit incestious, humbly me thinks. Also the website info reads that many more tracks were received but not used (by People Like Us, Ambarchi and SETI among others), which is a pity since it’s a relatively short CD. So apart from all sour grapes, the music is of course that what counts. Chris Watson (ex-Cabaret Voltaire and ex-Hafler Trio) spends much of time going out with a mini disc, doing recordings of animals in exotic places. Here these recordings are used as source material. Mika Vianio has a rather dark creepy piece of really low end beeps, Philip Jeck is both rhythmical aswell as rather noisy for his doings. Hazard is here also not in his usual ambient territory, but rather tries to sound like Fennesz, with a cracky, laptop like sound. Fennesz has a short fuzzy piece that is among the best of the CD, just like AER (Jon Wozencraft’s sound project), who processes the sound of goats in a very nice piece. Also Biosphere’s pieces hoovers around short samples and is lesser ambient then we are used by him. This collection also includes two unreleased recordings by Chris Watson, of which especially the last (cramned inside Biosphere’s piece) is a haunting pack of wolves – open for further process? (FdW)


Op een korte termijn brak het laptop en -gitaarwerk van de Oostenrijker Christian Fennesz bij een groter publiek door. Zijn output centert zich rond de labels Mego en Touch. Het Britse Touch heeft de naam reflectief en ‘serieus’ met hun artiesten en uitgaven om te gaan en het bundelen van Fennesz’ moeilijker te vinden materiaal ligt dan ook in die lijn.

‘Field Recordings 1995-2002’ is geen verzameling van veldopnames die Fennesz nog in de kast had liggen, maar een compilatie van werk dat eerder op andere bloemlezingen verscheen, remixes (voor ondermeer Stephan Mathieu en Ekkehard Ehlers) en composities voor (kort)films. Het werk steekt van wal met de eerste uitgave die de dertiger bij Mego in 1995 bracht: de uitverkochte single ‘Instrument’. De vier versies werden aangelengd met ‘Good Man’, een werk dat Fennesz recentelijk met de geluidsbronnen van ‘Instrument’ componeerde. Hoewel de Oostenrijker over de laatste zeven jaar voornamelijk in de diepte evolueerde, valt het op dat hij vroeger meer naar ritme en repetitie zocht: ‘Instrument 1 & 3’ bevatten een uitgevaagde breakbeat en verwijzen naar de destijds boomende drum ‘n’ bassesthetiek. De overige tracks gaan volledig horizontaal en schilderen – zoals gebruikelijk – traag evoluerende kleurlandschappen waar bijtijds een melancholische kilte doorwaait. In januari 2003 verschijnt bij Touch een nieuwe soloplaat van Fennesz, ondertussen is hij ook vertegenwoordigd op de compilatie ‘Star Switch On’. Daarop zijn veldopnames van de Britse geluidsman Chris Watson door een keur van populaire geluidskunstenaars onder wie Mika Vainio, Philip Jeck, Hazard en Biosphere onder handen genomen (de originelen werder eerder bij Touch als de albums ‘Stepping into the Dark’ en ‘Outside the Circle of Fire’ uitgebracht). Fennesz levert een nogal statische bijdrage: op enkele loops na lijken Watsons registraties van dierengeluiden nauwelijks behandelt. Wel erg intens is het werk van Vainio en dat van Jeck: met respectievelijk elektronica en vinylmanipulatie tillen ze het griezelige basismateriaal naar het niveau van driedimensionale, beklemmende en fascinerende luistertrip. [Ive Stevenheydens]

Weekly Dig (USA):

In recent months, the UK experimental music label Touch has been on a tear, releasing a slew of impressive records ranging from turntablist Philip Jeck’s Stoke to guitarist/electronician Fennesz’s Field Recordings. Their latest release Star Switch On collects pieces by Touch workhorses like Mika Vainio of Pan Sonic, Jeck, Fennesz, Biosphere and field recording specialist, Chris Watson (formerly of Cabaret Voltaire). The unifying element is that all of the the tracks were composed using Watson’s field recordings as source material. Perhaps because of this, though many of the contributions vary in tone – from the piledriving thump and howl of Jeck’s “Capriole” to the soothing hum and buzz of Biosphere’s “Night and Dawn” – they still flow quite seamlessly into one another. Like Watson’s original recordings themselves (available on Touch as well), it’s an engrossing, rather meditative listen. [Susanna Bolle]

Blitz (Portugal):

Also featuring Fennesz, also on Touch and also with field recordings as a starting point, we have “Star Switch On”. The difference is that, this time, the field recordings are a real, rather than semantic, starting point. It is the result of an invitation made to several authors to process the sounds of two prior touch editions: “Stepping Into The Dark” and “Outside The Circle Of Fire”. these are albums signed by Chris Watson, from Cabaret Voltaire, and they comprise a selection of his archive of field recordings. Watson travelled through Scotland, Venezuela, England, Costa Rica, Germany, Kenya and other countries, collecting sounds that captured the vital matter of those locations. the objects, in themselves, are extraordinary, but they also reveal the quiet side of someone who has one day pursued the same through opposite means. Fennesz, AER, Biosphere, Hazard, Philip Jeck and Mika Vainio were invited for “Star Switch On”, Chris Watson himself joining this list. Having “Star Switch On” [sic] and “Outside The Circle Of Fire” as sound sources, the authors were given free realm to follow the paths that their sensitivities determined. And it is precisely out of the ‘stamp’ each one of them applies to the original material, out of that ability to respect the essence of the sounds, that the discreet fascination of this release is born. As with the originals, we are far from new age territories, at the opposite end from meditative spirituality. “Star Switch On” affirms itself as a concrete reality, it dives into that reality for an intensification of the stimuli. The digital interventions add borders of unease to a bright path, they bar its progress with manipulative knowledge – there are residues of life surrounded by darkness, prayers rescued out of a pulsating enclosure. It comes as no surprise, then, that Chris Watson closes the album with the nocturnal howling of the wolves. (8/10) [Trans. Heitor Alvelos]

The Sound Projector (UK):

A clutch of Touch ‘regulars’ were commissioned to make a piece of music using tracks from Chris Watson’s releases Stepping into the Dark and Outside the Circle of Fire. If this information hadn’t been imparted to me, I might have enjoyed Star Switch On more – as a set of varied and strange soundworkings. To me, it’s slightly marred because I value Watson’s work so highly – and I’m a goddamn purist. His two CDs of natural wildlife and field recordings have set a benchmark of quality in this area which nobody has yet bettered. His high standards are shown in the sharpness and clarity of his sound recordings, and in the contextual documentation he provides for each published work (time, place, weather conditions, and equipment used are always scrupulously logged); but also in his unique sensitivity to the environment, his near-spiritual receptiveness to the elements, both known and unknown, that contribute to our sense of ‘place’. Chris Watson agreed to this present project of course, and indeed he appears on it with two new works – but many of the above qualities that I prize have been swept away in this remix project. That off my chest, let’s enjoy the music for what it is. Biosphere and Hazard turn in their usual melodic-sounding, Ambient-washed styled ‘soundscapes’, and both simply use Chris Watson samples as additional elements in something they would normally do anyway. They’re the least useful of the tracks. Philip Jeck’s turntables are reminiscent of the battle of the Somme with soldiers singing in the trenches – an enjoyable escapade, but where CW is in the midst of it all I couldn’t really say. AER makes a clever and satisfying assemblage by collaging together several loops of sound until they become resonating bells. Fennesz appears to be playing tapes of CW recordings in his front room and overlaying them in simple patterns – and his work involves the least effacement of the original recordings. Mika Vanio goes to the opposite extreme, abstracting CW’s work so much that only a few minimal blips remain, swimming in a deep pool of compressed noise – a real ‘trip in a submarine’ piece of music. In addition, there are two ‘straight’ works by Chris Watson – ‘Cassarina’ is the most eerie, with echoing voices shouting by the seaside and resonating against a cliff face. The voices run backwards and create a disconcerting time-travel feeling. And there’s a ‘hidden’ track at the end of a wolfpack howling and baying. The uncanniness of the latter reminds one of the main ‘selling point’ of the original CDs – that CW had discerned a strange music in nature and was framing and presenting it AS music, instead of a straight documentary recording. I seem to recall that many writers were delighted to have mistaken the cries of seals for an undiscovered minimal-electro track, a phenomenon on which I make no comment. The point of this record continues to elude me. [Ed Pinsent]