Tracing the Skins of Clouds


CD, 53 min.
Kaon ao98
Composed 1997 – 98, released 1998
Cover image by Derek Pollard

Rubbed, dragged and scraped sounds of friction, with micro-pitch artifacts, acoustic reverberations and massed tones. Sources include large-diameter glass tubes, wood, large sheets of tempered-glass, bricks, plastic bucket, wine glass, metal bowl, chimes, air organ.  Objects are molecular clouds of varying densities.  Abrasion is a method of activating resonant qualities of objects, instigating a porosity between the surface and the ‘inside’ of materials, the intermingling of molecular and acoustic “clouds”.


It is deceptively easy to characterize Seth Nehil’s first album as a drone album. Tracing the Skin of Clouds explores the microscopic variations in long organic soundscapes, with a relatively constant pitch originating from Tibetan bells as an ever-present underpinning. But whereas other drone artists, such as Eliane Radigue or Jliat, emphasize the electronic nature of their sonic origins, Nehil is closer in spirit to the field recordings at the base of the work of Ora or Michael Northam (who worked with Nehil in Orogenetics, an art and music collective active in Austin, TX, in the late ’90s). Nehil’s music is based entirely on natural sounds and the manipulation of physical materials, and he uses little or no processing on the sounds, differentiating himself by the methods of sound collection. “Cirrus” features wooden chimes, Tibetan bells, scraping percussion, rubbed drum skins, and rolling glass, all gently mutating without any significant events. “Nimbus” is quieter, rustling leaves with distant snaps, with a more ominous electronic-sounding drone fading in and out. The backdrop of “Stratus” is a series of slow-moving, low white-noise waves, possibly originating in wind sounds, with a growing layer of continuous bell sounds moving into a clear shimmering at the end. Nehil’s use of ordinary substances to create the album’s ephemeral sounds sets his work apart from many others in the contemporary electro-acoustic field, and the paradox of the album’s title is reflected in the music’s connection between the mundane and the imagination.
– Caleb Deupree, AMG (All Music Guide)

Sound artist Seth Nehil (who has worked with John Grzinich as Alial Straa and with the Orogenetics arts collective) here explores the nature of sound as texture in Tracing the skins of clouds, released on the Kaon label in 1998. Electroacoustic, musique concrète, call it what you like, this project takes a close look at all manner of sounds and aural textures through the use of contact microphones [sic]. The sources are left undefined, which leaves the imagination free to roam for metaphors and guesses as to the objects Nehil is using in these recordings. With a few words on the disc’s sleeve – “our bodies trace the tactile tension between ground and sky” – we sense that there is a certain magic at work here. Close scrapings, as if dragging an object on a concrete floor, drones of sounds, seemingly stretched with effects but Nehil has been known to abstain from using any superfluous effects in his work, preferring instead to coax a wealth of sounds and drones from the objects themselves. The three long pieces on the disc are quiet, with rumblings and scrapings layered carefully in complex yet seamless arrangements (this is most clear in the aptly titled third piece, “stratus”), and the results are rather relaxing. My body and my mind are at ease with these sounds, exploring with a strange sort of calm the nuances and details in these uncanny sounds. Highly recommended, and another fine release from Kaon, with an attractive sleeve featuring woodcuts from a seventeenth century text on the history of rare species of plants.
– Richarddi Santo,

The French KAON label treads territory quite similar to the Orogeneticists, focusing on electro-acoustic work that quite often involves natural and field recordings. They’re also behind Tracing the Skins of Clouds, the debut CD from Orogenetics collaborator Seth Nehil, an artist fairly unique by virtue of his technique. Though fitting fimly within the electro-acoustic oeuvre, Nehil’s music is set apart because he uses no processing on the natural sounds he collects, instead focusing on the methods used to capture the sounds as his chief instrument of differentiation – an amazing feat when seen within the context of the tremendous diversity he achieves. Amplification enlarges microscopic events to large-scale happenings while objects are rubbed, scraped and caressed into giving forth their sonic essence. It’s all then assembled and ordered to realize the final intensely-organic pieces-small windows onto Nehil’s boundless imaginary landscapes.
– Chris Rice, Halana #4

Here’s a new highlight work to add to the secretly growing body of work drawing inspiration from artists like Xenakis and The New Blockaders. Nehil’s cd, after a number of tapes with Alial Straa, is a sensitive study of the haphazard dynamics of friction and collision. Sounds that are a little unpredictable like those that would be made by slowly pushing large fragments of a broken terracotta pot with a broom. Sounds such as you might hear if you pressed your ear against a large water pipe in the utility closet of an old tenement building. Composed are the layers, not the events, but synchronicity and timing are still key to its success. Recommended.
– Jeff Filla, N D 21

First release by sound gatherer and organizer Seth Nehil, of the local sound collective, Orogenetics. Much like his peers Mnortham and JGrznich (responsible for The Stomach of the Sky CD and the newly released The Absurd Evidence), Nehil emphasizes the texture of sound in itself, isolated from structure and its surroundings, and then alchemically reconfigured into a new substance. ‘Cirrus’ is a microscopic rendering of plate tectonics, which grinds and builds a sense of foreboding, like thunder incubating in clouds of granite. The weather system dissipates, only to rebuild itself in the hell-rattle of ‘Nimbus’, which is not far from the malbolge of Xenakis’ electroacoustic classic, ‘Bohor’. There is no real climax until about 16 minutes into the final piece, ‘Stratus’, where the layers become so enormous and dense that they must finally release themselves. For new recruits into this type of listening, the sounds may appear to be aimless (to say nothing of being scarcely audible at times), yet there are some sublime moments where the disparate threads of gossamer sound really crystallize and bind into a new monument of sound.
– Andy Beta,

Les premiers instants de l’album de Seth Nehil font comprendre que la participation de Michael Northam (erg) au projet est bien effective. Michael Northam est à l’origine du fanzine américain N.D. et du label du même nom (Vidna Omana, Brume, PBK..). Tracing the skins of clouds semble bénéficier de l’approche concrète / recomposée qui anime le label Kaon. Les sources sont ostensiblement concrètes et leur “musicalisation” s’opère de manière aussi environnementale que s’il s’agissait d’un recueil naturaliste. Simplement, l’éventail de sons témoigne d’un intérêt pour différentes textures, que l’on devine bois, métal, gaz… et dont la réaction acoustique est surtout provoquée par frottement, ce qui produit des effets circulaires très évocateurs. Une évocation qui se manifeste subjectivement par des impressions de traversées de couloirs – naturels et artefacts – semés de reliefs plas ou moins rèches, où le manque de lumière est palié par un rendu des échos et des réverbérations très sensible…
– Denis Boyer, Fear Drop n°6

Ebenfalls in den Orogenetics Studios und thematisch in direkter Korrespondenz zu ” The Stomach of the sky ” ist Tracing the Skin of Clouds (Kaon ao98) entstanden. Am Werk war hier JGRZINICH/MNORTHAMs in Austin TX lebender Kollege SETH NEHIL. Unter Verzicht auf alle Effekte und jede Electonic horcht der puristische Tape-Artist SETH NEHIL verschiedene Materalien wie Holz, Stein, Glas und Metall nach Klangeigenschaften, ab. Durch Schaben, Reiben, Umherschieben etc. verwandelt er einzelnz Gegenstände in Klangkörper, die Klangwolken aussondern, deren Bewegungen im Raum minutiös verfolgt werden. Die Wolkenmetapher taucht in der Untergliederung von SETH NEHILs organischer Tape-Komposition auf als : circus – nimbus – stratus. Die Klangwolken lassen sich wie friedliche Walfische streicheln, während sie schwerelos im Raum vorbeidriften. Als ob die Elemente denjenigen verschonten, der sich ihnen demütig nähert. Vielleicht ignorieren sie ihn auch nur. SETH NEHILs grüne Idylle setzt ein interesseloses Wohlgefallen von beiden Seiten voraus. Jede menschliche Willensregung würde die feine Balance zerstören. Also rührt euch nicht, ihr kleinen Buddhas, schon wer einen Schatten wirft, brächte das Rad ins Rollen. ” We draw connections between inside and outside / Our bodies trace the tactile tension / between ground and sky “.