Flock & Tumble


CD, 53 min.
Sonoris sns-06
composed 2006 – 07, released 2008
Cover art by Harrison Higgs

Choral clusters, animalism, extended spaces, natural acoustics, awkwardness, percussive bursts. Site-specific improvisation, blind layering, sonic hybrids, envelope manipulation, faulty tape recorders, live feedback/distortion devices.  Sources include voice, hammer dulcimer, glass xylophone, metal objects, feedback, signal generator, detuned piano, harmonica, wood pieces, fireworks, chimes, bamboo swords, sawblades, glass on tile, bass drum, flute, plucked autoharp, tuning forks, snare drum, 300 lbs of rock salt, a book, and recordings of rain in a half-finished cabin, melting snow on leaves, rain on a plastic roof, struck wood (from inside a well pipe), a graveyard and a schoolyard in Portland, OR, ice crystals and wind in the Columbia Gorge, WA.


Not too often you come across something that just sounds like little else. I suppose, stretching things, I could make a tenuous connection between Nehil and sometime collaborator Olivia Block insofar as a predilection toward certain hollow, echoey sounds and the general kind of construction in effect, but really, this stands apart. And it’s very good. The first rack, “Tew” (so named, I take it, for the vocalized sounds that approximate the title), contains elements that might be kindling wood (or it might be watery in nature, sometimes hard to tell), various percussive tones both tonal and not, scattered irregularly but consistently, and the aforementioned, soft vocalizations, all but hidden. But there is a sense of composition here, of a carefully placed and layered sequence of three sound-zones that don’t so much intermix as entwine. The “whuips” of “Whuip” are indeed whuiped like a, um, flock of cranes, arising here and there from another kind of percussion bed, pinned by deep, sizzling thuds and a ringing drone. Here, as in the first piece, the essential pace is very slow (even as some events flit by quickly), a twilight kind of atmosphere with distant rumbles, fireworks, parties. There’s some wonderful clatter in other places, sounding like pool cues and wooden balls dropped in a large, resonant space, odd voices often present as though commenting on the delirious activity surrounding them (each piece contains its own nest of ideas, another impressive aspect of the disc). Highlights abound, including the marvelous and unexpected explosion of (all but indecipherable) lyricsal content in “The Sun” and the fantastic, Xenakis-like eruption of percussion in the concluding “Blackhole”. If I had to pick, I’d say there are one or two moments when the dronage holds sway a bit long, but overall this is a fine and unique offering, do check it out. Brian Olewnick, Just Outside

Today I have been listening to a quite extraordinary CD. Extraordinary in that it sounds really good and within this narrow area of music that I write about actually quite original. It is called Flock and Tumble, is by the American musician and sound arranger Seth Nehil, and is released on the Sonoris label. I have been listening on and off to this one for a few days now, and also played it on my journey to work, an exercise that once again lead me to wonder which sounds were coming from my immediate surroundings, and which were part of the recorded music. Tonight though I have played it twice (third time through as I type) quite loud on the stereo without headphones.

So what makes it extraordinary? Well its hard to explain. On paper Flock and Tumble is made up of seven short(ish) tracks that involve field recordings, treated instrumental and incidental sounds, bits of human voices and other assorted sonic detritus sculpted together, presumably with music arrangement software. Nothing particularly unusual about that I hear you say, and well, to be honest no there is nothing unusual about the sounds used or how the album has been compiled, but somehow, for some reason Flock and Tumble has a certain character about it that is quite unusual.

I have long admired Nehil’s work. Ura, a really early little 3″ disc he released was a big favourite of mine (and only mine it seems, I never saw it mentioned anywhere else). His albums with Olivia Block and JGrzinich are both also pretty good, but Flock and Tumble feels like a step onwards, Nehil’s boldest statement yet. The album is put together using fragments of field recordings, rain, insects buzzing near a microphone, resonant rooms etc… with portions of treated instrumental sounds (piano, percussion, probably much more less easily identified) and little bits of human voices shouting or chanting. What sets it apart is a wonderful sense of confidence in the material, an ability to go somewhere quite new without worrying about how trendy or tasteful the different elements might end up sounding. The voices appear from nowhere, brief snippets of shouted non-words, sometimes several voices collected together, sometimes just the one. They are not overused, they appear infrequently, and so always take the music to a different, slightly jarring perspective. The rest of the sounds are collected together in a jagged, energetic manner. Things do kind of tumble out of the speakers, all kinds of sounds at once, bouncing off of each other and falling about the floor. There are no gentle drones, tasteful uses of white noise or gradual fades. Sounds just drop into the music, crash about next to others that feel completely unrelated and yet very much at home and then flow onwards to the conclusion of the track.

All of the pieces are strong, but The Sun, a track that amongst other things seems to match violently plucked metal twine against a sole, distantly hammered drum and what sounds like a fly attacking a microphone is particularly exciting and unusual. Somehow these sounds, which are joined by clattering drums, a murky outdoors field recording and strange, somewhat scary voices chanting something not quite intelligible. There is a weird horror movie feel to it all. If this track was played behind a film of zombies walking towards a camera across a misty field it would work superbly. That comment probably makes the music sound cheesy or shallow however, and it really isn’t. This track in particular really did leave my hairs standing up on my neck on the first listen.

This is such a hard CD to describe in words like this. There is a hint of Jeph Jerman in there, natural sounds turned into rhythmic sections, and field recordings used in a bold manner so as to project something more than captures of a moment. The seven tracks all feel like thoroughly planned and realised structures, pieces put together with an end product already in mind rather than chance happenings when random sounds are placed together. Often the sounds are far from random anyway. The treated piano that forms the centrepiece of  Tew, the first piece on the album, or the manic percussion of the closing Blackhole both portray a striking sense of musicianship. Flock and Tumble is just a really exciting album, very fresh in its use of sounds, creating a natural tension from parts that don’t really belong together, and energy from the way it all flows, complete with sudden twists and moments of actually quite sparklingly excellent composition.

This review probably doesn’t tell you enough about why I like the CD, and my descriptions probably do not set it apart much from many other albums, but certainly this is a really very good piece of work indeed. One that fans of field recordings will enjoy, but moreover this is one for those that seek really vibrant modern composition. I really liked this one, in case you can’t tell.  – Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear

Seth Nehil promotes the furtherance of wrinkled soundscapes and unadulterated emotions amidst the difficult-to-admit homogenization of consistent chunks of presumed avant-gardes, which recur to limp certainties after their name is established and the funds are granted for new “adventures”.

The audio imagery comprised by Flock And Tumble is certainly not easy to decipher: it juxtaposes various proportions, meshing physical expressiveness and studio-generated propulsion according to methods characterized by an admirable uniqueness. It doesn’t necessarily respect the blueprints of thorough independence, often sounding composed to the tiniest detail, yet its freshness is perceptible even on a first and not excessively attentive listen. But it’s only with a radical incursion in the winding spirals of these sonorities that the work reveals its importance and – in various circumstances – an unpolished, modest radiance.

Take for example the contrast between the use of the voices, which Nehil exploits in unusual fashion having the performers theatrically emitting incomprehensible, almost panic-stricken clusters and sudden disconnections, and the organic qualities of the percussive features, halfway through an on-site installation and the rattling of abandoned objects in a god-forsaken area. Elements that sound remotely isolated, practically unlinked, describe instead a courageous attempt to indicate a different mindset for the listeners, invited to join a multitude of signals whose impoverished semblance does not detract from their psychological weight. The disorientation is partially amended by the less “active” sections, where everything gets levelled by electronic or heavily processed sounds that lead us across the recondite aspects of sonic disrepair, all the while maintaining a fundamental essence of artistic incorruptibility.

An important demonstration of Nehil’s abilities, this is a classic sleeper which deserves immediate exposure, well beyond the small circle of experts to which music like this is usually addressed. – Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes