Open clusters, animal patterns, resonant “ghosts”, dynamism, percussive bursts and awkwardness. Sources include voice, plucked springs, dry branches, various metal objects, Fender Rhodes, struck pipes, detuned hammer dulcimer, bass drum, clapping, trombone, dry bamboo, signal generator, blown pipes, Chinese mouthharp, church organ, prepared piano, prepared synth, and recordings of the Chicago O’Hare Airport, a rushing stream, mineral deposits in water, snow crystals, heating vents and industrial areas in Portland, OR.
Cover art by Harrison Higgs.
Not that there’s anything very melodic about Furl, the sequel to last year’s Flock & Tumble, also on Sonoris, but there is a discernible return to more traditional notions of motive, development and structure in its five tracks, specially the album’s centerpiece, “swarm”. With its sounds sourced from percussion, complete with their time-honored signifiers (drum roll = increasing tension), and a certain penchant for the good old reversed soundfile crescendo, it’s a 21st century take on the Scheafferian etude, deftly reinserting its constituent elements in varying degrees of transformation in a set of superimposed variations. Luc Ferrari would certainly have smiled at Nehil’s subtle use of panning – headphone listening isn’t essential, but it’s certainly recommended – and his skillful use of different degrees of reverberation to create the aural illusion of depth and distance.
Events take their time to unfold, and extreme changes of dynamic and timbre are studiously avoided, but despite the music’s austerity, Nehil (like Ligeti) can’t resist a lush texture: “hiss”, with its bells and forlorn triads tolling in a mist of rumble, high frequency whines and delicate intakes of breath, is especially haunting. Dan Warburton – The Wire Oct. 2010:
It was much that way with “Furl”. The elements that I foregrounded on my initial pass were ones I’m not so keen on, certain post-serial gestures I associate with 60s electronic tape work (the backwards rushing crescendi, a kind of two-step cadence of a falling heavy object–hard to describe that one, but it sticks out–, etc.) and an approach to vocals on one track that leaves me cold. I imagine because I, at least, find a point of reference to composers like Koenig, Riijmaakers, etc. that I find similar highs and lows with Nehil’s music. When it clicks, as on “hiss”, which is out and out gorgeous, all muted, quavery bell tones emerging from clouds (sometimes downy, other times acidic), everything’s well with the world. When, on the following track, “swarm”, vocal interjections appear, even as they’re embedded in some wonderful, resonant clangs and thwacks, they inevitably carry connotations of archness that give me pause. “whoosh” returns to some fine electro-acoustic sloshing and, well, whooshing, again feeling something like an updating of classic 60s work in the field (the surges, the echoes, the shape of many of the sounds) while the concluding “rattle” is a nest of nettles, dull bangs and harsh whines interspersed with vocalized “bloops”, not as satisfying to these ears.
At its best, to these ears, “Furl” is pretty spectacular. I’d rather Nehil not have veered into areas I find less promising but others may consider exactly appropriate. In any case, fans of the aforementioned electro-acoustic music should give this one a go. – Brian Olewnick, Just OutsideWhen I last wrote about the music of Seth Nehil, he kindly left a comment beautifully describing his working methods as “the back and forth between intention and chaos”. Seth wrote this as I had mentioned how fully formed his music sounded on his excellent Flock and Tumble album- for me, the music there had real character. Somehow, despite me being completely unable to find any description of the music to set it apart from many other electroacoustic compositions, it had felt like a thoroughly well defined and original set of recordings. This lead me to assume it had been the result of careful planning towards a specific end, but Seth’s words pointed out that this was not really the case.Well the follow up to Flock and Tumble, a new release on the Sonoris label named Furl sounds just as original and just as individual to me, and again sounds like it has been planned carefully. Doubtless this is not the case again, but its how it sounds to me. Furl is just as infuriatingly hard to describe as F&T was as well. There are certainly a number of reference points in here, early tape music, a lot of mid-eighties musique concrete, but once again I struggle to think of anyone making music that sounds quite like this right now. Certainly Nehil takes an assortment of small sounds, percussive samples, bells, a piano, all kinds of human voices and who knows what else and collages it all together on a computer, but somehow the end result doesn’t like we might expect it to.Tellingly, there are no drones here, or any strong sense of layered sounds. The sounds that we hear seem to come as strings of events, each clear and bold, the titles of the five tracks; Pluck, Hiss, Swarm, Whoosh and Rattle giving a good clue to their nature. The music doesn’t descend into any kind of textural soup, as these things often can, and there is a real feeling of clarity and definition in the music, which each sound firmly placed wherever it lays. The sounds themselves often throw me completely. The use of human voices on a few of the tracks sound almost corny in places, stifled whoops and half-laughs seem to rise out of clouds of bell tones and various hisses and rumbles, but while they might sound a bit out of place they certainly give the music a richness and variety that renders the music quite different to much else around today.Despite the quirkiness of some sections the music across all of Furl rarely strays far from a deep sense of real beauty. From the opening backward rushes of percussion to the wonderfully hushed closing moments of the final piece Nehil’s palette is as beautifully textured and coloured as it is varied. There a lot of bell-like tones, softly rolling drum sounds and percussive crashes of varying intensities, all placed beside one another so the music rolls along at a slowish pace. Certain sounds seem to reappear in places throughout the disc as well, what sounds like a coarsely vibrating snare in particular jumping out at me in varying locations.
Furl sounds like a really mature piece of music to me. It feels like the work of an artist fully in control of his working tools, seeking out new ways of presenting sounds, matching unusual elements together, not worrying about many of the usual aesthetic stylisations that usually rise out of this kind of composition. Nehil really sounds like he is pushing his own envelope rather than consolidating his past experiences. There is an awkwardness to the music, a constant feeling of uncertainty- should he have included that sound? do the voices work? how does this bit link to the last bit? that makes this a thoroughly intriguing listen, as much of a puzzle to unravel at is something to sit back and relax with.
Something of a tough nut to crack then, more so than Flock and Tumble was, but this is to Furl’s credit. I have written before about how a lot of music that sits in this vague area of composition all sounds very similar. Computer sequencing of samples and pre-recorded material should in theory offer a wide range of possibilities for music, but too often so much of it ends up sounding very much the same. Through his often unusual choice of sounds, his acute, confident sense of placement, avoidance of drones and overall will to produce something personal and original Seth Nehil is, for me leading the way in this area of composition. I’m standing by my assertion that this sounds like carefully considered, well thought through music, even if it isn’t! I await the next disc impatiently. – Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear
A conceptual prolongation of his previous Flock And Tumble (also on Sonoris), Furl incarnates a somewhat more structured version of Seth Nehil’s accumulation of organic, environmental and instrumental substances. It is difficult to approach this work without thinking of it as a cycle of compositions, for the chains of events appear planned with extreme care. However, the sense of unfathomable ambiguity and doubt about the actual origins of the sounds heard are typical of this artist’s field of research. The feel of imminence and contiguity, the space left to each manifestation for being weighed up and evaluated by the listener’s imagination, and the circumscription of vagueness within the borders of a fractional solidity are all strong points of this album, which gives perspectives on the manipulation of sonic phenomena that are both innovative and familiar – especially for those already acquainted with Nehil’s output.
Five pieces are comprised in the disc, the duration not exceeding the limit of ten minutes. They make the time flow quite fast, given the numerous invitations to scrutiny during their unfolding. Nehil applies restraint and congruity as not many comparable composers are able to; he places a percussive incident right before or after the extended tones of something appearing as spectra of processed ringing metals, mixing the elements with customary attention amidst the tiny granules of a rustling vulnerability. Urban flavours were definitely used – unobtrusively, never overwhelmingly. The inexactitude of certain frail reverberations is perceived as an ideal dressing to happenings that stimulate and confound rather than affirming an explicit point of view.
According to that logic, the most absorbing chapter is “Swarm”, in which human voices (one of the record’s very few recognizable constituents) are utilized in puzzlingly anomalous fashion: short phonemes (say, “Hoo”, “Hey”, “Ha”, arranged in slightly out-of-phase mode) seem to depict a condition of precariousness, hesitation expressed by developed creatures arrived on the scene of existence with huge delay. Like the testing of an echo, in a way, or a hopeless call to check if someone responds even if the eyes aren’t seeing anything in proximity. It’s a strange, fascinating moment that beautifully complements the fleeting mirages of this acoustic microcosm. Those who loved the preceding release will not want to miss this, which keeps showing various unopened doors leading to inexplicable discoveries. – Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes