Sebastian Reynolds intones a captivating voice as forbidding drones ring against throbbing rhythms, leaving listeners unsure whether to dance or to seek cover with his new album Canary.
Inspired by Reynolds‘ love for bands such as Liars, Public Service Broadcasting and Radiohead, “Cascade” is an electrifying taste of what’s to come from his new full-length Canary — taught, dystopic drones for a civilization in collapse marked by a compositional approach influenced by composers like Susumu Yokota, Luigi Nono, Olivier Messiaen, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Once again, Reynolds traverses modern classical composition and retro-futurist production, this time visiting upon the stillbirth of a child, the death of one’s parents, the nature of consciousness, the relationship between mind and body, the fragmentation of our collective mindscape, and the awakening of machine intelligence.
References to John F. Kennedy, Carl Jung, and Robert Monroe’s influential book Journeys Out of the Body pepper Reynolds‘ meditations as samples from contemporary figures Sam Harris, Lex Friedman, and Navy SEAL Jocko Willink both guide and disorient the listener. As always, Reynolds is keen on preserving a sense of meaning in the mélange of programmed and organic sounds he’s come to be known for.
Reynolds has collaborated with German classical/expressionist musician/composers Anne Müller (Erased Tapes) and Alex Stolze (Bodi Bill) in their Solo Collective project, as well as Mike Bannard at The Aviary and others. He also continues to work on commissions for Neon Dance. Recent works with the company include Puzzle Creature, Prehension Blooms, the Thai-inspired Mahajanaka Dance Drama, and Manuals for Living and Dying. He is currently working on a film commission for Oxford University. His music has been widely supported across the BBC‘s networks and beyond. He hails from Oxford, where he spent his formative years cutting his teeth in the UK cult outfits Braindead Collective and Keyboard Choir.
We had the honor of catching up with Sebastian regarding his new album “Canary,” out today.
“Canary” delves into introspective themes like life, death, and the afterlife. How did you find the creative process different when addressing such profound subjects compared to your previous works?
Grief, loss and catastrophe have always been central themes of inspiration for my music making. Sadly I was touched by tragedy in my teenage years so it’s just a core part of my work. Expressing these inexpressible emotions that arise in the lowest moments. The difference with making Canary compared to previous projects was that it’s my debut solo album, so rather than working within the strictures of a band-type set up, I had more agency in my decisionmaking. That said, over the last few years of working more and more as a solo artist, I’ve built a team of musicians around me, along with my co-producer and mix engineer Mike Bannard, that I trust. They’ve really brought out the best in me for Canary, I hope…
In “Canary,” you touch on the profound experiences of loss, from your mother’s passing to the stillbirth of your son. How did channeling these deeply personal and painful moments into your music affect your own healing process, and what do you hope your listeners will take away from this emotional journey?
The process of making this record definitely served as art therapy, externalising internal pain is a way of objectifying and expunging it in a profound catharsis. My deep motive for being so up-front about my journey through grief is to offer the notion that it’s possible to be reborn through the most painful of experiences. It’s my tribute to my mother and to Noah to every day strive to be my best self, and I hope that I can inspire others surviving tragedy to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The balance between electronic and organic sounds in your music is a unique aspect. Can you discuss the challenges and rewards of finding harmony between these seemingly contrasting elements?
I think that, because I’ve been working in this way for such a long time now, a lot of the methods and ways of working that I’ve developed over the years have become innate, and I have a quick ear for finding interesting or unusual sounds that I can shape and warp together. I often feel like an analogy for working in this way is sculpting, or working with clay—physically manipulating sound into shapes that are aesthetically appealing and thematically intriguing. The main challenge of working with a lot of hissy, fuzzy, lo fi sounds is finding where the distinction between interesting character ends and things just sounding crass or too rough begins…. that is a constant battle!
Your music has been described as blurring the line between mechanical and organic sound sources. How do you approach this delicate interplay to create a sense of cohesiveness in your compositions?
I think that the cohesiveness comes from a strong artistic vision, as well as a clear intention behind what I’m trying to articulate, rather than being too lost in cool sounds for cool sounds’ sake. It sounds pretentious and a bit obscure from the outside, but from the inside I know things go smoother if I have a clear vision for what I’m trying to articulate thematically. It’s much harder if it’s just sounds for sounds’ sake. It’s a bit like asking “How do you know what words to use, if you don’t know what you’re trying to say?”.
The artists you’ve collaborated with, such as Anne Müller and Alex Stolze, come from diverse backgrounds. How do these collaborations enrich your sonic palette and influence the direction of your music?
Going back to a clear vision, I think in order to collaborate effectively you need to strike a balance between compensating for each others’ weaknesses, pushing each other out of your comfort zones, but also still having enough common ground to work from. Anne and Alex are trained classical musicians. I am very much not, so they would push me on my performance ability a great deal, and I got them to loosen up a bit. Adrienne at Neon Dance, for whom I compose scores for, very much has a clear vision and aesthetic, and it’s quite a relief sometimes to be able to create for a director whose vision you trust where you can let them make the final decisions. I’ve definitely been inspired by the experiences of working with these guys, and also the Thai musicians Great Lekakul and Pradit Saengkrai, who I worked with on the Mahajanaka Dance Drama project. Just being opened up to different mindsets, contexts for working and musical styles all feeds in. I was in an improvisational band called Braindead Collective in London for a few years, and I also feel like having a lot of experience in free improvisation has given me some interesting musical tools to draw on. I sometimes get some loops and sounds going in Ableton then jam it out with the Push work surface to bring some life and spontaneity to a studio composition. In the studio with Neon Dance I sometimes get the opportunity to improvise with the dancers when we’re working on scenes, which really gets the creative juices flowing.
The influence of artists like Susumu Yokota is evident in your work. Could you share a specific instance or track where this influence is particularly pronounced and how you’ve made it your own?
One of my early releases, Mahajanaka, which came out of the Mahajanaka Dance Drama project, definitely has a flavour of The Boy and The Tree album by Susumu Yokota in the way I blended Asian instruments, electronics and found sounds:
“Canary” seems to capture a wide range of emotions stemming from personal experiences. How do you channel these emotions into your music while ensuring it remains accessible and relatable to your audience?
To what extent can any artist be sure that their music is “accessible and relatable to your audience”? That’s the 65-million dollar question right there! I think you have to remain authentic to what you are trying to express, trust the process, and hope that someone out there somewhere connects. Ultimately, we are but passing ships in the night.
The notion of “awakening machine intelligence” is one of the themes you explore. How do you view the relationship between human creativity and the potential of AI in the context of music production?
Even though it’s in a very crude form, the algorithmic technology in Ableton Live produces some very interesting, novel results. You can paste-in a sound file to a midi channel and have Ableton try and recreate the part in Midi. Whilst rarely being a realistic copy, the results are often intriguing and produce sounds and ideas that would never have come up otherwise. As the technological capabilities develop, who knows how far that will go. On the other hand, once I can deepfake my own music to a brief I will certainly be able to knock out a lot more film scores!
As someone who has witnessed the evolution of technology and its impact on music, how do you foresee the future of electronic music and its role in shaping the emotional landscape of society?
I think that, as it becomes easier and easier for AI to fake an artists’ work, the direct relationship between consumer and a composer/producer/content creator one can know as a legit human rather than an algorithm will become more and more valuable. For music which is fairly faceless and dehumanised—such as generic, idiom-led dance music that’s created in a utilitarian way—the humans are done. But for high concept, musically-diverse music will (I’m hoping!) become of even greater value. How long before all creativity is replaced altogether? Who can say, but I think for so many artists we’re attracted to the human story behind the art as much as the art itself. Fingers crossed.
Your music has been described as having a heartbeat within its electro-organic blend. How do you maintain this sense of human connection in your compositions, even as technology advances and becomes more integral to the creative process?
It’s possible to make music with entirely acoustic instruments that is completely cold and bereft of emotion. The post-war European modernist movement explored this in great detail—see Stockhausen, Xenakis, Nono etc—whilst the first electronic instrument, the theremin, while having an ethereal, other-worldly tone, has tremendous potential for articulating something profound of the suffering of being, I’ll let Clara Rockmore play us out: