Sevish (a.k.a. Sean Archibald) is an electronic dance music composer from London, UK, and a well-known creative force in the world of online microtonal music, having made several releases of his own work and having collaborated with other artists, notably Tony Dubshot and Jacky Ligon. He has been independently releasing music online since the age of 16, and later started the split-notes record label for microtonal music in 2010. Listeners new to his work might want to start by sampling his record Rhythm and Xen. I conducted this interview with Sean via email over several months, starting in late December of 2015. -Aaron Krister Johnson (AKJ)
UnTwelve: Sean, tell us what you are up to musically at the moment. What are your plans for 2016?
Sevish: There's an upcoming compilation album, titled 'Next Xen', which features microtonal music from 16 musicians including myself. [ed. note -- the album has already been released]. It's a pleasure for me to organise such a project that couldn't have happened without international collaboration. Aside from that, I always try to write music when I get the time. A couple of months back I finished some really tasty tracks that I will share in the new year. It's exciting to know that these sounds will be in listeners' ear holes soon, but all things in good time.
UnTwelve: It's exciting to see you have both an entrepreneurial side and a creative side. Let's address both separately. First, tell us, what inspired you to want to start you internet label releases, such as the above-mentioned 'Next Xen' project?
Sevish: Before I got interested in microtonality, I was really into the copyleft and open source movements. I had released a couple of EPs and an album independently, under Creative Commons licenses to encourage the free sharing of my work.
The idea for doing internet label releases came from my own experiences trying to share microtonal music with some of my friends. We always traded music with each other, and I wanted to share my new-found fascination with strange tunings. But they didn't really get it - I was playing tuning demonstrations that I downloaded from the internet, clips of famous microtonal works such as La Monte Young's The Well Tuned Piano, things like that. It was all music that I enjoyed greatly, but it was all outside of their musical comfort zone, and they couldn't extract any understanding of the new intonations from the musical experience as a whole.
At that time I had already started to integrate alternative tunings into my own electronic music; I was writing the album that turned out to be Golden Hour. So I figured, why not use that album to kickstart a new digital record label with the goal of promoting microtonal music. I wanted to lower the barrier of entry in two ways: showcase microtonal music that is more accessible to general listeners, and make all releases free to download so that folks could get it on their iPods quickly after discovering it. And that's how it all started.
UnTwelve: Brilliant, and as an unabashed Linux fanatic myself since 1997 (yikes!), I share your enthusiasm for the open source movement! You've often said that one of the things microtonality needed to make it have wider appeal were drums, and hence, you've made it a mission to create "microtonal with a beat" music. You've done very well representing the musical and production quality possible with that in your own works, and promoting others' works in that genre as well. I suppose we could call it a sub-category of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music)....anyway, I was wondering if you could say more.
Sevish: The problem of how to describe my own music is very much an ongoing battle. "Microtonal with a beat" has always been an easy way to describe my musical approach to other microtonalists. But it's about more than drums. *Whole* musical experiences (with high production quality, stellar performances and catchy bits) are what I want to hear - something I rarely feel from an academic approach.
UnTwelve: I'm curious what you mean by 'academic approach'? Can you say more, or provide some examples? (I certainly agree that high production quality, stellar performances and catchyness are desirable, and who doesn't, but -- I would think those things are independent of genre or style...or, are you even talking about genre or style when you say 'academic approach'?)
Sevish: By academic approach I suppose I mean two things. First are the tuning demonstrations that render microtonal ideas using low quality electronic sounds in order to quickly share ideas to other tuning theorists. Secondly is some sections of art music who do really experimental things just for the sake of it. These kinds of music do have value, but the overabundance of it within the microtonal 'scene' isn't helpful to popularising microtonal music, at least in my opinion. Luckily I think more people are taking the wholesome approach over the last few years.
UnTwelve: Agreed. Are you interested in composing for acoustic instruments (solo, ensemble) at any point in the future?
Sevish: I have a few textural pieces in the vault that could be arranged for an acoustic ensemble and they would work well that way. My greatest difficulty in composing for acoustic instruments would be notating my ideas, since I can barely read and write notation. For now I'm still within the paradigm of music as recordings. But sure, I'm interested!
UnTwelve: What kind of habits do you have as a composer and creator? What is your typical workflow?
Sevish: Some days I do nothing but come up with new sound designs. So I have built a personal library or original sounds to use when inspiration hits.
Before I start a track I'll always choose a set of pitches first. Then I'll jam on my keyboard or my AXiS until I discover something I adore the sound of. It's usually a chord progression or simple melody. I will start to layer other sounds on top of that and work out a draft structure for the rest of the track. At that point I spend an obsessive amount of time re-listening and filling in little details. My approach becomes very iterative and my tracks tend towards a higher event density as I continue to develop them.
Sometimes during this process I get stuck somewhere and don't know where the track is going. So I just wait for inspiration to strike. The result is that many of my tracks end in a different place to where they began. But I'm keen to let this process unfold naturally to see what music results.
UnTwelve: Do you prefer working on the AXiS vs the keyboard for particular reasons, or is it kind of a random thing? And please, tell more about your kit/gear. What hardware and software are you using to design your sounds, typically?
Sevish: The AXiS works well for microtonal music because you can play very large chords with one hand, and fingering becomes less chaotic than using a normal keyboard. What I'm really yearning for is an 88-key MIDI keyboard with the keys rearranged for 22-EDO. Imagine the Halberstadt keyboard layout with all the Es removed. It's Paul Erlich's solution, and a fantastic solution at that. My goal is to buy and modify a keyboard to this layout within the next year. And of course, write a tonne of music.
Aside from all this, I collect small acoustic instruments but use them in my work very sparingly. I play a little kalimba, jaw harp, melodica, and some others.
As for software, I use Ableton Live to compose and produce my music. Live doesn't have any built-in microtonal support, so I get alternative tunings by using VSTi plugins such as Jacky Ligon's Xen-Arts synthesisers. Jacky's synths have a distinctive sound which has shaped my own music over the last few years.
UnTwelve: You are on a desert island, and there's a force-field that prevents you from working with anything but 5 tuning systems for the rest of your life. Which ones do you pick? In other words, what are your top 5 choices for the moment?
Sevish: First of all 22-EDO, because it's my favourite. I'll also take 12-EDO, so that I can be nostalgic about music from my life before on the island. I'll take 14-EDO because it's genuinely an intuitive and cool system. Next up is the Bohlen-Pierce scale, which I wouldn't use at first, but it will become more useful after my island starts its own horror movie industry. Then finally I'll have extended no-limit just intonation. I hope that last one isn't cheating.