Anil Sebastian uses music to bust the binary, and raise big questions around AI, morality, and inclusiveness

Anil Sebastian

Anil Sebastian

Anil Sebastian is a busy person. We chat during the second lockdown, but it seems a little thing like that doesn't matter to someone like them when it comes to not only an outpouring of creative ideas but of positivity, too.

We're speaking mostly because Sebastian's just launched their half-hour-ish music film piece on Nowness, Daffodil: a sci-fi-leaning, part-animated, part-personal treatise, part found footage collage of images held together by the thread of his own electronic music compositions.

The piece has a narrative that's futuristic, morally and sociologically complex and which opens up a whole lot of big themes. Using a mixture of the surreal and the real, the film is set in the near future and tells the story of a scientist (played by Anil Sebastian) "gone rogue", attempting to bring back the conscious mind of a child in the form of an AI.

Daffodil cover

Daffodil cover

Billed as a "Descartesian meditation on existence and consciousness", it asks questions around "authentic" way of being in a time when technology continues to infiltrate our public and private life; whether AI can truly "exist" and have consciousness; and on a more individual plane, compels its viewers to ask themselves whether given the possibility to bring back someone they loved and lost if they would do so. It uses the personal as a lens through which to examine the scientific and the existential.

This is just the latest project for the prolific musician and artist. They released their debut album Mesonoxian in 2017; having long played as part of Icelandic band Hrím, with singer Ösp and producer Cherif Hashizume; and working with the likes of Alt-J, Manu Delago, Elena Tonra (Daughter), Eivor, Eska, Laura Mvula, Sam Smith and U2 on musical arrangements and guitar.

Sebastian is also well known as the co-founder and director of the legendary London Contemporary Voices Choir, which started life about ten years ago when they were playing the guitar for Imogen Heap, and she asked them to help put together a choir for a special live-streamed show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. They loved doing so, and the choir went on to live way beyond that initial performance.

Here, we chat about the power of communal singing to platform less-heard voices, music as communication, imposter syndrome and a whole lot more.

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Tell me more about the London Contemporary Voices Choir

Right from the get-go, we had this very unusual project that kicked the whole thing off—the Royal Albert Hall was the biggest live stream that ever happened at that point. It was a massive electronic music project with these pioneering artists, so it was really instantly different and refreshing. I'm really passionate about seldom heard voices, partly because of my own identity: being queer and non-binary and mixed race is kind of different. There was this opportunity to do something really different. But even if I tried to do something really super traditional, I wouldn't be able to because I would never be accepted in that kind of a world.

Yeah, I suppose the idea of a choir has certain connotations around it

We're forming a transgender, non-conforming choir, and one of the motivations is that for gender non-conforming people, it's really difficult being in a choir because it's such a gendered thing—you know, girls stand over there, boys sound like this, girls sound like that. It really is a very difficult place, and a very vulnerable place to be: even if you leave aside the institutional racism, and all of the other stuff that goes with the very, very traditional establishment. Ours is a very diverse community: we have choral scholars from Cambridge, and we love them, they're incredible singers, but it's for all voices. It's got a philosophy of being genuinely open-minded to all voices and people who've been trained in very different ways whether that be through Cathedral School, learning at home, through a rock band or whatever.

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What do you think being in a choir brings people whose voices might not otherwise usually be heard in that way?

The whole community thing is the biggest reason people say when we ask them: meeting other people, making friends, relationships, all of those things. But there's also an increasing understanding that music, and singing, in particular, is really, really good for your physical health, and your mental health.

There's a deeper tradition in the UK of social mobility that I'd like to bring back. This is perhaps a simplistic way of looking at it, but hundreds of years ago, everybody was singing in their local choir, whether that be the people that worked on the land, or clean people's houses or the landowners themselves. So it was a way for people to come into contact with each other and meet people from different backgrounds and do something together. Obviously, back then, there were lots of other things that stopped social mobility, but I think the access to that was greater because there were lots of local choirs. It's a great thing for people different people from different sides of this very binary universe that we live in to mix.

There's also been a lot of focus on the individual when it comes to music: it's seen as impressive to be able to sing loud and be heard over everybody else. Communal and choral singing is now coming back as a way of finding a softer side, a way of coming together and blending and being part of a whole, and communicating through music.

With Daffodil, you've got so many other people working on things like the direction (by Thiing Studios), animation (by Thomas Rawle), all that sort of stuff. What do you look for in someone that you think will be a good fit when it comes to collaboration?

I look for a sense of equity or equality in the relationship. It's all about the relationship to me; whether I'm co-creating something with somebody with advanced dementia, an AI performance artist, a choir, a Grammy-winning artist, or working on a film with an animator. There has to be a sense of equality and flow between you and being at ease with letting go. You need a willingness to play and be playful and out of your depth and not know what the hell's going on, and just sort of seeing what happens. It takes a lot of vulnerability.

A lot of people maybe feel like they want to be able to prove that they can do everything themselves, and especially so when you look at intersectional oppression. For women in music, for example, if anyone male has worked on the same project, it will instantly be assumed that they've done all the complicated technical stuff. That must be so frustrating and drive a lot of people's feeling that need to do show they can do things themselves. That's also the case for queer artists and people of colour.

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Am I right in saying that you didn't formally study music? How did you get into it?

Before the sixth form, the school I went to offered half an hour a week of guitar lessons that I shared in a group of three; that was good, that inspired me. But the college I went to didn't do A level music, and having expensive private lessons wasn't the possibility for my parents. Throughout that my dad was very ill, so the only option for me was learning myself at home. The best thing that happened for me was how, as a family, we communicated through music: it’s a really integral thing to our culture. A lot of how I learned was experimenting in my room and obsessively working at it. I ended up with my first professional gig as a guitarist when I was 17 or 18. That was quite strange because I've always felt that I'm not qualified to do this. I have major imposter syndrome in virtually everything I do.

Even now?

Yeah, absolutely. That's always my first thought: "I'm not qualified to be here. I'm not good enough." I think it all stems partly from racism: not being brown enough for brown people and not being white enough for white people. As a second-generation immigrant, there was a pressure to do something “sensible” to prove your worth: you have to work for the NHS or go and be a doctor or a nurse or an accountant or a lawyer—if you can do something that helps people and that shows that you're a good person, you deserve to be here.

Tell me a bit more about your family’s way of communicating with music

My dad was a musician in his youth and played on the radio back in Malaysia, where he was born. But when he moved to the UK, he didn't play music anymore, the only thing that he carried on doing was DJing. He went down this very academic route, but that's all he would have been allowed to do, really. There’s a musical spirit in our genes and in our family and in our culture: on my mum's side, her sister sang in a choir, my mum sang in a choir, her dad sang in a choir, they were all singers. My mum sang at home all the time. But again, she was a nurse, and my dad worked for the NHS, and they worked extremely hard. All of us as kids made music in some way or another and still do, and it's our way of coming together. We went through some really tough times as a family, and the music was a kind of release.

Vocalising and using your body to make sounds and communicate and express would have proceeded language [in humanity]: that's how fundamental it is. That's why we connect to it so easily and so instinctively.

In Daffodil, you weave in a lot of footage from your childhood and family life with much broader ruminations on AI and consciousness. What were you looking to say with the piece, and why did the idea of a short music film seem like the best vehicle?

With the film and the archive footage, I was trying to find a narrative that had emotional resonance, because one of the things that are always put me off doing a kind of "physics meets of science meets music” thing is that I didn't want it to be like an encyclopaedia reading or a kind of a “musical of facts.”

My music is very emotional, so I was looking for a way to bring the two things together. Aside from that connection, what really inspires me is seldom heard voices, neural, neurological diversity, artificial intelligence, but really in relation to consciousness and what makes us conscious. Are we conscious? Does consciousness really exist? Can you copy and paste consciousness into something else? And I was starting to explore that from different perspectives.

The Dalai Lama's take on it is that of course, it can: consciousness is incredibly special, but it's not at the same time in that it can flow from one thing to another, and our bodies are just vessels for our consciousness. It also plays on this mind/body dualism, that our minds and our bodies are separate things and not one of the same. What I really started to think about when it came to emotional resonance was noticing people's reactions: if you talk about AI to people, and they get increasingly nervous, the more human something appears. The idea of a conscious Siri or Alexa actually really scares most people.

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I suppose that sort of thing is incredibly hard to get your head around

Exactly. It’s also about autonomy and uniqueness—the idea that it has to be my consciousness that makes me special. I love going where that fear is and finding out more about it, so that was the motivation. The film is a thought experiment: if you took this pretty random collection of little snippets of childhood, of data—you could call it memory—and feed it into something, would it ever really get anywhere close to recreating an identity?

Have you done anything similar to the film before?

No, so the process was terrifying. The lyrics came from reflections; through reading; researching all the things we've talked about, really; but also, from my own emotional reactions to various bits of footage and things like that. From that point of having the lyrics and a broad idea of the conceptual “thought experiment”, I then worked with Tom [Rawle] to, and he would start to sketch out what the visuals might look like. The narrative and the music adapted to the iterations of the visuals. It was really strange because it's very much a music film, but it felt like a fun experiment as the inverse of the usual film score where the music is created after the visuals.

With every step forward that the visuals took, the music became clearer: it went from this sort of intimate harp and whispered vocal into some really epic stuff.

So what’s next for Daffodil?

I feel like a daffodil in itself will continue to sort of grow in its own way, but I can't say too much about it yet. Part of what's gonna happen next with the film is working with the AI performance artist, Ada. Outside of that, I'm quite keen to interpret it live but in a different kind of a way, maybe as an installation piece.

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BTS shot from the making of Daffodil

BTS shot from the making of Daffodil

BTS shot from the making of Daffodil

BTS shot from the making of Daffodil

BTS shot from the making of Daffodil

BTS shot from the making of Daffodil

Kali record cover

Kali record cover

Saudade record cover

Saudade record cover