Seth Andrew Davis is a multifaceted composer blending electronic, classical and jazz influences into a dizzying array of sound. Davis honed his craft at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he learned how to merge his dueling interests in electronic and analog sounds. His latest album, Ghost in the Machine, is fascinating and foreboding, eerie music that challenges and rewards with repeated listens (especially with headphones). We're proud to share an interview with the artist about his writing process, influences and new music.
Introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
Hello! My name is Seth Andrew Davis, I’m a performer-composer from the Kansas City area. I’m originally from the Hutchinson and Wichita area but I grew up in Liberty, MO. My music falls between the cracks of several genres including jazz/free-jazz, free-improv, contemporary classical/new-music, and electronic music. I’m influenced by several different genres of music, and am interested in combining elements of different genres and subgenres together and synthesizing those different elements together in some weird way. As a performer, I’m a guitarist and I perform and compose in several different ensembles including Second Nature Ensemble, AKAMFDM, BetaMax and others.
When did you start composing music? Who were your earliest influences?
I started writing music in junior high/high school playing in rock bands with friends and writing songs for myself. I also played in my high school jazz band. As I was getting closer to the end of high school, I was really getting into a lot of new music/new classical music and started to see that I really wanted to be a composer. I didn’t really know how to do that, it seemed really foreign to me. I then started to study composition with Michael Miller, (composer-performer and co-founder of Mnemosyne Quartet) and he really opened me up to that world. Michael is also an incredible performer, and he showed me a balance between both roles of being a performer and composer, and how they can feed each other. Around the same time, I started making electronic music and messing around in various DAW’s, not at all knowing what I was doing. That’s really how I’ve learned to compose, just by experimenting and seeing what can fit together and what sounds good to me.
I was into a lot of different types of music growing up, I listened to whatever I could get my hands on. I used to go to the library and check out stacks and stacks of CD’s, everything from early delta blues recordings, early rock music, 60’s Motown and Stax, 60’s psych rock, free-jazz, punk, random film music, Stravinsky, etc. I was (and am) a culture vulture. I’m definitely a product of the IPod generation. Having an IPod definitely rewired my brain, melding together disparate reference points. I really just absorbed a ton of different music, which is probably my biggest influence.
On your website you state, “As a musician and composer, I wish to create different worlds, labyrinths, realities, states of being and consciousness, experiences, and transformations, in my music.” Who are the composers you admire most who you feel achieve these things?
John Zorn is definitely someone I think embodies that statement. As an artist, he’s someone I look up to as a model of who I want to be. Zorn is a performer-composer who blurs the lines between jazz/free-jazz, classical music, rock, heavy metal, electronic music, and has created an entire world melding these elements together. He creates a world for listeners to walk into, that takes you somewhere else. Whether he’s playing with his band Masada, conducting a performance of Cobra, a piece for orchestra or a string quartet. He has dedicated his life fostering a community of performers and composers who are all hybrids of various genres, and he has been successful in doing that. Aside from aspiring to having a vast music world of my own, I hope to create and foster a community of musicians and composers.
What does your composing process look like? What apps do you use, if any?
A lot of my process starts with me simply trying to imagine how a piece will sound in my head before putting anything onto paper. In my brain, I interpret music as color and image. A lot of the time I’m trying to get the music and the colors/images in my head, out of my head and to align. I listen to a lot of music for reference and inspiration. I study a lot of scores If I’m writing a piece for a specific instrumentation. I take a lot of walks to get ideas to let things settle, otherwise I get into a frenzy of just vomiting up ideas and the original intention gets lost. Once I have some sounds in my head, I start sketching out ideas in a notebook and start mapping out things graphically for reference. I also try and talk to performers as much as possible about the playability of what I’m writing and if it’s even feasible. I’ve been known to write really hard or impossible material for players haha, so I try and make sure to find a way to get the same effect while making it playable.
If I’m working on an electronic piece, my process is fairly improvised. I usually spend a lot of time warping samples, building drum racks and synths and messing with them until I like the way they sound. Once I have my materials, I start finding places for them to fit in the mix. I usually start recording and launching samples in Ableton and then edit each improv down until I think it’s perfect.
For my electronic based pieces, I work in Ableton Live and Max/MSP, and I use Sibelius as my notation software. I also use a ZOOM handheld recorder to record found sounds for my electronic pieces.
What are you looking forward to in 2018?
Currently, I’m working on releasing a couple albums of my solo electronic works. These albums consist of tracks I’ve been working on for about 4-5 years. I think it’s some of my strongest work, and I’m overall fairly happy with them. I can see a definite transformation of my work overtime, which is exciting. It’s really surreal to listen back and see how my process has changed.
My frequent collaborator Michael Eaton from New York, also a native of Kansas City, and I’s ensemble Second Nature will be recording an album at the end of this year. Second Nature is a free-jazz/improv and new-music inspired ensemble consisting of members of the KC free-improv and jazz scenes. Michael and I write original music for the group. I’m currently sketching new pieces for the record. With the release of this record we will also be launching our own record label, Mother Brain Records. While using this as a platform to release our own music, we are hoping with Mother Brain that we can showcase and highlight more free-jazz, free-improv, and other experimental based music that people wouldn’t discover otherwise. We want to try and open a venue/event space in the future and possibly start a free-jazz/free-improv festival.
Mostly I’m happy to keep creating and playing music. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and I’m excited to keep getting opportunities to make art.
What inspires you about new classical/experimental music in Kansas City?
I think what you’re starting to see in this scene is the breakdown and deconstruction of genre. There’s a lot of groups that are fairly uncategorizable and meld various different aesthetics together such as Mnemosyne Quartet, EIO (Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes), Tim Harte’s AKAMFDM etc. There’s an incredible amount of diversity and variety, which inspires me greatly. I feel as though we are moving more and more to a post-genre world. At least I hope, that may be a pipe dream haha.
I also think the trend of cross disciplinary collaboration in the scene is inspiring. I’ve had the great privilege of working with choreographers, video artists, playwrights etc. and those kinds of partnerships revitalizes creative forces and pumps new blood into both fields. Collaboration should be encouraged, and pushed across all the arts. I think the idea of the hyper-individualist, lone genius is not a working model, neither are the believed boundaries between disciplines. We should all work together, and evolve each others processes and mediums.
I also think a lot of artists in this scene taking a DIY attitude is very inspiring. Artists taking the initiative to create opportunities for themselves and others is how a community will be built. Anymore, you have to give yourself permission to do the projects you want to do.