Weaving Through the Mesmeric Sounds of Composer Sarah Davachi
When the world is constantly looking for self-care, music plays a vital role in that equation, and Sarah Davachi is one of the many necessary artistes.
She is more than just a Canadian experimental musician – the composer and performer’s combo of electronic and instrumental sources has become an essential component within the current landscape of electroacoustic music.
Ever since her first LP, titled Barons Court, came out in 2015, Baron has taken control of her sound, aiming for a novel approach to ambient music.
She makes sure we recognise her emphasis on texture, the complexity of the overtone, and psychoacoustic phenomena, as well as its tuning and intonation.
With a new album titled Two Sisters in the bag released via her Late Music imprint, Davachi once again impresses us with 90 minutes of original compositions with a chamber ensemble and pipe organ.
We are invited into an intimate and patient experience of Davachi sounds that will make you sink into your body by how the sounds emanate through your veins.
Here, we spoke to Davachi about her journey of emotional dwells in music, her favourite instruments, and what she wants us to take away from her projects.
Hi Sarah, how has 2022 been for you?
Really busy! It feels like everything that was sort of on pause for the past two years has now caught up with the world, like three years’ worth of work is being stuffed into a single year.
It feels intense in a way that I’m not used to, but maybe that’s also just my perception having had time to slow down and recalibrate before getting back into it. Time has just slipped through my fingers this year it seems.
Otherwise, it’s been the same as every other year, ups and downs.
Could you share a little bit about yourself with us?
I grew up in Calgary, which is in western Canada at the point where the Rockies and the prairies meet. It was a nice, quiet place to grow up with a lot of negative space for the developing mind to wander.
I’ve lived in the United States twice now – I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 to do my master’s degree in electronic music at Mills College.
That was an unparalleled and very special experience, studying at Mills and living in the Bay Area. I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at today without having that time at Mills to freely explore my interests and practice in such a meaningful locale.
I then moved back to Canada, splitting my time between Vancouver and Montreal, basically just trying to immerse myself in the musical communities of those two cities as much as possible.
I know it’s a cliche but there really are different attitudes in lifestyle between the coasts and I’m the kind of person who needs a lot of varied experiences and needs them to be in balance, so I think it was good mental and creative exercise for me to have the isolation of the western cities and the stimulation of the eastern cities.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2017, again initially for school, to start a PhD in musicology at UCLA, but LA is somewhere I really wanted to be anyway.
There are obvious societal distinctions between the US and Canada and the more time I spend in the US the more aware I am of the finer points that were ingrained in me having grown up in a country like Canada.
I’m not sure that the US is the kind of place where I’d like to grow old or raise a child, but for now I really enjoy being in LA.
Again, a complete cliche, but there is so much topographical and symbolic space in LA and I think that suits someone like me very well.
A lot of space to disappear into, to go deep into a particular mental state, whether good or bad, to get some distance and perspective, a strong sense of possibility and inspiration, it’s something that’s really necessary for me creatively and personally.
I don’t really feel like I can comment on the experience of living in the US in a general sense because California is truly its own entity in a lot of ways. And both the Bay Area and Los Angeles have very specific artistic histories and identities, so they often feel pretty insular from the rest of the country.
LA has such an amazing community of people and it’s a pretty surreal place, which you never really get used to in a good way.
It’s definitely not a cheap city but in terms of large American cities it is unique in that people can still afford to rent houses and larger living spaces that are more conducive to a creative atmosphere that isn’t completely distinct from your daily prosaic rituals, which I think is important, at least for someone like me.
I don’t have any desire to live in any other city in the United States other than Los Angeles.
How did you go from studying philosophy at university to creating music?
I started studying music as a child, I was put into piano lessons when I was six and went through performance and theory examinations through the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada.
I guess I didn’t realise when I was a teenager that composition and musicology were paths that I could pursue, and I had absolutely no interest in classical performance or anything of that nature, so I think I never really took music seriously until I was around 18.
I took a lot of composition and music history courses when I was doing my bachelor’s degree, and the turning point for me was taking a seminar on electroacoustic composition.
There was definitely a yearning to create and ideas about texture and harmony and time that were percolating, and when I realised that what I had been wanting to do was achievable through electronics and electronic manipulation and recording and the composer-performer dynamic and all of that, everything sort of clicked.
I studied philosophy at university because I had a lot of different intense interests as a teenager – art, history, science, psychology, all of it – and eventually I realised that I wasn’t so much interested in actively doing those things as much as I was in thinking about them, in the idea of them, so philosophy just seemed like a natural fit.
I knew that philosophy was this super indulgent thing that I was doing just for my own fulfillment, and I feel really lucky that I had the opportunity to luxuriate in that for several years, I really love the rigorous nature of it and how out there you can go with the thought all while working through the articulation of it.
By the end of the degree, I was focusing primarily on French continental philosophy, phenomenology and hermeneutics and things like that, and those disciplines are very central to the musicological work that I do now with instruments and timbre, and to my compositional approach in particular.
How did you first start finding your sound, and what was that journey like?
My first attempts at kicking some kind of compositional consciousness were in relation to harmony – when I was immersed in piano performance I really loved playing Chopin and Bach and I remember pausing on certain chords and just sort of sitting with them, wishing I could elongate them so I could become closer to the sound.
I think that’s a feeling, of harmonic intimacy and temporal suspension, that I’m forever chasing. I attempted to write things for piano early on, but it never felt right.
At around the same point in my life, in 2007, I became acquainted with electroacoustic composition and recording – how the studio could be a compositional tool and how sound could be sculpted, and how I could be in control of all of it, that was really huge for me – and I also got a job at a musical instrument museum in Calgary, primarily electronic and acoustic keyboard instruments, and that just deeply influenced my perspective on instruments and timbre and nuance and dialogue in sound and texture and experiences of performance and listening and all of that.
That job was a gift because I had a lot of free time to explore instruments in a way that I never would have otherwise.
I had an interest in experimental music and popular practices that were adjacent to experimentalism, and all of that kind of converged when I got to Mills and had the time and space and resources to really just explore and figure things out with low stakes, and with the historical context of experimental music in the Bay Area hanging over my head.
I reconnected with my love of baroque music during that time as well, which quickly evolved into a deep reverence for early music and tuning.
When you create, are you usually inspired by something in particular, or do you just start experimenting? What is that process like?
It varies. Often times I have a general idea in mind that I want to explore, like a feeling or a concept or a particular practice or instrument or something like that, and then the music slowly emerges out of that, through improvisation and sculpting and iteration.
Other times, things just start through open exploration and then I latch onto specific ideas and try to develop them further.
There’s typically always something guiding my approach, no matter how vague or general, but I’m not the type of person to ignore what feels right if the sound is suggesting a different path.
I think you’d be doing the music a disservice if you held tight onto a particular idea that just isn’t working, trying to force it, especially if different directions are presenting themselves.
It’s important to keep following those original ideas and keep trying them out, just maybe in another context, another time.
My work always starts that way, from something general, and then it’s just a continual process of refining and moving closer to something specific, making decisions about where things should go at particular moments.
I consider myself to be the kind of artiste who feels more comfortable in the studio than in live situations, but I think I grossly underestimated the importance of the live domain before the pandemic.
Having taken a step back from performing and then diving back into it, I’m overwhelmed by how important that process of exploration and repetition of ideas and iteration has been when performing live.
The studio is great for experimentation and detail and refinement, but those larger ideas, the places where your mind wanders and where sound naturally guides you in real time, that happens in such a special way in the live forum, where you have the time and space to really go to specific places.
How do you feel your sound and creative process have changed since you started?
I feel like I’m constantly trying to chase some fundamental idea or feeling of textural intimacy, and I think I always will be.
That’s what it’s always been about for me and I think I’ve just progressed through different ways of articulating that.
I’m a control freak and in the early days that was really integral to my process, being able to produce sound as a dual expression of composition and performance.
I think that’s why I became so deeply engaged in electronic and electroacoustic music early on, the agency involved in formulating the sound and creating it at once, shaping it and constructing it almost like a sculpture was really important for me.
I think I needed to practice that in a private environment in order to be comfortable figuring out ways to articulate it for other musicians, and lately I’ve really been enjoying translating those ideas about harmony and time and texture in such a way that acoustic players can interpret them.
You work with so many different instruments and types of synthesisers to create your sound. Do you have a favourite?
That’s a very difficult question, like choosing a favourite person.
To me, each instrument has a particular idiom and idiosyncratic behaviour, and each person interacting with the same instrument will also have a different dialogue with it, so it’s really hard to compare.
They are inherently different and that’s what I love about them, the idiosyncrasies.
In terms of electronic instruments, I really love electric organs like the Hammond B3. I don’t have the space for one at the moment, but I do have a Korg CX-3, which is an analog B3 simulator, basically a combo organ that only functions as a B3, and I really love working with that.
The nuance of the drawbars and the way in which you synthesise timbre through harmonics is beautiful, and the added texture of the rotary/Leslie speaker, which is completely entwined with the sound of a B3, basically just makes the instrument flicker like a candle, I love it.
I also use the Mellotron endlessly, everything about it is perfect from the stop/start “breath” of the instrument to the texture that arises in its inherent tape-based compression.
I have a few favourite synthesisers: the Korg PS series, which are the greatest polyphonic synthesisers ever created, the EMS Synthi and the Sequential Circuits Pro One.
In terms of acoustic instruments, I constantly work with strings, they’re so versatile and just kind of the perfect instrument for working with intonation and tuning. I love writing for woodwinds and brass, especially lower-register instruments like the bass flute and trombone.
Of course, I have a deep love of the organ, which I developed an interest in alongside the synthesiser.
In my mind, the pipe organ is an acoustic synthesiser, and there’s nothing like that level of timbral articulation.
Is there an aspect of sound that you wish more people would pay deeper attention to when listening to your and others’ work?
Timbre and harmony. I love these aspects of sound, they are so transformative and emotional in a really overwhelming way, and it’s really jarring to me when they can be so easily overlooked, it’s really disappointing.
I think one of the biggest criticisms you see when you read about drone music and minimalist music is the unbelievably ignorant idea that “nothing is happening”.
It drives me up the wall, truly, for a number of reasons.
Sure, there may not be a lot happening melodically or rhythmically or in terms of traditional harmonic progression, like chord changes, but those are not the only things that are perceptible in music and sound, and there’s so much joy and meaning that you can experience when you open yourself up to the harmonic moment, to the vertical experience of texture.
In my music, duration and repetition and pacing are essentially tools that create the necessary listening environment, by slowing things down and allowing sounds in the space to exist and do what they need to do in terms of psychoacoustics.
Also, I have nothing against the concept of ambient music, but it’s a huge pet peeve of mine when people refer to my music as being ambient.
It’s completely not meant to serve that function.
I know that I can’t control how people experience my work, and I have no interest in trying to do that, but I guess I would like for people to know that my intention has never been to make music that exists in a deliberately detached way, and I could imagine that a lot of artists who are lazily lumped into the category of “ambient” would probably agree.
What would you say has been the most challenging thing about your career?
Finding balance and maintaining a sense of advocacy for myself and my work. It’s really easy to get caught up in what people say about your work or how it’s perceived, or what people say you should or shouldn’t do, and all you can do is trust yourself.
Maybe other people will get it and maybe they won’t, there’s nothing you can do about that.
I love that I’ve been able to carve out a way of working that involves a lot of different modes – like being solitary in the studio, or being on tour in public acoustic spaces, or working with labels and musicians and agents on various projects – because I need that kind of variation to feel satisfied, but balancing a schedule and maintaining sanity when you have a lot going on can be really hard, especially when there isn’t any built-in time for you to rest or take care of yourself.
The hardest but most important lesson has been learning when to say no to things, learning the value of my time and energy, and being okay with my needs as the person doing this work.
I don’t think this is something that I’ve conclusively figured out, but rather something that I will constantly have to navigate.
What genres of music or artistes do you personally enjoy listening to?
There’s a lot of music that I enjoy listening to and even more that I can appreciate on specific levels even if I don’t enjoy listening to it... that overly exclusionary way of thinking about music doesn’t make much sense to me.
Sometimes people are surprised that I listen to a lot of popular music, especially stuff from the 1970s, I guess because the music that I make is so removed from that, but that’s really confusing to me.
If you’re someone who makes music, chances are you just love sound in general, and how could it be possible that the only music you enjoy listening to is exactly the same as the music you feel compelled to make yourself?
With that being said, I guess it’s pretty obvious that I love a lot of experimental music, particularly quiet and intimate expressions that have informed my own practice – people like Éliane Radigue, La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, Alvin Curran.
I deeply love all sorts of popular music, which of course is almost a meaningless term because of how expansive it is... but every aspect of “popular” music making, from songwriting to arrangement and production, it’s so fascinating and endlessly fulfilling to listen to and think about.
As I mentioned earlier, I also have a deep reverence for a lot of early music traditions, particularly from the 15th and 16th centuries.
From a compositional perspective, I also adore non-lyrical (but not necessarily non-vocal) music that serves some kind of devotional purpose; there’s a lot to learn about the pacing and structure in those kinds of sounds if you’re trying to create a similar space in which perception can be movable.
If your music were a film, what would it be and why?
My favourite film is Barry Lyndon and when I think about how my music could fit into the context of film, I imagine it somewhere between that and a film such as Andrei Rublev.
Time and duration are inherent aspects of my music, the intended sonic experience and the perceptual details that I aim for take time to unfold, so films that are slow-moving and almost purely textural in some respect make the most sense to me.
I don’t think in short narrative bursts, that kind of immediate distillation of sound is really hard for me to navigate. I’m totally comfortable making a piece of music that lasts an hour, but the thought of creating a 15-second theme or motive feels like an impossible task.
Is there something you want people to take away from your work?
I guess as I mentioned earlier, I’m interested in the perceptual elements of sound that are not typically considered super normative, like harmony and texture and timbre and pacing.
There are details in all types of music that you can look for, and there is a particular type of sonic reward that you experience when you let yourself go there.
It’s there in all types of music, even music that is super melodic or lyrically driven – I just intentionally strip away those things in my music so that the focus can move elsewhere, to things that are often hidden in the background texture.
I know that drone music and minimalist styles of music can sometimes feel inaccessible, but the point really is about listening. And if you just sit and listen without worrying about what should be happening, I promise you’ll find something new and worthwhile.
What else can we expect from you before the year ends?
Towards the end of the year, Late Music will release a sort of companion 2xCD of live performance recordings and related material, including some commissions and pieces that I created during an artist residency.
We did something similar a few years ago with the 2xCD Figures In Open Air.
I’ll be on tour basically throughout October and part of November, and in my home studio the rest of the time.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years' time?
I’d like to still be doing all of the things that I’m doing now, just on a larger scale.
I love making solo albums and touring, that is the most fulfilling thing for me, so that will never end, but I’d also really like to expand the compositional projects that I’m currently enjoying a lot, which is to do more long-form ensemble work and commissions for chamber groups or even orchestras and things like that.
I’ve always allowed myself to feel comfortable just doing what I want, not being too concerned with what I maybe should or shouldn’t be doing, and I’m incredibly lucky that things are financially secure enough for that to be sustainable.
If I’m still in a position to do that in five years’ time, I’ll be very happy.
Cover Credit: Sean McCann, Dynamic Wang/Unsplash, edit by Chin Zien
Writer | Kevin Yeoh
When he isn’t making sure Sound of Life stories are published in a timely manner, Kevin enjoys wandering aimlessly in Kuala Lumpur city, going down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovering new music.