Interview with Sarah Davachi
Island Frequencies & Suoni Per Il Popolo present Sarah Davachi with Supercooling & Kara-Lis Coverdale at Casa del Popolo on September 15. Doors at 20h30. Tickets $10/PWYC.
Interview by Deanna Radford, @deannaradford
Sarah Davachi is a musician and composer of electronic and electroacoustic music based in Vancouver. Her tools are (although not exclusively) of the analogue ilk. While she’s interested in the scope and materiality that working with vintage analog synthesizers brings, Davachi also revels in their technical limitations and aural imperfections. The resulting sounds soar. They are expansive and minimal, simultaneously bringing forth subtly textured atmospherics with warmth.
After obtaining level 10 certification in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music and completing an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Davachi went on to receive a Master’s degree in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in Oakland. She is a long-time staff member of the National Music Centre in Calgary, where she works as Collections Content Developer and Gallery Interpreter. She also works as an educator and researcher and has a fine list of recorded output under her belt on labels such as the renowned Important Records / Cassauna, Students of Decay, Constellation Tatsu and others. Her album Dominions will be out this fall on JAZ Records, from Vancouver.
Sarah Davachi’s assemblage of experience coalesces into an approach that is savvy. On top of a wealth of knowledge concerning very old musical instruments, her music is germane and compelling. She answered these questions by email in early September.
How did you come to experimental music as composer and musician?
SD: To be honest, I don’t precisely remember how it all came together exactly. I guess I was around 18 or 19 years old when I started to want to make music but I didn’t want to write for piano, which is really all I was comfortable with, then having done years of classical training.
I started working at the National Music Centre in Calgary in 2007 (it was called Cantos back then) and started taking some composition classes while doing my undergraduate degree, so I suppose that combination yielded a departure point for me. Having access to a wide variety of keyboard instruments was pretty surreal – like, where else in the world will some stupid 20 year-old nobody kid find a Yamaha CS80 and a 16th century harpsichord and a Hammond Novachord all sitting in the same room? I became really fascinated with the vast sound potential and things just sort of clicked.
I think I started listening to a lot more experimental music around that time, too, but most of the acousmatic/academic electronic stuff I’d heard early on didn’t really do much for me. I was mostly looking to groups like Harmonia and Can and Popol Vuh, since they had used a lot of the electronic instruments I suddenly found myself surrounded by. I got deep into La Monte Young through a composition seminar in my first semester of grad school and that was pretty influential.
In the first few years that I worked at the National Music Centre I gave a lot of tours of the collection and I would often stay a bit later afterwards and try to learn a different instrument each time. I remember I would often sit at this one reed organ and just listen to the gorgeous overtone fluctuations that would emerge when sustaining basic intervals over a long period of time. I loved that experience but never figured I could use it as a compositional tool until I started exploring the world of minimal music a bit more.
Is there a typical way you go about composing your music?
SD: It varies depending on whether I’m making something strictly for the purposes of a record or for a live performance; they probably end up sounding exactly the same to other people but I can hear a significant difference between the two approaches. Obviously, for the latter I have to take logistical concerns into account, so I can’t necessarily have all of the instrumentation and layering and processing that I do in fixed recordings. But, in either case, I usually start with a basic idea or texture and then sort of experiment or improvise with it to see what develops and go with that.
When I’m working on something for a record I usually gather a bunch of small segments of things, either from acoustic or electronic sources, and compose with them in Logic or ProTools or whatever. I rarely record entire passes of things and just leave it at that. In live situations, I very rarely leave anything up to chance.
Do you see yourself working within a particular tradition?
SD: Not particularly. I mean, yes. I’m definitely a part of the resurgent synthesizer trend and I guess I can’t deny that. But, I really don’t think I use the instruments in much the same way as a lot of what’s being done right now or a lot of what was popularly done in the 1960s and 1970s, so I don’t feel like I associate too closely with a lot of it aesthetically. When I was in the Bay Area for grad school there was definitely a sense of tradition and history present, but it wasn’t this heavy thing that hangs over your head and pushes you one way or the other. If there’s any sort of creed I adhere to it’s the notion that people like Glenn Gould and Brian Eno put forth regarding the recording studio in its function as a compositional tool.
Your song titles are often geographical in nature. Do geography and space (earthbound or outer) overtly figure into your compositional perspective? Architectural space?
SD: Oh man, yeah. Space – whether it’s in reference to real/physical space or mental space – is a big thing for me. Not just in music and art but in life and day-to-day experience in general. I’ll spare you the convoluted details, but I studied continental philosophy before I did my master’s in music and I got pretty heavy into the world of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Bachelard and Proust and people like that who deal with phenomenology and notions of space and time and choreography and the keen awareness of that felt experience.
Regardless of whether I’m composing music or listening to music, that kind of thing always factors in in one way or another. But, for me, it’s a highly personal thing and I’m just kind of doing it for myself – in other words, I’m not really trying to evoke particular spaces for others to enter, at least not literal ones.
I do tend to associate emotions and memories pretty strongly with real places and cities and landscapes and stuff like that, but when I refer to a specific geography in a title, it’s actually just an aesthetic thing, like I’ll pick a name simply because I like the way it sounds. For instance, there’s a track on the Students of Decay LP called “wood green.” I think it’s a really lovely name but I’ve never been there and it’s apparently a pretty shit part of London where people are likely to get mugged and stuff like that. My parents lived in England throughout the 1970s and their first apartment was in a building called Barons Court Mansions. I just liked the way it sounded, with this sort of fake regency that’s so typical of British culture.
From a compositional standpoint, I’m more interested in quasi-architectural dwelling spaces, like using psychoacoustic effects such as combination and difference tones and beating patterns to build up these lush environments for the listener to immerse themselves in.
In an interview with Discorder from earlier this year, there’s a quote from you mentioning you hope your music will help to take listeners inward. Is the corporeal of parallel interest or concern?
SD: Definitely. Sound is as much a physical response for me as it is a mental or psychological one. Like I said above, I think of music as this sort of architectural pursuit; it’s an encompassing environment that takes the listener inward into some kind of space. I don’t know if it makes sense to say this, but the corporeal aspect of sound itself, as opposed to its emotive context, is sort of my paramount concern. I want people to focus on the acoustic intricacies of the sound, which we so often overlook in most forms of music because we’re listening for overarching melodic or rhythmic themes instead. Of course, that’s totally fine, I just think there needs to be space for a more concentrated experience that’s void of any narrative context so as to appreciate or get close to the qualitative aspects of sound that are simply felt and maybe can’t be so easily articulated. I don’t know, that all probably sounds pretty lofty.
Do you perceive a meditative quality to your music? Is there a spiritual element to your artistic practice?
SD: I could see how one would perceive a meditative quality in my music, but I don’t practice meditation nor do I presume to know how. I’m always a bit hesitant to use that term. I guess the experience of inhabiting a concentrated headspace is certainly something I try to actively impart, but more so with respect to notions of patience and displaced focus.
I perceive meditative qualities in so much different music, and I’m not sure it has much to do with what the music actually sounds like but how you’re listening to it or engaging with it. Like, depending on the circumstances, Bach can be as meditative for me as, say, Phill Niblock for pretty obvious reasons. But then, so can a good Beach Boys or Todd Rundgren album, and that’s usually because the songwriting or production or textured details are just so captivating and I get completely overwhelmed by it.
I can’t say that I see any spiritual component myself to my own music, as I tend to think of things more primally or fundamentally than that. But then again I can’t even perceive spiritual elements in much of the sacred music I listen to, either, so maybe that’s just my problem.
I’m interested in your work as Collections Content Developer at the National Music Centre. Does your work there bring you into contact with collectors of acoustic and electronic instruments? Does it directly inform your practice?
SD: Absolutely. I’ve met a lot of interesting people through my work, especially in the world of collectors of musical instruments since that’s such a niche practice. I’ve been very fortunate to have that job, and I’ve used a lot of the early recordings I gathered there in most of my records. I met my partner there many years ago, too; he collects and restores electronic instruments for a living and I’ve been able to work closely with his collection in our home in Vancouver.
The content development work I’ve been doing for the past couple years has supplied me with a lot of knowledge I wouldn’t otherwise have gathered on my own, but it’s the interactions with people I’ve had giving tours over the past eight years that’s really been the most exciting. One time I got to give a tour to Malcolm Mooney and he started singing while I played “Amazing Grace” on a little chaplain’s harmonium; that was pretty wild.
Have you worked with software for musical composition? How does working with analogue synths speak to you or inspire?
SD: I worked with max/MSP some in the early days, primarily because I had to for school. Otherwise, I haven’t really gotten into the world of software synthesizers. But that’s mostly just because I haven’t felt the need, really, not because I fundamentally disagree with it or anything like that. I think programs like max/MSP are incredibly powerful and flexible tools that, if I weren’t such a purist snob, would probably make my life a lot easier and cheaper. I use compositional software like Logic and ProTools extensively, though, and I rely pretty heavily on built-in DSP for fixed compositions especially.
In terms of instruments, though, I think I’ve chosen to work with hardware synthesizers for a few reasons. At heart, I’m just a nerdy historian and organologist and I’m totally fascinated by the physical presence of these objects. I don’t deify or fetishize them or anything, I just really appreciate them as impermanent things that exist in the world and take up space and weight. It’s the same thing in acoustic instruments, in which every single component has a direct impact on the acoustics and sound; there are no accidents in the design and construction yet things are imperfect all the same. Moreover, I admire the fact that hardware electronic instruments have physical and sonic limitations just like acoustic instruments. Yes, it’s true that most synthesizers have a pretty wide range, but at the end of the day a Buchla is a Buchla because it was designed in a specific way, and an ARP is an ARP because it uses certain components or parts, etc., and I kind of love that about them.
I find most software platforms to be almost too flexible, I guess, in a way that just doesn’t sit well with the way I work; I suppose I’d rather dissect something rather than build it up from scratch. I do tend to favour analog instruments, but some of the synthesizers I hold most dear are actually digital-analog hybrids, like the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, so for me it’s not as much a matter of analog versus digital but more so hardware versus software. That being said, I think the main reason why I gravitate toward the analog gear in particular is because it is so wonderfully primitive and unstable – again, in much the same way that acoustic instruments are.
For instance, if you have two cellists trying to play exactly the same frequency together, they’re always going to be slightly out of tune at various points over time simply because they are fallible humans. Most synthesizers contain multiple oscillators and they behave in exactly the same way: if you try to tune two oscillators together on an analog synthesizer, they’re inevitably going to drift (to varying degrees) in and out of one another slightly. And it’s these subtle discrepancies in frequency that produce the amazingly rich psychoacoustic textures that I like to drown myself in. I really think that that’s what makes analog electronic music as lush as acoustic music, and that variant behaviour is just not something that you can truly simulate to a meaningful extent.
Can you tell me a bit about Dominions and fall plans? What can listeners anticipate with this album?
SD: Dominions follows a similar trajectory to the tape I put out this past spring with Constellation Tatsu, Qualities of Bodies Permanent, with the exception of the last track. That’s perhaps a bit different from what I’ve done in the past, in that it’s more overtly melodic and the pitches I chose sound a bit more, um, “folksy”, I guess you could say, to my ears.
I’m really fond of a few of the shorter tracks in particular on that album; especially the openers on either side because they seem to accidentally take on this awkward timidness that I’m kind of into.
This fall I’m working on two albums, one electronic and the other entirely acoustic. The electronic one will feature only a single synthesizer, which is not something I’ve explored in the past, as I tend to be pretty exploratory in my instrumentation.
I’m pretty stoked on the acoustic one, I guess because it’s not something I’ve done much but have always really enjoyed when I did. Basically each track on that album will focus on a different texture: one will be vocal/choral, another will be for orchestral strings, and a couple others will be for bowed piano and reed organ. The tracks I’ve developed so far for both albums are moving back down the mellower, “ambient” path, akin to a Barons Court vibe, I guess.