“A Mix of Activity and Anonymity”: An Interview With Sarah Davachi

Gave In Rest, the new album from Sarah Davachi, is both a powerful continuation of her expl0ration of beatific ambient and drone work and a fascinating study in applying influences from centuries-old compositional techniques. The result is an eerily timeless work, haunting and unpredictable, that sounds like little else out there. I chatted with Davachi about the album’s origins, her recent move to Los Angeles, and more.

Was there one moment where the idea of writing music for Renaissance instruments crystallized for you — either through a performance or an existing composition?

Well, I’m not actually using Renaissance instruments on this record – with the exception of the recorder, which does appear on the record, that’s a completely different world of instrumentation that isn’t used that much even in experimental music. I write within a modern context, mostly, for contemporary instruments like violin and piano and electric organ but with variations in temperament in certain instruments that approaches the types that emerged several centuries ago. But, yeah, the interest in early music modes of composition was more so borne out of my strong research tendencies. I’ve always loved Baroque music and chant and things like that and I’ve always been the type to really dive into the theory and history of the sounds that I like and figure out how they work (I’m currently pursuing a PhD in musicology to this end) so I think the ideas that are present here kind of crystallized when I first started to explore intonation and temperament and related theories about harmony back in 2010 during my first semester at Mills. My fascination with the instruments themselves developed a few years prior to that when I started working at a musical instrument museum and got to interact on a regular basis with harpsichords and organs and clavichords and things like that.

You’ve written music with particular instrumentation before. Were the compositions on Gave In Rest more challenging for you than your earlier works?

The only other album that has this varied acoustic instrumentation and this many performers other than me is probably All My Circles Run from 2017…with that record I was really trying to showcase different timbres and idioms and explore very singular ideas. With Gave in Rest, it was approached more from an ensemble mindset, so I think it was a bit more of a challenge to try to orchestrate everything into something that still felt cohesive to me. I also worked with a lot more extended techniques and manipulation/processing techniques on this record. When I am working with instruments that I perform myself – usually keyboard instruments – it’s easier in that I don’t have to explain or verbalize to myself how to achieve what I am hearing in my head.

What was the most surprising aspect of recording Gave in Rest for you?

I think the record is kind of 60% mostly exactly the way I thought it would sound but then another 40% that really kind of came together intuitively rather than intellectually or deliberately and it’s those serendipitous alternate paths in the process that I tend to value the most when I listen to it because they came from this completely different place within me than what I was aware of initially.

When researching older compositional techniques, is there anything that you discovered that you feel might influence future compositions, or do you consider this album its own standalone entity?

As someone who has spent most of their career exploring texture and timbre, I am very much engaged with harmony as a concept and I think that certain specifications about tuning and things like that will probably become more prominent in future compositions. It’s not so much a thing from earlier times specifically, but the notion of a cycle of works that are all sort of related to each other – like a partita or a suite or whatever – is also really interesting to me and might be something that I would like to explore, perhaps on a record. I also think that instrumental symbolism is really interesting, but I doubt that that will manifest in my musical practice in any meaningful way as it’s not really what I’m interested in compositionally. Nothing I do is ever standalone, it always informs the next thing and how it develops in some way.

What do you feel that contemporary musicians and composers can learn from studying the techniques of the Renaissance?

Well, I certainly don’t think that the ideas and practices of the Renaissance or neighbouring eras is any secret in contemporary music, especially in terms of the use of just intonation and older forms and progressions and things like that. I’m not sure how to answer that exactly because I have gleaned both technical but also very personal/affective things from that type of music – and from a lot of other types of music, also – and I don’t think it’s useful to be prescriptive to other people about what they should or shouldn’t be receiving from art in one way or another. I think that if there’s something there for you, you’ll find it eventually, even if it can’t be articulated easily. I tend to think that anything you learn is useful and that people should always be trying to educate themselves more.

You’re now based in Los Angeles; have you found that this has had any influence on your music since settling there?

Yes, definitely. As I mentioned in the press release for this record, Los Angeles has been this really wonderful zone to navigate mentally because it is a mix of activity and anonymity. In both my personal and creative lives, I really cherish the fact that I can interact with people when and if I want and then completely remove myself from the outside world when I want or need. There aren’t that many major cities that are like that, really, at least none that have worked that well in my experience. The sense of space and proportion in Los Angeles has also helped me feel more at ease – I grew up in the Canadian prairies completely surrounded by open space and mountains that are just off to the distance, out of reach – which has given me the mental space to be more honest in my work, I think. There’s this air of mystery and distance that hangs heavy over the city and I find that inspiring.

Photo: Dicky Bahto

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