Interview: Sarah Davachi

In Davachi’s music, I hear a negotiation between human instigation and letting be. Sometimes I catch little traces of melodic patterns, as she sends synthesisers through little zig-zagging motifs that rise out of the drones and return to them. At other points, she simply allows the instrument to play itself, leaving harmonics and timbral inconsistency to form shapes of their own accord. Prolonged synthesiser tones falter gently, creating undulations in texture like chips and dents on an old antique; drones curdle together to form overtones that flicker and dance above the central hums.

The Canadian composer’s third full-length, titled Vergers, centres on the EMS Synthi 100 synthesizer (which looks like a complicated machine, but Davachi assures me it’s not), along with violin and voice. It’s a beautiful record, and one that often leaves me unable to distinguish between the sounds of breath, bowed string and electricity – the tones seem to float away from their source, becoming entities detached from convention and history. Below, Davachi and I discuss the inherent instabilities of old synthesisers, the experience of recording in different spaces and the allure of deliberate restraint.

I understand that Vergers is centred largely on the EMS Synthi 100 synthesizer. From images I’ve seen, it looks beautiful (and somewhat daunting to an electro-novice like me). How did you first become acquainted with it, and what led you to want to craft an album around this synthesiser?

The Synthi 100 is definitely daunting in appearance, but electronically it’s not as complex as one might think. At the time of its release in the early 1970s it was, along with most studio-based synthesizers, prohibitively expensive to the amateur user and a hefty investment at best even to the professional user; so, to appease the buyer, EMS offered an unnecessarily impressive exterior that far surpassed logistical needs.  I first came across one many years ago through my day job as a tour guide at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada.  Their unit was formerly housed in Moscow’s Melodiya recording studio, and was used by the Russian composer Eduard Artemyev for the soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s Stalker.  I was too intimidated to try it out at the time, but over the past few years I’ve been working extensively with its little brother, the Synthi AKS, and have become much more comfortable with the manufacturer’s unique approach to patching.  The unit I used for the record belongs to a private instrument collection that is owned and lovingly restored by technician Richard Smith.  In my previous records, I’ve explored numerous combinations and orchestrations of instruments but have wanted to restrict myself to a single instrument for some time, partly as a compositional exercise but also from an archival standpoint. These instruments are rare and beautiful and so often pigeonholed into a particular musical genre or aesthetic era, and so I feel that it’s important to capture the ways in which they are truly flexible in themselves.  I’ve never wanted to make “synthesizer music”, for lack of a better expression, and it’s been this interest in crafting more restrained timbres that’s driven a lot of my curiosities.

You also incorporated violin and voice into the record too. Is there anything distinct about the way you approach acoustic instrumentation compared to electronic textures?

No, not really, actually.  In fact, I handle electronic and acoustic sounds in nearly an identical manner.  To me, a flute is as different from (or as similar to?) a piano as a guitar is from a synthesizer; they’re each a distinct instrument with certain associated articulations and limitations.  Once I’ve extracted recordings I like from any sort of instrument, it just becomes a base sound source and I then proceed to edit, process, and layer it as I see fit.  The extent to which I process things isn’t really a result of the nature of the sound source, but rather just what I feel is right for the specific piece.

I see that your other release this year, Dominions, centred on the Orchestron – another electronic instrument from the 70s. Is there a particular reason you seem to gravitate toward these older synthesisers, and is there something nice about developing an intimacy of understanding with one particular instrument?

I think it’s a pretty common compositional desire to want to develop some sort of intimate connection to specific timbres and instrumental idiosyncrasies, just as it is to want to combine and orchestrate intricate textures.  As I mentioned previously, in my case it often stems from a sort of academic interest in pursuing something not unlike an archival project; the Orchestron, for example, is an extremely rare instrument anyway, but I can’t think of a single other recording that isolates it completely.  I’m attracted to that kind of thing on some level, but I separate it from artistic pursuits also.  My real attraction, however, to instruments of this era comes from their inherent instabilities.  To my ears, an analog synthesizer from 1975 is just as variable as any other acoustic instrument that is capable of bending and warping to its environmental conditions and the fallibilities of its player.  These instabilities lend themselves very well to my compositional concerns, which favour disclosure of psychoacoustic effects that emerge from slight variations in natural fluctuations­ of frequency, usually.

You recently conducted a fantastic interview with 15questions, in which you mentioned that you’re not the biggest fan of the traditional setup of live performances. How do you currently approach playing live in order to optimise the intensity of the listening experience?

Logistically, it’s very hard to pursue an ideal setup for live performance.  The spaces we use for live performance, even in relation to experimental music, such as bars and clubs, are still a bit too institutionalized and that’s not likely to shift any time soon. When I can, I like to seek out performance opportunities that make use of acoustically appropriate spaces, and events that promote dedicated listening rather than mere social engagement.  It may sound insignificant, but I try as frequently as I can to perform in near complete darkness so as to limit visual distractions and encourage the listener to focus on the aural sense.

In the same interview, you also made reference to an upcoming opportunity to record with an engineer in an actual studio. Am I right in guessing that Vergers was the output of this experience? How did you find working like this compared to your usual approach of recording at home?

Actually, no, Vergers was recorded at home in Vancouver.  The studio album is the other record that’s been in the queue for this year, All My Circles Run, which is coming out on Students of Decay. That record is entirely acoustic, featuring violin, cello, organ, voice, and piano.  A few portions I recorded myself at home, such as the vocal parts and some piano overdubs, but the majority of the record was recorded with Radwan Ghazi Moumneh at Hotel2Tango in Montréal.  With electronic instruments, I don’t think the formal studio setup is necessary, really, but it definitely makes a difference with acoustic instruments.  It’s really nice having someone to work with who not only knows how to gain the most from microphone placement, but also how to manipulate and experiment with the physical space.  The first thing I recorded that day was some bowed piano; Radwan ended up placing about four or five different microphone pairs at varying locations both inside and outside the instrument, which gave me something really unique to mix together afterwards.

Working in the studio also has the feel of a residency, giving yourself some dedicated time to just work on a single project without distractions, and you can’t really put a price on that. I did another few sessions in a different studio – The Pines, also in Montréal, with Dave Bryant engineering – about a month later, this time working on a collaborative guitar and organ project with Kevin Doria.  In those sessions, it was really nice just to be able to stay put in the live room and keep playing for hours on end, not having to worry about anything technical, and then going out and listening back on a nice set of monitors.  Both times were really pleasurable experiences.

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Are there any ways in which you “prepare” yourself for the process of playing or recording your music? For example, are there particular times of day or rituals you undertake to optimise your ability to connect with this type of sound, or does the music do it all for you?

Not especially, although I suppose there are certain patterns that I find myself falling into, whether deliberately or not. I write – a lot – when I’m working on something.  Like, there’s often a good deal of planning and percolating before anything tangible ever happens usually.  That’s not to say that everything falls into place exactly as I’d planned once I start working; in fact, the final product is pretty distinct most of the time. That’s just to say that nothing I do is completely haphazard or accidental.  I don’t really force myself to work at any particular time of day, but I find that I do my best work at night.  Like, late at night, middle of the night, when I should be sleeping.  I’ve always been that way.

I’ve been doing my best to get back into meditating recently, and both Vergers and Barons Court have made for wonderful accompaniments to the process. Personally I feel very nourished by the process of fixating on the development of such delicate, slow-moving music. Does working with this music generate any particular sensations within you, or guide you toward any particular states of mind?

Of course; I mean, I make this kind of music because it’s what I want to hear, it’s what I want to experience.  For me, thinking about it, making it, and listening to it are all very rewarding processes, but in slightly different ways.  But I think it’s sort of difficult and perhaps counterproductive to try and articulate exactly what those associated emotions or sensations are.

How do you find the process of identifying suitable artwork for your music? It’s always an interesting consideration to me, given that the sound itself often generates its own visual evocations.

On my first two records, Barons Court and Dominions, I worked closely with my good friend, Daniel Presnell, an American writer, musician, and visual artist currently based in Vancouver. I really trust his aesthetic, and I think he gets what I’m about pretty well, so it was an easy pairing.  His work is mostly collage-based, very diverse in content but always with the same curious feel. There’s this incredible neo-Medievalism in the Barons Court artwork that plays on the sort of palatial façade inherent in the audio; I was kind of floored when Daniel first sent the images because they fit the vibe of the record to such a fine point. I decided to take a leap of faith with the cover artwork for All My Circles Run and enlisted another Vancouver local, photographer Alex Waber, to shoot a series of black and white portraits. The Vergers cover borrows a similar minimal structure to that of Dominions, with an image I shot from an airplane many years ago. I think there’s something both comforting and alienating about that experience, and I feel there’s more of that in this record than in any other of mine.  Another Vancouver pal, musician Konrad Jandavs, has been doing the layout and design on most of these records.

I see that you’ve also published research papers on topics such as the phenomenological experience of minimalist music. Do you find that this process of articulating or rationalizing the nature of the listening experience has any effect on your approach to your own work?

That’s a curious question. I’d say that both interests – articulating specific ideas in writing and articulating them in sound – settled in me around the same time, but the former definitely solidified a lot earlier, probably because I was in school at that time so I had a more readily available output for research. I’ve certainly gleaned various ideas that I’ve explored in my own compositions from writing, but in recent years I’ve also been able to put a lot of my own experience into written aspects, and it’s a completely different perspective as a result. That being said, I also firmly believe that there are aspects of sound that simply can’t be articulated in writing, and I think it’s important to recognize that and let it be.  I like writing, I think it’s a noble pursuit in conjunction with an artistic practice, and I am mostly convinced that it’s better not to have one without the other.  I really respect musicians who have written at length about their musical concerns, like my boys James Tenney and Glenn Gould, for example.

What music have you been listening to and enjoying recently?

Oh man, it’s all over the map. Those who know me well know that I am a bit of a classic rock junkie. I’ve been quietly worshipping Roy Harper pretty heavily lately.  Stormcock is pure magic. There’s something really enchanting about how he handles his vocals, effective enough in doubling them or applying simple harmonizing but it’s more surreal than that, like some kind of wild Al Stewart/Robert Wyatt mash-up. I’ve also had David Crosby’s first solo record, If I Could Only Remember My Name, in constant circulation. It’s basically a who’s who of that early 1970s California scene, with appearances from Neil Young, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, and the best members of the Dead, including Jerry on pedal steel.  It’s perfect. I’m finally doing my due diligence and digging a bit deeper into the realm of classic Canadian folk music – Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Willie Dunn. Otherwise, I’ve been obsessing over Maria Callas’ voice. I’ve always maintained a healthy and distant fondness for Italian opera, but, let me tell you, next time La Bohème rolls through town I will be there with bells on. I’m way late to the game on this one, but Head of Wantastiquet (Paul LaBrecque, formerly of Sunburned Hand of the Man) put out this record called Dead Seas back in 2010, and I’ve been enjoying that a lot in recent months. I don’t know, there’s other stuff. I recently listened to The Chronic from beginning to end for the first time perhaps ever and am still picking up pieces of my mind off the floor.  I’m a sucker for really thoughtful production and instrumentation.

What else is next for you and your music?

I want to continue this path of focusing on individual instruments, both acoustic and electronic, sort of as an archival impulse and I have a bunch in mind.  Maybe once I get that out of my system I’ll go back to mixing and matching for full effect. I also have this kind of weird idea that involves taking a bunch of sad classic rock songs from the 70s and making fucked, ambient covers of them. I’m enjoying taking on unique performance opportunities – I recently did a miniature European jaunt and got to play in a concrete subterranean cave in London and a former East German boat house in Berlin – and I’d be interested to do a lot more of that.

Sarah Davachi’s website – sarahdavachi.com
Vergers on Important Records – importantrecords.com/imprec/imprec442
Sarah Davachi’s BandCamp – sarahdavachi.bandcamp.com