Reverence for the Sound: Interview with Sarah Davachi

Canadian composer talks about her life, music, and education

Sarah Davachi in Maclean Park (Vancouver, Canada), 2018
Photography by Jennilee Marigomen

Canadian composer Sarah Davachi is one of the most prominent contemporary artists in the fields of minimalism, ambient, and drone music. Her early work as a tour guide at the largest music instruments museum in the country has led her to develop an interest in individual instruments, with a focus on the organs of the Renaissance era in particular. With a background in philosophy and musicology, she’s currently working on her PhD dissertation in organology at the University of California Los Angeles. Shortly after the release of her new record Cantus, Descant, Davachi spoke with curator Andrei Zailer about her Persian ancestry, experiences performing at Catholic cathedrals, playing with collective memory, and her dreams.

Andrei Zailer: How long have you been living in California? Does it already feel like home to you?

Sarah Davachi:I've been here for three years now. Not in 2020, but normally it's a nice place to be. Especially Los Angeles, because it’s very separate from the rest of the United States—geographically and politically. Most of the US is actually horrible. California is the only place in the US that feels comfortable to me. I still think of Canada as home because my family is there. But if they weren't I don't think I’d feel much of a connection to Canada.

AZ:Your last name sounds Persian. Did your parents immigrate to Canada?

SD:That's Persian, but everybody else usually thinks it's Italian. My parents are Iranian, and they first moved to the UK in 1972 and then to Canada in the early 80s. I don't really have any relatives in Iran, maybe just some distant family that's still there. But everybody else has left. My parents are from the city of Tabriz which is in that part of Iran mostly populated by Azerbaijanis.part of Iran mostly populated by Azerbaijanis.Iranian Azerbaijan is a historical region in northwestern Iran that borders Iraq, Turkey, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. They speak Farsi, but their first language is Azeri. So when I hear Farsi it does something for me, but as I grew up hearing Azeri all the time, it’s especially weird when I hear strangers speaking Azeri. It’s not as common of a language that you hear in North America, as Farsi is.

I've always dreamt to go to that part of the world. I’ve only been to Istanbul, which is nowhere near Iran. Azeri language comes from Turkish, it's more similar to Turkish than to Farsi. So when I hear Turkish I can understand bits of it. It was just nice to be somewhere where I've never been before, but feel comfortable, something that you don't really get anywhere in America.

The neighbourhood that I live in in LA has a very large Armenian population, the second largest one outside of Armenia. And since living here I've realized that I've never had the experience in any other city of having everybody look like me. Normally I’m the one that looks different, the one that people are looking at. And now I walk around and look just like everybody else. It's not that everybody just assumes I'm Armenian. It's just a weird, nice feeling that you fit in.

AZ:It’s still quite curious that you are Persian and play organ at Catholic cathedrals and churches so often. Are you religious at all?

SD:My parents grew up secular and I grew up secular too in a very science-oriented household. So every time that I'm in a church, there's a part of me that understands that it's a bit ironic for somebody quite anti-religious to be performing in these spaces. But I delineate religion from spirituality a lot. And I would consider myself to be a spiritual person, just not in a religious sense. In that way this attraction to churches and organ music makes sense to me. Every time I'm there I'm conscious of what it is specifically that interests me in these places—why do I like them? What's it about this experience that I like?

Part of it is being overwhelmed by the sounds in churches, because it takes up all the space. There's a reverence for the sound to be able to slow down and actually listen to the sound in space. It's very different from a club or normal venue or even a concert hall. In a church, it's a much different way of listening, especially with the organ. I've played organs in the concert halls as well, but when you play them in churches it's a perfect setting, because the organist is usually out of sight. You don’t see them as it was designed because the sound was meant to imitate the presence of God. You feel it, but you don't see it. 

It really makes sense to what I do. When I watch videos of myself perform I sometimes think—is this paused or is this actually happening? And then I see myself make a small movement. Everything I do happens really slowly, it's micro movements, so there isn't really anything to watch. 

Video for Sarah Davachi's piece “Stations II” from her latest album Cantus, Descant, 2020

AZ:How did you really develop this specific interest in organs? Is it also coming from your experience of working at a music instruments museum in Calgary?

SD:Yeah, it definitely came through the museum, which is great. Because again, coming from such an anti-church perspective growing up, I wouldn't have gone into a church and wouldn't have explored them in any other context. So working at this museum, I got into it really early. I got into synthesizers and organs at the same time, because they feel the same to me. I've always said that the organ is like an acoustic synthesizer. It works in the same way to create sound. So coming from playing piano, and then having all these other types of keyboard instruments to explore, the synthesizer and organ made the most sense to me. At that time it was on a really basic level, just because they could sustain sound in a way that the piano couldn't.

Half of the museum was acoustic instruments and the other half was electronic. It was literally just a warehouse full of instruments. They did have electronic organs like the Hammond B-3, but they had a bunch of acoustic organs as well. They had a couple of small pipe organs, but the one that I started playing at that time was a really big reed organreed organUnlike a pipe organ, which produces sound by pushing pressurised air through tubular pipes, reed organs use air to vibrate internal metal reeds and do not have feature pipes. . Then there was a Buchla 100 synthesizer, that was the first synthesizer that I learned how to play on. I remember sitting with both of those and just listening to them for hours, holding an octave or two oscillators in tune with each other and just letting that drift naturally happen.

For me the most enjoyable is just sitting down and finding the specific thing in that instrument that speaks to me

AZ:You frequently mentioned that you're on the path of focusing on individual instruments. Are you still on this path?

SD:Lately, it's become more of a deliberate thing that I've noticed I'm doing. I try to focus specifically on certain things. A lot of people who're actually trying to sit down and focus on the instrument, they want to cover the whole range of it, they want to see everything that it can do and explore all parts of it. And I don't really think that way. For me the most enjoyable is just sitting down and finding the specific thing in that instrument that speaks to me. I think that interest in finding the dialogue with an instrument is what keeps me looking at specific instruments or processes in music making. It also works really well in terms of making albums. I think it's an elegant way of having one album to be focused on just one thing or one way of looking at an instrument.

AZ:I heard that for your album Vergers you’ve been working with the exact same EMS Synthi 100 synthesizer that Soviet composer Eduard Artemyev used to create the soundtrack for Tarkovsky's Stalker. How come this machine made its way to Canada?

SD:It's really strange that I had access to all these great instruments. Actually, the one on the record belongs to a friend in Vancouver. But when I used to give tours at the museum in Calgary, we would use the one from MelodiyaMelodiyaThe major state-owned record company in the Soviet Union. Until the 1980s Melodiya, which means melody in Russian, was also the only record company and thus published all of the music and educational materials in the country. for demonstrations. Just like all the instruments in the museum, they were just purchased from a private collector. The EMS is only split into two parts, so I don't know how you move them around.

But there is an interesting story about how that instrument got into the Soviet Union from the UK in the 70s. At that time, EMS had a bunch of promotional materials that were saying things like “Every picnic needs a Synthi” or “Every nun needs a Synthi” with a picture of a nun playing it. But they also had a lot of such promotional ads that featured naked women or suggestive things on them. So when the Synthi came into Soviet Union, it got held at customs because they thought it was pornography. Obviously it got released after all, but they confiscated these promotional materials along with the manual for the instrument. 

The sound of Artemyev’s soundtracks, especially for Tarkovsky's The Mirror, is electronic, but not in an obvious sense. I don't try to hide when anything is electronic in my music. For me, an acoustic instrument and electronic instrument are the same, they just work in different ways. But in a lot of electronic music, especially from that time, there's this separation between them. Artemyev’s scores don't do that. They're very subtle in a way that you're not preoccupied with what the source of the sound is necessarily. Especially with the Stalker soundtrack, there's so much of it that is so minimal, which is the same with the organ. I think a lot of people looked at the Synthi 100 thinking it's such a big and overwhelming instrument, that it should have this massive sound to accompany it. I think Artemyev went in the opposite direction of that and just used it in this very minimal way. That is really interesting, and that's what I'm trying to do myself—taking a really big instrument and just using a small portion of it.

Promotional materials for the EMS Synthi, 1970s

AZ:Your own works are also often described as cinematic. Do you ever get commissions for film soundtracks?

SD:Generally people are using my music in smaller independent films sometimes. But somehow I don't ever get asked to do original soundtracks. I’ve never done anything.

AZ:If you did, and you could pick a movie, what would it be?

SD:I think of older films, of soundtracks that I respect a lot. A lot of the Popol Vuh soundtracks for Herzog films are really interesting. Anything that focuses not necessarily on the action, but is almost like photography—moments, where the image can just be this still and you focus on it. Films like that are really interesting to me and I think my music works well with that type. But one of my dreams is to score Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky, because I really love historical dramas, and Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick is my favourite film. Or if there's a movie set in the Middle Ages and they wanted weird music that was medieval minded, but not necessarily medieval. I think I'm pretty good at that. I’d enjoy it.

AZ:You have an affection for early music and instruments——medieval and Renaissance. Is your manipulation of them a conscious approach to create that haunting, eerie emotion that many use to describe your music?

SD:That's something I also wonder about. There's a part of it which started in a theoretical interest in tuning and instruments. There are so many Western instruments that were just completely gotten rid of after the Renaissance! For whatever reason, they thought they weren’t useful or something. And that has always interested me, this idea of the different functions of music. Even not just being necessarily religious, but the functions we were talking about that music has had in churches, and how music had this different kind of function in that space. That's been really interesting to me. Once you have all the theoretical components from that type of music in place, there's another step that affects the feeling or whatever you get from the music. I think that's what I picked up on in my own music. If I'm not composing for sackbutsackbutA type of trombone from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, characterized by a telescopic slide that is used to vary the length of the tube to change pitch., or some other old instrument, there are certain effective things from that type of music that I tried to insert into my own way of playing instruments and the type of experience that I want people to have when they listen.

AZ:So are you actually playing with the collective memory of people?

SD:I suppose. That's an interesting thing about early history in general. There's so much that we just don't know about early music, especially medieval music, as we don't have any records. The idea of early music, or what we think we know about that, is a very modern idea. Even the idea of memory and history, this connection to the past, it's the thing that we'll never really have. But I think that's okay and interesting to be able to play with that sense of modernity, with respect to things that are very much out of reach from us, especially in the Middle Ages.

Sarah Davachi's album covers. Cantus, Descant (2020), Gave in Rest (2018), Pale Bloom (2019), Dominions (2016)

AZ:It's clear that your music career is deeply connected with your academic research. What's actually more important to you? Do your studies fuel your music career or vice versa?

SD:I think a lot about this. It's kind of an even balance. The fact that I make music, that was the early interest, and that led to wanting to study it more rigorously in academic settings. So in that way, the music comes first and informs what I'm interested in studying. But there's been so much stuff that I read about going that way, like things coming from the theoretical basis that make me think about my music a bit differently. But at the same time the academic work that I do has always been sort of an excuse to get more in-depth with other types of music that I don't make. So, you know, there's a lot of my music, for instance, that is influenced or affected in some way by early music, early Western music traditions, but I'm not making early music, and I'm not sitting there in the traditional sense. Getting deeper into it academically or in terms of the literature is a way to connect closely with that type of music making.

AZ:So, are you a musician first or an academic?

SD:I’d say musician. As I go through my PhD right now, this is also something I think about a lot. And I think that academia is not for me. I like researching a lot and I think I always will. But academia is a dark place. I definitely like the idea of being a musician in terms of thinking about music. I didn't really go into it thinking that I wanted to be a tenured professor. It's just another aspect of what I do—having that background and being able to have connections to other people who work in the same fields. Just being able to write about things and maybe be taken more seriously is a nice extension of academia.

AZ:I heard that your upcoming dissertation is almost an entire book and you're already in the latter stages of it. Does it already have a specific name?

SD:It does. I'm calling it “From the Ruins of the Literal,” which is a quote from a philosopher Paul Ricoeur who wrote about metaphor in literature and metaphor theory. He has a lot of ideas about how arts and the aesthetic experience in general follow the same path as a metaphor. It opens your experience up to something new and you end up learning something that isn't from the literal meaning of things, that there's this new understanding and this new truth that emerges from an aesthetic experience. It’s about critical organology and timbre.

AZ:Are you interested in any music systems other than Western?

SD:I've been reading a lot about Arabic music and I've actually done a lot of work with Indonesian gamelangamelanAn ensemble predominantly made up of percussion (tuned gongs of various types and metal-keyed instruments) that is central to the musical cultures of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese peoples of Indonesia. music, so I understand those systems pretty well. But Arabic music is the next one that I'm finding myself getting more interested in. In Western culture there's this very aesthetic view of what music is supposed to do. And of course it's not, it varies in other cultures. There's so much that you can understand from reading about theories and other musical traditions. But there's a bigger part of it that comes from actually playing that music and instruments and being immersed in it. There’s a lot of really interesting instruments. Apparently, there was an accordion that had quarter tones on it. You can play all the tones and the scales and the modes in Arabic music. I remember seeing it in a museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and I just wanted so badly to get my hands on it. Maybe one day, we'll see.

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Sarah Davachi
Composer and performer of electroacoustic music from Canada. Her projects are primarily concerned with psychoacoustics of aural spaces, utilizing extended durations and simple harmonic structures. Davachi holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Calgary and a master's degree in electronic music and recording media from Mills College in Oakland, California. She is currently a doctoral candidate in musicology at UCLA and is based in Los Angeles, California, USA.
Andrei Zailer
Independent curator and program director, co-founder of experimental music and performance series TKANI. He is currently based in Tbilisi.