CALGARY – When BeatRoute was asked to partner with Two-Headed Dog Booking and Major/Minor Music Project in presenting an all-ages, one-off show with Sarah Davachi, it took us about half a second to say yes. Davachi is a rare and serious talent who has studied music internationally, helped in the early days of the National Music Centre and stunned audiences worldwide with powerful drone performances. For this special Calgary show, she’ll be playing a special organ at Knox United Church alongside a string trio. That all goes down June 14–tonight–at Knox United Church. Tickets are $15 at the door.
Given Davachi’s expertise, we felt it best to run a Q&A format interview so she could explain some of her history and approach to music. Read that below.
You released an album somewhat recently called All My Circles Run. Each track begins with the word “For,” as in “For Organ.” It’s uncommon to see an album with five songs that each respectively focus on a single, different instrument. Is there a theme (or themes) to your approach, execution and presentation of this collection? What is it/are they?
SD: Yeah, I suppose it’s pretty uncommon in modern popular music but it’s actually a pretty old-fashioned naming approach, used almost exclusively in Baroque and Classical eras as a way of showcasing form rather than emotive connotation, which was suggested by the key. Most of the music on All My Circles Run is modal, so I wanted to embrace that convention as a means for placing focus back on the sound itself rather than anything extraneous to it. A lot of early minimalist and experimental music from the 1960s and early 1970s played with that style of titles also, I’d say. I think there is something elegant about the simplicity of it. It may seem a bit distant to be a noticeable connection, but I’ve always been inspired by the idea of veiled architecture, which occurs in relation to religious buildings like churches or mosques or temples, etc., and entails the exterior being left very basic and neutral in order to emphasize the extraordinary detail and splendor of the interior, which of course becomes visible only once you enter the space.
When you’ve played in Calgary before, your sets were described as drone and primarily used synthesizers. I read that All My Circles Run is your first release to not incorporate synth. What’s the inspiration behind playing organ with a string trio? Furthermore, what led you to veer away from synthesizers in general?
SD: I’ve actually worked a fair amount with pipe organs previously; my master’s thesis when I was doing my MFA degree was written for pipe organ, which I performed in this little chapel on the school campus, and fixed electronics, which was mostly a tape track of samples that I diffused in four speakers. I’ve done a few other things with organs since then; the only reason I don’t do more is, of course, because the instruments are difficult to access, especially when their proposed use isn’t strictly sacred. In my mind the organ is like the original synthesizer; there are so many similarities both in tone and user interface, with the major difference being that the organ is designed to reside in isolation in a specific space. I am a classically trained pianist and I get a lot of satisfaction still from playing the piano, but I’ve never really felt that it was the right medium for composition. Having that level of training in piano is certainly helpful in playing the organ, but they are completely different instruments in terms of instrument idiosyncrasies. Strings are the perfect companion to instruments like the organ or the analog synthesizer because they can match the richness of timbre, in terms of harmonics. In that regard, they are mutually acoustic, I think. I’ve definitely not veered away from the synthesizer in general; I play them live all the time and I’m doing a lot of recording with them. The new record I just finished has a lot of synthesizer on it, alongside electric organ, acoustic piano, and Mellotron; it’s kind of a classic keyboard record in that sense. But, yeah, for me the organ is really just an acoustic synthesizer, if you like. The richness of tone, regardless of whether it’s one instrument producing it alone or a combination of instruments layered, is really important for what I do in terms of generating an abundance of psychoacoustic artifacts that can be manipulated and shaped to suit a certain type of listening experience and mental space.
I’m told the organ at Knox United Church is a special one—then again, you’re the expert. Can you tell us a bit about this particular instrument?
SD: It’s definitely a special one; it’s one of the largest in Canada and probably the second largest in Calgary. It was made by Casavant Frères, an organ building family based in Quebec that has produced some of the most revered organs around the world for over a century. To be honest, though, I can’t give you details about it because I’ve never seen it before! That’s kind of the wonderful thing about organs; they are each so unique and so specific to the space in which they reside that you really can’t discuss them candidly without knowing them. Because my schedule is kind of bonkers at the moment, I won’t get a chance to work with the organ until the morning of the concert, actually. I can tell you that it has four manuals (keyboards) and apparently contains more than 5000 pipes. All pipe organs are special, in my opinion; they all have their own quirks and unique features, not unlike analog synthesizers.
It’s a little amusing that this performance blends organ and strings when All My Circles Run isolates those sounds within its tracklist. Is there a curiosity, or perhaps even an irony, in the blending of the two?
SD: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way! I mean, as I mentioned earlier, to me the two sound sources share a lot of acoustical properties in that they can both produce very rich tones, full of harmonics. In my ear they complement each other really well, and in live settings strings can be used very effectively to bolster the texture of the organ, which is usually a lot more commanding in its tone even if the strings are amplified. I guess I should say that All My Circles Run is really the first time I’ve completely isolated the sound sources that I’m using. On previous records – and in general – my style is more orchestral, if you like, blending and layering numerous different textures. With this record, it was more of an archival project in that I wanted things to sort of be showcased on their own, I wanted to emphasize the string tone and the organ tone in isolation and explore the intricacies of that. In November of 2016 I released a sort of sister record to All My Circles Run – Vergers, which was published by Important Records, and embraces a similar concept but in relation to electronic instrumentation. It employs a single synthesizer, with some sparse accompaniment from violin and voice. They were meant to come out at more or less the same time but the former was delayed in the pressing process.
This is billed as your only Canadian date of the year. You’ve done residencies around the world and are headed out for a pretty big international tour. Are you still living in the country, and can you talk about what’s in store for you this year?
SD: Actually, it’s not entirely accurate to say this is my only Canadian date! It’s the only one that I’m doing on this leg of my summer touring, but I’ve done a fair bit of performing in Canada already this year. I did a really nice record release for All My Circles Run in Vancouver earlier in the year with Ian William Craig, and a few weeks after that I played a show with Evan Caminiti from New York in Montreal. At the beginning of the year I did a short east coast tour (Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa) with Suuns. And at the end of the summer I’m playing at MUTEK in Montreal again, at Metropolis, with Anthony Child. But, yes, I’ve been doing most of my touring outside of Canada this year. Prior to the Suuns tour I was in the US, playing mostly east coast cities – Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Burlington. I’m on tour for most of the summer with three separate legs in Europe and a few weeks in Australia. I’m doing a residency at MESS in Melbourne during that trip, also. The second European leg is a short one but it’s pretty special – I’ll be performing in a twelfth-century cathedral in Viseu, Portugal, about an hour outside of Porto. In the fall I’m heading back to Europe a few times, short trips that orbit around festivals like Le Guess Who in Utrecht. I guess I don’t technically live in Canada at the moment, although all of my possessions are patiently waiting in storage in Vancouver and Calgary. I moved to Vancouver in 2013 after I finished grad school and have been living there since then, though I briefly lived in Montreal on and off throughout 2016. I’m starting doctoral studies in musicology at UCLA in late September, so I’ll be moving to Los Angeles basically right after MUTEK.
You hold a master’s from Mills College in Oakland, not far from where Don Buchla helped pioneer synthesizer technology—an indispensable instrument in the world of drone. Would you say that connection had any effect on you? More generally, how did such a specialized musical education influence you?
SD: I remember when I discovered my personal way of working with synthesizers, it literally was like screwing the light bulb on in my brain; all of these ideas and desires had been sitting dormant in the darkness and it wasn’t until I became aware of this technology that I was able to see a path forward for obtaining what I wanted aesthetically and creatively. That was in, like, 2007 or so. I had messed around with a lot of different synthesizers in my early days of working at NMC – the Yamaha GS2 and Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 were two particular favourites of mine – but the Buchla 100 was the thing that did me in. It was the synthesizer I first really learned how to use and appreciate, and to this day its unique interface design dictates how I make sense of signal flow and translate it between instruments. There really is nothing else that sounds like it. I don’t really use modular stuff that much anymore, I’m more curious about integrated systems because they behave like acoustic instruments, with strongly defined limitations and operational personalities. Being in the Bay Area, and California in general, was really very inspiring. There’s such incredible history there for electronic and experimental music, especially with regard to instrument builders – with Buchla for sure, but also people like Dave Smith of Sequential and Dave Rossum of E-mu and Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim and all those instrument innovators who found some sort of creative solace there over the decades. And it’s not like this secret history, either, it’s something you interact with daily. The core of my musical background is a lot more traditional. I was put into piano lessons at a very young age, around 5 years old, and I went through all of the Royal Conservatory training straight through to about the age of 20. At that time, I didn’t want a career as a classical performer, so I gave up playing in that way and turned my attention to the scholarly and compositional side of things in university. I don’t use a lot of progressive harmony or arched melody, and my performance approach is not particularly virtuosic, so perhaps it’s not that obvious to the average listener, but the theoretical training I’ve accrued over the decades has been pretty indispensible; there is a lot of sub-surface counterpoint in what I do, and when I think about chords it’s often in imitation of choral structures, which I guess is pretty different from the majority of music, which tends to be fairly arpeggiated, stratified horizontally. My sound has become more overtly tonal in recent records, but that basis in Western harmony has always been there. I think most classically-trained experimental musicians feel that way. It’s certainly useful that a lot of the instruments I’m drawn towards – organs, synthesizers, strings, woodwinds – can sustain their sound fairly easily in order to enable a textural architecture that favours embedded detail. I’ve been interested in early music for a long time and I find a strong affinity with a lot of those forms that are founded upon a held pedal point, and I’ve also been venturing into modal music lately and that’s been a lot of fun.
Coming back to Calgary for a second, I wonder if you could give us a few details on your role with the National Music Centre (formerly Cantos)? You’ve been listed as an interpreter and content creator in the realm of their instrument collection. What does that break down to in a tangible sense? Have you had the chance to visit NMC since they’ve opened within Studio Bell?
SD: I started working with NMC ten years ago, in the fall of 2007. Initially I worked as an interpreter (tour guide), so for like three continuous years I spent nearly every Sunday afternoon there, giving public tours, and the occasional private tour during the week. That was without a doubt one of the most professionally gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. I learned so much about musical instruments, both technically and historically, and associated performance practices. Not only was I paid to research these instruments, which is obviously something I’m interested in doing anyway, but I also got to interact with them first hand, which is completely essential in my opinion for someone who really seeks to understand an instrument very intimately. Anybody can read about how a Hammond B-3 or Mellotron works, but you can’t appreciate just how special they are until you feel the depth and inconsistency of the keybed or the weight of the knobs and drawbars. And when that physical gesture connects directly with a resultant sound, it’s totally wild, like magic. People who say that electronic instruments have no soul have probably never had these kinds of experiences. After I moved away to Oakland in 2010, I continued doing tours when I would come home during holidays to visit my family and in the summers. I also spent the summer before grad school working full-time as a collections assistant, building a digital database and archiving every single artifact in the collection; at the time, that was 2100 items or thereabouts. That work helped me discover a passion I didn’t realize I had had for working with collections and archives. At the beginning of 2014, while living in Vancouver, I started a contracted position that combined all of this background; I was tasked with writing in depth artifact profiles on 200 different items from the collection, discussing them historically, technologically, making sense of their provenance from our acquisitions documents, etc. I think the longest profiles are about 40 pages! It was a dream job for me, getting paid to research as far as possible about this niche little field of acoustic and electronic keyboard instruments, and then to translate those findings into my own interpretations and conclusions. Really intellectually satisfying, and I guess that’s mostly what I want to continue in my PhD. That project took over two years to complete, and now all of that information is online, available to staff and members of the public for various purposes like artist-in-residence programs, production of text panels and interpretive material, marketing, etc. I’m still technically employed with NMC’s collections department, and I visit Studio Bell at least a few times a year when I’m in Calgary to catch up with my supervisor, who is a good friend.
Finally, there was an emphasis and making this show open to attendees of all ages. Did live music have an impact on you when you were underage, and do you think there’s something of value you to having your performance be accessible to minors?
SD: Actually, if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t attend a lot of live shows as a younger person. I mean, that’s not true, of course I did, but I guess I never felt that if it was a carded event I was particularly missing out on something. My friends at the time were into punk shows and stuff like that and that was never really my scene. I love certain aspects of the live experience, but at heart I am the type of person who would rather listen to a record alone in my bedroom than go out to a show. That’s still kind of true today, which is maybe an odd thing to say given that I perform so often these days. That being said, the kinds of shows I like going to now and the kind of atmosphere that I try to encourage at my own shows is one that is perhaps a bit more akin to the privacy and intimacy of listening to a record. When you’re listening to live music, the room you’re in becomes an important element of the sound, it’s a part of the entire sound system, and I find that kind of interesting to exploit. I guess that’s why churches and cathedrals and similar spaces attract me so deeply on an acoustic level, and why I find traditional bars and clubs increasingly more repulsive. I suppose if I had grown up in a city that doesn’t experience winter eight months of the year and if I hadn’t grown up in the deep suburbs I might have been more keen to leave my house in the days before I had a car. Anyway, I’m okay with it. I value detail in sound above pretty much all else these days and I really believe that a lot of that has to do with the fact that I spent the majority of my waking teenage life wearing headphones.Knox United Church, MUTEK, National Music Centre, Sarah Davachi