Unlearning The Rules Of Western Theory: Sarah Davachi Interviewed

Ahead of her upcoming appearance at Semibreve with Laetitia Morais, Sarah Davachi speaks to Mollie Zhang about the pitfalls of A/V, the rewards of creative collaboration and the importance of patience

Since 2013’s The Untuning Of The Sky, renowned Canadian composer and performer Sarah Davachi has been responsible for a steady stream of releases, exploring her considered approach to composition, and her expertise in synthesis.

Having previously studied philosophy, Davachi honed in on her interests in sound whilst studying at Mills College in Oakland, California. In the years since, she quickly established herself as an artist with a reputation for proficiencies in this field, as heard on records such as Qualities Of Bodies Permanent. Her love for instruments and fascinations with timbre and space form the basis for an ever-captivating discography that evidences a patience and thoughtfulness that is hard to come by nowadays. The 2015 record, released via Constellation Tatsu, explored the capabilities and minutiae of synths such as the ARP 2500, Buchla Music Easel and EMS Synthi AKS.

2017 saw the release of her fourth full-length, All My Circles Run, via Students Of Decay. Departing from her regular M.O., Davachi opted to pull apart strings, voice, organ and piano, venturing through their timbral capabilities.

Her ability to pull apart seemingly simple structures and textures, and bring overlooked artifacts to the fore, feels especially remarkable. Recent album Let Night Come On Bells End The Day, performed solely by Davachi, offers warm, emotive ambience courtesy of a Mellotron and electronic organ. Her releases divulge a love for minimalism and baroque composition, and a stunning amount of care for her craft. Now based in LA, where she is a doctoral student in musicology, she can be heard monthly on NTS.

Semibreve 2018 will see the world premiere of a collaboration between Davachi and Portuguese visual artist Laetitia Morais. Ahead of the festival, tQ catches up with Davachi to hear about her opinions on collaboration, thoughtful approach to composition, and relationship to Classical theory.

What are you looking forward to with this collaboration?

Sarah Davachi: Every time I’ve collaborated with a visual or video artist, it’s been such a fascinating opportunity to see various elements in my music that were previously hidden to me because I simply couldn’t perceive them that way. The visual realm has a really unique way of uncovering and exposing details that are only articulated in a particular mode. I think people tend to assume that audiovisual pairings simply help to support one another, but in my experience they are also both effective in changing the experience from what it would be taken on its own.

I’ll be very curious to see how my music translates in the eyes of an artist I’ve never worked with before. Similarly, I’m curious to see if the reverse effect occurs with respect to my music rearranging the perception of Laetitia’s visuals.

How is this project different to others you’ve worked on in the past?

SD: The collaborations I’ve done in the past have always been with someone whose work I’m intimately familiar with, usually a friend or close colleague. This will be the first time I’ve worked with someone whose work I’ve not yet come into contact with in other occasions, and one that a third party curated intentionally. It’s also only the second time I’ve done an audiovisual performance in Europe – the first time being earlier this year in the UK – so it will be interesting to see how the European audience engages differently than the North American audience.

What was it like to work with Paul Clipson? How did that work come about?

SD: I met Paul when I was living in the Bay Area, doing my master’s degree at Mills College, probably sometime around 2010 or 2011. He was a stalwart in the artistic community there, and I remember going to see a lot of his film screenings in San Francisco early on before I knew him personally, which were often paired with musical performances by people I was meeting through Mills and other connections. Once we became friends, it felt like a pretty logical step for both of us I think to work together on something. It wasn’t until after I left the Bay Area in 2013, and was living in Vancouver that that began to solidify, though.

I think the first thing we did together was a live performance in 2014 or 2015 at ATA in San Francisco. We did a few other live performances after that, in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and he created films for two pieces of mine, Feeler and At Hand.

I think everyone who worked with Paul felt that he had a unique understanding of and approach to not just his own medium, but to the music he was combining it with. For me, when I would view his films (I would finish the music first, usually, and then he would make a new film or adapt pre-existing material to the audio), I always noticed something in the music that I hadn’t heard before, which was revealed in the visual through his eyes. That was the most interesting aspect of his work for me, to be able to gain a better understanding of the aesthetic experience through the film, to have it enhance and manipulate the audio into something new and not just support it. I also really respected his work ethic – the fact that every film was put together by hand is incredible, I don’t know anyone else who works like that still. He was also really great to talk to – about projects we were working on together, of course, but really about anything. He offered a lot of artistic suggestions that I feel have been very valuable.

I read that you think visual accompaniments to music can often be distracting, unless they were paired very intentionally/thoughtfully. How does/will this sentiment shape how you work with a visual artist in a live setting? How does one approach creating a thoughtful A/V piece?

SD: I often struggle in live situations with the attitude that the music is not enough to listen to on its own, that the audience will grow tired throughout long-form pieces, and that having an arbitrary visual component playing in the background will help keep everyone engaged. I reject this attitude fundamentally – if the audience grows bored during an unaccompanied musical performance, it’s probably stemming from an issue with our society’s ingrained patience level toward sound, and I think that that’s something very much worth undoing. By "unintentional" pairing I simply am referring to situations where I am approached about just throwing on some random visual element without any forethought, which usually happens during my soundcheck. I always say "no" to these requests.

[The Semibreve] type of pairing is definitely not that case! Laetitia and I have had months to examine each other’s work and think about how we can adapt our own styles to bring out the best in each other’s medium. I think this is a bit of a different situation than anything I’ve done previously because of the physical distance between us – we’ve never met and won’t meet in person until the festival, and we don’t have the opportunity to really communicate with each other in that direct kind of way, only through email or Skype or whatever. So I think there will be a certain element that is left up to chance, but that’s okay, and I think it will yield a unique kind of experience for the both of us and for the audience.

In my mind, a thoughtful A/V piece is just as it sounds – one that was thought out ahead of time. The Semibreve curators obviously saw a connection between our work and felt that it could be an interesting pairing – that’s where the thought process began in this case. As I said above, what I’m opposed to is the idea that visuals should be added just to make the music more interesting, with the assumption that it can’t be interesting on its own, not because it will deliberately add something to the music and have the music alter the visual also. I don’t run into those kinds of situations too much anymore, but in my early days of performance it was often the case and so I think that’s where that sentiment comes from. I have no issues collaborating with visual artists or filmmakers when it’s approached to me ahead of time, and I welcome the opportunity to engage with someone else’s work!

A couple years ago, you spoke about un-learning a lot of rules of Western theory. How has that process of un-learning (and maybe re-learning) changed for you?

SD: Yeah, I think I’ve come a bit full circle now – I don’t think it was so much about unlearning the rules necessarily, but more like the bad habits of Western theory. I still base almost all of my music (and always have) in rudimentary and sometimes more complex theory, especially in relation to tuning, and that’s a big part of how I work. I think what I was trying to overcome early on was getting over these preconceptions of things that music ought to do or ought not to do, especially in a live context. I allow tones to sound for sometimes minutes at a time without much change, and that would be a normally taboo thing to do in a Classical context because it sort of negates the motions of tension and release – the same things we find in popular music – so I think it’s important to be able to understand what exactly it is that you want to do with your music and to be able to say OK to it even if you were taught that it isn’t ‘right’ in the traditional sense.

I think it’s something that people who were Classically trained tend to struggle with a lot. But, yeah, in terms of the structures of Western theory, it’s definitely something that I use a lot in my music, perhaps even more so now than ever, because I am incorporating more and more acoustic instrumentation into what I do, and exploring different ways of composing that perhaps aren’t entirely drone-based.

Sarah Davachi collaborates with Laetitia Morais at Semibreve Festival in Braga, Portugal, which takes place October 26-29

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