Name: Sarah Davachi
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, live performer
Current release: Sarah Davachi's Antiphonals is out September 10th via Late Music / Rough Trade.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sarah Davachi, visit her official website for everything you ever wanted to know about her. She is also on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and bandcamp.
For an even deeper look into her thoughts, read the Sarah Davachi interview we conducted with her a while ago which covers a wide range of topics.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
It’s often difficult for me to talk about inspiration in a concrete way, though I suppose there are a few different factors that become important in the process of creating a work for me.
In terms of extramusical influences, there are definitely experiences and moments from my personal environment that have an effect on what I feel I want to examine: reading, being at a museum, engaging with visual art, watching a movie, traveling, walking or just being in a new landscape, etc., these things all have a direct effect. Usually it’s some kind of relationship with duration or texture, the experience of felt time, or relationships between mental space and physical space or reality that I’m trying to explore. But it’s really hard to distill anything beyond that because it’s a fairly personal experience and it’s one that I choose not to articulate in language most of the time. I think of my work as a certain kind of slowed down and concentrated environment that I want to create for myself, and for the listener.
From a more literal perspective, I’m deeply influenced by instrument design and acoustics and tuning and that sort of thing, as well as certain musical or temporal structures that I find compelling, so that often comes up in the initial phases of developing a piece. Once I start working on something, I kind of use my intuition at that point to see what direction it feels like it needs or wants to go, so the initial impulse sometimes gets lost or much more implied in that phase.
A lot of the music that’s on Gave in Rest, for example, was very much informed by the fact that I was spending all of this downtime in really specific acoustic spaces, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how that carries over.
I don’t really like trying to get too specific about inspiration and influence because the music is always going to communicate something beyond that, and it should. Music is not meant to be merely representative in that way, and I always find it really problematic in music writing when there is a concerted push to make sense of the narrative behind something. Often times the sound emerges without any deliberate authority from the other side, you know, and I find that it can be damaging to attempt an explanation.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
There’s usually some holistic or generalized sense of the completed work that I’ll have in my mind when I’m starting, like a sketch – often that will be the thing that comes first, this kind of overarching feeling that I’m trying to approach. I wouldn’t call it concrete, necessarily, because it definitely shifts as I begin working through the motions of the piece. There’s always a pretty healthy balance between planning and „chance“ for me – typically the initial phase of a piece will involve quite a lot of planning in the form of sketches and written notes, working out different ideas and possibilities and trying to articulate in words the space that I want to develop.
Once I have something to start working from then the actual music making process becomes much more chance-oriented. It’s always intentional, I’m always working with something in mind, but often I find myself just exploring and improvising with the particular instrument or equipment or ensemble that I’m focusing on and as things start to emerge from that I’ll isolate it and work more on developing that into something more concrete. A lot of the live performances and chamber pieces that I write are not explicitly fixed as in the context of a traditional score, I typically use a sort of time-bracket notation with defined pitches of indeterminate order, so there are directions and boundaries but within that there is usually a relatively freer sense of harmonic change in relation to time, which works especially well in a live context because those pieces are quite long in duration.
I love the variation that comes out in those pieces, each instance has a unique sound and presence.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Most of the time, yes. As I mentioned above, there’s always a phase of planning before anything that I work on, and in the context of a large-scale piece or an entire album, that process can go quite deep and be quite lengthy. I don’t typically create demos of my music, that doesn’t really make sense for what I do, but often there will be an initial version of something that I’ll continue to work through to get it closer to what feels right for me. But in that case, I don’t really consider that a part of the „preparation“ phase, rather just one point in the process of developing a piece.
I also tend to expand that concept beyond a single piece or an album as I am a strong proponent of iteration – I think that it’s important to continue to work through ideas, even if you’ve „fixed“ something into a recorded work or a live piece that’s being actively performed, you can still return to ideas that feel like they have more to say and continue to explore them in the context of new work. There’s such a tendency in current music writing to demand that musicians constantly innovate and create things that are entirely „new“, whatever that means, and I think a lot of important ideas can get lost in the notion that once they are explored the first time, they are forever put to rest.
My piece, „If it pleased me to appear to you wrapped in this drapery“, for instance, which I wrote for violin, viola da gamba, and reed organ, emerged from a long-form live piece for cello and synthesizer that I had presented in 2016 at Western Front in Vancouver, Canada.
I was so engaged with certain aspects of the performance, so I continued to build from there when I was working on the pieces that would later become part of Pale Bloom. In fact, I’m still extracting some elements of that piece into different iterations and articulations of texture and microtonality through two new long-form works: one for the Bozzini string quartet, and another for a cello octet based in Amsterdam. It’s endlessly fascinating to me that even the simplest musical gestures can have such longevity and variation.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
To be honest, not really, no. There are definitely things that help and things that ultimately shift the attitude I’ll have when working on music – setting is really important for me, having a space that feels conducive to creating and one that kind of feels uninhibited, like where I can jump around and try different things and plug in different pedals and record on the fly. And, of course, having a space that feels a bit isolated and removed from distractions is very helpful. Building up my studio space has been one of the most rewarding things for me over the past few years, and it’s massively impacted the way that I work.
I’m also a complete night owl. My brain is pretty slow in the morning, and I often get most of my work done at really odd hours. I would say that the majority of the music I’ve released was created between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am. I don’t know why, it’s just the way I’ve always been. I also really benefit from doing menial tasks as a way of letting my brain release itself from thinking about music, and often when I’m doing things like driving or cleaning or walking, I can free a space for my mind to move toward different ideas for whatever music I’m working on at that time.
But, at the end of the day, there aren’t really any strict necessities for me in that regard. Once I start working on something and have found a path forward, I can get into it pretty easily. If I’m hitting a wall or not feeling it, then I just stop and do something else, I don’t try to force it.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It kind of varies depending on the piece, there isn’t really one way that I work consistently in terms of starting a piece. Usually it makes sense for me to just start anywhere and see where it goes, and then once I have something that I’m happy with I can go in and fine tune and get specific about where things ought to begin and end or come and go.
I’m very comfortable in the studio environment, and I think one of the most incredible things that it offers is the freedom to explore without being commital. So it doesn’t really matter where I start; as long as I’m doing something, it will eventually lead to some place that is meaningful for me.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Through a back-and-forth process of improvisation and then specification and fine-tuning. When something starts to sound interesting through the course of improvisation, I’ll stop and start working with it on paper and keep developing it into something more concrete. And then I’ll take a step back and listen and come back to it and keep going in the same way. The same is true when I’m in the editing and mixing phase of a recorded piece; I think of mixing as an integral part of composition.
Once I have some recorded material, I’ll go through in very small increments, like maybe 5-second increments, and if there was something in that moment that felt off, I’ll stop and work through it until it moves in the direction that feels right. Once the overall structure feels okay, then I get more into the big picture of the overarching feel and texture as well as certain details that can be shifted here and there, cleaning things up.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I always go into my work with some kind of idea, no matter how vague, in the back of my mind, but once I start working, the direction of the sound that emerges and the compositional process that feels appropriate is where I’ll follow. I would never compromise a piece or a sound because it didn’t adhere to whatever narrative I had in mind. I don’t think anyone is wrong to do that; it’s just not how I like to work, because then you’re closing yourself off to so much potential.
I’ve never liked the „this is my idea, and this is the music that I deliberately created“ way of talking about composition because music is always a dialogue between players or instrument and player or sound and space, or player and moment, etc., and the resultant experience is just as much about the things one deliberately does as it is about how one reacts to what’s happening or what feels right, there’s always an element of decision making in light of given circumstances.
So to me it doesn’t make sense to even try to stick to a specific narrative; it will likely be there in your choices regardless, but it shouldn’t stifle new feelings or psychological and creative paths that can emerge from the process. If things start to diverge too much, you can always split it into separate musical ideas and focus on each individually.