Signal Path is a new series that delves into the creative process of our favorite producers and musicians. In this interview, John Twells meets LA-based composer and academic Sarah Davachi, who opens up about her introduction to electronic music and ongoing obsession with musical instruments, from vintage synthesizers to pipe organs.
“I actually have a plan to do a cover record of classic rock songs,” laughs Sarah Davachi as we start talking about musical influences. “Todd Rundgren, Beach Boys, George Harrison, Genesis. Early Genesis.”
Davachi’s path to becoming a world-renowned synthesizer expert is quite unique. She had studied piano from an early age but burned out quickly, resenting the anxiety of classical performance. The discovery of analog synthesis took her on in exciting direction that she’s followed ever since – it even helped renew her interest in the piano.
This year, Davachi has been touring almost non-stop and somehow has managed to find the time to put out two proper albums: April’s Recital-released Let Night Come On Bells End The Day and Gave In Rest, on Ba Da Bing!, that emerged earlier this month.
Both albums illustrate just why Davachi is receiving so much attention right now. A mixture of confident, studied synthesis and gloriously restrained instrumental performance, they sound something like Pauline Oliveros collaborating with Arvo Pärt, or Stars of the Lid covering John Taverner.
Now based in Los Angeles, Davachi is currently working on a PhD in Musicology at UCLA, diving headfirst into organology, the study of instruments. This obsession has been a constant throughout her career, and she’s keen to illustrate how much the analog synthesizers of the 1970s have just the same distinctive, unpredictable qualities as any traditional instrument.
“For some reason with electronic instruments, people just don’t want to understand that they’re instruments,” she assures me. “When you’re playing a synthesizer it’s so unfair to say you’re just turning knobs; it’s as unfair to say that someone who’s playing guitar is just strumming. No, there’s so much more to it than that. It’s so ignorant.”
“You can go into Guitar Center and play a $5000 Gibson and feel what that feels like. It’s harder to go find a 1968 Moog and be able to A/B those instruments, so I think people get a little bit bitter about that,” she continues. “The only analogy I can think that makes sense is like with cars, comparing a Jaguar to a Honda – that’s a thing that people can understand. Like, I’m never gonna own a Jaguar and I’m okay with that, but it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that a Jaguar should exist just because I don’t have access to it.”
What was your introduction to electronic music?
Sarah Davachi: I was studying some early electronic music from the ’50s at school and it got me curious, but none of that music really did much for me. I didn’t find it very compelling. So when I was 20 years old I got a job at a musical instrument museum in Calgary, of all places. That was the turning point for me, having access to any electronic instrument you can think of. I got hired as a tour guide, and I did that for eight years.
In the early years the place wasn’t very well known so nobody was coming to tours, especially in the dead of winter, so I’d have all this time when I’d be alone. I’d pick a different instrument every week and read about it online, learn about it and then go and get to know it in person. It was a really fruitful experience that knocked into me this interest in actually working with these historical instruments.
It was such a unique privilege for me, but it’s not like I was given a golden key, I’m just a normal person and I didn’t have any of the experience that I do now. So it’s not like these instruments are impossible to access, there are other places around the world that have instrument collections that are similar, especially in Europe. I did a bunch of residencies several years ago. There’s a place in Stockholm, EMS, then I was at STEIM in Amsterdam and WORM in Rotterdam. They’re not hard to access.
Did you develop an interest in minimalism when you were studying piano?
Davachi: Not knowingly. I studied a bit of theory but I never had an interest in composing music when I was younger. The music I was interested in was basically either baroque music, especially Bach, and also Chopin, early romantic music, super virtuosic music which is not really in line with what I do currently. I can see where the parallels are; the harmonic content of early romantic music is really interesting. And baroque music, even though it’s very active I think it has a lot in common with the focus of minimal music, in that it really draws the listener in and really forces you to listen in a different way.
I didn’t really get into minimal piano music until way later. I had a struggle with my relationship with the piano for a long time, because when I started to want to compose music, the piano didn’t feel right for me and it didn’t for a long time. I gave it up and found synthesizers and that felt intuitive to me, and it was only recently in the last couple of years that I felt better. We patched up our differences (laughs).
Did you move towards patch-based composition as a conscious move away from the keyboard?
Davachi: Oh yeah! In Canada, all the classical training is through the Royal Conservatory of Music, so it’s very regimented. You’re not allowed to play whatever you want – you have to study certain things. There’s a lot of performative culture around it and for me, in the classical world, performative culture is just a disease. It’s not a healthy thing – some people thrive on it but I think the average person should have other exposure. It’s so much about the single performance and you practice and practice and you have to get it right and there’s so much anxiety based around it. For me, that’s a horrible way to play and enjoy music and I hated that aspect of it.
When I decided to stop playing piano, it was maybe a year later when I started working at the museum. It was such a different world, of making music, but also interacting with these instruments. And the nice thing about a synthesizer is that you can set it up to do things while you’re thinking about doing something else. You can get it doing something and then start the next sound or the next passage while it’s still going. There’s more of an interaction between you and the instrument. And that was just a really intuitive method of working for me that the piano didn’t offer initially.
But I still play the piano all the time and I get a lot of satisfaction from playing and having it be real-time, and philosophically that’s very interesting, to be able to feel sound like that. I try to do that when I play live with electronics also, I try to make it a real-time unfolding of sounds.
What drew you towards deep minimalism and drone?
Davachi: When I was working at the museum, I remember noticing something. They have this Buchla 100 modular system and I had two oscillators set in tune; I was just listening to them drift in and out of one another. For a while I didn’t understand what was happening; I didn’t realize that the oscillators were actually going out of tune, but it was a very interesting experience. Then, the next day, I went to play an acoustic organ and I was just sitting there holding an octave – basically two oscillators tuned in unison – and listening to it do the same thing, fluctuating. It was really an important discovery for me that the two were linked and that was what I was interested in, these instabilities that only certain instruments have.
The instruments that I like to work with and the synthesizers that I like to work with are from a very specific era. I started out working with modular instruments, which was interesting at the time and in the last couple of years I’ve shifted from modular stuff. I like integrated instruments, like mid-to-late ’70s analog instruments. The [Sequential Circuits] Pro-One is a staple of mine and the main instrument that I use in the studio is the EMS Synthi AKS.
I like them because they’re from this era where the technology is imperfect, just because of the way it was at the time. It’s not like they were trying to make them unstable or whatever, but they had no choice. I think it works in favor of the type of music I do because having those instabilities brings all sorts of interesting overtones and psychoacoustic effects out. But I think those instruments in particular, they create the kind of sound world that I’m looking for. They’re instruments the same as a violin is an instrument – each one is unique.
How much of your process is improvised, rather than composed?
Davachi: It depends whether it’s something for a record or something for a live performance, I tend to distinguish them pretty strongly. But they kind of come together in the same way. Initially there are a lot of improvised elements; it’s usually structured and I have in mind what I want to do, but I leave it open to see what comes up out of that.
If I’m working with other musicians I’m pretty vague about it. When I go into a studio it’s like, “what do you want me to do?” (laughs) “can you give me some direction?” I’m like “no no just play like this and I’ll record you for 10 minutes.” I can see that it’s not the normal way of working for people, but I like doing that so there isn’t as much pressure on the recorded part.
I work with Logic, so once I have enough material I can take it, edit it and everything happens when I start to layer stuff and piece things together. So that element of it is very structured and very deliberate, and with live performance it’s the same way. I’ll play around with stuff but once I hone in on something I like, then it becomes kind of set like that and it develops from that.
So would you say you use Logic as a compositional tool?
Davachi: Yeah. I subscribe to that theory 100% and I remember reading about that when I was doing my undergrad I was taking a seminar on Glenn Gould. This was before I was really making music that much and he just blew my mind when I was 19. He was talking about how the studio could be this new instrument and then he stopped performing publicly. He just gave up on it and was just a recording artist. That to me was so fascinating, that it was talking about the final product and how it sounds, rather than whether it was a clean performance. That really stuck with me.
When I work, I record stuff and it usually doesn’t end up sounding anything like it does to begin with. ‘For Voice’ on All My Circles Run, I recorded the vocalist singing different vowels at different pitches and it came together later. I think a lot of people who are privy to experimental music, they get that. I remember reading an interesting story about Brian Eno, when he recorded Here Come The Warm Jets he had all these session musicians come in and he was asking them to play all this stuff and I guess he messed around with it so much in the production that when the record came out all the musicians were kind of angry with him. They were like, “this isn’t what I played, you made it sound weird.” They didn’t like it. But, good record.
Sarah Davachi is performing at this year’s Semibreve festival in Braga, Portugal. For more information and tickets head to the Semibreve site.
John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.