Droning On With Sarah Davachi

There is an argument to be made that Sarah Davachi is biggest name to come from ambient music in the last five years. It’s not hard to understand why – her music is a beguiling and always beautiful mixture of old and new, simple and complex. Her instrumentation ranges from the newest synths to century old organs and her songs, like her music, seem to span the breadth of human experience. As she prepares for the release of her 11th album, she can rightly take her place alongside the likes of Barwick, Grouper, Basinski and Hecker as being among the pantheon of great 21st Century ambient composers. Before her short residency at Café Oto in London (17th March), James Turrell sat down with her to discuss amongst other things; recording techniques, PhD’s in Musicology and working at what appears to be the coolest museum in the world.

How did the residency come about?
I guess it was just part of the tour. I was going to be here and I wanted to do a show in London, so I contacted Café Oto. I think they’re doing a bit of a residency thing at the moment, and they asked if I wanted to do two nights.

What are the biggest differences between the two nights?
So tomorrow (18th) I’m doing my normal electronic set that I do, my touring set that’s like an hour long. It’s a new set, and this is the first time I’m doing it in Europe. I’m doing that tomorrow and then a set with Áine O’Dwyer, which will be really interesting because I haven’t done a lot of duos with people. I think we have enough similar sensibilities and differences that it will be really interesting.

Is he in the same sort of genre?
Yeah, she –

She! Ha, sorry.
(Laughs) No that’s okay! I mean, I say that on her behalf. I guess it’s weird with experimental music to say it’s one genre and experimental music is considered to be one big pile-up. So I guess she kind of works in the field of experimental music, she’s done a lot of stuff with organ and drone-y things, which is where our similarities overlap.

Have you done many rehearsals?
We’ve been emailing a bit; we did a Skype chat maybe a month or so ago to see what we wanted to do, or what we felt comfortable doing. But she lives in London and we have tomorrow before the show in the Project Space, which is separated from the venue, so we’re going to plug in our stuff in and see what happens. Usually I am on my own, but tonight is also different because of the two sets I am doing, one is for piano and electronics, which is solo. And then I am doing a bigger ensemble piece with three string players from the London Contemporary Orchestra, and then we’re using the Café Oto choir, which is cool because I have never done choir stuff before. Normally I do play on my own but if I am in a city like London, where I know a lot of people, it’s nice to do some collaborating.

In interviews you’ve talked about the idea of unlearning Western theory. I haven’t had any alcohol today so I’m not going to pretend I understand what that means, but how has that idea been interacting with playing with string players and a choir?
I think the music I make, especially when it is with other people just for the sake of keeping everybody together, tend to be pretty tonal and based in basic Western theory. One of the differences I’m noticing as I start to work with other people is the way that I communicate with them. Even the way I write out scores, I’ve gone back and forth on working out a way to properly notate them, so people could perform if I wasn’t there but it doesn’t really work for the way I think about the music, because the way that I write scores is to just write the notes and some stuff about timings. And that started as just something for me when I started performing and I did that way because it was only me that would read it. But then it turned out to be a really intuitive way to work with other people, so I think that’s a different way of dealing with Western idioms.

When you are writing the music, are you improvising while playing or are you actually writing it out on paper?
A bit of both. There are parts that are like, ‘do this exact thing, play these notes or whatever.’ But then that’s why it’s easier to write things out because if they are improvised – or, well, not improvised but within a set of notes, the player can choose the ones they want to do. Especially with the piece we are playing tonight, I’ve played it in different iterations and recorded it –

Which is it?
It actually has not come out yet, it will be on a record that will be announced soon. It’s an ensemble piece, so it’s me playing organ and a violin player which I have replaced with the viola and a cello for this live version, and then the choir. So in that piece when I’ve played it, there’s a part at the beginning where people are playing different notes, and I think people coming in and out at random and choosing the harmonies that come up with improvisations is more interesting to me.

The word ambient is a catch-all term that describes everything from Stars of the Lid to Laurie Spiegel to you.  I tend to split things into ambient, drone and modern composition, or neo-classical if I’m trying to sound clever. What term do you use to describe your music?
Even though I just complained about the word experimental, I use the word experimental a lot. I think my earlier music was very drone, so I used that word a lot. But I think the music I make now still has that sensibility, but I don’t think that word applied to all of it, so I don’t use that term much anymore. I guess – I don’t know, it’s the question someone you don’t know asks you ‘what sort of music do you make?’ And it’s like; ‘oh God! What do I say?’ I mean, electro-acoustic is also a term that I use a lot to explain it just because I think a lot in terms of instruments when I am writing music, so for me it’s often a good term to describe the blend between acoustic and electronic instruments in my music.

A lot of ambient music is defined by length. Brian Eno has four or five albums that are just one song. Your songs are often, with a few exceptions, quite short at around 5 minutes.  Is that a conscious decision?
Yeah, I think so. I guess one thing that plays into that is that the way I think about live and recorded music is very different. With a few exceptions, most of the stuff I make for records, I don’t think of it has something that I will play live. And the same thing with the live stuff, I don’t think how I can truncate this to record it. I’ve never played a set where there is a pause; it’s always just one long thing. So in that sense it’s kind of like the ideal way to play with length. The stuff on the records is just a different way of using length. When you listen in a live context, listeners are more receptive to listening to one tone for three minutes, but when you are listening to a record I don’t think you can get away with the same experience. After 30 seconds you’re thinking, ‘why hasn’t this changed yet?

At what point in the writing process do you attach a name to a piece of music?
That’s a good question! No one ever asks me about that. Usually, most of the time it’s after the fact. I think that there are a few cases, like the pieces on this record I have coming out – it’s either at the end or at the start. If I have name at the start, I’m thinking about it as I’m writing and that feeds into it, or the music is done and then I try and think of something that works well. I kind of like the instances when there are words or phrases that I have so I can have it in mind, and it can inform the music – especially when you’re marking a record, it can inform the whole album.

You always have really good albums titles.
Thank you! I really appreciate that; nobody has else has ever said that in an interview before. When I play live people come up at the end ask the name if the stuff I played, and I don’t know because I never title live stuff.

So do you have things you have only ever played live?
Oh yeah.

Yeah, mostly everything I’ve played – maybe like 10% of things I’ve played have ended up being recorded in some way or another. But the ratio is like 97% of the things on the records have never been played because I wouldn’t really know how.

So there’s no chance of you playing Orindal tonight?
No, sorry! I wouldn’t know how to do it. Especially from that era, the music has so many layers and the process is so intricate that it could be something I could play but it would take so much effort to work out.

What was the writing process like when you were making that?
I mean, a lot of that stuff, with the exception of the last two records, the records prior to that were intuitively composed I would say. I don’t improvise when I play live but when I am working on a piece I just sit and play and record all of it and then later on I’ll just go back and pick out what worked. And from that basis I would build on top of it a lot and tweak it slowly until it was done.

You have released a lot of music since The Untuning of the Sky came out in 2013. You must be writing things all the time I imagine?
Again, I think it sounds weird to speak about myself in a positive way, I don’t know why –

You’ve been spending too much time in England.
(Laughs) I think one of the things that is interesting or unique about the thing I do, is that I think a lot of the music is about the instruments I use. I think if I was just a pianist or whatever, that there are limits in the amount of stuff you can do before it gets stale, and then you have to take time to develop something new. I think that’s the case for bands and stuff as well. But for me I feel like I can move around to different things and that the records I’ve made are unified but different. I like to think that with each record people are hearing something new from me. I do put out a lot, and I do have a lot of music I am making, but it doesn’t feel inundating to me because there are just different projects and then I move onto the next thing.

Is the writing continuous or is it like, ‘The stuff I’m writing in this period is going to end up on this record’?
Definitely more so now than before, I would day that around the time of All My Circles Run, I started to properly think that I am making a record and writing pieces that were only for the record. Whereas before I would have things and then sequence it, rather than ‘now I am making music for a record.

I read in an interview that you worked in an instrument museum and learnt to play lots of things from working there, what was that like?
It was pretty interesting. I grew up playing piano – classically trained – for a long time, and when I was 19 or 20 I needed a new job saw a posting for a tour guide at a keyboard museum. The advert said, ‘must be able to play piano and talk to people.’ I wasn’t that comfortable talking to people, but I could play piano, so I thought it would be fun. I started as a tour guide, and this was like twelve years ago, but it’s a different place now than it was then and you would only get a small handful people would come. I would work five hours on a Sunday, and especially in the winter no one would really come. I would still have to be there anyway, though. I still think of it is a really privileged thing, because when people ask me how to get into playing certain synthesizers or instruments it’s hard for me to give advice because it’s such a weird entry point. But yeah, it was great, the people were great and I was paid to learn about instruments and figure out what was appropriate to play. The instruments there ranged from acoustic instruments from the 1600’s to all electronic instruments you can imagine, mostly keyboards. I worked there for like 10 ten years on and off.

(c) David Vyce
(c) David Vyce

Oh really?
Yeah, when I wasn’t living in Calgary I worked as a content developer and researcher. We took a list of 200 instruments and I had to write a fifty page document about them, like their history, how to play them, and anything else you might want to know about them. I learnt so much, probably more than anyone would need to know about those instruments.

Were you allowed to take stuff out and record with them?
No, but I was able to bring in recording equipment. It’s kind of weird because at the time the place was very loose and for as long I told them what I was doing, it was fine. Now they are a totally different organisation, so that wouldn’t happen anymore. I would just get a field recorder and record loads; I have so many recording from ten years ago that I have never used and they’re all in my list. They have asterisk’s next to them that say ‘Edit this’. I’m glad I had the foresight to record it all!

You’re doing a PhD right?
I am, yes.

What’s your title?
I haven’t decided yet, I think PhD programmes are different in North America compared to Europe. In North America you do a few years of coursework and exams before you start writing.

So it’s Grad School, right?
Yeah, that’s it, and I’m still in my second year so I’m in the coursework part. I have to take this huge exam in a couple of months. As I’m in my second year it will probably be another two or three after this.

Is it purely written research or are you composing for it?
It’s in the School of Musicology so the dissertation will be like a book.

What are you researching?
Well I have an idea of what I’m going to write about. Obviously, I’m interested in musical instruments, which is branch of Musicology called Organology. Which is a slightly misleading name because it includes all instruments and not just organs. I’m really interested in the experience of timbre in musical instruments and the way it affects sound, so I’m going to look at timbre and the way that it affects sounds and playing. And also the way it affects listening. But we’ll see. (Laughs)

When will you be finished?
Well I’m on a Visa, so I’m on a leash, which is good in a way because it gives you a deadline.

Do you think you’ll need to take a break from music to finish it?
No, I think this year and last year have been crazy doing coursework, and touring at the same time has been insane. But once I advance my candidacy, I think I’ll be better at managing the workload because I’m pretty good at working on planes on stuff. Once I stop doing coursework I think everything will be become a bit more balanced.

Is there anyone else on the course like you who is a professional or recording musician?
(Laughs) Semi-professional I would say! I don’t know if your readers will be familiar with her, her name is Romana Gonzalez and he performs under the name Nite Jewel. It’s nice to have somebody who understands, because last year I felt like I was alone and I had no one to complain to about how hard it is combining touring and coursework. It’s some nice camaraderie.

Is it a big field, Musicology?
Yeah, I mean it’s a relatively new field. Obviously, composition, performance and all that goes back a long time. Music theory and its roots are older, but Musicology is more of a 19th century thing that is still developing. It’s a pretty big field and UCLA does a different type where you can work on pop music and stuff like that. 99% of intuitions are conservative and wouldn’t let you study that type of thing.

If somebody was studying the social history of how these instruments were made, or why people started playing them, would that fall under Musicology?
That’s a PhD in waiting! Yeah absolutely, I guess traditionally Musicology is seen as historical Musicology, which is like the 101. But in the in the 80s there was New Musicology, which was like the post-modern approach and looking at aesthetics or gender or anything that isn’t rooted in ‘this is the history of music’, which kind of what Musicology is now.

Since All My Circles Run you’ve become quite a name in the ambient world. You’ve kind of exploded since then, but why do you reckon that has happened?
I wonder about that myself actually. I don’t know – I think with that record I really started thinking of things in terms of a record, and I don’t mean to say I didn’t work hard on previous albums because I did, but it was a different process. All My Circles Run came out as a cohesive record, and the previous records were all electronic. This record, though, was acoustic and maybe more interesting to people. It always intrigues me with artists that they have a bunch of stuff, and then there’s one record which people pay any attention to. I often think there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Yeah, I think it’s mostly a matter of timing.
Yeah definitely, right time right place.

How long do you spend on a song?
It varies.

It must be a fast turnaround given how much stuff you release?
Something about me is that I never really stop, which is a blessing and a curse. I have been working with pipe organs a lot recently, and with that it’s a mix of having ideas about what I want to do, and then sitting there and intuitively. In that sense, when I sit with an instrument, and it was the same with synthesizers earlier on, it’s just intuitive and it comes really fast.  With Gave in Rest, it was August when I started editing the recordings, but I wasn’t finished until February. That was like six months of editing and working on stuff and getting to a certain point and scrapping and starting again.  There was one track which I spent three or four months on it until it was properly finished.

Are you home recording or in a studio?
Both, it depends on the record really. If it is in a studio it’s usually due to the record label, as they pay for it. At the start of the writing process I usually know if it will be home or studio and that informs the music and how I approach it. I have a set-up at home, and I like that. Even when I am in a studio, with this record that will come out soon, there’s a piece that’s on it that we’re playing a version of tonight. That was the first time a piece was completely finished and just needed to be recorded. We recorded it in the traditional way of, you know, recording –

Like layering all the tracks individually.
Yeah exactly, whereas before even studio stuff has been, “I’ll record this and then I’ll record this”. Then there’s always a long process afterwards when the compositional stuff happens in my own world.

Are you interested in doing soundtrack work or that kind of thing?
I mean again, in addition to always being on the go, I notoriously like to have my foot in in many doors –

Fingers in many pies as we say in England.
Yeah exactly! That’s a much better expression. I feel like if I am working on one thing, if I get frustrated or bored with it, I like to able to have variety with that. So I wouldn’t want to be dependent if it was a soundtrack thing, because I think it’s a specific way of working and it would be nice to think about music and sound in that way. But with commercial music it’s one thing to make something yourself and hate it but it’s another to make something you like and have somebody else say they hate it.  Or if you have to do something you’re not completely into just for money or whatever, I would definitely be curious to try it.

Sarah Davachi is on tour for the next few months and all information about it can be found here.