Sarah Davachi: “I think I'm making music now that I probably wouldn't have arrived at before the pandemic.”

What is it that draws you to the organ as an instrument to compose for and perform on?

SD: “I became interested in organs at the same time that I became interested in synthesizers, when I first started working at the musical instrument museum I mentioned earlier back in 2007. For me, it was a parallel experience wherein you could take an aspect of music and sound that I felt was often overlooked - this being vertical harmonic space - and really extend it temporally in a meaningful way.”

“I have a relative aversion to the classical idea of performer-on-stage-with-audience-watchin.” - Sarah Davachi

“I grew up playing classical piano and I remember finding myself attracted to particular harmonies or chords or moments in the music I was playing where I wished I could just pause and really luxuriate in that or focus on it somehow. With organs and synthesizers (the organ, to me, is essentially an acoustic synthesizer) you can do exactly that. My approach to working with organs has of course developed a fair amount since then, and there are things that I've discovered about my compositional voice that I think I would have only come to through the organ. These are things that I also bring into the way that I compose for other instruments, like strings for example.”

“In terms of live performance, I tend to think that the organ is sort of the perfect instrument for this kind of thing. It's already acoustically designed for the space that it's in, and it has such a commanding presence that is a complete joy to be enveloped within. In churches, organs were usually placed in the westwerk, out of sight of the congregation so as to imitate the concept of omnipresence. I have a relative aversion to the classical idea of performer-on-stage-with-audience-watching. So this kind of setup I think is actually quite ideal since it removes the performer from the line of sight of the audience and allows them to instead focus on what's really important, which is the sound.”

Sarah Davachi plays at RUISKAMER #2 on Thursday 7th of October. Get your tickets here.

Next week, we finally launch the brand new series RUISKAMER, together with our good friends of MIRY Concertzaal. One of our first guests is composer Sarah Davachi, who just released ‘Antiphonals’. Online music platform Pitchfork: “Davachi welcomes listeners into her quiet fortress of solitude, where they can cast aside the stresses of a chaotic world and worship at the altar of pure vibration.” We had a small chat with Sarah.

Sarah, it won't be the first time you’ll play in Ghent. In 2015 we invited you to our EASTERN DAZE festival. How has your musical path evolved between that show and the one that's coming up?

Sarah Davachi: “I would say that my style has become more specific since then in terms of the types of sounds that I gravitate toward and the way that I use them.  The instrumentation has also changed for various reasons, partly aesthetic and partly practical. But overall I feel that the same atmosphere and attention to pacing and the progression of time has been retained between then and now.”

“The idea of slowing things down for the listener and placing focus on textural detail in sound is something that I was still trying to figure out and work through then. And I'm obviously still exploring that now, but I think I have a much better grip on it now.  That concert during EASTERN DAZE was electronic and this will be acoustic. But to me that distinction makes little difference in terms of the listening experience, especially given the synthesized nature of the pipe organ.”

A predictable pandemic related question: how has this long weird period affected you as an artist?

SD: “It's been constantly up and down for me, often in what feels like extremes. Obviously losing an enormous amount of work was fairly devastating to maneuver from and it's still been difficult to adapt to the precarity of this situation, which I unfortunately think will be with us for a long time. And of course suddenly losing something that is such an immensely important part of my identity as an artist and my practice really severely affected my mental state.” 

“I think the pandemic did for me offer the distance and pause that I needed” - Sarah Davachi

“I think I'm realizing just how much so now that I'm starting to perform again and really be reminded of what element was taken away. I responded to the pandemic by just going deep into recording. I had started a new album before the pandemic set in but it definitely took a different kind of focus and pacing as a result of having the kind of space and time in my studio that I did."

"I'm really thankful for that time and I think the pandemic did for me offer the distance and pause that I needed to be able to slow myself down and reassess and really consider what I was doing and what I wanted to be doing. So, that's ultimately a good thing, and I think I have a much clearer idea now of what I want and need to do artistically. I'm going to take that forward with me and keep in perspective how useful it was to be able to take that step back from time to time. It's just really unfortunate that these were the circumstances.”

“Of course, personal stress associated with the pandemic has been constant for me since the beginning and comes and goes in waves, but that's been a really difficult thing to attempt to work through. At times it felt difficult to be motivated or feel good about making music with my mental state in such a dark place. But having the luxury to be able to work on music in this deeper way during this time has been a complete godsend for me in coping with everything, even when it's been a struggle. I think I'm making music now that I probably wouldn't have arrived at before the pandemic, and it does feel like that is coming from a more honest place.”

Was there any particular music that helped you through these times? 

SD: “I think people have different views on this. I wouldn't say that there was any music in particular that helped more than any other, and the music that I listen to and find helpful for these kinds of things varies so much just based on my mood and situation from day to day, so it's really hard to say anything in particular. But I did find that my will to listen to music was affected by the pandemic, and sometimes I didn't feel like listening to anything unless I could actually go deep with the listening experience.”

“At times where I would have normally had something on, like while driving long distances for instance, I would have just prefered silence or whatever was happening around me. I think there was just a directness of feeling that I was overcome with most of the time, and sometimes music contributed to that experience being meaningful and useful mentally, and other times it didn't.”

I read that you studied organology. Can you explain a bit the 'how, why and what'?

SD: “'Organology' is, in basic terms, the study of musical instruments. Many people tend to assume that it's the study of organs, which it of course includes, but it's not specifically related to organs. It's just the term used to describe musical instruments as a category. I worked at a musical instrument museum in Canada for a very long time. Interacting with various instruments and learning about them in particular ways had such a profound impact on the way that I think about music and the way that I make music.”

“I consider my practice as a composer and musician to be one way of articulating these ideas, my preoccupation with instruments and texture and timbre and production comes out a lot in my music, and so this is just another more formal or direct way of articulating the same kinds of ideas.”

“Organology tends to be viewed, at least in literature, from a very basic perspective - when you think of musical instruments and "what" they are, you think of the way that they're constructed and how they acoustically produce their sound. And maybe you start to get into the perceptual realm of timbre, but often it's only from a very scientific or cognitive framework. In my writing, I'm trying to develop a sort of critical organology that massively expands our understanding of musical instruments and timbre and texture and the experience of these things. I think it is so much more complex than we tend to articulate for whatever reason.”