Sarah Davachi: Slow sounds and wide spaces

In October 2021, the SMEM hosted Sarah Davachi for a talk followed by a concert. Below are some of the highlights of our discussion and some answers to the questions she received from the public. 

You can find Sarah’s latest music on her Bandcamp page.

Interview

First of all, how are you? How does it feel to be back on tour, after 10 days on the road?

It’s exhausting, especially with the jet lag. Your body forgets how hard it is. But it’s good! You’re also reminded of all the things that were missing in that time — when I was in my studio, at home, I didn’t notice those things as much as I do now that I’m on tour.

In the last couple of years, you’ve spent a lot of time in your home studio. Has this changed your approach to composition in any way?

The new records definitely reflect the extra time that I’ve had at home. Usually, when I wanted to record, I would set up my instruments for that purpose, but, soon enough, I would have to take it apart to play it live. I only had short periods of concentrated work to record music, whereas during the pandemic, I’ve been able to just set things up and leave them there for extended periods of time. I could come back to them whenever I felt like it, which was nice. I’ve also been able to take inventory of all the gear I have in my studio and make proper use of it! Mostly, it has been about getting a sense of clarity, in that I could let things sit for a while and really give myself time to put the ideas together.

Your music is very evocative of certain particular moods. How do the instruments you use influence your musical inspiration?

Interesting question… I’m not sure it’s a conscious choice, it feels more like an intuitive tendency to choose particular instruments depending on what I want to do. I obviously like organs and synthesizers very much because of their huge sonic range, even though most of what I like to do with them consists in focusing on a specific timbre or note and let that evolve slowly for a while.

I also like to think of instruments as similar to people, in that they each have their specific personality and “things they do well”. That way, when I’m looking for a specific feeling in my music, I will know better which instruments to gravitate towards. Looking back, some of these choices are obvious, but as I said, they aren’t really conscious in the moment. I mostly like to focus on a single instrument at first and let things blossom out from there.

You’ve used a lot of instruments over time, do you have a favorite era for instrument design?

The late ‘70s to early ’80s is definitely the best era for me, because of the analog core sound coupled with digital control, making it more stable. The instruments of the previous decades were good at what they were meant to do, but not much more beyond that… So most of my favorite synthesizers are from that era, especially the late ‘70s.

If you’re talking about instruments in general, the Renaissance, definitely. The 1500s is the golden age of musical instruments, although most of them are gone by now…

You’ve studied philosophy before heading towards musicology. Did any philosophical insights shape your way of making music?

Oh, definitely. The branch of philosophy I got in to the most is phenomenology, which is basically the study of subjective experience, of how things appear or feel like. Even before that, through my musical studies, I was really interested in the specific aspects of what an instrument could do, how it could sound in a very specific way. I didn’t care as much about progression (to another harmony, another chord…) as I cared about a specific sound the instrument could do. I like to just stay with a single sound and really get to appreciate how it feels. So I guess this musical approach came from the same interest; a slower approach to how an experience feels.

Literature and philosophy are also good ways to anchor our creativity in something deeper than just a moment of fleeting inspiration…

For sure. One of the most interesting seminars I took was called ‘Music and ecstasy’, it was a comparative survey of different religious and non-religious aspects of music and the experience of ecstasy, and it was incredible. It made me realize that this experience is really found everywhere; there’s a pervasive experience of how people relate to sound, it’s transcendent in a way.

Some questions from the public

Do you listen to other people’s music for inspiration?

Absolutely, but I also find inspiration in other forms of arts. Visual arts like paintings, especially the kind where you can really spend a lot of time observing them, analyzing the textures, really give me a lot to think about.

I draw a lot of inspiration from film. If I had to pick one film, my favorite would be Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick. I love it as a film, but it’s also more than that: I use it as a kind of mantra when making music, by asking myself “what would Kubrick do?”. The movie was shot using only natural light, which gives it a really compelling look. If you pause it, every shot looks like a painting. I want to have this same property in my music, where you could pause it and it would still have that quality to it. I also like the movie for its pacing, it has a real slowness to it that lets you take care of every moment. Tarkovsky is also a big inspiration…

Have you worked with some of your influences like Eliane Radigue?

I did contact her during my Master’s thesis, which I had to do by writing a letter. I tried writing to her in french, but she responded to me in english! (laughs). We had a few exchanges based on the questions I asked her for my thesis, and I thanked her when the whole thing was done. The first time that I went to Paris after this exchange, I contacted her to see if she wanted to meet, but she was busy at the time…

You talk about using silence in your music, could you speak a little bit more to that?

Silence is sound, it’s part of my music. I think I use it to restructure how people listen to my music. I don’t think there’s an appropriate word for the type of music that I do (be it “drone” or “minimalism”), but generally there a lot of ways to express duration, repetition and creating the experience that I really have in mind. It helps slow down the whole process of listening.