Front is media partner of the offline edition of Rewire – on 10, 11, 12 and 18 September 2021 in The Hague. In addition to Sarah Davachi, Nazar, Felicia Atkinson, Loraine James, Machinefabriek to be found here to see. More information can be found on the website from Rewire.
Sarah Davachi likes to get lost in wide open spaces, be it the sprawling urban landscape of Los Angeles, the mountainous region of British Columbia or the perpetuity of organ music. For years, the Canadian composer has been navigating between classical and ambient, combining proven methods with musical experimentation. But with Cantus, Descant, which was released in September, she focuses more than ever on a single instrument. With an instrument made for bombast, she created a subtle and serene work about the transience of the individual in an immense universe.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Sarah Davachi is as anti-religious as can be. “It's a weird feeling. I was raised very secular; nobody in my family is even remotely religious,” she once told Aquarium Drunkard. And yet little has fascinated her as much as churches, ever since she first came to Europe. “It's an irony that I find hard to grasp. I love going to churches, experiencing sound in churches is great, but I've been to a handful of services in Europe in my life and that just made me very uncomfortable.”
It's love from a primarily acoustic perspective,” Davachi explains, though aesthetic value also plays a role in the Canadian composer's work. On Gave in Rest (2018), recorded after a summer on this side of the ocean, she let that influence play a leading role for the first time. ‘Secular mysticism’ it was called; the soul of church music translated into a setting without any spirituality, recorded in a studio in Montreal.
That balance is completely different on Davachi's latest album, Cantus, Descant. Instead of the interplay of synthesizers, (portable) organs, pianos and string instruments, as on Gave in Rest and Pale Bloom (2019), it is almost exclusively church organs that predominate here. Davachi traveled from her hometown of L.A. to Copenhagen, Chicago, Vancouver and Amsterdam to play carefully selected instruments. It is difficult to separate the resulting sound from its ecclesiastical context.
The compositions on Cantus, Descant Davachi wrote in the fall of 2018. “That was a bit of a weird year. I was often confronted with death and with it a sense of transience. It put my whole life back into perspective.” In addition, Davachi had also just moved from relatively small Vancouver to immense L.A.. “I slowly started to feel at home in the landscape here. As far as nature is concerned, everything is so big here and you are so very small yourself. During my walks I started to think about how we as humans relate to nature. Nature is constantly changing, but on a geological scale that we really can't comprehend.”
The place of the individual in the larger whole is at the centre; “the moment within the mythic.” The music on the album reflects a certain insignificance of man to the universe, but not in a way that should instill helplessness or fear. It is the “welcoming and reconciliation with impermanence” that, according to Davachi, is one of the main aims of Cantus, Descant.
“Organs are extremely overwhelming instruments, but many people do not realize that they can also be very intimate, very quiet and sensitive.”
Cantus, Descant. Davachi, philosopher and music scholar, took the mysterious title and main theme of the album from medieval European music. 'Cantus' represents the often improvised, individual singing; 'descans' the harmony of several voices, often in the form of an unambiguous, fixed melody. The two are constantly engaged in a dialogue with each other, just as Davachi's playing and singing constantly reacts to harmony and space, and vice versa.
If that is too abstract, the organ that Davachi played in Amsterdam makes the dynamics a lot more visible. Davachi has to chuckle when she tells how she came across that specific instrument: “That was in the summer of 2017, when I spoke at a pipe organ conference at the Orgelpark, near the Vondelpark.” That day, Davachi fell in love with a Van Straten pipe organ from 1479; more than four centuries older than the second oldest organ on the record, although large parts have been replaced since then. The organ, one of a kind, can be heard on the 'Stations' series on Cantus, Descant.
“Most modern organs have air blown into them mechanically; this one has bellows into which air must be pumped continuously. So I played, while an employee of the Orgelpark (organ scientist Hans Fidom, ed.) constantly walked up and down to inflate all the bellows. That's how we also started experimenting: normally you have to keep the air supply constant, but what if you empty them and then refill them? This created a certain decay in the harmony on the tracks.”
“What people forget when they play an instrument is that there are often so many mechanical layers behind it. When you play the piano, it's not just the keys: there's so much going on behind them too. That's what made it so interesting to work with this instrument, to have that interaction, to play it with so much going on around it.”
The Van Straten organ is also the only organ on the record that is not tuned in a so-called 'equal temperament', a tuning of 12 tones per octave, which is customary in the West, but in the almost forgotten 'meantone temperament’, especially common in Renaissance and Baroque period music. “That way you can very well evoke a different feeling in the harmonies. With an equal temperament, everything has the same character, the same color. With a meantone temperament I was able to achieve certain things that would otherwise have been impossible.”
It is an exchange, Davachi constantly emphasizes, between “what I do and what the instrument and the space make happen”. Instead of a close mic for just the organ, as is traditional, the microphone in Amsterdam was in the middle of the room. In this way, the space around the instrument became just as much part of the music; something that applies to every organ on Cantus, Descant to a certain extent.
“It's a very quiet record. That's what I always try to achieve when I work with organs. I find it very interesting that they are enormously overwhelming instruments, but that many people do not realize that they can also be very intimate, very quiet and sensitive. The organ in Los Angeles that I used (a Story & Clark harmonium from ca. 1890, ed.) is located in a very small space and is very quiet by itself, so it is a matter of doing what an instrument is best at. But with the bigger organs on record, especially the ones in Chicago, Vancouver and Copenhagen, you have to be a lot more purposeful, a lot more careful.”
“I get satisfaction from the busy, exciting tour life, seeing new environments, working with different people. The fact that that has now disappeared puts a heavy burden on my mental health. The balance is gone.”
The quiet nature of Cantus, Descant is a direct result of the space Davachi suddenly had at her disposal in L.A.. “I have moved often. There are certain cities, certain environments where I just don't feel comfortable. It is important to me to have open space. Cities like London or New York are so overcrowded, so much happening there, and especially in New York, nature can feel far away. L.A. has an overwhelming amount of open space, and being close to nature, being near a mountain or near the ocean changes your whole day-to-day rhythm.”
“Having that open space has always been important in my music. It comes back in the way I make music and what I want to get out of my music. But with this album, it's really been a focal point for the first time to create this tremendous calm. That is really a product of my current living environment.”
Just as Davachi seems to be completely absorbed in the fairytale forest scene on the cover of her new album, the environment is constantly part of the music she makes. Whether that is the space in which an instrument is located, or the natural environment around her home. Davachi realized this autumn that it is crucial for the creative process to occasionally absorb new environments. As creative as she was during the summer months, home isolation is hard on her now.
“It has a bigger impact than I initially thought. Especially now that I would normally be touring, I feel it. I like to have my thumbs in different pies. When I'm home, it works well. I am at home a lot, have my own studio at home, then a process arises in which you can work very slowly and in peace. But I get satisfaction from the busy, exciting tour life, seeing new environments, working with different people. The fact that that has now disappeared puts a heavy burden on my mental health. The balance is gone. Normally you can see certain things in a different light when you are in a different place. When I travel, I often experience sound in a different way. I take all that home with me, where I can work it all out very slowly and in a comfortable way. That rhythm is now gone.”
Her (difficult to reconcile) fascination for churches makes (Western) Europe in particular an inspiring destination. “I've toured there for many summers and have tried to get a grip on the way sound is used in those sacred places. Whenever I’m in a church, I think: what attracts me so much about this experience? I find it interesting to think about religion or spirituality in that way. Because in the Middle Ages people saw Christianity not as one faith relative to other belief system; it was just the way people thought. I try to see the role of churches and especially organs in that context. It didn't have the weight it has now. It was a much more normal part of society and in that sense the organ also had a very natural role: to attract people, especially during the Reformation when so many people turned away from the church. It was a way, almost a tactic, to get people in: Look, we've got this cool thing and it sounds great. What attracts me to the sound and the space is exactly what attracted those people, apart from the liturgical connotation.”
The time she spent in Japan, where spirituality manifests itself in a completely different way, also left a mark. “I've always been very attracted to the way people deal with silence. It's hard for me to explain how different it feels when you go to a temple or a garden or whatever in Japan; it's a different mindset that you get into, where you stop thinking about what's going on outside that space. You can focus very well on what you see, the quality of the air you breathe, the way the wind makes things move. It sounds very cheesy, but it's a whole different way of experiencing things. I cherish those moments.” cheesy, maar het is een hele andere manier om dingen te ervaren. Dat soort momenten koester ik.”
Cantus, Descant, a double album in itself, was supplemented last November with a companion piece of no less than two hours and 38 minutes: Figures In Open Air. Not an album that was planned at the start of this year, but in the absence of live shows a more than adequate compensation. You'll hear near-full performances in Berlin, San Francisco and Chicago, plus alternate versions of ‘Ruminant,’ ‘Canyon Walls,’ and ‘Diaphonica Basilica.’ All in all, it's a distant approximation to the European organ tour Davachi had planned for the fall, "a dream" she'd had for years that was finally set to come true this year.
“I'm not the kind of person who makes certain music for a record and then goes on tour to play that music live. Most of the things I make cannot be played live at all.” The best example of this is the aforementioned 'Stations' series; no other existing organ sounds like the one in the Orgelpark. “I wouldn't even try. It wouldn't make sense.” For the rest of Cantus, Descant, Davachi would make an exception to the rule: “I could actually start playing certain parts live, like a band playing the album version of a certain song live in a slightly different version. That's how I saw it. The music would sound different with each organ.”
Would, would, would. “Maybe next year,” Davachi sighs, because such a tour is not yet possible. Although she does jump at the idea of a special 'Stations' show in the Orgelpark. “I would love to. I have a good relationship with the people there.” For now Davachi, too, with California in perpetual lockdown since March, awaits improvement. So that she may soon see a European church tower again.
Cantus, Descant and Figures In Open Air have both been released through Davachi's own label, Late Music. They are available for purchase at her Bandcamp page.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.