Sarah Davachi on the Tuning and Resonance of Synths and Acoustic Strings, and More

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While the electronic-leaning composer Sarah Davachi’s latest album, All My Circles Run, marks a break from her previous releases in that it is sourced solely by acoustic instruments, she says that her “compositional process of recording, manipulating, and layering [has] remained very much the same.” She doesn’t frame the record as a fracture from her past work, but rather a continuation of her interest in the shifty intersections between the acoustic and electronic.

Indeed, a part of the spirit we here at the Incorrect Music series identify with in Davachi’s work is her insistence on exploring instrumental temper (and temperament), and the ways in which analog synthesizers can behave in environmentally unpredictable and/or precisely imprecise ways, much like acoustic concert instruments. She’s steeped in the world of these “design idiosyncrasies.” She notes: “when you get those slight shifts in frequency between independent sources, like the two oscillators of a synthesizer or the two violinists of a quartet, you open up this wealth of subtle spectral detail which emerges as a result of combination and difference tones.”

The Canadian composer studied electronic music and recording media at Mills College in Oakland, California, and is currently working on two more releases to follow her latest release, All My Circles Run, which is out now via Students of Decay. And don’t forget to check out Soundfly’s online course, Advanced Synths and Patch Design for Producers, and learn how to move beyond presets to create a wide array of scintillating synth sounds for your productions.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Nick Schofield 

What was your line of thinking going into All My Circles Run? Utilizing all acoustic instruments, it marks a departure from your past synthesizer-based work.

I’d previously done a lot of stuff that incorporated acoustic instrumentation alongside electronics and I essentially just thought it would be interesting to try doing something entirely acoustic.

I sometimes get these archival drives to focus on a particular sound or instrument or process, which is good because you can learn just as much from restricting yourself as you can from letting your imagination run riot. When I was in grad school at Mills, I had written a few entirely acoustic pieces; one for a small ensemble which ended up being the track “Heliotrope” on Barons Court, and another for bowed piano in just intonation. I wanted to experiment with bowed piano again and I think that’s where the concept for the record initially started. I’d also had this idea for a choral work stuck in my head for a few years after I attended this incredible choir competition at a church I randomly walked into in Berlin.

So I think it was just the culmination of some ideas that had been percolating for quite some time and wanted to be let out. I suppose timbrally there is a bit of a distinction from my previous recorded work with synthesizers, but the compositional process of recording, manipulating, and layering remained very much the same. There’s a lot of processing and production experiments going on in that record, and there were a lot of other instruments I wanted to write for but couldn’t for logistical reasons of record-length: woodwinds, hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, harpsichord. Maybe that will be a separate record sometime down the line.

What enticed you about these acoustic sources? And how do you characterize the attributes and limitations between acoustic instruments and synthesizers in the music you make?  

They’re all sounds that I’d worked with to varying degrees before, but I wanted to really showcase each one and dig deep into what I could do with that unique source, which is why each piece is dedicated to a single instrument. I’ve always maintained the belief that there are very strong and fundamental similarities between acoustic instruments and the class of synthesizers that I use, which are mostly analog or digital-analog hybrids that date from the 1970s or very early 1980s.

In the ’70s, manufacturers were working with what they had and they were in constant motion to improve the stability of their instruments to meet customer demands, especially in relation to tuning. Digital instruments and modern analog instruments don’t really have these problems; the components are stable and reliable. You might have to calibrate them every once in a while, but you don’t have to worry about them drifting by a semitone (or jumping up a fifth like my EMS Synthi has done once or twice) because there’s a sudden draft in the space you’re in or because the spotlight above you is generating heat and altering the temperature of the room.

Of course, acoustic instruments are prone to these discrepancies all the time, simply because nearly every single element of the body is contributing to the sound in some way or another. I think that older analog electronics and acoustic instruments have this temperament in common and in my opinion it’s a key factor in producing a sonic quality that is lush and warm and enveloping. And I really think that it’s not something you can faithfully replicate, as some modern instruments have attempted to do. When you get those slight shifts in frequency between independent sources, like the two oscillators of a synthesizer or the two violinists of a quartet, you open up this wealth of subtle spectral detail which emerges as a result of combination and difference tones. It’s a really wonderful phenomenon and it’s entirely what drove my initial compositional concerns.

I used to work with modular instruments a lot in the early days, and I still find them fun and interesting to operate, but these days I’m much more interested in integrated electronic instruments. There is a sense of presence and care and craftsmanship in ones from the 1970s that is unlike anything you’ll find today. Just as a piano can really only sound like a piano because of its design idiosyncrasies, even if you’re doing wild extended techniques or preparations, a Prophet 5 is always going to have that characteristic sound that only it can make because of certain parts that it uses or features that it comes equipped with.

So, in the music that I make, acoustic instruments and synthesizers are mutually acoustic; a Synthi is just as different and similar to a piano as a flute is to a cello. They each have unique limitations and personalities. When you get to know your instruments very intensely, it’s like relating in some weird way with another being, and I love that aspect of making music.

“…there’s always a muse hiding in the shadows.”

Can you discuss the various musicians, artists and engineers that contributed to Circles, and how they helped shape the sound.

The first person I spoke to about the project was Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, who is of course one of Montréal’s most beloved musicians and co-owner of the Hotel2Tango studio in Mile End. Radwan is an old friend, and I figured it would be fun to take some time and do a proper studio session. So in September of 2015, we recorded the majority of the record there with Radwan engineering.

The first thing we recorded was the bowed piano. When I was at Mills I discovered that you can get a pretty decent sound if you apply heavy rosin to fairly low gauge fishing line, so that’s what we did. When we listened back to the recordings, which were just individual pitches overdubbed, we were both pretty excited by the richness of the sound.

Then we did the organ recordings, which were actually performed on a Hammond organ just without the Leslie to give it its iconic sound. Radwan was super helpful in exploring different ways that we could mic the instruments and play around with the space in order to get a different tone, and that’s not something I’d really been able to make a lot of choices about in the past.

I enlisted a few local musicians to do the string parts — Jessica Holmes on cello and Jessica Moss on violin. I didn’t know Jessica Moss at the time, she was recommended by Radwan, but she was incredible to work with and I recently used her again on a new record. That day she was playing a show at Bar Le Ritz, so she went there to do her soundcheck, then tore down her set up and came to the studio to record for me, then went back and set up again to play the show. I was pretty blown away by that kind of dedication and in my mind that embodies the ethos that is typical of Montréal’s musical community.

The vocal piece I recorded a month prior, in August 2015, at my home in Vancouver. I didn’t know too many professional singers, so I asked around and a friend of mine in the local early music scene (Vancouver has an incredible early music scene) suggested Camille Hesketh, a soprano who studied at the conservatory in The Hague and does both contemporary and early music. We met for coffee earlier in the summer and discussed different vocal techniques and mouth shapes and vowel sounds and that sort of thing that would work well for producing and emphasizing overtones. Then when she came by to record we explored a lot of different pitch and vowel combinations. I think I spent like two or three hours editing all of that material afterwards.

In December 2015, when I was at home in Calgary for the holidays I recorded some unprepared piano material that comprised the melodic components of “for piano” and “chanter.” I guess I didn’t do a very good job recording those takes because you can hear some traffic in the background.

Can you discuss the different ways one can hear Circles (or, circles)? And what is a common listener/audience response that you receive from this work?

I don’t like to dictate how people should be listening to my music because I think that kind of undermines the function of art, and I tried especially hard to keep the aesthetic quite minimal on this record, even down to the track titles, so as not to cloud any perceptions one way or another. This record really is about focusing on the sound in itself, but of course wherever that takes the listener mentally or spiritually or whatever is completely out of my hands, as I think it should be.

I’m not sure it would do anyone any good for me to explain how I hear the record. I think that psychological side of listening is so personal. People who have spoken positively about the record seem to view it as something which they can focus on and they get something out of that action, going inside to come out differently, I guess not unlike going into some state of dedicated musing, and I can relate to that because I think that’s where I go when I’m making the music.

Music is both cerebral and physical, but I think for me the experience leans a bit closer to the former.

How do you go about presenting this work live in concert, if at all?

I’ve never presented any of this material live, and to be honest I probably won’t. I do things that are similar — I perform with pipe and reed organs fairly regularly these days, sometimes in complete isolation of other sound sources — but it’s never the same thing.

Part of that is practical: It’s logistically impossible to perform most of the music I’ve released on records simply because of the amount of processing and layering that’s gone on. But the main reason is that I look at live music and recorded music very differently, which I think is not really a common thing for a lot of musicians who do both. In my mind, each sonic space is so unique and you can do such vastly different things between them.

In the context of the recording studio, you can do all sorts of crazy things that you can’t really do live, or at least things that are difficult to replicate live, and you can be super precise and detail-oriented. That’s kind of the zone I live in with records usually, and I enjoy it.

In the context of live music, you can extend sounds as long as you’d like and you can really take your time to let things unfold. You can also be a bit more intuitive and exploratory, and, of course, you can take advantage of the fact that you also have a physical space with its own acoustic characteristics to filter your sound in a particular way. So I generally do pretty different things in each case, and I’ll approach a live set or a tour completely separately from a record. At times when they do overlap, it’s because I’ve cared for a live performance enough to take it and alter it so as to exist as a more coherent and thoughtful recorded version.

Having said that, it would be a fun challenge to try and interpret some of the pieces from this record live, and I suppose if I have the time and opportunity one day I would be up for it.

“When you get those slight shifts in frequency between independent sources, like the two oscillators of a synthesizer or the two violinists of a quartet, you open up this wealth of subtle spectral detail which emerges as a result of combination and difference tones. It’s a really wonderful phenomenon and it’s entirely what drove my initial compositional concerns.”

Are there historical references in Circles? For you, does it relate to specific past musical periods?

Nothing overt, although my approach to working with the voice is definitely informed by a deep aesthetic and conceptual interest in chant and sacred choral music. Most of the pieces on this record are modal, which is a realm that I like to work within but I think most of that is just intuitive rather than intentional, having spent many hours sitting in front of a keyboard and sussing out what I liked hearing before actually translating the theory behind it and realizing that it wasn’t, in fact, tonal. I work with intervals of fifths a lot, too, but often that’s similarly been more of an innate direction than a deliberate adherence to the circle of fifths or just intonation.

I’ve had a lot of formalized training in electroacoustic composition, and I think my approach is a bit “traditional” in the sense that I kind of view the recording studio as an instrument in itself. I am of course very rooted in minimalist practices and I think that comes out as a major influence, sometimes intentionally but usually just by circumstance.

Do you work within a set of parameters in your artistic practice, and how do you determine what to explore on each given album?

I try to do something specific with each record that I make, and that usually involves limiting myself in terms of instrumentation, as I did with All My Circles Run and Vergers, or with the character of the music, or the method of recording, stuff like that. I really like the idea that an album is sort of an enclosed world that you can get lost in, so I try to exploit that.

I know that if I don’t restrain myself in some way, the outcome is not going to feel as successful, so I do keep something in mind when I’m working. But when I first start, I also like to explore a lot of different paths and see what works and what doesn’t, or what feels better and what feels wrong. I think that element of giving yourself space and time when you’re making music is extremely important. Sometimes if I’m feeling stuck and something just isn’t working, I’ll scrap it altogether and start over. I’ve spent weeks working on a piece and beating it over and again and then starting from the beginning from a slightly different perspective and completing it in the course of an evening.

I have certain parameters that feel right for the environment that I work in — I prefer to work late at night, for instance — but I do try not to be too specific about that kind of thing either, just in case something I wouldn’t have thought of presents itself.

In terms of the concepts and affectations that are explored on each album, I don’t feel that it’s something I deliberately decide upon. Perhaps that’s a weird way of stating it, but I think it’s more a case in which I just sort of realize that it’s something I want to explore or work out, and then I try to make it happen. I think that’s often the case in aesthetics; in a sense people don’t decide, but are rather moved in one way or another by something external or internal and then they make decisions only about how best to manifest it into something tangible.

But, yeah, I guess I take mental notes wherever I go and whatever I do, or if I’m travelling somewhere it’s pretty easy to find inspiration, and then I just kind of let it all percolate and eventually something transpires that motivates me to work.

“You learn a lot about what’s important to you by recognizing what you don’t like and why you don’t like it.”

At Soundfly, we love to use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

I usually subscribe to the notion that an artist should take whatever means necessary to fulfill the sound they’re looking for. So if that means that you hold a single note for 10 minutes with nothing else around it, then you do that. If you want to put two instruments that are tuned differently beside each other to get a beating effect, then you do that.

I don’t often approach an instrument or a performance with it in a conventional way. A lot of people have difficulty with held tones in live settings because they are anticipating movement but I don’t like to respond to that if I don’t feel that I need or want it. When I am performing with a synthesizer, people are often surprised if they look at my patch or settings and they see how minimal it is. A lot of the time a few oscillators and some filters and a mixer are all I need to achieve the effect I’m looking for.

I think there’s a lot of pressure especially in live situations to be visually impressive and entertaining and I really find that very distracting so I try not to push myself toward any sort of expectation in that regard.

For the folks that appreciate your output, can you recommend any contemporary or historical composers and/or albums they should hear?

I listen to a lot of different types of music and I think nearly everything I hear is able to impart some element of influence or inspiration, so it’s a bit hard to narrow it down. On the surface level, I’m sure listeners of my music would appreciate a lot of the minimalist and long-form music I got into very deeply early on. Composers like La Monte Young, James Tenney, Alvin Curran, Éliane Radigue.

That’s a pretty good starting point to jump into the world of experimental music if you’re not already in it. I listen to a lot of classic rock and popular music and I find the production approach throughout the 1970s especially to be really inspiring. People like Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren had a huge influence on me. I’m a great admirer of early keyboard music, and I think a lot of the layered melodic things that I do have been impacted by listening to contrapuntal works from people like François Couperin and Jacquet de la Guerre. There’s so much incredible contemporary music that people are putting out and I think we should listen to everything, even if it’s the case that we don’t like it.

It may sound weird to put it like this, but you learn a lot about what’s important to you by recognizing what you don’t like and why you don’t like it.

What do you hope to explore next (in terms of instrumentation or practice)?

I’m working on a lot of new stuff. I have two records coming out in 2018, both of which combine a lot of different instrumentation, both acoustic and electronic. The first one, which will likely come out in the spring, is performed entirely by me and is kind of an homage to my background as a keyboard player; the second, which will likely come out in the fall, includes a lot of other musicians, most of whom are based in Montréal, including Jessica Moss and Thierry Amar.  That record was also recorded at the Hotel2Tango, engineered by Howard Bilerman who is such an enjoyable person to work with.

I have a live piece that I composed for reed organ, violin, viola da gamba, and electronics; I’ve been performing it in different cities (in Los Angeles in 2017, in New York, Chicago, and Boston in early 2018) with local players and that’s been really fun to be able to work that out. I’ll eventually record it in distinct sections for a proper LP release. In the summer of 2017 I also did some recording with two different pipe organs, one in Montréal and one in Vancouver, so I’ll also turn that into a record at some point. I don’t feel tied down to anything in particular, and right now I’m really enjoying being able to pick and choose what kinds of sounds I want to work with and how I want to manage them. There are a lot of other instruments I want to explore. I really want to do a solo record for Hammond B3 and another for Mellotron; I love those things.

I’m also enjoying doing live performances with pipe organs; it’s always an incredible feeling to be able to command that much sound. At some point I’d like to do a tour of Europe playing only pipe organs in churches and cathedrals.

Do you have any advice for amateur artists just starting out in their careers?

Record everything that you do, even if it’s just a test or you don’t think that you’re going to use it. Listen to different types of music; there’s always a muse hiding in the shadows.

Want more?

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Photo by Miriam Brellenthin.

Nick Schofield is a Montreal-based musician, producer and radio host with a BFA in Electroacoustics from Concordia University. He has performed at SXSW, Constellation records, Sled Island and the Banff Centre with his music projects Saxsyndrum, Best Fern and Rêves Sonores. Nick also hosts Underground Sounds on CKUT, a long-standing show that promotes local independent music (voted #1 Radio Host since 2014 in Cult Montreal).

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