A Gospel in Stillness: Sarah Davachi Interviewed by Stephanie Berzon

Accessing the interiority of sounds.

portrait of Sarah Davachi

Photo by Alex Waber.

“Move the body to fold and then fill.” This line, softly sung by composer Sarah Davachi on her first-ever lyrical track, feels both like an ode to minimalist technique and a truth in how to graze sound fields at large. For me, it was an instruction in how to listen to her eighth solo LP, Cantus, Descant, without a roof over my head. When I first heard it I was camping with a friend through the Olympic Peninsula with nothing but fog and my body as an empty hall to flood with the harmonic movements between cantus and descant—Latin for “the solo or highest voice in a choral” and “the emergence of polyphonic textures”; or “individual within the community,” as Sarah says.

The physical motion in how to begin a listening journey—clearing space with deflation only to rise and expand again with sound—is also the movement of a breathing diaphragm. A lung’s journey holds significance this year with its freedom in movement and the welfare of community impacted by an exact conditional contrast—a global respiratory pandemic and the last words of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” Similarly, Sarah’s organ music brings a sense of calm comprehension to a dystopian landscape, giving etymological liturgy and sound to the words that Earth will never say. Our conversation begins on a virtual hike, from a time just before wildfire engulfed the West Coast, anywhere Sarah desired to take me.

—Stephanie Berzon

Stephanie BerzonWhere are we now? 

Sarah DavachiI’m thinking back to the last hike that I took at night. I was on West Observatory Trail at Griffith Park in late July of 2019, probably around 8:00 PM, halfway through my descent.

SBWhat do you hear here?

SDI’m completely alone at this point, nobody else on the trail. I’m mostly hearing the sounds of crickets, like you’d hear anywhere else in Los Angeles at night, but the depth of space is completely different here. I’m in the middle of a large canyon, so sounds are echoing and spreading out all around me. I think things sound different at night. There’s a tangible absence and a stillness that I’m drawn to. I remember stopping and staring into the canyon from the trail. When it’s dark you don’t notice any details in the landscape, just this silhouette that surrounds you against the sky. Being surrounded by this wash of sound is really calming to me. It hangs in the air in a special way. There’s an interesting balance that I notice between the openness of the canyon—the space that the sound has to sit in—and the almost artificial way that I experience it, which is a result of the echo in proportion to my physical size.

I remember this occasion in particular, because it made me think about analogous experiences in recorded music. When I attend to the music that I make, I pay attention to how the individual sounds behave; but I also want to create a larger space for them to exist in, a space for the listener to feel a part of. You create the narrative and the characters, but you also need to set and dress the stage.

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Observatory Trail, Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Photo by Sarah Davachi.

SBDo you consider your practice to be healing?

SDThere’s so much involved in the idea of healing. I’ve always tried to keep some healthy distance from New Age creeds, especially these days; they can be quite a slippery slope toward dangerous and irresponsible behavior. I’m more comfortable with connections people have drawn between my music and meditation. I can see where that comes from given the slowed-down approach to listening that I subscribe to. When you slow things down and let your mind wander into something that’s laid bare—either through repetition or duration—you can find clarity on other thoughts or feelings that are lying just outside the borders of consciousness. But having said that, I can’t speak to how listeners experience my music individually, and I don’t really want to have control over that.

In terms of the process of making the music, there’s absolutely a form of catharsis that happens for me. I make the kind of music that I do because it’s how I need to make sense of things. The process is really personal in that way. That’s sort of the archetype of the creative act, isn’t it? People experience things and are moved to express them as a way of communicating and healing.

SBIt’s one archetype of the creative act. My brain just fluttered to masturbatory anthems beneath the guise of a healing psychedelia, such as Larry Coryell’s “Sex” or Marble Sheep’s sixteen-minute guitar solo in “Hawks Out.” Is this communicating, healing, or dick-stroking persuasion?

SDHa! I see what you’re saying. There’s definitely the scent of grift in the air, and there’s a fine line. I guess that’s what I was trying to articulate about a lot of New Age sentiments. There is quite literally a guise of healing psychedelia, but I’m not sure how sincere it can be in that overtly self-righteous format. Healing is such a personal thing, and so are psychedelic experiences. Both things, but maybe especially the latter, happen in the most unexpected situations sometimes. I just like to be cocooned by sound, surrounded by it or near it somehow. I don’t know what that says about my psyche. Maybe there are people who would experience my music as being a bit claustrophobic.

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West-facing view toward Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Photo by Sarah Davachi.

SBDo any sounds make you feel claustrophobic?

SDPeople often assume when I’m playing shows that I want my music to be super loud by default. I actually don’t. But I’m not against loud sounds in general; I’m referring to oppressive volumes and aggressively amplified sounds that are constant, which, for me, are difficult to inhabit. I mentioned earlier that I’m interested in the interior aspects of sound, and in order for those aspects to be felt, there needs to be some element of negative space. When things are too intense, I can’t hear myself think. I can’t clear my mind. I can’t do anything. It’s just this weird, liminal space. It’s just not for me. That’s why organs and synthesizers have always been so fascinating to me; they can be full and enveloping and loud while still creating space and air. It’s a really fine line, and it takes a lot of skill to control and shape. For instance, Maryanne Amacher was incredible in her approach to quiet loudness, to an intensity of sound that is visceral but also fragile; her work is really something else. There’s so much swimming around my head these days that I guess this feeling about volume has become more extreme at the moment.

SBI am interested in the volume of the place(s) you call home. 

SDMy home is in Glendale, California, a small municipality in east Los Angeles. I live up on a narrow, winding hill, so my outside environs have always been pretty quiet, and that’s especially true right now. At this moment (dusk, the “gloaming,” one of my favorite parts of the day), I’m in my living room with my patio window open staring outside. The view looks out onto Griffith Park in the distance and Forest Lawn cemetery, and I like the sense of stillness and solitude that both of those locations project. I often like to sit in silence and let whatever sounds are happening around me slow my brain down as much as that’s possible. I take short drives occasionally. Earlier in the pandemic it was easier because there was no traffic, so I could just drive straight down Sunset Boulevard to the ocean. Driving along the ocean at night is also an incredible experience; you can’t distinguish the water from the sky.

SB“You can’t distinguish the water from the sky.” This could also ring true for some ears listening to your body of work. As the prolonging of darkness shares with the eye a moment of truth in a curved horizon, the difference between earth and sky consequently disappears. As the drawl of an organ tone awakens the body to a gospel in stillness, the difference between sonic variants and textures can escape the ear when it has surrendered to the full blend of sound. What advice would you give to a first-time listener of your music? 

SD“A gospel in stillness.” I love that notion, too, and I think it’s close to what I try to achieve emotionally with my music. The advice I would give to someone listening to my work for the first time would be to just let yourself slow down and commune with the sounds that you’re hearing. I try to create music that is as much horizontal as it is vertical, so that as the suspension and varied passage of time becomes deliberate, there are so many corners to explore in the texture of the sound, details in the sonic landscape. I think that a lot of minimalist art is about an awareness of interiority, and it can extend quickly from an aesthetic to something more psychic or visceral. That’s the kind of reconfiguration of reality or truth that my music attempts to give reverence to.

Sarah Davachi’s Cantus, Descant is available from Late Music.

Stephanie Berzon is a writer and Director of Residency Earth currently living in Portland, Oregon.

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