Minimalist electroacoustician Sarah Davachi reveals her love of prog rock (sshhh!) and the impetus for her distinctive ambient and drone compositions

“The Mellotron has such an iconic sound. You hear it and it brings up lots of obvious references. I like to work  with instruments in a way that releases them from that and allows them to have some other form of existing.”

Those who are familiar with Canadian musician and composer Sarah Davachi will know that her work is characterised by sonic deep dives, often using instruments in unexpected styles or contexts. ‘Cantus, Descant’, her critically acclaimed double album from last year, is a stunning and expansive ode to the organ, something that has regularly featured across her many releases and in her live shows. The 18 tracks explore the organ’s unique character and sound through recordings made at six different sites across North America and Europe.

For her latest album, ‘Antiphonals’, Davachi has turned this microscopic focus to the Mellotron, the electro-mechanical instrument used by The Beatles on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and The Moody Blues on ‘Nights In White Satin’, before being further popularised by the likes of Tangerine Dream, King Crimson and Genesis. It’s a staple of prog rock, a genre that Davachi confesses to being a huge fan of. So what was it that drew her to  the Mellotron for this record? 

“I don’t know how to say this diplomatically about myself, but sometimes I’m a little slow on things,” she laughs. “I’m slow to grasp what’s important  to me. The Mellotron has come up in my sound palette so often. So I think it’s important to me and I have been using it for a long time, but it hadn’t ended up on a record before now in any straightforward way.”

Sarah Davachi is being modest. It’s obvious that there is more than a touch of genius to her methods. Her background is in classical music, but her interest in synthesisers was piqued by one of her first jobs, as interpreter and content developer of the collection of acoustic and electronic keyboard instruments at the National Music Centre in her home city of Calgary. 

Having graduated with a degree in philosophy from her local university, Davachi went on to take a master’s in electronic music and recording media at Mills College in Oakland, California. It was here that she became heavily involved in minimalism, ambient and drone. She’s currently based at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she’s working towards a PhD  in Musicology in the field of critical organology, studying instruments and their construction and timbre in early, popular and experimental music. 

For ‘Cantus, Descant’, Davachi travelled the world on a quest to unearth the sounds of organs throughout history. The result is a truly unique and site-specific album, featuring the Hammond in her Los Angeles studio and an 1890 reed organ at LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology, a reproduction Renaissance-era organ in an Amsterdam church and EM Skinner’s 1928 Opus 634 organ in Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, as well as pipe organs in Vancouver and Copenhagen.

photo: dicky bahto

She hasn’t travelled so far for her recent adventures with the Mellotron, though. Which seems appropriate when you consider how the instrument was initially designed for home use. 

“I generally plan records a couple of years in advance, so I knew that ‘Antiphonals’ was something I wanted to do long before lockdown. Early on in the pandemic, I did a couple of demo EPs – ‘Five Cadences’ and ‘Gathers’ – as part of Bandcamp Friday. I’d already decided that I was going to situate myself in my studio anyway, and also focus on the instruments that I use live a lot, so this made sense in terms of the timing.”

‘Antiphonals’ is a hushed and gentle record that places the Mellotron centre stage. Featuring whispers of electric organ, piano and synthesisers, it’s closer to Davachi’s 2018 album, ‘Let Night Come On Bells End The Day’, than the organ-focused immensity of ‘Cantus, Descant’. 

In a heuristic move that typifies her music, Davachi wanted to see what happened when the Mellotron was removed from its customary settings. On ‘Antiphonals’, the instrument is accompanied by an array of what she  calls “quiet companions” – cor anglais, clarinet, recorder, oboe, bass flute, French horn, violin, chamber organ and nylon-string guitar tape samples,  all recorded using only an RE-501 Chorus Echo and a TEAC A-2340 4-track reel-to-reel. Essentially, she has taken the prog rock out of the Mellotron – but not without some misgivings.

“I’ve been threatening to do a full-blown prog album for years,” she says. “I’m not opposed to that idea, but I would actually have to make a concerted effort to not make my usual sound. Every time I approach an instrument, it ends up sounding like something I would do. That’s because of the natural progression I follow. I’d have to really try to be like, ‘Nope I’m not going to  do that, I’m going to be more obvious with it’. We’ll see!”

There’s an excellent line in the press notes for ‘Antiphonals’ that describes the album as “like listening to a half-speed progressive rock album, except it’s just the keyboard parts”. Who said that?

“That was my boyfriend, but I left out part of the quote. What he actually said was, ‘It sounds like you’re listening to a prog album on LSD at half speed’. I initially kept the LSD part in there, but then I thought it could be a bit cheesy. I listen to prog records quite frequently and I always think,  ‘Oh, that’s a cool keyboard part, I wish I could get hold of the mix and remove everything else’.”

While the Mellotron has a place in Davachi’s heart, it’s the organ that she is most commonly associated with, perhaps because her compositions have a sort of Baroque quality. The name of her record label, Late Music, which she established last year for the release of ‘Cantus, Descant’, plays on her connection with  early music. And early music crops up again on ‘Antiphonals’ – from the austere plucked strings of the opener, ‘Chorus Scene’, to the celestial tones of ‘First Cadence’. 

It’s quite a contrast to the prog rock sounds of the 1970s. Does she see a link between these two disparate eras?

“In terms of how a track sounds, especially on this record, I do a lot of stuff with modal scales. That tends to be where the early music aspect comes in, at least structurally, because the instruments that I’m using are not obviously within that realm! It’s definitely something that I like pursuing, but it also feels normal and interesting to me.”

Which begs the question, if time travel was an option, would she rather go back to the Renaissance period or to the 1970s? 

“I do think about that a lot,” she admits. “Those are probably my two most favourite eras. I tend to think of my interest in 70s music from a technological perspective. It’s a preoccupation with studio sound and with what the studio can do in terms of producing certain types of environments. And that era was the pinnacle.

“But my brain likes the idea of having limitations. There’s a vast array of instruments that were around during the Renaissance that have disappeared now. But the possibility of bringing things back – even the Mellotron – and putting them into a new context, giving them a different kind of life, is very interesting to me.”

Context is certainly central to Davachi’s approach to music-making.  One of the aims of ‘Antiphonals’ was to merge studio practice with the tonal characteristics and sound-on-sound tape delay processes that are typical of her live performances. Given the nature of the instruments she uses, her shows often take place in churches, but there’s a sense that she has struggled to reconcile herself with these ecclesiastical environments. 

“It’s the bane of my existence,” she laughs. “But I have definitely gotten better at figuring out how to feel more invisible. When I play live, I’ll often  look out at the audience and it’s mostly people with their eyes closed, or  their heads down, or they’re perhaps even lying down. They’re in their own  world, which is nice. If it was up to me, there wouldn’t be a stage and I’d  be positioned in the middle of the room, in front of the speakers, where the sound engineer sits.

“I do consider myself to be a spiritual person, but without being religious. I think they are very different concepts. Organs in churches have sacred  connotations, but I want to try to remove those kinds of associations, so the instruments can be meaningful outside of that. I’m really not trying to be disrespectful, though. It’s a good thing, right? To remove it from that context and give it a new life? I’ve made my peace with playing in churches all the time. It’s nice to be able to reclaim it for the secular folk.”

photo: dicky bahto

There are definitely moments on ‘Antiphonals’ that could be perceived as alluding to religion. The 10-minute track ‘Magdalena’, for example, takes a biblical name and melds it with reverent, heavenly tones from the Mellotron. For Davachi, however, this is about mindfulness and deep listening.

“In a weird way, I get pleasure out of making the audience uncomfortable and forcing them to listen. If I’m getting the sense they’re like, ‘This has been happening for too long’, I think, ‘No, it’s going to keep going, you have to be patient with it’. People have a lot of issues with patience.

“Not all music is about virtuosity. It’s about lots of different things – the endurance aspect of it, or the subtlety of the sound, or the control. When you strip away a lot of the musical elements that people rely on, these things have to be more considered. That is what becomes more important. Anybody can make bad techno. Making music that’s engaging and still says something is not easy.

“I never try to be overt. If there’s anything that I deliberately try to do, it’s to create the experience of slowing down and being comfortable with something that maybe you don’t want to be comfortable with. It can be unpleasant, but once you get there, once you cross that threshold, I think  it’s such a rewarding way of listening.”

The focus on durational, slow-moving music and listening as an act of mindfulness also reflects a sort of balance that Sarah Davachi feels had been missing from her life until recently.

“Prior to the pandemic, my life was chaotic. At the end of 2019, I was super burned-out. What I wanted was time. I think a lot of other people felt like that too, wanting uninterrupted time to work on stuff. For several years, my touring schedule has necessitated being able to be flexible. I’ve finished records in hotel rooms, I’ve done editing on aeroplanes, and you make it work. But it’s going to be hard to go back to that. And I don’t really want to.”

‘Antiphonals’ is unquestionably an album that requires time and patience. It feels particularly suited to late-night listening. Is she a night owl by nature?

“Yes, I’m very much a night person,” she says. “I always have been. I’m completely useless in the morning. I only like the mornings when I haven’t gone to bed. When I’m going to bed and the sun is coming up, I think that’s a peaceful time. I would say that I’ve made the majority of my music between the hours of 9pm and 4am.”

Davachi has been speaking from her parents’ home in Calgary – sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom, in fact. As the conversation draws to a close, it seems fitting to ask her what she wanted to be when she was a child? Did she envision a career in music?

“When I was younger, I had the classic problem of having too many interests,” she says. “I think that’s why, when I got to university, I decided to study philosophy. I was interested in so much and philosophy is a way of thinking about many different things. I’ve always been a pretty technically and creatively minded person. When I was a kid, I fantasised for a while about being an architect.”

It’s perhaps a good way of looking at Davachi’s music. If an architect  is someone who plans, designs and oversees the construction of buildings,  it makes sense to view her as an architect of sound, crafting wonderful sonic spaces that invite the listener to inhabit and linger for a while.

‘Antiphonals’ is out on Late Music

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