Published Sep 13, 2018It's a hot August night in Toronto, and Sarah Davachi is perched behind a table of hardware electronics at the Baby G. With one hand on an ARP Odyssey, she's manipulating synth tones through layers of delay and building up a ghostly fog, soliciting goosebumps from a cross-legged crowd feeling the vibrations through the sticky bar floor.
Black-walled and dive-y, the digs are a far cry from the ecclesial environments she's become used to, and when I ask her about it over the phone, she confirms she does "try to avoid stuff like that," but it's fine because "the audience seemed to be into it and they were being respectful."
Just days earlier, Davachi opened for synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles as part of the inaugural L.A. edition of the nomadic concert series Ambient Church. This week, Ba Da Bing is releasing Gave In Rest, an album of reformed sacred drones she dreamt up between visits made to churches and lapidariums.
While Davachi doesn't perform exclusively in churches, they've had a place in her career since her time spent studying at Mills College in Oakland for a Master of Fine Arts degree in electronic music and recording media. In partial fulfillment of her thesis requirements, she gave a performance for pipe organ and fixed electronics in the campus chapel, and she was hooked.
"After that experience, everywhere that I went, I was just looking to find a church or somewhere that would let me use the organ. And that kind of got into this thing of just appreciating the space. Even if I wasn't playing the organ, just being able to use that space. I think initially, before last summer, it was always just the really beautiful spaces and [the fact that] they're acoustically really interesting. They're good for that type of music."
While touring Europe behind her album All My Circles Run for much of 2017, Davachi made a point of seeking out local churches and dropping in on random services.
"I remember going to one in Prague. I didn't know what anyone was saying, I didn't know what was going on — and I'm not religious at all, so I probably wouldn't have known anyway — but having that experience of just sitting in these spaces [grounded me]."
Far from home and in a state of flux, she says the regular retreats into self they facilitated provided her with a sense of belonging and time to reflect.
"I think what I appreciated last summer when I was traveling and just spending so much time in churches was this idea of quiet and stillness and reverence and reflection and all this kind of stuff that actually being in a church is sort of associated with."
She began researching medieval and Renaissance composition, and upon visiting her parents' place in Calgary post-tour, set about developing modern readings of her findings on her old piano, composing melodies and harmonies for a new album.
When it came time to record, she immersed herself in a familiar setting and set to work. Like All My Circles Run, Davachi recorded Gave In Rest at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal, this time enlisting the help of engineer Howard Bilerman and an ensemble consisting of Lisa McGee (Higuma) and locals Thierry Amar (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), Terri Hron (Bird on a Wire), and All My Circles Run collaborator Jessica Moss to provide vocal, contrabass, recorder, and violin performances, respectively.
"Ben [Goldberg, Ba Da Bing label head] was open to doing it wherever I wanted to work, and I chose Montreal specifically because I know a lot of musicians there, and musicians in Montreal — more so than any other city I've ever been to, really — are very amenable to working on projects. You don't have to twist their arms to come into the studio to try to do stuff, and they're very excited about working on stuff, so a lot of the initial studio sessions were a mix of having people come in and try out these different things that I'd been working on with the piano and orchestrating it in different ways."
Asked if it was difficult translating work inspired by such private experiences to a group of contributors, she says that's the beauty of her practice.
"I kind of use instrumentalists as a way of gathering material," Davachi explains. Her music is a microscopic explication of sound, slowing, augmenting and bending vibrations through various modes of analog and digital synthesis as if to construct private worlds unto themselves.
"Everything that happened in the studio was just another step towards the final product which happened privately."
For Davachi, it all goes back to finding belonging in solitude. "It's like this weird space of feeling alone, but then also feeling a part of something bigger."
Gave In Rest is out Sept. 14 via Ba Da Bing.