You Need Some Rest. Sarah Davachi’s New Ambient Music Can Help
‘Gave In Rest,’ the Los Angeles-based composer’s second record of 2018, is a meditation on the rituals we adopt to find stillness.
Photo by Dicky Bahto
Sarah Davachi has been trying to start every morning with a bit of stillness. Traditionally these aren’t the Los Angeles-based composer’s best hours, the ones around or just after sunrise. Her brain usually spins into productive action around 11 pm or so, and she’ll work well into the darkness, night after night, toiling away at whichever of her many projects she’s currently occupied with. But that’s not the most sustainable way to live, she’s realized, so she’s trying to do something about it. Sleep has always been a tricky prospect for her, lost time for an active mind, but lately she’s decided to accept it as a “physically pleasurable thing” and to try center herself more in the hours that she happens to be awake.
So that means sitting in silence, staring out of windows, making time for nothing in particular—allowing idle moments to expand and contract as they will. Prior to moving to Los Angeles in 2017, she’d spent the better part of a year in transit, touring endlessly and working on projects around the world, as she puts it “essentially being homeless for nine months.” When she finally settled, she had to find small ways to reset. “It was so different than when I was traveling and didn’t have any time to just stop and reflect on what my situation was,” she says. “I think the idea of having these little rituals every day became really meaningful to me.”
That new mindset ended up baked in to the record Davachi was working on both as she traveled and as she settled into LA, which she gave the appropriate title Gave In Rest (due September 14 on Ba Da Bing). Since 2013, she’s made music that tends toward slow-moving melodic gestures out of both synthetic and recorded instruments, often treated and edited with electroacoustic processes that emphasize their own stillness, but this new record is the first where she’s been able to explicitly engage with these feelings. Paradoxically, she says, it’s also one of the pieces of music that she’s most obsessively labored over. “This record was the most like ‘I don’t like this one second of sound, I need to change it so it’s perfect,’” she says “Which was ironic because my life was so chaotic. So maybe it was a weird therapeutic thing, putting everything into working on this record so the rest of my life could mellow out a little bit.”
On the July morning I speak to Davachi via Skype, she mentions that circumstances over the last few days have allowed her plenty of time for this sort of quietude. LA’s been in the midst of a massive heatwave that’s pushed temperatures far north of 100 degrees, and she’s mostly spent that time inside, luxuriating in her air conditioning, prepping for a short vacation back home to Canada to visit family. It’s an extreme weather situation, but it underscores what she sees as one of the defining characteristics of her adopted home. It’s a giant city, with lots of activity (“I like going out as much as the next person,” she says), but it also offers a lot of space for solitude. It’s spread out, and driving requires you to get in an isolated bubble to get from place to place. “You can go a day without seeing people,” she says. “It’s really easy to be anonymous; it’s really easy to disappear.”
Davachi grew up in Calgary, taking piano lessons more or less as an obligation set upon her by her parents. She had epiphanic experiences to Chopin and Bach, while simultaneously digging deep into 90s hits and classic rock greats passed down to her from her older brother and sister. In all this stuff she developed an appreciation for specific details. Though she says she didn’t really have the language to process it yet, she realizes in retrospect that in listening to epic 70s rock records, she was listening for timbre and minor production techniques in the same way she was when she got really interested in baroque music, something that remains true in the way she approaches her own music today.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the real breakthrough as a composer, came in solitude. Around the age of 20, while still living in Calgary, Davachi worked at a museum for musical instruments where she worked as a docent of sorts, offering tours to people who’d come through. Many of the instruments were keyboard based, so she had a natural affinity for them, and her duties entailed explaining the history and how they worked before playing them for guests. But in Calgary’s harsh winters, she didn’t get many visitors, so she had a lot of time there to herself, getting to know every inch of the instruments—from acoustic instruments that many people don’t have access to like harpsichords and organs to rare synthesizers. All this learning linked the two eras of her childhood musical fascinations, providing the basis for her own efforts as a musician. “To me there was no break [between] music from 1700 and music from 1970,” she says. “It was different iterations of the same idea.”
Soon, Davachi sought about making music that reflected that continuum. Drawing on instruments from all over that time span, as well as embracing more recent innovations (she’s most often utilized her computer as a recording and editing hub), she’s discovered a workflow that allows her to make special pieces extremely fast. She’s released at least 10 album-length recordings since 2013, and Gave In Rest is actually her second LP this year , following the similarly dispositioned Let Night Come on Bells End the Day. Each record is distinct from the last—her pieces are often made as explorations of specific instruments— but they’re linked in their gentle, ebbing approach, uniting the physicality of the classical music she grew up studying with the inherent quietude of the traditions of drone and ambient music. There is direction and intentionality, the records always feel plotted, but the gestures are slow—like you’re walking through knee-deep snow to get to your destination.
Davachi says that her prolificness likely stems from her ability to access so many different instruments. “I think because I’ve had a lot of exposure to different instruments there’s a more of a wealth of sound possibilities,” she says. “I’ll do a piece for violin and that has such a specific way of articulating itself and a specific timbre, and that’s so different from the voice. Or organ. When I go to different instruments it’s like starting from scratch in a way.”
You can hear this approach at work on Gave In Rest. Though she composed the majority of it sitting at a piano, per a press release—that sort of training dies hard—the work is lent so much color by the multitude of instruments that stream in and out of each creeping track. Strings and organs provide the basis for many of the pieces, swooping and swooning in these long, cinematic gasps. But utilizes a lot of different tricks. “Evensong.” premiering here today, appends these distant moans to a simple piano figure, which ultimately billows into a distant organ drone, finding stillness somewhere in the midst of its meandering movements.
The record is only seven tracks long, none of which stretch to the epic lengths you might expect of an ambient record with just a handful of pieces. But it’s an interesting gesture for exactly that reason, something small, but powerful—slow, but never crushingly so. In it I hear solitude, as monochromatic drones tend to evoke, but there’s an uplift to it—something hopeful embedded in the flourishes allowed by the joyful flitting between instruments. Davachi explains that in it she feels “distance,” the sound of her new city creeping in, her natural homebody tendencies expressing themselves in the sonic character of the record. But it’s not an uncomfortable feeling, it’s seclusion that allows for growth—the simple quiet of a new day, staring out a window, or a friday night where you’ve chosen to stay in and put on a record.
It’s the sound of a space you’ve eked out for yourself, an oasis in a wild world. Davachi, in just a few words, explains it well, both the sound of a record and a whole ethos for living that justifies it. “It’s aloneness,” she says “But not loneliness.”
Gave In Rest is out September 14 on Ba Da Bing, and it’s available to pre-order now. You can listen to “Evensong” up above.