Avant-garde, ambient and neoclassical — these are genres of music where one pictures serious, intellectual creators. In the case of Sarah Davachi, the argument is certainly valid. The Vancouver-based, Calgary-raised composer holds a B.A. in philosophy along with a master’s degree in electronic music and recording media from Oakland’s reputable Mill College. If anyone understands composition on both a theoretical and technical level, it’s her.
Yet as she’s quick to explain, music-making is not a purely conceptual pursuit. “I don’t feel like my musical output now is particularly academic because I’m not doing anything with academia in mind anymore,” she says. “That being said, I’m not even sure that the music I was producing while I was actually in school was academic, per se, either.”
All that said, both of Davachi’s degrees come into play in the meditative, enveloping pieces she creates, both live and on releases like her recent full-length album Baron’s Court.
“The MFA definitely factors in, but perhaps in some ways that are less obvious than one might think,” she says of her studies at Mills College. “I learned how to do professional studio recording — both analog and digital — which has been an indispensable skill in the kind of stuff I currently do; I learned about microphone types and placement and mastering and things like that. I learned how to solder and build synthesizer modules from kits, played in the school’s Javanese gamelan ensemble, and took theory seminars in just intonation and minimalism; all of that has influenced my approach.”
Her philosophy degree, too, has played a role in shaping her output, particularly the works of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “It was through phenomenology that I got into really honing in on describing particular sensational qualities, and that definitely overlapped into the type of music I started listening to–really slowed down and patient music that isn’t about overarching macro developments in harmony or structure, but rather smaller, internal movements that cause the listener to focus on what they’re hearing.”
This thoughtful approach is expertly executed on Barons Court, Davachi’s recent album released on Students of Decay earlier this year. Each track serves as a minimal-yet-engrossing tone poem; surely, it’s a headier, more thought-out listening experience than many of the other ambient chancers who’ve recently discovered looping pedals and cranked out album after album of cassette-only spa music.
Davachi admits that she’s not totally plugged in with the current boom of ambient bands, but she likes what she’s heard. “It seems like all the ambient-style music I’ve heard has its heart in the right place; I haven’t really come across anything that has struck me as being contrived or uninformed or anything,” she says.
Further, she doesn’t feel tied to the “us versus them” mentality of academia. “Generally speaking, I don’t really like the idea that you have to be super educated in something in order to pursue it,” she says. “I mean, yeah, I would want my surgeon or mechanic or whatever to have certain credentials but when it comes to theoretical or artistic practices, I really don’t think that’s necessary.”
While that may be true, we certainly welcome more of Davahi’s thoughtful, nuanced take on experimental music. Fortunately, there’s plenty more in the bag — in addition to touring plans and a large amount of one-off collaborations, she’s currently working on two more full-length albums.