An Interview with Sarah Davachi

An Interview with Sarah Davachi
Written by Sydney van Nieuwaal

For Sonic Acts Biennial 2024

Photo's of Sarah Davachi by Sean McCann.
Photo's of Ï Î by Boris Snauwaert.

To put it rather simply, Sarah Davachi has been droning for well over a decade. Davachi’s music is inventive and exploratory, while and by employing both modern and archaic techniques, instruments and symbolism. The prolific composer and performer’s centers of attention are the “close intricacies of timbral and temporal space, utilizing extended durations and considered harmonic structures that emphasize gradual variation in texture, overtone complexity, psychoacoustic phenomena and tuning and intonation”. If approached in more ‘metaphorical’ terms: I’ve once heard her music being described as if it comes from “the belly of the universe”.

For Sonic Acts Biennial 2024, Davachi will present a brand new piece for viola and telescopic aulos. The piece is entitled Diptych and will be performed by Ï Î; a duo consisting of Victor Guaita Igual & Lukas De Clerck. De Clerck, a sound artist and musician who extensively follows auto-didactic explorations, has developed the telescopic aulos: a reiteration on an ancient Greco-Roman double-reeded double pipe that disappeared from use over a millennium ago. Igual has collaborated with a string of contemporary music ensembles and is currently exploring “the ritual of solo recital, researching multidisciplinary interactions and questioning the format of performative spaces”.

Diptych will see the light of day on February 24th, during the Expanded Experience in Muziekgebouw. To commemorate the occasion, I had a chat with the composer about the composition.

Hi Sarah. Thank you for speaking with me. How are you?

I’m fine, thank you! I’m feeling good about the start of the year and how things are moving so far.

What has occupied your focus lately?

I’ve taken on a lot of different projects over the last year or so. Mostly commissions. A lot of those deadlines are coming up, so I’m trying to finish what I currently have going on before attempting to take on anything new. This is all in addition to the ‘usual’ things I work on, like albums, recordings, touring, etc. I’m the kind of person who needs to have multiple things going on at once, so I can occupy my brain in specific ways and feel fulfilled mentally and creatively overall. It suits my personality to work in such a way.

We’re speaking in the context of an upcoming piece, entitled Diptych, to be performed by Ï Î (Victor Guaita Igual & Lukas De Clerck) on Sonic Acts Biennial 2024. Where did the piece find its genesis?

Diptych began when I was approached by the curators of Sonic Acts in the spring of 2023. I was asked about commissioning a piece for this specific ensemble and instrumentation. The instrumentation is unique: viola by Victor Guaita Igual, and telescopic aulos, which is a modernized variant of a Greek instrument, developed and played by the sound artist and musician Lukas De Clerck. Essentially, it’s a doubled metal pipe with reeds. Victor & Lukas have been playing together with a lot of improvised material. So, I think they were looking for someone to write a piece that could be approached in a different way.

How did you approach the creation of this piece?

Lukas’ instrument is capable of a wide range of movement and timbre, but it’s somewhat difficult to pin down in terms of notation because of how flexible it is.  So, my first interest was to get a sense of the aulos in full. “What can it do? How does it work logistically in terms of breathing?” I was able to meet with Lukas in the fall of 2023 and work through a lot of the possibilities of the instrument. I have a personal preference for slow-moving music with sustained tones and a focus on harmony and overtones, so I was looking for ways to control the instrument in that regard. I wanted the viola to be a stabilizing force in the piece, but also something that changes itself when it’s interacting with the aulos.

Where does your preference for slow-moving and sustained music come from? Why do those characteristics resonate with you?

I’m not sure where it comes from exactly, but I’ve been interested in this way of listening for a very long time, well before I had any conception about what it meant or what I could do with it. I grew up playing classical piano and I remember having moments where I would arrive at a chord or a cadence, and I would just stop and wish that I could hear it for much longer, or somehow hear it just on its own. When I discovered composers such as La Monte Young, Éliane Radigue and James Tenney in my early 20s, I began to think about that concept and experience more seriously and formally. I just love texture, harmony and sound itself and I want to explore it intimately; longform minimalist drone music is certainly not the only way to do that, but it’s a great way because all the characteristics of that kind of musical composition set one up very well for that kind of listening.

The telescopic aulos is based on an ancient Greco-Roman instrument that disappeared from use over a thousand years ago. How was the process to compose for it?

As I mentioned, it was a bit tricky because the aulos inherently defies a lot of the conventions of standard notation. It has a lot of flexibility of movement. That’s exciting, but sometimes, with novel instruments, you can fall into the trap of showcasing its variety simply for its own sake, which is not what I’m interested in. I work in a minimalist style, and so I was interested in exploring more of the textural elements of the instrument and using it as a microtonal vehicle for interactions with the viola. Through my meetings and discussions with Lukas, I was able to create a list of five or six different motions that I felt best suited the music I wanted to make for the instrument. Then I worked through different variations of those in the score. It’s a difficult instrument to control. The detail that comes out when you reduce your musical materials is largely what I’m interested in when I write simple passages.

Can you tell me something more about that ‘detail’ you’re interested in?

With ‘detail’ I mostly refer to the psychoacoustic effects. Things such as the latent overtones and harmonics that are inherent in the timbre of the instrument, but which very rarely get the opportunity to be at the forefront of a composition.

The event text reads that “Diptych delves into the intricate nuances of duality.” The piece features two players, playing two instruments—of which one is double-reeded with two independent pipes—, and consists of two sections. Can you tell me something more about what you are exploring in this seemingly dialectical piece and in the performance thereof?

I work a lot with symmetry in different ways. In chords, in tuning, in counterpoint and in concept. It became very clear to me early on that this piece was going to be well suited to that kind of investigation as well. The interaction between the two players is the paramount connection, I think. As Lukas needs moments of pause to breathe, the piece is inherently about interaction: about the moments when the two instruments come together and when they pull apart. To me that’s where a lot of the interesting harmonic material occurs. 

I write pretty much all of my scores and chamber music in such a way that allows the players some flexibility in what happens during each performance. There are a number of details that are left a bit up to chance. Up to the moment of the performance and up to what the specifics of those interactions will be. I determine the parameters and boundaries within which something will happen, but the precise moments of interaction can vary in different performances. This is really interesting to me. Within the aulos, there occurs a lot of duality naturally. But, most of the movements that I assigned to Lukas involve the two pipes moving independently, or of one remaining steady while the other moves. These are very different listening spaces, both for him and for the audience. Within the viola, there are a lot of microvariations that happen throughout the piece: subtle variations in dynamics and in the use of dyads, which create a different kind of duality in that instrument alone. I imagined the piece having two sections in order to speak further to this duality. For me, the first part is a bit calmer and more grounded. The second part works through a bit more harmonic tension.

Another quote. “Given the challenges of precise tuning in the aulos’ frequency spectrum, a broader application of microtonality is incorporated.” What was your approach and goal in regards to tonality in Diptych?

This was also something that I had to figure out. I work a lot with strings and various tuning systems. Strings work very well for that sort of thing because their sound is so complex but they are easy to control. Initially, I wanted to do something that explored very precise tuning. However, the timbral qualities of the aulos can be so extreme that it didn’t really make sense to approach it that way. I decided to move in kind of the opposite direction and explore microtonality in a more general way, which is something I also often do with strings. I like to work with glissando in strings. A kind of glissando in which the player is not moving steadily, but in a rather irregular way: pausing at moments of interesting acoustics in order to highlight the consonance or dissonance therein, and to really let it ring out before continuing their movement. The aulos is perfect for that. It’s about movement in the aulos and precision in the viola. About seeing where the two naturally interact within the acoustic and physical space of the performance.

What exact freedom is there for the performers to react and improvise?

There aren’t any moments for the players to improvise per se, but there is a lot of openness in terms of timing and movement. This allows for chance interactions that will change with each performance. For instance, a lot of Lukas’ directions will be to start at a certain interval with the two pipes, and then to slowly move them in one direction or another until he arrives at another held interval. During that time, the viola is holding various pitches, either singular or a dyad, and making more precise movements that happen within the same time span as the aulos, but are not tied to specific points of the aulos’ movement. So, there is a lot of flexibility for the aulos. Lukas can hold the first and final intervals for a certain period of time depending on the space and feel of the performance. He can move at slightly different rates between those intervals, and he can pause at different moments throughout as well. Because the viola is more or less lined up with the aulos—albeit not precisely—there can be a lot of flexibility in how and where those moments intersect. A lot of my scores of this type require the performers to actively listen while they are playing, and to make decisions in real time in response to what’s happening in the acoustic moment. That is extremely interesting to me. So, there are specific movements that need to happen and specific time periods within which those things need to happen, but the materials are heavily reduced and they occur over such a long period of time that the detailed moments become elongated and become an arena for closer exploration.

To close off; can you tell me something about your experience during the performance? It seems as if you are actively listening to the performers, who are actively listening, while performing (within) your structures and frameworks. Forgive me for being suggestive, but this sounds like a rather special relationship on several facets.

Yes, I am! It’s so fascinating. I started my compositional journey from within the realm of electroacoustic music, a format that requires constant close listening. It allows you to work, to take a step back, to listen again, to make changes: a back-and-forth until you get things near-perfect. It’s sort of the antithesis to the way that a lot of classically-oriented musicians learn to play music. You practice and practice, and when you’re performing you’re kind of riding that train on motor memory until it comes to an end. I definitely don’t completely work outside of that approach, of course. For instance, when I do solo electronic performances. In those contexts I have to think of several technical matters and be able to respond in real time. It becomes harder to only listen. The relationship you can have with your music where you can create a framework and can actually focus on only listening is so special to me. It’s a balance of trust and letting go. Of knowing that you trusted your ears and instincts to get the piece to a place that feels good to you as the composer, no matter what happens. 

If you can create a system of performance where the players are listening as closely, and in almost the same way, as the audience, where everyone is completing the aesthetic experience in a similar arc, then I think you open the door for a very meaningful collective musical experience.

Diptych by Sarah Davachi will be performed by Ï Î (Victor Guaita Igual & Lukas De Clerck) in Muziekgebouw, on February 24th, for Sonic Acts Biennial 2024’s ‘Expanded Experience. Learn more here. Diptych is a co-commission of Sonic Acts and Music Centre De Bijloke (BE). With the support of Flanders, State of the Art.