Sarah Davachi Barons Court

[Students of Decay; 2015]

Styles: drone, minimalism, electroacoustic, ambient
Others: Alex Cobb, Anne Guthrie, Éliane Radigue, Stars of the Lid

These days, as cultural commentators wring their hands over the detrimental effects that contemporary technologies have on our attention spans and how music could be said to mirror (and perhaps reinforce) our hyperactive, multitasking psyches, an album of minimalist drone compositions could be interpreted as a critical statement of ethics — a not-too-distant relative of, say, the Slow Food movement or the Brooklyn Craft Revival.

Sarah Davachi’s new record, Barons Court, forces us to slow down and pay attention. That’s not to say that this music is attention-grabbing in any way (it’s not). Simply that if we don’t give it our full attention, we might be missing part of the point.

Barons Court, which follows a couple of cassettes from Davachi released in the last couple of years, is composed of five long tracks that unfurl softly and patiently. We hear these songs — put together with a small arsenal of droning synthesizers and acoustic instruments — as sonic monoliths. They are controlled waves of stasis. But in the absence of appreciable development or movement, we’re forced to focus on the little things: the subtle variations as these songs evolve, the textures of the sounds themselves. It’s like the difference between watching a landscape rush by from the window of a moving train and actually walking out into a field, plunking down, and tuning in to your surroundings with your whole body.

Sarah Davachi is a young Canadian composer who studied philosophy and music as an undergrad, received an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College, and currently holds a position at the National Music Centre in Calgary. In her own critical thinking about music — some of which can be found online — she has written about minimalism and drone in spatial terms. This is also an apt way to approach Barons Court. The album’s first song, “heliotrope,” for example, opens with a single-bowed cello, but as more tones are added, the song seems to grow dimensionally. We, the listeners, change from removed observers of a two-dimensional something to the embedded inhabitants of a three-dimensional space. And as new tones begin and others end, the shape and color of that space seem to shift around us.

Davachi has also written about the listener’s active role in hearing music — both in perceiving unintentional sonic elements that arise as notes are layered on top of each other, and in experiencing music psychically, whether that takes the form of a strong emotional reaction, a synesthetic response, or something different. I would hazard that Davachi makes her music with the express expectation that listeners will do a lot of the work of imparting it with meaning (even as they must submit to its distinct character and pace).

I fear all of this makes Barons Court sound less accessible than it is. Davachi does not eschew melody entirely — it’s just that her melodies, when they come, are always subordinate to the big picture. Toward the end of “heliotrope,” a small pocket of repeating notes nestles itself within the static tones that surround it. And on the second track, “guildford” — the album’s longest and busiest — Davachi layers a handful of simple melodic progressions atop one another to create a unified whole. The album’s final three songs are more homogeneous. They shimmer and drift, inviting the listener to get lost inside their anodyne worlds.

Still, Sarah Davachi’s music probably isn’t for everyone. There have been times when I’ve put it on, and it’s left me feeling cold, even bored. But if you’ve ever felt harried by the nervous stimuli of everyday life or worried about what it all might be doing to your brain, give Barons Court a try. Whether you take it as a salve or an exercise regimen, it’s a transporting 45 minutes of music that are worth your time.

Links: Sarah Davachi - Students of Decay

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