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Sarah Davachi - Gave in Rest Music Album Reviews

The Canadian composer’s latest album marks a subtle but significant shift in her music-making, marking her most extensive foray to date into the hands-on, real-time realm of studio recording.

Something unexpected happens almost exactly one minute into “Auster,” the opening track on Sarah Davachi’s Gave in Rest: The song goes silent. It happens abruptly, as though someone has hit the pause button on the Canadian composer’s dial-tone drone. Then, after a few soundless seconds, the tone cluster springs back to life, except deeper and darker. Such a break is almost unheard of in Davachi’s work, in which electronic and acoustic tones—vintage analog synthesizers, Mellotron, Hammond organ, cello, viola, piano, voice—are layered as intricately as tendons and sinew. Hers is a music of continuity, where the shifts in tone and timbre happen so subtly you barely perceive them taking place. But the pauses in “Auster,” and the subsequent changes in pitch, go on like that, once every 60 seconds or so, for the duration of the eight-and-a-half-minute track, until it comes to seem almost that the music itself is breathing. As the Slits once noted, silence is a rhythm too.

Those breaks are symbolic of a larger rupture: Gave in Rest marks a subtle but significant shift in Davachi’s music-making. Despite the vastness she conjured—lines arcing toward a perpetually receding horizon; reverb suggestive of caves, cathedrals, canyons—most of her composition until now has taken place in the flat, virtual space of the computer. She has occasionally worked with collaborators, and she has done some work with acoustic instruments in actual recording studios, but for the most part these occasions have served mainly as opportunities to generate raw material to be rearranged in Logic later. She’s been as much a collage artist as a composer.

But Gave in Rest, recorded in Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio, marks Davachi’s most extensive foray into the hands-on, real-time realm of studio recording, where the sound and even the vibe of the room are intrinsic to what gets caught on tape. Hotel2Tango is a particularly hallowed space—Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Wolf Parade have all recorded there—and it’s equipped with a pretty enviable gear list; the plate reverb Davachi used is said to be the very same unit applied to Stevie Nicks’ voice when Fleetwood Mac recorded “Rhiannon.”

Davachi says that much of the writing this time took place before she went into the studio, working out harmonic relationships on the piano, then fleshing out those ideas with collaborators (Godspeed’s Thierry Amar on contrabass, Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s Jessica Moss on violin, Terri Hron on recorders, and Lisa McGee, aka Vestals, singing), as well as playing the effects as though they were instruments. In “Gloaming,” the piano is run through multiple tape-echo devices whose controls are manipulated on the fly: What starts out sounding like one of Grouper’s ruminative sketches is gradually smeared until nothing is left but an ambient blur.

In some places on Gave in Rest, Davachi’s music sounds much like it always has: “Auster” remains, despite the pauses, a minimalist study of harmony and tone color, and the gorgeous “Third Hour” is languid and drifting. But there’s also more motion here than we’ve heard in her work before. On previous releases, a track like “Third Hour” might have been a foggy snapshot of static tones; now, her elements slowly twist like tall grass in the wind, contrapuntal melodies pulling themselves up and away from the background, flashing out in stark relief before disappearing into the swirl.

“Evensong” goes even further. An ensemble piece for piano, organ, violin, bass, and voice, it marks the rare occasion when an honest-to-goodness chord progression can be detected in Davachi’s work. The title is a reference to evening services, particularly in the Anglican church, and there’s a distinctly liturgical feel to the song’s resonant textures and melancholy harmonies, with their eerie echoes of medieval music.

Davachi has said that much of the album was inspired by a summer spent touring in Europe, seeking out moments for reflection in the reverberant stone spaces of centuries-old churches. The purest expression of that experience takes shape in the album’s closing track, “Waking,” recorded in a single take on the Hammond organ. A tentative right-hand melody paces up and down the scale, pulling against the root note; pulsing overtones throb and relax as Davachi’s chords shift between tension and resolution. It is meditative, searching, but also peaceful—the sound of solitude and solace. It’s one of the simplest things Davachi has ever written, and also among the most powerful.

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