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Sarah Davachi, "Cantus Figures Laurus"

cover imageThis five-CD boxed set ambitiously compiles all three of Davachi's interrelated 2020 albums released on her own Late Music imprint. Given that Figures in Open Air alone features two pieces that clock in around an hour each, this collection presents an absolutely overwhelming amount of similar-sounding material. That said, Cantus, Descant seems to be one of Davachi's more beloved releases among fans despite its unswerving devotion to pipe organ-centered minimalism. That makes this collection an inspired idea, as it presents that constrained vision in three differing stages: its "more raw and improvisational" beginnings (Laurus), the polished and meticulously crafted studio album, and some great live performances from the period when this era was taking shape. Each of the three albums features some sublime highlights, which will likely inspire me to curate my own condensed version. That distillation will give me the sustained and focused beauty that I want from a Sarah Davachi album, but Cantus Figures Laurus can also provide a calming five-hour respite in a cathedral of drones. It is not unlike a portable version of La Monte Young's Dream House, if he were into church music instead of psychotropic Just Intonation harmonies. Hell, it can even be an interactive one, as listeners can enhance their experience with their own Marian Zazeela-inspired light shows.

Late Music

The heart of this collection is, of course, Cantus, Descant, which was both the inaugural release for Davachi's Late Music imprint and the culmination of her recent fascination with sacred music and antique church organs. Two organs in particular play a central role: a Van Straten pipe organ from 1479 located at Amsterdam's Orgelpark and a Story & Clark reed organ (1890s) situated in LA's wonderful Museum of Jurassic Technology. Several other antique pipe organs turn up as well, but the Van Staten stands out as unique for reasons beyond its advanced age, as it was tuned to a "sixteenth century meantone temperament" and required the presence of a second person (Hans Fidom) to operate the bellows. The Van Straten compositions form a kind of mini album of their own, as that organ was used for the five numbered "Stations" pieces. Stylistically, however, the "Stations" cycle is fairly representative of the album’s overall aesthetic, which has a feel of floating, dreamlike suspension. The liner notes provide plenty of interesting information about the inspirations and conceptual themes of the album, but the central idea of the album lies in the title: Davachi was primarily interested in the interplay between "cantus" (either unadorned singing or the sometimes improvisatory high voice in a polyphony) and "descant" (the larger structure). Davachi expanded that into approaching the album as a dialogue between the individual and "the larger time and space" that they occupy. In more practical terms, that guiding duality manifests itself in a series of slow-motion, droning reveries that gradually and subtly blossom into something more.

My favorite piece is the one that Davachi notes is most dear to her: the closing "Diaphonia Basilica."It is a not a particularly radical departure from the rest of the pieces, but it is nevertheless a perfect distillation of its many themes, as it unfolds like a gorgeously shimmering and oscillating organ mass in slow motion.Most of the album's other highlights are more subtle though, like the bleary, darkly psychedelic harmonies of "Ruminant" or the slow, warm drones of "Still Lives."There is an excellent three-song run near the end of the album ("Stations I," "Gold Upon White," and "Oldgrowth") in a roughly similar vein, but the bigger story is the inclusion of two actual songs with vocals.The first, "Play the Ghost," approximates The Court of The Crimson King if it was reimagined by Liz Harris wielding a Mellotron."Canyon Walls" features similarly hushed, spectral, and melancholy vocals, but feels more like a worn cassette of a proggy Angelo Badalementi/Julee Cruise demo that did not quite fit the Twin Peaks vibe.The understated, vaporous vocals give those two pieces a haunted, fragile atmosphere that almost blurs them into "ambient" territory, but they are a promising glimpse of where Davachi's muse may lead on future albums.I suspect a Mellotron-centric prog epic has been slowly gestating in her head for years and will likely be her destiny/culminating achievement.

The collection is rounded out by Figures in Open Air (originally a double CD) and Laurus (originally a cassette).Davachi describes Figures as "a supplement" to Cantus, Descant, as it compiles several related live performances, alternate versions, and demos.For me, the centerpiece is a complete hour-long Chicago performance that beautifully expands upon three of the strongest pieces from Cantus, Descant ("Oldgrowth," "Gold Upon White," "Diaphonia Basilica") with some help from a pair of French horn players.In fact, "Live in Chicago" would probably be one of Davachi's best albums if it had been released by itself.The other two hours are solid, but I especially loved the poignant and sublime excerpt from a 2018 electronic set at The Lab in San Francisco recorded shortly after the passing of beloved filmmaker/Davachi-collaborator Paul Clipson.For those ambitious enough to plunge into this entire boxed set as a sustained, immersive experience, Figures in Open Air will likely be the emotional climax of the collection.It is probably the most uniformly strong of the three albums as well, which is no small claim coming from someone as live album-averse as me.Given that, Laurus acts as a bit of a comedown rather than a continuation of that arc.Davachi intended that tape as "a footnote," as it collects the early improvisations that eventually blossomed into Cantus.Given that, it is the least substantial of the set's three releases, but it offers some pleasures beyond merely illuminating Davachi’s creative process, as it is more overtly melodic than the later stages.The best pieces are the first two parts of "Laurus" (somewhat linked to Cantus's "Ruminant") and the darkly psychedelic pipe organ drones of "Herber Well."While I definitely did not expect Cantus, Descant to ever be an album destined for the full Bitches Brew treatment, I can certainly understand Davachi’s reasoning, as the supplemental material (especially Figures) is unusually strong.If an artist ever finds themselves with enough solid, thematically unified material for a durational epic and an audience eager to hear it, they would be a fool not to grab that opportunity with both hands and run with it.

Samples can be found here.