The composer takes her careful and steady style and applies it to sounds that are more readily melodic, making a bigger show of each subtle gesture.
Thanks to Sarah Davachi’s prolific work habits and the consistently affecting and unforgettable quality of her compositions, she has turned the past few years into a productive and defining period for her music. The string of albums following 2016’s “Vergers” has seen her undertake experiments in microtonal drone, medieval revivalism and electronic production that resulted in technically and conceptually nuanced work. Her latest, Pale Bloom, promotes a different version of Davachi’s approach, taking her generally careful and steady style and applying it to sounds that are more readily melodic, making a bigger show of each subtle gesture.
The three-part “Perfumes” immediately suggests a distance from the ambient-crossover realm of minimalism and drone that Davachi explored previously. Although Pale Bloom exists in a similar emotional area as her past albums—stateliness, shy expression—the opening notes here offer an immediate clarity. Clean piano notes deliver a phrase of ultra-slow baroque counterpoint, with some elements derived from Bach, hanging on every dissonance and unhurriedly waiting through periods of silence. Even when a few backwards effects enter midway through the track, Davachi remains focused on her core piano motif, with the two sound worlds slowly crossing each other and eventually switching places by the track’s conclusion.
“Perfumes II” and “Perfumes III” continue on the template of piano-plus-something, adding voice and organ, respectively. As a jarring departure, the initial entrance of Fausto Dayap Daos’ vocal line counters piano playing that in its meditative pace had seemed nearly detached from any human performer. The duet with organ on “III” allows for the trio’s most interesting exploration, looking at the possibilities within the smallest frequency differences and unexplored harmonic combinations between a droning, reedy base and the wandering piano chords.
These three tracks combine into an interesting set of specific investigations, with each showing a different facet of one musical idea twisted into a new form. The side-long second track, “If it Pleased Me to Appear to You Wrapped in This Drapery,” is one of the most complete and awe-inspiring compositions Davachi has released to date. It’s 22 minutes of clever tensions and releases, but the sense of direction and the sheer physicality of string and organ sounds make it something nearly transcendental. By focusing on held tones and a sluggish harmonic rhythm, Davachi gives each gesture immense meaning. When the music is dissonant, it can cause you to wince; when the progression reaches a moment of resolution or supreme consonance, the feeling of the entire room can shift and settle.
As opposed to starting from nothing and building towards a full, chaotic climax, “If it Pleased Me” moves through a series of different phases. The energy level bounces up and down, feeling empty and threatening when beat frequencies dominate in the track’s mid-section, and triumphant when a heavy organ note finally grounds the music a few minutes later. Davachi’s love of microtones surfaces again in the composition’s final leg, as a crawling ascension up the length of the string players’ necks leaves the otherwise agreeably spell-binding track on a sour, chilling note. Unlike the soothing “Perfumes,” it takes pride in co-opting a listener’s environment for more unsettling, though no less successful, ends, giving the conclusion of Pale Bloom a sense of suspense for Davachi’s next.