Listening to Two Sisters is like going to church ~ not a modern church, or even a medieval church, but a church liberated from doctrine and dogma, where emotion and spirit are carried by notes and amplified by the spaces in-between. One can’t help but feel that this is what was intended by the ancient architects of resonant stone cathedrals, the glaziers of stained glass, the metallurgists of pipe organs.
The album begins in bells and ends in bells, and a lot happens in the middle. A 52-page score book with tuning and performance notes may also be purchased from the artist. This is how one learns, for example, that “Hall of Mirrors” was composed for the Charles Baird carillon at the University of Michigan, and that this particular carillon has a loudspeaker and a lower range than most of its relatives. In earlier times, a town carillon did more than call people to church; it kept the time for the town, singing hymns without words. Carillon expert Tiffany Ng plays not only melodies, but clock tones; Sarah Davachi provides the sine: lower than the low end, an anchor of sorts, symbolizing the tug of earthly concerns. Then Davachi’s electric organ begins to hum, producing an undercurrent of anticipation.
“Alas, Departing” is based on the 1450 broken-hearted love song “Alas Departynge is Ground of Woo,” sung here by Jessika Kenney and Dorothy Berry. While the song is defined as “secular,” there’s no mistaking its spiritual tone. Dicky Bahto’s scratched black and white video is filled with hands, stretching toward heaven and to – and through – each other. The yearning for connection is thwarted by connection denied, a common theme in the world these past two years, but not unique to this era. Mid-piece, hands reach down for the first time, and then a face, like the face of God, slowly turning away before vanishing, like many people’s experience of religion. But then, color … was not something left behind after all? The arms spread from the heavens again, as if to display an invisible banquet.
Is this not what we have? Our emptiness or fullness may be determined not by what can be seen, but what can be intuited, counted, embraced. When Davachi turns to pipe organ for “Vanity of Ages,” she cements the church connection of bells – choir – organ, the title reminiscent of Ecclesiastes’ Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, referring the span of life, and all its endeavors, as vapor. Transcendence, spoken of in multiple religions, involves the separation of the material and the spiritual. Davachi’s extended notes invite the thoughts to soar.
“Vanity of Ages” is the beginning of what one might call the drone section of the album, which continues with “Icon Studies I and II,” bracketing “Harmonies in Bronze” and “Harmonies in Green.” The first “Icon Studies” is written for string quartet, woodwind trio and drone, the second for string quartet alone, the intervening “Harmonies” for solo organ. Davachi writes that the performance of “Icon Studies I” should be “relatively muted and even,” which it is here, with one notable adaptation: Davachi’s synthesizer operates as the third “woodwind” alongside quartertone bass flute and alto Renaissance recorder. Does it matter that this piece could not have been played in this way in medieval times? Are arbitrary rules of composition another form of vanity?
At first, one is tempted to jump to “Icon Studies II” to locate the connection, but Davachi has sequenced her album wisely; the “Harmonies” preserve the album’s flow. As the album continues, it falls further and further into a slow, meditative trance, having already won the devotion of its listeners. If the set were a church service, these works would be the silent prayers in the center, the lighting of candles, the quiet hush as elements are distributed, remembering that there is no such thing as silence, but that sound can imitate silent sensation. “Bronze” begins to climb to a higher register slowly yet purposefully, ascending the steps of Jacob’s ladder. “Green” descends to the depths of the soil before poking softly through the surface. This gentle upward trajectory leads to “Icon Studies II,” in which the buds have the opportunity to grow.
The album’s other “single” (if one can call a 12:48 track a single) is “En Bas Tu Vois,” roughly translated “You See Below” or perhaps more accurately, “You See Beneath.” The first translation hints of a higher being peering down, the second of earthly beings piercing the physical plane to reach the spiritual. Mattie Barbier’s trombone is layered by Davachi while Bahto again handles the visuals, which proceed from the lap of the first video while springing more quickly to color. The hands are older, gnarled, more sedate. The abstractions are reminiscent of the classic Underworld videos, albeit without the beat. The dominant color becomes aqua, then gray, as if tracing the roots of humanity back to the sea and sky.
The album comes full circle with “O World and the Clear Song,” as Rebecca Lane’s quartertone bass flute sets the stage for Davachi’s bell plate finale. The music has descended from the spire to the sanctuary, perfectly preserved, holiness intact. Did the listener feel? Did the listener ponder? Did the listener pray? On Two Sisters, Davachi creates the atmosphere for all such activities, opening a tall wooden door while delicately hinting where it might lead. (Richard Allen)