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Kit Downes and Tom Challenger: Organ Crawling

Duncan Heining By

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In April, Downes and Challenger perform some of the music at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall with Lucy Railton on cello and Cologne-based drummer Jonas Burgwinkel. Then in Manchester in July, they will perform in St. Anne's church, along with some live film footage by documentary film-maker, Ashley Pegg, made in Aldeburgh. "So, every time we do a concert it has to revolve around the instrument and the space we're in," Downes says. "It means we can never export the exact same copy to a different venue. It always has to be quite site and instrument specific. By its nature, it is always changing."

It is a point that Challenger echoes. "Again, it felt like another natural part of the process of Vyamanikal," he tells me. "The music sounded great on the instruments present and it was nice to see the music showing its strengths despite the fact there wasn't an actual organ. It stood up by itself. Melodically, it was nice hearing the themes being shared around the ensemble and the processing really added a different spatial dimension than the natural acoustics of a church. The pacing was surprisingly easy—and this was such a joy to watch unfold. It's a buzz to see seven people all navigate music at such a slow tempi!"

I ask Downes how he would define the differences between Wedding Music and Vyamanikal. "The first album was recorded at St Paul's on this incredible concert-worthy organ," Downes replies. "As a result, the music is much more on the grand spectacular side of things, whereas this record was recorded on smaller, more humble instruments. Vyamanikal is more about the real fine detail. The nature of big organs like that is that you can't get mikes very close to them. They are too high or too massive to close mike. With smaller organs you can get inside them and record the sounds of the keyboard action or the air coming out of the pipes. So, you can be a lot more audiophile about the smaller instruments. That's what we've gone for on the second record."

Both are clear that the experience of working on Wedding Music and performing the music live was highly important in the development of Vyamanikal, as Challenger explains,

"I view that whole period—from the initial idea, to the first improvisations, to their consolidation and development as a giant process—one that was revelatory for me. I learned a lot about many areas—how we worked together, how we interacted musically, how I responded to the situations we performed in and, most of all, I really felt I learned about 'space' and all of its permutations. When it came to recording Vyamanikal I felt we had a strong concept of how we would go about creating some new music. During the time with Wedding Music, we had really honed in on things like duration, dynamic range, those melodic and harmonic subtleties that myself and Kit are fond of and playing outside of the twelve-tone equal tempered scale."

"Wedding Music was very much a free jazz kind of 'knees-up' in the area we are probably more versed in," Downes says laughing. "With this second album, we wanted to move it into a different territory, one that was a little more unchartered for us that was more about space. The big difference between the two instruments is that the saxophone runs out of breath, whereas I never do. That is the sort of spark we wanted to explore in the relationship between the two instruments."

It also seems that both records involve the exploration of several musical languages—jazz, free improvisation and contemporary or new music. And perhaps there is also a certain minimalist quality to the music in the way they use subtle, ambient modulations and the way the music seems to inhabit and move through space. The names John Adams, Terry Riley and Charlemagne Palestine spring to mind. It turns out Downes is a fan of all three and was lucky enough to hear and see the latter a few years ago in London.

The saxophone seems to come from within the organ rather than sitting on top. It is about "pace, space and breathing" rather than the kind of free improvisation that focuses on the speed of the player's reactions. Downes rejects the reference to minimalism in the sense of a constant pattern or design. "There isn't a pattern," he tells me, "because the music is improvised." In other respects, however, Downes is more comfortable with my suggestion. "Those three were influences," he adds, "but I'm very flattered that you think that they share qualities because they are biggies for me."

My remarks should, nevertheless, take nothing away from what has clearly been a voyage of discovery for Downes and Challenger. As Downes explains, "We couldn't use the languages that we normally rely on such as melodic or even harmonic hooks, which would seem trite in that really stripped-down context. So, we had to find different ways of saying the same thing or move the tension along. We couldn't rely on our old free improv or jazz language or invent some kind of cod-classical language. We had to create a whole new set of tools for ourselves. It was a really rewarding and refreshing process. It was about what says the most with the least."

I ask if he ever feels that the sheer range of projects with which he is involved stretches him too thinly—NASA is apparently very jealous. His response is both pragmatic and based on aesthetic considerations.

"If I were offered a two-hundred date tour with my piano trio, I would probably take it," he says. "Then my music might start to fit a less wide brief. But the music scene can't support that kind of thing anymore. So, we search out different possibilities and we live in the age of the internet and if you have an ounce of curiosity you can find out pretty much everything about something you only just discovered a moment ago. For curious minds it's hard to cut stuff out. But there are plenty of things I turn down as well, that I don't feel are right for me or are what I want to do. If I said 'yes' to everything I was asked to do my work would be too unfocused. There is a certain energy that I extend in keeping a degree of control. In terms of my emotional investment in my participation in all these projects, I feel like I go through much the same sort of processes in each project even if the outcome is radically different."

Not yet thirty, Downes does not feel ready to limit his activities to one or two directions—nor should he. He is fortunate to have come through at a time when there are so many exciting possibilities and so many bright and talented musicians around. If only that were matched by funding and media and audience support.
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