Talking Heads: Kit Downes

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Kit Downes has very generously granted Arcana half an hour of his holiday time. In it we will discuss his upcoming performance at Snape Maltings as part of the Festival of New weekend, and while we cover that the discussion moves across East Anglia to Norwich, where it transpires both of us were born.

Our current locations, however, could scarcely be farther apart. I am perched awkwardly in a sunlit Soho café, Kit is “marooned on the Isle of Arran. It’s so windy and rainy here but it’s a really special place too.” Is he doing anything musical? “No, that would give a sense of purpose to the holiday! It’s a really relaxing time for me with family at the moment.”

The Snape performance will give listeners a chance to hear material behind his new work Dreamlife of Debris, in the company of Lucy Railton (cello), Seb Rochford (drums) and Tom Challenger (saxophone). The album, his second for the revered ECM label, brings him into contact with much of the music of his youth, growing up as a chorister and organist in East Anglia. “When I was pretty young I sang in the choir at Norwich Cathedral, which would have been there about 25 years ago”, he recounts. “I played with the then organist Katherine Dienes, who was a great improviser. I badgered my mum to get me organ lessons with her, and played on the fantastic four-manual organ at the cathedral. She showed me how to improvise. It was more about learning the different strands of orchestration, texture and sound than working on a particular piece, and looking at how church organists are able to improvise between functions of the church service, where they often have to build on a particular hymn tune to fill time. Through that I learned jazz on the piano, because my mum saw the link between the two. I went to music school in Watford until I was 22, when I started my jazz career.”

The current project began in sessions with saxophonist Challenger. “I was looking for a new project and a new setting”, says Downes, “and I was interested in the music of some of the ‘duration’ composers, like Morton Feldman, and minimalists like Steve Reich. I wanted to get back to instruments where you hold a note for more than one second, and so I returned to the organ. Tom and I did a residency at Huddersfield University, and I enjoyed working back at the organ for three days. I wasn’t playing repertoire like Buxtehude or Reger, although I love that music, but it was about getting jazz that I love on to the organ, in a holistic way – sharing influences in what I play.”

The pair continued working together. “We did one project at Snape Maltings before the recording project where the Vyamanikal album came from. That then led into the solo album for ECM that I did, Obsidian. That was recorded on smaller organs from the area as well as the much larger Henry Willis instrument at the Union Chapel in Islington.”

His new album broadens the spectrum a little. “More recently I have been making a new album for ECM, using some organ and piano but with some guests too. Seven or eight years ago, I made a reconnection with the area, which I had wanted to do since I left for boarding school at 15 years of age. It was great to see the flat landscape and big sky where I grew up, and nice to revisit that part of the world. If you are brought up with the East Anglian landscape that means you are brought up with trees growing sideways! I love Scotland for that reason too, and where we are at the moment. Snape also offers that beautiful connection with Benjamin Britten, and what he did there is very inspiring.”

The move to East Anglia was not initially deliberate. “Without the commission we wouldn’t have run so far. Snape Maltings have been instrumental in developing the sound and approach to the album.”

Having given an overview of his more recent work, Downes considers the impact Aldeburgh’s most famous resident had on his musical development. “We used to sing loads of Britten at Norwich Cathedral. We sang the Missa Brevis, and I remember productions of works like Noye’s Fludde, and loads of the choral works at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. We would also work with contemporary composers on commissions for the choir. It was a huge learning curve for me with the pretty modern stuff we used to sing, like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. It was especially noticeable in a service as right after their music you would sing some Palestrina, and jump back hundreds of years in the process. That would be a big deal in a concert, but not in a church service, where they often sit together. The musical aesthetics can connect but the text connects as well.”

Downes agrees that, perhaps like Britten, the textures and sounds of his music offer a link with nature and the outdoors. “I love it myself, so I guess it will come out somehow! I love walking, and being outdoors generally. Our work for the new album involved travelling around rural parts of East Anglia and being outdoors, so I captured lots of field recordings outside the churches where we were recording the organs. We would take things like farming mechanisms and sounds that were important to the location, and put them into the music. If a bell went off we wouldn’t work around it, we’d keep it in. We would be mastering in full so it was never exactly what happened but similar to what Werner Herzog does. You can exaggerate things that feel more truthful, if that makes sense!”

The press release for Dreamlife Of Debris describes the field recordings as ‘deteriorated’. “I think that was already done by our sample rate conversion!”, he jokes. “I was very influenced by William Basinski, who on his Disintegration Loops would leave orchestral loops on a tape machine that would warp and turn into nothing. Some of the recordings were made on cassette recorders. What the ‘deteriorated’ description really talks about is the feeling of everything we were capturing being in a state of slow decline, in an emotional way too. In that part of the world there are those things that have been left to fall apart slightly. With the organs they are historical instruments, and in some examples the community instrument. The whole way the organ is paid for is congregational, through raising money in the community, and it’s very symbolic when that starts fading away”.

One particular instrument drew Downes’ eye. “We played the old Thomas Thamar organ in Framlingham (above). In Germany and Italy you get old and very impressive instruments, and the one in Framlingham is a real rarity as it still has the original pipework. It originates from London, and they moved it up there about 100 years later. It is a really important and special instrument. The whole process was in sharp relief to that of a one-manual harmonium that we also used, which was falling to bits. It made what we were doing as much of an album as a social study. The way these instruments are built is so important to how they sound, the circumstances under which they came to be.”

Downes has strong connections in the organ restoration community. “I’ve got a friend in America who is an organ builder, and he has the depth of knowledge for the tuning, the reconditioning, removing old things and bringing them back to life. Some builders put modern aspects on to old instruments, which would not preserve the older features. Norman & Beard were the company make that we tended to end up playing, and they were based in Norwich which is very appropriate! The construction and restoration involves so many people over so many years.”

Kit’s rediscovery of this part of his musical heritage is a relatively recent thing. “I listened to the American and European jazz improvisers for a long time. One thing about returning to the organ that I noticed most though was that it feels separate from contemporary classical music. It feels like an open canvas to have a go with.”

Kit Downes // Dreamlife of Debris // ECM from Freeze Productions on Vimeo.

The title, Dreamlife of Debris, has a clear precedent. “It comes from the W.G. Sebald book The Rings Of Saturn”, he explains, “which is all about a walking tour he took around Suffolk. He came over to work at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and The Rings of Saturn is about a walking tour of the area, parts of which we went to for field recordings. Everything reminds him of a tangent that takes him back in time, linking tangential parts of history or philosophy with the location. He takes in things like the silk trade, weaving silk through his narrative. I found it inspiring to create a work in that way, capturing where your mind is wandering and making a composite, putting the things together. That’s how I made the record, with lots of improvisation in different times and places but trusting that the record itself would be coherent.”

The title revealed itself to Downes relatively quickly. “Dreamlife of Debris is a quote from the film Patience After Sebald, which is a discussion piece on that book. It’s the idea that projecting thoughts and feelings onto inanimate objects gives them a kind of extended life. It felt appropriate. The people that I chose to play with me on the album were Lucy Railton, a cellist based in Berlin, Seb Rochford playing drums, and of course Tom Challenger. On the album we also have Ingebjørg Loe Bjørnstad, an electric guitarist from Norway, though he won’t be playing at Snape.”

What can the audience at Snape expect in the Festival of New concert? “I’m going to play piano rather than organ”, he says. “Some of the live stuff is using the ensemble as if it’s an organ. An organ is essentially music of reed, woodwind and strings, so I felt I had enough colours to emulate the sound.

Downes has also been exploring folk music in a major project with Aidan O’Rourke, fiddle player with the Scottish band Lau. Between them they have released two instalments of the 365 project. “That’s been the other big thing”, says Downes modestly. “I ended up recording 200 tunes with Aidan in all! It was a lovely exercise in just the sheer volume of arranging. Aidan would write a melody and I would arrange it, and we basically did that 200 times. I drew on the treatment of folk tunes from people like Britten, Vaughan Williams and Delius, and on techniques used by Ravel and Debussy too. With that music every decision should come from inside the melody rather than on top of it, and it was a really nice exercise.

Festival of New, described as ‘a whirlwind two days of freshly devised music and sound, exploring some of the most exciting work being made in the UK’, takes place on Friday 6 and Saturday 7 September at the Snape Maltings. Performers include urban poet Reload, cellist Maja Bugge and pianist Sarah Nicolls highlighting environmental issues in an inventive set, and Shama Rahman, who will perform with pianist Anya Yermakova ‘the seeds of a sitar concerto informed by neuroscience’.

Kit Downes and friends will perform on Saturday 7 September at 5pm in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. For more details on the weekend click here. For more information on Kit Downes you can visit his website or his ECM page.

Check back with Arcana soon, as we are intending to host a podcast from Kit with some of his favourite music for organ. In the meantime some of his work can be heard on Spotify below:

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