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:

Talking Heads: Thomas Larcher

Composer Thomas Larcher (above) talks with Arcana editor Ben Hogwood about his music, and what we can expect from his upcoming residency at the Aldeburgh International Festival

The 72nd Aldeburgh Festival begins this weekend, and there are three artists-in-residence: tenor Mark Padmore, soprano / conductor Barbara Hannigan and the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.

Larcher’s music has received good coverage in the last decade in particular, with a number of recordings released on the ECM label, but this portrait of his output will make an even wider appraisal possible. With music ranging from solo piano right through to large orchestra, there will also be a chance to catch the second performance – and UK premiere – of his first opera, The Hunting Gun.

We start by talking of Larcher’s memories of the festival – or not, as the case may be! “Let me say I haven’t had any experiences so far!” he says cheerily. “I visited Aldeburgh a year ago at the planning stage for what’s happening now, but I’ve never played a concert there and I don’t think a piece by me has ever been played there. This year’s program all comes through my friendship with Roger Wright, who once commissioned a piece from me for the Proms (the Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, performed by Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley). Since then we’ve been in touch, and he has always been very pleasant and friendly. I had the feeling that he is a person who speaks on one level, face to face with a composer, and not from the top down like a big promoter. I felt very much at home at the Proms because of that.”

There is a palpable excitement around the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, which received very positive reviews from its premiere at the Bregenz Festival in Larcher’s home country Austria. He confirms the approach will be similar. “It will be the same staging as it was in Bregenz, and I know they have been working on the details. I think the main difference will be space. The hall is wonderful with a really good sound, whereas in Bregenz we were in a huge box, more or less. Everyone there said you will need amplification, as there was a lot of noise around from lights and fans. There was the possibility of amplification but we will see how it works out with the full orchestra. For example we didn’t have a pit in Bregenz, so we were all on the same level, but now the orchestra is down in the pit, which should make things feel more free. I hope it will be more intimate in the level of sound.”

Did working on a much larger composition bring out new properties in Larcher’s own writing? He considers the question. “On paper it is not such a big score. There are 19 or something players and a little choir, and the soloists. There are two elements I can mention, however. The first one is coming from the text (the opera is based on a Japanese novella from 1945). I find this little book by Yasushi Inoue (below) highly fascinating. I couldn’t start before I was really sure about how the text would evolve, how we could compress this quite complex novel into quite small pages of text, because I feel that operas – the texts are too long. My girlfriend Friederike Gösweiner, who is the librettist, has found a way to really keep the soul of this novel alive but still reduce it and condense it to something very precise and with very few words. I loved it. So already I could say some of the music had formed before I started.”

And the second element? “Something I had never done before was the integration of the chorus. The chorus is a hybrid thing, staging it as seated with the orchestra. It is a connection between the orchestra and the soloists, it is an amplifier of the soloists and they symbolise the echo room of the persons on stage, the psychological echo room. They have various functions which you can define or not define, but this whole mixture of the ensemble and the chorus proved to be highly interesting for me.”

A sizeable problem facing today’s composers is the difficulty in getting not just first but second performances of their works. To that end it must be very satisfying for Larcher having a sequel on which to rely relatively quickly after the first, and on such a major stage as Aldeburgh? “Yes, it’s really great. I can’t be thankful enough for having as an artist in residence. It’s a great festival and I think Roger has also with other people chosen an excellent solution for the music with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting. It’s all first rate and I’m very curious to hear it. The other day I heard it will also be on stage at Amsterdam as part of the Holland festival. Pierre Audi has invited me to be part of that.”

As a listener it can also be hard to get a second hearing for a new piece that you really want to hear again, so it is satisfying from that point of view also. “I think or I hope that I’m already contributing to changing the situation”, he says, “as I am getting slower and slower at writing! I will leave less pieces so that hopefully they will have half a chance to be played more often! I can’t speak for others but I think the amount of pieces being thrown out is enormous. Of course it is a frustration for composers when their pieces are not played again, and as we know a piece needs some time to grow, to develop and even to be corrected, the mistakes that everyone always makes. These chances don’t come too often. I cannot speak about this because I don’t have this experience, but that is such a lucky situation which is quite unique. I am very thankful to all my players, conductors and orchestras that program existing pieces. It is wonderful for me but should be that way for a lot more composers.”

This year’s Festival will offer a chance for listeners to take in another new Larcher work, the Movement for solo piano which will be played by Paul Lewis. “The Movement was the first piece I could really tackle after having written the opera,” he explains. “In a way I felt as though I was coming out of this huge tunnel, and the Movement was quite a liberation from that. I always have problems writing for piano because I used to be a concert pianist, and would play everything from J.S. Bach to Olga Neuwirth, and I played with so many conductors from Claudio Abbado to Frans Welser-Möst and Paavo Jarvi. Each time I wanted to write something for piano I thought why do I know this – oh no, it’s from Messiaen or Schoenberg, and I was revisiting music I had already played! I prepared the piano so that it became a new instrument for me, and it was more coverable than the well known natural sound. Here again I got myself into a state of going into a new piece and just writing for a ‘normal’ piano was so liberating, a very good experience for me.”

On the festival’s third day Paul Lewis will join Larcher and Mark Padmore for a concert including the Padmore Cycle, a collection of eleven pieces written for the tenor. Their partnership clearly holds a special place for Larcher. “That piece was very important for me and meaningful too. We really embraced the text, and it’s more about going for the text over the quality of the voice, it’s very important. The music meets something in me, but if the text is not right then it does not work. For me, writing for the voice is strongly connected with writing for Mark. For the Padmore Cycle, two friends who wrote the texts for it (Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig). I deliberately chose texts from these two writers close to me, and so I practically formed my own cycle. By choosing different things you show yourself by what you prefer and what you don’t want to be shown. The unifying force behind all that was Mark, and so it was excellent to write the piece with him. There are three versions of this piece already – the original one that will be heard at the festival, with piano – then there is another one with voice and piano trio and a third with voice and big orchestra.”

Larcher has often spoken of the importance of tonal music, though he shies away from what could be seen as more obvious clichés within his writing. Is that an approach he maintains? “Yes, although it has widened in a sense. If you go through film music it’s always so that the feel is tonal, major or minor, but the horror films have passages that are atonal, with the birds flying – passages that make you think of Hitchcock! In a way that is a shame, but it’s also a cliché with a reason. I think you have to be aware of that, and that you don’t fall into the trap of always over-using those clichés – for example in films they will think of using Arvo Pärt for a solemn scene and Ligeti for a horror trip. I have tried to explore something like multi-tonality and have different threads of tonal music interweaving, or even going on the other hand going to tonal regions when it’s a dramatic scene. I like to juxtapose different tonalities or patterns of chords to make those boundaries more flexible or accessible, and not stand still in those clichés. I think there are so many possibilities still, even though there are only 12 tones, to create new and interesting tonal material. I think we have not reached the end of the road, and I cannot tell how far I will go there but it’s definitely for me! I can’t say I don’t care about tonality or not tonality, but I try to find a way for having complexity in accessible audible forms.

Larcher will be at the Aldeburgh Festival for its duration, taking in the performances of his music all the way through to the Cello Concerto (Ouroboros) on Sunday 23 June with Alisa Weilerstein and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. “By then I will be an Aldeburgh citizen, a resident of Snape!” he jokes.

Yet it seems The Hunting Gun will fit in very well with the festival, for its scale and plot alone. “Absolutely, with the beach as well! Maybe one day it should be staged in front of the atomic power station, which nobody mentions when speaking about Aldeburgh?! I learned about it when I saw pictures by David Lynch of this power plant, so maybe his interest says there should be something done there at that point.”

Sizewell B (n.b. this picture is not by David Lynch!)

Talk turns to music and culture outside of what we might call ‘classical’ music. “I mentioned David Lynch because there are some very powerful photographs of his with power plants on them, they are very dark – and I was amazed how much of the atmosphere he can display in his films, and how it could be transported into a single black and white picture. This I found quite strong. Regarding art, of course I do have a lot of friends. I grew up in Vienna where I studied more at the Art Academy than the Music Academy in my spare time, because it was far more vibrant, far more interesting, and there were nicer girls! I spent a lot of time there and it had some substantial influences. I painted a lot as a child. Even now I am a passionate photographer whenever I can be. Today everyone is a photographer of course but for me taking photos and scribbling things down shows me how I work as a musician also, with methods and writing. How you construct these things has different layers, and I see clearer with a photograph than when I sit in front of my music sheets.

Regarding the music I experienced from 15 there was a jazz club in the town where everyone played, from Pat Metheny to Chick Corea, and from Art Ensemble of Chicago (above) to Dino Saluzzi – all of the jazz greats. This was so liberating for me at the time, it was a way out of this really boring classical scene as I had experienced it in the region. There were a lot of frustrated musicians who were speaking of a big musical world outside of this region, but it didn’t happen here! Sitting frustrated in a teaching job, I couldn’t imagine there would be something like that living in music. When someone like the Art Ensemble comes to your town and delivers their show or Art Pepper and all of those players it was the greatest thing that could happen. A new world opened up to me and showed me this was life and not a prison!

Exposure to these arts surely helps when writing an opera? “Yes, although I obviously trust in the different crafts, so I wouldn’t be a multi-disciplined artist because I am simply not able to, and I am interested in what other people bring into the process. I really like to learn from other disciplines, and be open for what comes into your cosmos as well.”

As artist-in-residence at this year’s Aldeburgh International Festival, Thomas Larcher can look forward to a number of performances of his work, with the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, the world premiere of Movement, A Padmore Cycle performed with its dedicatee and performances of string quartets and orchestral works. For full details visit the Aldeburgh Festival website. For more information on Thomas Larcher, you can visit his website

The playlist below gives an introduction to his music through available recordings: