Participants: Kit Downes, Tom Challenger

Series: Aldeburgh Festival, Open Space, Residencies

Ideas explored: developing new work

Developed through an Aldeburgh Residency, Kit Downes and Tom Challenger mix predetermined composition with free improvisation, inspired by the huge variety of organs and church acoustics in Suffolk – from the humble and small-scale to the revered Thamar organ of Framlingham Church, one of the spectacular instruments of its kind in Europe.

‘Vyamanikal’ is the second stunning collaboration between Tom Challenger and Kit Downes, following on from their initial success with ‘Wedding Music’.

Having both led, co-led and recorded their own critically acclaimed ensembles (Downes with his Mercury nominated ‘Golden’ and leter ‘Quiet Tiger’; Challenger with Ma: ‘The Last’ and Outhouse: ‘Straws Sticks and Bricks’), ‘Wedding Music’ matches the unique texture of Church Organ and Saxophone, as well as bringing together two of the most exciting and gifted young improvisers in the UK. Beautifully recorded over 3 days in the summer of 2012 in Huddersfield University’s St Paul’s Church (a space renowned for its acoustic qualities), the album is a selection of some of the music developed in residency. What emerges is an innovative yet melodic collection of improvised pieces that house sharply contrasting dynamics, mircrotunal nuances, and improvisational rapport that constantly engages and surprises.

In December 2014, beginning a new branch of their collaboration, they started their Open Space scheme in a project that has seen them travelling to different local churches in Suffolk, investigating acoustics, and different approaches to the different organs they have found, culminating in a recording and a series of concerts.

They have since recorded content at five churches: Snape St. John, Bromeswell St. Edmund, Blythburgh Holy Trinity, Framlingham St. Michael and Darsham All Saints. This material turned into ‘Vyamanikal’, which they have released on Slip; created a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival 2016; a collaboration with ECM and an ensemble variation of the project which has further increased their performance possibilities.

Duncan Heining interviewed Kit & Tom for All About Jazz, the result of which can be seen here.

Tom Challenger's notes

April 2015

Kit and I began to collaborate on what we now refer to as ‘Wedding Music’ in the summer of 2012. We embarked upon a recording residency in Huddersfield University; Performed 2 concerts in the Royal Festival Hall and also placed the music in a non-site-specific version that utilised Hammond organs, along with myself as per usual on saxophone.

The common thread throughout this year of collaborating and developing our music was that we were playing material from our first record, and very much looking to get that music to fit the surroundings we were immediately placed in.

The next phase of our collaboration (in conjunction with the Open Space scheme) is very different. We arrived in Aldeburgh in December with the idea of exploring some of the churches and organs of Suffolk as potential candidates for us to use for developing new pieces of music and performance concept. Therefore all the music developed here in Suffolk is completely site and organ specific, and with the idea that some of them would be used on the recording documenting our work.

I had no pre-conceptions as to how the spaces and organs would be. However, I was blown away by the variety that we encountered, and also by the willingness of local people, church-goers and organ enthusiasts to provide a social and historical context to the places we explored.

From the grandeur and warmth of the organ at St. Michael’s, Framlingham, to the sonic intricacies of the small single manual in St. Edmund, Bromeswell, we found every church we encountered did indeed hold something unique. However, our problem was to identify the churches that would be of benefit to the overall project later in 2015.

As already mentioned, Bromeswell houses a fantastic instrument, characterised by sonic oddities that wouldn’t be usually heard in a normal Sunday service. Our aim was to explore all of the hidden artefacts housed in the organ and church – here, we even found something in the bell tower…

On to St. John’s, Snape, an ancient church with a relatively new organ that boasts a real clarity over the whole range of the instrument; then to Shottisham St. Margaret – by far the coldest of all the churches in December! Mince pies somewhat lessened the effect of the cold, and the cassette recordings we made of the trip reveal a beautifully warm tutti on the organ there. We finished in All Saints, Darsham, where again we enjoyed the colour of the space and instrument.

The next day started in Framlingham, where the beauty of the fantastically preserved organ there really jumps out. Apparently famous composers have enjoyed playing on this organ (or so enthusiastically told by people decorating christmas trees on the day), however the compact sounding organ and splendid acoustic really gel these particular improvisers well! A short trip via Grundisburgh St. Mary led us to Holy Trinity Blythburgh, where the light set on two fantastic days of exploration. Blythburgh is beautiful, and its organ similarly so. However, the tuning issues that all instruments suffer from were quickly identified and utilised – this providing a fascinating backdrop to this writer’s largens at the end of the day.

The cassette recordings revealed a strong initial leaning towards microtonal nuance and drones. The pace of the improvisations are generally glacial, sometimes punctuated by dense forays into more intense melodic interplay.

It was a great opportunity to sit down and draw up and develop some initial ideas together – oddly helped by the post autumnal Suffolk countryside! Driving around and discovering the local area, meeting the people and creating the building blocks of an exciting project will be part of a great overall experience I’m sure!

Here is a link to some cassette recordings made by us during our December visit: tomchallenger.co.uk/projects/laferme

Kit Downes' notes

April 2015

As our journey across Suffolk continues – Tom and I are enjoying listening back to some of the recordings we have already made in Snape church and Bromeswell church. It is interesting listening back to two full days of recording, especially of music that is completely improvised, as you hear music developing the more we play. As we arrived in Snape on the first day, we started to experiment with the acoustics of the space – a slightly larger and more generous acoustic than some of the other churches we visited back on our ‘recce’ in December – we started using the more colourful aspects of the organ to find interesting resonances (i.e. the larger Reed pipes, especially the 16 foot reed pedal). Then the challenge became about how we blended the two instruments together. As the day continued, we started moving away from the brasher sounds and the longer drones, into more stop/start durational pieces. We started focusing on ways to phrase together – each with each other, or against each other. We started using a lot more space, and hearing a lot more silence/room sound – a sign that we managed to slow ourselves down the to the glacial place that we like to improvise to.

As our sound engineer, Alex Bonney, started to zone out (listening to a lot of very spacious and often quite abstract organ music does that to you!) we started making some really nice music. We were improvising with the knowledge that everything we are doing now will be edited, moved around, manipulated, at a later date – so we were really just focused on finding good timbres, ideas, textures – rather than worrying too much about form at this stage. This is another benefit of having Alex on board – we can spend a lot time away from the churches, editing and manipulating.

As we all sat in the pub at the end of the day (with Ashley who is helping film the whole residency for a documentary) we started talking about the music a little. Commenting on the relationship between organ and saxophone, I mentioned that I am beginning to think of Tom’s role as almost like a rouge rank of pipes on the organ. A manual that I am suddenly not in control of, and that can bend pitch and manipulate dynamics in a way that I can’t. Tom, I imagine, likes the idea of being a rouge.

The next day we started the entire process again, but with a new church (Bromeswell St. Edmund), new organ, fresh headspace, and with the experience of yesterday very much in our minds. The organ (and church) today was a lot smaller, but in a way, even more unique. The organ doesn’t have a pedal board, as it is essentially a converted Harmonium. A lot of the old organs from Suffolk were removed during the Reformation, seen as overly grandiose and excessive. So we are left with a humbler instrument, much smaller in size, but nonetheless attempting to be as grand as it can be. There is something sweet about the idea that inside the organ, it’s real personality is just a small harmonium. With that in mind, I tried playing it as quietly as possible, finding all the nuance I could at low volume (the opposite of its normal rousing ‘join-in-with-the-hymn’ role). Tom and I experimented with some beating (finding pitches between pitches, and then playing them against each other to hear the different beats they give off of each other) and finding micro-tonalities, different textures and sounds. Today was even more slowly paced, as we had obviously relaxed into something. We started with less ideas, and built more patiently. Alex set up another microphone to record the outside noise (we left the front door of the church open, in order to hear the blackbirds), and the day continued with us finding more and more eccentricities in the organ, then exaggerating them in our improvisations. As the day ended, we took a trip up the bell tower to look around the landscape. The almost perfectly flat landscape of Suffolk (very close to where I grew up) was a relaxing and familiar sight – and we drove back to London looking forward to May, and recording the 3 remaining churches left on the residency.