INTERVIEW: Kit Downes (Fifty-Two New Pieces for Piano – Right Hand)

Kit Downes
Photo credit: Alex Bonney
“It’s changed the way I think about composing, I think,” reflects pianist KIT DOWNES, eight weeks after suffering an injury to his left hand, which spurred him to write and record a new piece for piano or organ (right hand) every day, a total of fifty-two new pieces (link below). Interview by email with Sebastian: 

LondonJazz News: I gather you damaged your left hand a few weeks ago. Were you ….rock climbing in the Dolomites? 

Kit Downes: I wish. No, I was putting my socks on. I got my middle finger of my left hand caught in the elastic and pulled too hard and heard a loud snap – then lifted my hand up to see the end of my finger pointing downwards at a strange angle.

LJN: What did the doctor say / recommend when you had it treated?

KD: I went straight to A and E to check it out (as I was freaking out a bit) and they told me I had ‘mallet finger’. The name reminded me of Timmy Mallet, and I found it quite amusing – until they told me I had to keep it splinted for 8 weeks, then I felt a bit depressed.

LJN: Any advice to give? What have you learnt?

KD: Just trying to be patient. Something I realised is that I feel quite relaxed in my hands when I’m playing, but the rest of the time (when doing the washing up, typing or carrying things for example) my hands are actually quite tense, and my shoulders too. This is probably what caused the tendons to be vulnerable in the first place. I also have quite bad posture I think.

LJN: What gigs / teaching / specific bands have you been able to continue with and what did you have to put on hold?

KD:I could carry on teaching, and just demonstrate things with the right hand. All playing for the first 5 weeks I had to cancel, but then towards the end I did a few gigs with Tom Challenger on organ, and a few gigs with ENEMY. As those two groups feature my own music, I felt I could adapt the material without too much difficulty for 9 fingers. In the first 5 weeks I also taught my left hand to just avoid my middle finger (in typing too).

LJN:  You fairly quickly took a decision to do a project, composing a piece every day for piano right hand. You uploaded a total of fifty-two pieces to Twitter, both the sheet music and a video HERE. What led to that?

KD: I found the prospect of 8 weeks off too intimidating.

LJN:  And has it been a pleasure all the way?

KD: Pleasure is the wrong word, but it was rewarding. It was also an excellent motivator to get up in the mornings – I think I could’ve got a bit miserable otherwise – it felt good making something everyday, even something small like that.

LJN:  And the response to it has been good, right?

KD: People have been very kind and supportive about the whole thing.

LJN:  I’m a beginner pianist which piece should I try first?

KD: The first one probably – which is in some ways my favourite. There is something very direct about it, and very concise. I can hear that at that point I am really enjoying the idea of it all.

LJN:  Any people who need thanking?

KD: Ruth – always!

LJN: It’s early days but I’m guessing the whole episode will have changed the way you look at things… music…life?

KD: It’s changed the way I think about composing, I think. When starting out a composition, it is very tempting to judge your initial ideas too early, and prevent yourself from finding a flow. What you start out with is rarely what you end up with anyway, so telling yourself what you think about it immediately is quite unhelpful I think (there’s a nice interview with Idris Elba somewhere where uses the analogy of swimming to talk about this).

Each day I would sit at the piano, and the very first idea I had I would score out on the page. Then from that point on, I would start developing the idea (even if I hated it), then moving things around form-wise, all without worrying about whether it sounded good or not. Then I would score it up in Sibelius, tidying it up along the way, then I would try it out again on the piano – and at that point I would start to work out what I thought about it a bit more, and adjust aspects of it accordingly. The whole process was quite quick in the end.

I began to realise that it really is your own self-expectations and preconceptions that get in the way of creativity most of the time – the ideas are usually always there rumbling around in your subconscious, it’s just your own over thinking that blocks it all up – so an exercise like this where you are generating so much material is great for reminding yourself how many ideas you actually have up there in the brain box, and also what a huge role the arranging and developing process has on your material.

I was speaking to a few friends of mine who are classical composers, and for their bigger projects that sometimes last six months or more and involve many instruments and large concepts, they are happy to achieve just one minute’s worth of music over an entire day, so me trundling out a one-minute piece a day for one-handed solo piano didn’t seem like such a big ask!

LJN: There must be some gigs you are REALLY looking forward to now you are back in the saddle / on the road – WHERE/ WHEN?!

KD: Whilst being injured, I took the time to teach myself how to mix and edit. I always messed around with Logic a bit, but I feel much more comfortable with it all now, and used the time to produce a couple of records that I am playing on – one with a three-cello ensemble called ‘Tre Voci’, and one with Paula Rae Gibson.

So I am looking forward to working that music out with them in a live context, and I have a some nice things with Aidan O Rourke, ENEMY and Tom Challenger coming up too.

There is a FULL LIST OF THESE DATES on Kit Downes’ website
The pieces – all 52 are on Kit Downes’ Twitter feed

Categories: miscellaneous

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