Pianist, organist and composer Kit Downes has just released Dreamlife of Debris, his second album as leader on ECM Records. He spoke to Peter Bacon about the preceding musical journey and the churches along the way, as well as his collaborators and how he came to record for the acclaimed label, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary year.
LondonJazz News: The music on Dreamlife of Debris, and its ECM predecessor, Obsidian, has its origins in a project called Wedding Music in 2013 (and even before that, possibly)? Can you tell us a bit about that development?
Kit Downes: Myself and (saxophonist) Tom Challenger had always wanted to start a project together, but we were waiting to find a suitable opportunity and setting. Thanks to the generosity of P A Tremblay and Huddersfield University a chance to spend a few days working and recording in St Pauls, Huddersfield, arrived, and out of those sessions came Wedding Music.
Originally a sequence of improvisations, this was pretty much the first time that myself and Tom had improvised together in real depth. We had talked a lot beforehand about things that we wanted to explore – we had both been playing some quite intricate and intense music at the time, and this felt like a good opportunity for us both to investigate some long-form durational elements, and to focus on sound production just as much as note content.
It was also the first time I had played the organ in any serious capacity since I was an organ scholar at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, when I was 14. I have always loved that instrument, and started playing it when I was a chorister at Norwich Cathedral – hearing the organists there (people like my early teacher Katherine Dienes-Williams, David Dunnett and Neil Taylor) who could all improvise brilliantly inspired me to try and improvise in the first place. Picking it up again ten years later felt like an extension of that, but just with 10 years worth of playing other types of music thrown in as well.
Out of Wedding Music then came a residency at Aldeburgh Music – this was maybe the most productive patch for me and Tom, as we spent many months travelling in his car round the Suffolk countryside improvising in different churches on various different organs – all in various states of disrepair. Whilst this was happening I was constantly learning more and more about the instrument, as well as remembering more technical aspects of it that had been a bit dormant since my early lessons. Out of these trips came a collection of field recordings that made up the album Vyamanikal – and it was the video (made by Ashley Pegg) of that project that was first heard and seen by Sun Chung and Manfred Eicher at ECM.
LJN: You play both church organ and piano on this new album. Is there a conscious adjustment you have to make when going between the two instruments, or has it become instinctive? Or perhaps both? Can you tell us about your “approach” to both? And perhaps how they influence each other?
KD: They feel like very different instruments in many ways – particularly of course in terms of sound production and hand technique. To play legato on both instruments means very different things – sometimes embracing totally different ways of fingering, especially on the organ for example. Also with the organ there is an enormous extended technique aspect and a mechanical aspect that I am very interested in – which if it had been the instrument that I had studied at music college I might not be so interesting in a funny way, with me perhaps becoming weighed down by trying to master the more traditional technical aspects of the instrument – but with the piano, although I am very interested in inside piano sounds and prepared piano, it has never really been my focus.
With the piano I love trying to voice stranger patterns – and how with such a sonorous instrument you can manage to make the strangest harmonic voicing choices seem totally natural – where if you played the same voicing on an organ it would sound terrible. The organ works by stacking different sounds on top of one another, often doubling the octave, or an octave and a 5th – so you can imagine that tight closed cluster voicing on the organ sound pretty intense when there is more than one stop/sound speaking at any time – this is something however that often sounds great on piano!
LJN: Are there organ works that have particularly influenced you? Or are favourites?
KD: I was always very interested in Messiaen – I loved how he invented his own rules, his own language. He had chords, rhythmic ideas, or patterns that meant particular things outside of the music – religious symbolism often. Take the opening piano chords of the first movement of the Quartet for the End of Time. These first chords are examples of what he called stained glass chords – because of the abstracted nature of the dominant chord gives of the impression of a double image in colour somehow.
Then in another voice there is transcribed bird song over the top of it. They all mean particular things – I love this, it feels extremely relevant to the way that someone like Coltrane came up with his own language – combined different aspects and colours and patterns, all to express something bigger than the music itself – and within that new language they had the freedom to improvise, something that Messiaen was famously brilliant at (you can see a great clip on youtube of him doing so).
I was also inspired by some very impressive French stuff by Vierne, Widor, etc, and I also enjoyed other things from the contemporary repertoire such as works by Ligeti and more recently by Nils Henrik Asheim. I really love the way that Ståle Storløkken plays the organ – he is a genius at all keyboard instruments, I can’t really overstate how much I’ve been inspired by his approach. I have also recently heard a fantastic improviser from Italy called Giulio Tosti who has a great new CD out called Nebula. There is also an amazing organ improviser and teacher called Jurgen Essel in Stuttgart, and another fine improviser called Daniel Stickan in Hamburg. There are lots of people doing interesting things with organs now – I find more people the more I travel about hearing new things of course.
LJN: Although I realise the place that studio recordings are made can be important, place becomes even more crucial when a church organ is concerned. Can you tell us about where these recordings were made, and what the localities brought to the recording?
KD: We recorded in two different spaces – two sessions around a year apart at St John the Baptist in Snape, and one session at St Paul’s in Huddersfield University – where we tracked both piano and organ. As both these rooms sound quite different to each other (and the organs very different from each other in size and timbre) a lot of attention was paid to finding a coherent base in terms of backdrop.
We also experimented with pulling the organ in and out of focus in terms of its perceived size in the mix – depending on what instruments it was playing with. This post production took another half a year between myself, Sun, and the engineer and mixer Alex Bonney. My initial idea had been to put the organ in a broader context in terms of instrumentation, to explore different ways it could blend with different types of instruments – string, reed, drum. The organ for me has that ability to wrap up everyones sound into its own (in the way a congregational/community instrument is designed to do) and given the very stripped back nature ofObsidian, I wanted this to feel like the other side of the coin texturally. I also wanted the record to not feel tied to the sound of one particular space – instead for all these various instruments and room sounds to collide and create something dislocated and abstract. So where Obsidian was about capturing the sound of the organ in the space that it was designed for, this was quite different in that it sought to subvert that a bit – to place lots of these room sounds and different size instruments over the top of each other all out of scale, effectively cancelling each other out into a kind of dreamlike sonic state.
LJN: And continuing the “place” theme in a more abstract way, can you tell us about W.G. Sebald (both albums contain references to his work) and his influence on the music?
KD: The title, Dreamlife of Debris, itself comes from a supposed quote by Nabakov, mentioned in a documentary film about W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn. The quote itself alludes to the way we can project emotion and character onto inanimate objects, to the point where they feel like they have their own life, dreamt by us – like a musician and their instrument in a way, especially the organ (being the enormous chaotic collection of pipes, whistles and reeds that it is).
These objects could be mundane and everyday, or galaxy clusters and gas giants – whatever the scale. This quote (in reference to the book) is alluding to the way Sebald finds meaning in these isolated landmarks and events on his walking tour through Suffolk by using them as springboards for enormous mental leaps of association and story telling – to places across the world and from other times.
This resonated with me – these unlikely combinations of instruments, alluding to different styles and periods, with no established pretext, meeting together in a space with no singular character. I enjoyed the risk of diving into that challenge, and enjoyed the strange dream-like space that we often found ourselves in musically.
LJN: A close collaborator in this music is (one might say) a fellow manipulator of air in pipes, Tom Challenger. Please tell us about Tom and your other collaborators (whether player, composer or engineer) on this album, and why you chose them.
KD: In a similar way to Obsidian, much of the material for this record came from improvisations (with a couple of through-written pieces by myself, Tom Challenger and Ruth Goller as well). These pieces went through many changes in this whole process – with one piece in particular just a shell of what it was originally. Each time we would play the music we got closer to the core of what really felt important about it. Producer Sun Chung really pushed me and encouraged me to make something that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. It felt like an extension and development of the process we had on Obsidian and I was very motivated by it throughout.
I had also had help and guidance in some of the production from Manfred Eicher – so all in all I had lots of experienced pairs of ears helping me with shaping the record – this was a great experience for sure. Also, although I was interested in matching certain instruments together, first and foremost I wanted to have particular people that I thought would bring something that was strongly themselves, and that I felt a connection with – regardless of instrument. I knew that I wanted to feature Tom more, having worked together for many years, and knowing how unique and adaptable his sound is. I also wanted to carry on working with Alex Bonney who also engineered and mixed Obsidian. Two more people that I asked to join were Lucy Railton (cello) and Seb Rochford (drums) – both of whom I have played a lot with in duo in the past. Together with Tom and Alex, these players felt like family musically speaking. I also wanted to have someone that I didn’t know so well, but greatly admired musically – guitarist Stian Westerhus – someone to bring something new and unpredictable to the recording. I loved his solo albums in the past and could hear him fitting in with the music in an interesting way.
LJN: This is the second album in your name on ECM. What led you to this label?
KD: I had initially recorded for ECM on Thomas Stronen’s album Time is a Blind Guide, it was on that session at Rainbow Studios in Oslo where I met Sun and later Manfred. We talked at the time and then kept in touch afterwards about doing a solo record of some kind. I’ve been listening to ECM recordings since I was first discovering jazz – The Köln Concert was my second jazz CD, after Night Train – so I feel extremely lucky to be making music for them.
Kit Downes’ Dreamlife of Debris is now out on ECM Records. He is currently touring this music with these dates still to come:
Tomorrow, 5 December: MAC Theatre, Birmingham
6 December: Anteros, Norwich
7 December: Kings Place, London (Dreamlife of Debris album launch)
LINK: Kit Downes’ website
Kit Downes artist page on ECM website
Sebastian Rochford, Kit Downes, Tom Challenger and Lucy Railton. Photo courtesy ECM