Kit Downes and Church Organs – ‘Organ Recordings Archive (2018-2022)’ released this month

The church organ was the very first instrument on which Kit Downes learned to play music. It was during his time as a chorister at Norwich Cathedral. Recently moved to Berlin, he is an exemplar of a musician who has chosen a number of musical directions which he wants to pursue. In 2013 he took the decision to make church organs one of those important strands of his musical activity, both in solo settings and working collaboratively with other musicians – Lotte Anker, Bill Frisell, Shiva Feshareki, Ensemble Klang, Ben van Gelder, Kaja Draksler, Andrew Cyrille and Lucy Railton, for example have been in recent projects with church organs …

This choice has led him on a voyage of discovery, to travel to church organs large and small, in remote rural sessions and in the centre of cities. One of the results of that exploration is the release on Bandcamp of volumes of archive recordings. The second volume, ‘Organ Recordings Archive (2018-2022)’ , is released this month. Interview by Sebastian.

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Kit Downes, 2022. Photo credit: Juliane Schütz

LondonJazz News: What gave you the initial spur to go back to the organ in 2013?

Kit Downes: Tom Challenger and I were looking to start a project together around that time – as we had been friends since college and wanted to find a nice excuse to play, but I wanted to use an acoustic instrument other than the piano. The music that me and Tom connected on (and still do) was a lot to do with sound and texture, free improvised music that was often dealing with colour and sonics.

We were offered a chance to play and record in St Paul’s in Huddersfield for a few days by Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, and I started exploring the organ there once more. Slowly I started to reconnect with it, remember how to co-ordinate with the pedals, what nice sound combination options there are, that sort of thing. After a while, I started to feel really free on it – much freer than on the piano. I suppose because it’s an instrument that I am largely self taught on – in that I never learnt much repertoire, or technique per se (though I did have a very inspiring series of lessons with Katherine Dienes when I was young) .

LJN: Presumably as you pursue these explorations you find like-minded spirits who want to use the organ in an experimental way…

KD: Absolutely, there is a large community of musicians making experimental and improvised organ music that I have really enjoyed getting to know over the last decade, all of whom have been very open and welcoming – improvisers and composers such as Nils Henrik-Asheim, Daniel Stickan, Kali Malone, Ståle Storløkken, Clare Singer, Giulio Tosti, Jack Day, Jurgen Essel, Kaja Draksler… What is brilliant is they all seem to collide with the organ from their own angle! Nearly everyone I have met making experimental music on the organ has found a slightly unconventional path toward it – often through another genre first, or rediscovering it as a childhood instrument like I did. It makes for unconventional ways of perceiving the instrument’s possibilities that result in surprising and innovative decisions.

LJN: You have referred to each organ you come across as a “puzzle”. What do you mean by that?

KD: Only in that they are so different – or in fact that the situation is always so different. Even if you have an exact replica of an organ you have played before (which happened to me once in Rochester NY – The Craighead-Saunders organ at Christchurch (picture below), which is an exact replica of a Casparini 1776 organ in the Church of the Dominicans in Vilnius, Lithuania) – they will never sound the same, as they are always in a different space. The distance the air has to travel around the room, the angles it hits before it comes back to your ear – will always result in different musical decisions by the player.

Then of course you have the different ways of making an organ – baroque style, romantic, Cavaillé-Coll , all of these come with many different things to consider – the layout, the choice of colours, the way it blends with itself, the voicing. Then within that you have how loudly the organ speaks within itself – it might be that the solo manual badly overpowers the swell, meaning that you have to make considered choices about which solo stops (maybe flutes) to use against accompanying string stops on the swell. All of these micro-balancing acts contribute to how seamless everything feels as you listen, how naturally the music unfolds, and how much the listener is deceived into thinking they are hearing an entire orchestra made up of many different players.

You also have the issue of how you build volume on the organ. The only real way to do this is to add sounds on top of each other (like an orchestra does), as you can’t manipulate a single stop to be louder or quieter. However by doing this you lose the focus and colour detail of each individual stop – so there is a trade off, volume for colour – another part of the balancing act. Lastly, you have what extra extended techniques that may or may not be possible – things like half-stopping, wind dynamics, hyper organ, controllable tremolo, whistling – all things you find yourself, are a feature of the individual instrument, or stolen from another organist!

The Craighead-Saunders organ  in Christ Church, Rochester, NY. Photo courtesy of Eastman College of Music.

LJN: And presumably you (or somebody?) has to get their head round the specifics of making a recording work in each different space. What are the tricks you have learnt, or are there always surprises?

KD: Recording and playing live of course are two different processes, both of them I love but both require different mindsets I think. For recording the first thing to consider is: how do I want to capture this instrument, or even how the instrument wants to be captured. For example, for some very big organs it is pointless trying to close mic parts of the organ to get wind artefacts and blower noise etc, as there is simply too much bleed, the room is too big, the organ too loud and everything gets washy – so a well placed stereo pair downstairs where the congregation sits is probably the best choice – and this in turn is also often where an organ of that size sounds best anyway. However, for a smaller organ – like St Johns at Snape (below) it is the sort of size that you can close mic each part – both manuals separately, the great and swell, and then the pedals as well. This is how we (Alex Bonney, Sun Chung and I) did it for much of Obsidian (ECM). Then because you are capturing so much of the organ, including all the quiet artefacts and grunts and whistles, you can play very quietly – which lends itself well to this way of playing I mentioned before – where you really highlight the different between different stops (sounds) at low volume.

The organ at St. John the Baptist in Snape. Photo by Kit Downes

LJN: I interviewed you and Tom Challenger when you were doing the project “Wedding Music” in 2013 (link below) and you said one thing you wanted to work with was: “feeling time in a much slower way, to be really stretchy with the whole idea of time.” How has that idea evolved?

KD: I think the nature of the organ is that it runs in a slower time to everything else – it has a much slower heartbeat than a guitar for example. As a result, slower music suits it – this is often because the room that these instruments live in are usually pretty reverberant, and any fast rhythmic detail often gets lost (also trying to overcome this is a nice challenge in itself!). There is often a natural delay between pressing the key and the noise coming out of the organ, a split second, but in faster music this can count. Also there is often a delay from where you, the player hear the beat, and where the musicians/audience hear it downstairs – as often I am sitting up in an organ loft 40 feet away from the rest of the ensemble! This is one of the things that makes collaborations tricky, but a fun puzzle! (also difference in tuning is one of those things too!). Here is a set up from a commission for Rewire Festival in Den Haag a few years ago with Ensemble Klang – space became a major factor in this, as we were so far apart – both physically and in terms of tuning (see below). There is a nice concept from Japan called ‘Ma’ or ‘negative space’ – the idea that the space around an object is as important as the object itself, or the space that you leave around a musical gesture is equally important to the flow of a piece as the gesture itself – this rings very true for an instrument as huge and complex but also slow and cumbersome as the organ.

Kit Downes’s commission at the 2019 Rewire Festival, Lutherse Kerk Den Haag. Photo courtesy of Kit Downes

LJN: These are often places with deep history. Does that affect what you do?

KD: Having spent nearly every day in Norwich Cathedral (literally!) between the ages of 8-12, I think the feeling of those sacred spaces is deep inside me – even though I am not religious at all, I really enjoy the space and beauty of those places, and how they make you reflect. As an only child I am not a stranger to self-reflection (!) so it suits something inside me I think. Then add on top of this the feeling of being high up in an organ loft in these huge buildings that feel like they are from another time completely – you feel removed from reality somehow. Then playing this huge bizarre ancient machine, that you are kind of plugged into somehow – the whole experience is very unique, and I think I have become slightly addicted to it now! Also not having to be visible in a performance is very freeing – people almost appreciate the instrument before the performer, which takes a huge pressure off!

LJN: Do the resident organists tend to be generous with their time? Interested in what you are doing? Helpful?

KD: I have never had a negative experience with a resident organist – without fail every church I have played in and every organist I have met have always been very friendly, welcoming, and curious about all music. There is something about the discipline and solitary nature of being an organist that results in a strange kind of camaraderie between players – a general sympathy, even if your points of reference are very far apart! Also, even if you do not connect musically, there is always this train-spotting like element of geekery that all organist have – how the machine works, the technical elements of it. I love that too – you can get into such incredibly detailed conversations about such niche parts of the instrument – the best 8′ flute you ever played, or the nicest combination of partials etc (2 2/3 and 1 3/5 for sure). Lastly there is always an element of travel involved – taking a trip to visit a special organ somewhere, remembering how it played, telling people about that. There is an exchange in this that happens somewhere that is very positive.

LJN: Your improvisations are – er – very different from the traditional organ repertoire. Have you had complaints?!

KD: Not to my face, but i’m sure there have been – they are an inevitable part of having your own ideas and trying to be yourself as much as possible I think!

LJN: After “Organ Recordings Archive (2018-2022)”, what other recordings are on their way?

KD: Since moving to Berlin, I have got busy with quite a few organ projects. This country is in love with the organ and there are many opportunities to play here for organists playing new music.

  • What I am currently doing is reviewing mixes for a recording that is coming out next spring on Red Hook Records, featuring the PJEV choir and Hayden Chisholm (saxophone) and myself. The choir sings Balkan traditional folk songs in the closed-throat singing style, with myself and Hayden improvising along with them. The recording is from a live concert at Cologne Jazzweek in 2021.
Kit Downes (right) with Hayden Chisholm and PJEV Choir. Photo credit: Juliane Schütz
  • Also Dr Snap, coming up at the Bimhuis (Amsterdam) in November, is going to be wild, line up here:
Snap poster. Artwork and design by Juliane Schütz

LINKS: Kit Downes on Bandcamp – includes Organ Recordings Archive

Kit Downes website

Interview about Wedding Music in 2013

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