INTERVIEW: Kit Downes (co-published with JazzAffine)

A packed house for Kit Downes' Sunday afternoon organ recital
at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin


This interview with KIT DOWNES,  for the German online magazine JazzAffine, caught him between two significant gigs at JazzFest Berlin 2017. On the evening before it he had appeared in Berlin-London Conversations at the A-Trane club, and on the day after it he would appear as solo organist at a Berlin landmark, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. We are pleased to co-publish it in English. Interview by Bettina Bohle:

Bettina Bohle: How do the two scenes––Berlin and London––compare?

Kit Downes: Berlin feels a little bit like a second home. Many English musicians have moved here recently, so links between here and London are becoming quite strong I think. I have friends in Berlin, musicians and non-musicians, so I'm here every couple of months. It’s such an interesting scene, there's always something new happening, new collaborations, people come up with really good ideas, I feel like the music is really exciting and contemporary.

I don't think about Berlin and London as being different scenes really, there is so much cross-talk between the two - I think of it as my friends and some of them happen to live in Berlin and some of them in London - all in one big scene.

BB: Richard Williams’ Berlin-London-conversations, looking from the outside, felt that it might end up a little bit stiff…

KD: It is forced though, by definition, and not in a negative way. That’s almost the point of it – you can have these scenes just running along side by side and all these people doing different things - but sometimes it is nice to get an outside influence like Richard saying “you guys all play together in different things but you’ve never done it together in this way”. It’s an interesting concept, and what’s great is that we got to pick who we played with, so we picked people that are our friends - natural collaborators. It felt like just a different grouping of a musical family in a way. We really enjoyed it. It’s important that it is described in a meaningful and honest way. I felt that this was the case here.

BB: You played pieces composed by all of you.

KD: Yes, it was very democratic. Everybody wrote something for it.

BB: And you met up before and rehearsed.

KD: A few times, yeah. We’d never done a gig together and it’s like nine new pieces of music that we’d never gigged before, we’d never tried this formation with the cello (no bass) and didn’t know what the sound would be like. Even my own music was new music to me so the whole set was quite a big ask. But that’s the fun challenge. If you’re gonna do these things where you come up with a concept and put people together, you should make it as meaningful and as exciting as you possibly can rather than just taking the easiest or most obvious option. All the tunes we wrote were all slightly different to each other, so it wasn't that we wrote a whole set that sat together as one statement, but that's the nature of the gig and you should embrace that. There is risk involved which I really like.

BB: Tell me about your solo programme on organ...

KD: I have an album of that coming out on ECM in January, which for me is very exciting, a boyhood-dream really. All the tunes came from improvisations, which I would then record and make sketches of, sometimes just the bare-bones,  and have that as a suggestion. Sometimes the piece is written around a selection of stops rather than a melody. So it's specific in different areas, it can be aesthetically or in content.

Organ was my first instrument, before I played the piano really. There are a lot of different ways I like to approach the organ. By its nature it's an accumulative instrument: when you want to play it loudly you have to pull out all the stops on top of each other. A lot of pieces use quite a lot of stops to get a fuller volume which is great to fill the room and for dramatic effects, but I like finding each individual stop and focussing on the sound of that stop, and zooming in on it and finding all the micro-variations of it and then abstracting all these different sounds, not really layering them on top of each other but putting them next to each other so you hear them up close.

Whenever I do a concert, especially on bigger organs I have to go a couple of days early, at least a day. I want to know the sound of each individual stop, so I have to find that out and then I write up a sheet for each tune that has the different stopping, and different events where I change those so it takes a little bit of work. Also, you have to learn where the sound comes from within the organ because it's such a big instrument - it's a completely different sound if the ranks of pipes are above your head or far up and ten feet to the right, the geography of it is important. If you're improvising you have to learn that before so you can instinctively play those things without being caught up in the logistics.

I did a couple of records on organs that are a little bit broken so there are all these different extended techniques that you could use.

BB: Extended techniques means you use the broken parts …

KD: They can often be ‘faults’, yeah. But also, with mechanical organs there are a few things, like if you pull a stop out a very small amount, it sends only a very small amount of air through the pipe so it doesn't reach pitch and often the sound splits into two notes, you can even get chords from it. You can manipulate the pitch as you're pulling it out, so it sounds like a pitch-bend. Again, if you hold down the note very gently, it only puts a small amount of air through the pipe. You can mess with a lot of tuning things that way.

The organs that you can really mess around with are often a little bit older, probably because they were built before everything got regulated and fixed down.

I remember playing an organ in East Anglia - this organ would just randomly play ciphers on all the different notes all the time - so it was like you were playing and the organ was playing itself, really creepy, but really cool, like a random generator.

BB: So you used that?

KT: Of course!

BB: What inspires you, musically?

KD: Lots of music, film, nature - really anything that feels explorative and transportative. I’m listening to Stian Westerhus’ most recent album, Amputation, a lot recently, I also saw some amazing music at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last weekend. Something recent that I’ve been part of that I find inspiring is a small project that 20 of my friends run called This Is My Music which is like a monthly mixtape project: everyone writes and records a new tune every month and then we put it all on one long mixtape and we put it online. That starts in January and we do it for a year.

JazzAffine is a Berlin-based independent online magazine for jazz and improvised music based in Berlin. 

LINK: This interview, as it originally appeared in German at JazzAffine


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