Kit Downes’ and Tom Challenger’s Suffolk Church Crawl – Part 2
Written by Kit Downes
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 the 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.