ARISING from a 2015 Aldeburgh Music residency, keyboardist Kit Downes and tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger conceived this imaginative project under the title Vyamanikal (from an ancient Sanskrit term for ‘flying machines’ – Vaimānika Shāstra).
Seven improvisations, recorded across five Suffolk churches*, take advantage of pipe organs and converted harmoniums in widely differing acoustic environments. Some instruments are in a creatively intriguing state of disrepair, whilst others – such as Framlingham’s historic, opulently-decorated 17th Century Thamar organ – are presumably more likely to be heard sounding the triumphant strains of J B Dykes or Samuel Wesley.
As a church organist of many years, I declare a specific interest in the instrument’s myriad capabilities. But here, like some musical ‘horse whisperer’, Kit Downes discovers and teases out perhaps hitherto undiscovered hoots, wheezes and subterranean reverberations which are accordantly combined with tenor saxophone ‘plainsong’ and distant, natural bird calls (close to Suffolk’s wetlands).
The duo recently took their project to St Ann’s Church, Manchester, backed by continuous video projections of various hard and soft landscapes. Late at night, with Downes arched across four manuals and pedal board, the deep, 32′ acoustic bass frequencies remarkably shook and rattled the very back corridors and galleries of the 18th Century architecture; and Challenger’s dry, often hollow tenor echoed around the elegant, white-columned ceiling spaces, melding sympathetically with the windy or intense strains of Downes’ own improvisations.
Rural village church quietness is discernible in Apicha as chattering birdsong and variably-opened, train-whistle-like drawstops are underpinned by sustained chordal clusters, whilst tentative tenor melodies drift around; and Bdhak‘s repetitive engine-room bleeps and modulations provide an otherworldly canvas for Tom Challenger to roam (shades of Garbarek, but with loftier freedom). Tremulant, hurdy-gurdy-like Sa becomes extraordinarily industrial, Tromba stops blustering with incredible density (far removed from any hymnary) before floating heavenwards with harmonic tenor beauty; and moorhen cheeps and cawing ravens enhance the breathy textures of Vistri in a soundtrack for windswept wheat fields and marshlands.
The flapping organ resonances and tenor sax melancholy of one of the album’s longer movements, Jyotir, might suggest desolate, chilled panoramas as an impressive, sustained swell rises symphonically to imply the glorious warmth of sunrise… eventually returning to afterglow birdcall mimicry. Also suggesting midwinter solitude, Maar-ikar‘s de-tuned, fading registrations ebb and flow to a background of tweets and gravel-path treads (an organ solo, unless Challenger’s timbres are perfectly integrated); and Nya-aya‘s subtle, dark-sky drone closes the sequence with a peculiar sense of anticipation and apprehension.
As an improvisational experience, this is an offbeat yet distinctive recording which requires a clear mind and an open spirit. Turn the lights low and let your imagination take you……
Vyamanikal is available from Bandcamp.
Watch Aldeburgh Music’s video about the project.
Kit Downes organs
Tom Challenger saxophone
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Alex Bonney
• All Saints Church, Darsham
• Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh
• St Michael’s Church, Framlingham
• St Edmund’s Church, Bromeswell
• St John’s Church, Snape
Wedding Music is also available
Slip Imprint – SLP042 (2016)