Monday, April 7, 2014

Kit Downes & Tom Challenger: Wedding Music live at Royal Festival Hall

The Royal Festival Hall is hosting an organ season to celebrate the culmination of the three-year long refurbishment works to bring back its organ to life, with its 7,866 pipes laid along the span of the stage.

The organ at Royal Festival Hall, refurbished (© Nick Rochowski)

Organería Española, S. A. in Azpeitia
(© Pepe Gil)
The organ, this kind of super-sized organ, is a special instrument. Like any other kid at the time, I first experienced it at Sunday mass in my hometown, Azpeitia (Spain), with the “Lord’s Prayer” as a highlight of Sunday mornings (and a huge disappointment if the organ wasn’t being used for whatever reason). I also happened to live right opposite the local organ factory (pictured on the left, but not there anymore), part of an organ-making tradition that goes back to the 19th century and local organ builder Aquilino Amezua.

For just a lot of air going through some pipes, the organ can be extremely loud, and extremely subtle. It can also hit the lowest notes you can imagine (or hear), one of the reasons why it is so important to hear it live and experience the physicality of it, its textures, the sheer loudness produced by mechanical, not electrical means (the original power chords came from an organ, not an electric guitar). The sonic experience is so powerful, it can even prevail over the music itself.

Downes & Challenger
This is why last Friday’s free concert by Kit Downes (organ) and Tom Challenger (tenor sax) was a golden chance to experience the new instrument. In the organisers’ drive to bring the organ to the people (vice versa, actually), Downes gave a few pointers about the disposition of the pipes (consecutive notes from the same register may be located at opposite ends of the stage, which adds an spatial dimension to the sound), and other technicalities, and the audience was encouraged to roam around to fully appreciate the sonic quality of instrument and hall. (Note to jazz combos and big bands: the gig was fully acoustic and the tenor sax was perfectly audible at almost all times – Downes got quite wild at times – and it was just delicious).

Wedding Music (Loop, 2013)
The music itself came from these two youngsters’ album Wedding Music (Loop, 2013) an exploration of improvisation and the more recent “classical” music worlds of Morton Feldman and Messiaen (as mentioned by Downes himself). In actual fact it was a one-hour long offering of mostly contemplative, sometimes very intense, exhilarating music played on a vast range of dynamics, from the eeriness of the opening "Optics" to the heavy machinery evocation of "Cooks". The surprise, at least for me, came with some very rhythmic passages and the resolution of some situations, something for which the organ can be as spectacular as a whole orchestra, even though it's operated by a single man (who, in this case, went as far as to pushing some otherwise hand-operated stops with his feet). If this is indeed Wedding music, it'd be interesting to see who's getting married.

What was also clear is that the duo had been granted some time to prepare this concert. That the South Bank Centre has provided these two youngsters with preparation time, that they've been allowed to play and play with a newly refurbished instrument shows the real and magnificent dimension of the love of adventurous music in this city.


Some of Downes and Challenger's music played live can be heard on this BBC Radio 3 programme (from 2:02:00 onwards). The whole album can be bought (as a download) and listened to on Loop Collective's Bandcamp page, although for this I'd recommend to buy it in FLAC format, and have it played on decent equipment. It can also be listened to on Spotify.


PS: Two new clips on the BBC website.

  • Interview with Downes and Challenger.
  • "Cooks" from their March 30, 2014 concert at the RFH.

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