The church organ – it’s having a resurgence in popularity lately, and these captivating albums by improvising musicians—each as strikingly different to the another as to anything else—tap into its rich but previously neglected potential.
Kit Downes and saxophonist Tom Challenger’s Vyamanikal (Slip) resulted from a commission to explore the acoustics and organs of the various local churches in Suffolk, in Britain’s East Anglia, with Downes playing instruments ranging from “converted harmoniums (to) century-old 3 manual organs like Framlingham’s Thamar.”
It’s their second album in this format, following 2012’s Wedding Music, and the duo’s assurance is evident in their apparent surrender to in-the-moment sensory experience. It’s an exceedingly subtle set, a million miles from the operatic overload of the organ’s use in other contexts.
“Apicha”, the short and delicate opening cut, blends birdsong and tentative saxophony with the organ’s airy, ocarina-like fluting, and undercurrents of high- and low-pitch sustain that occasionally swell and envelop.
Challenger introduces “Bdhak” by sounding his tenor sax softly into the church’s echoic, exposing acoustic, and Downes accompanies him with delicate rhythmic patterns and ambient feedback-like tones. The duo segue into “Sa” on a more assertive note, Downes introducing complexity with richer and more varied timbres, simultaneously achieving both a Hammond-like shimmer and higher, electronic-sounding pitches while Challenger plays softly but firmly against the grain.
Where “Sa” ultimately settles into amorphous brooding, follow-up “Vistri” fully embraces birdsong-graced near silence, and “Jyotir” initially sees Challenger testing Downes’ exploratory use of stops and swells with concise melodic phrases. When Downes begins to bank sustains, Challenger floats free and explores melodic variations, but there’s always a hesitancy to his parts. He seems loath to pitch the potential brassiness of his saxophony against the warmly burred hues of the organ.
Downes is equally disinclined to volume. Rather than build on those banked sustains on “Jyotir”, the first of two ten minute-long pieces, Downes lets the piece gradually ebb away. We hear birdsong, again, both here and, vividly, throughout the gently shimmering, almost meditative “Maar-ikar”, creating a sensuously ambient mood the duo distill even further on the short closing cut, “Nya-Aya”.
Downes and Challenger named their album Vyamanikal, which comes packaged in a thin plastic slip with a card insert and a fold-out poster, after a Sanskrit text on flying machines, but they don’t explain why. Perhaps the Swiss duo of Stefan Rusconi and violinist Tobias Preisig were on a similar wavelength when they named their own album of organ duets Levitation.
They took five nights to record Levitation (Qilin) in the Neo Gothic Church of Saint-Étienne in Cully, Switzerland.
The church’s unique acoustic is tangible in the recording as an aural mistiness evocative of vaulted and light- and mote- suffused space. Into this sound/space, Rusconi initially pitches silvery fluting. He’s not loath to exploit the organ’s ranked pipes, so he tests Preisig’s resinous legato bowing with churchly swells on the long opening piece, “Béatrice”, and sustains that bloom as a rich harmonic glow behind Preisig’s melancholy, slow-motion elaboration of melodic lines, before forming his own responses. Preisig often plays with hard-driving modern jazz groups, but his style here is more in tune with folk music.
“Gilliane”—the first of seven shorter pieces—is bright and beautifully self-contained, founded on repetitive minimalist organ figures. “Marie”‘s brevity (1:54) belies the bounce in its also repetitive melodic figure, its orchestral heft, and a sharp contrast between low register organ and flights of what I assume to be electronically processed violin. Preisig leads on “Angie”, brisk bowing transformed by echoic reverb, with minimal support from Rusconi.
So far assuming a sprightly buoyancy, in sharp contrast to Downes’ and Challenger’s contemplative style, Rusconi’s slow-crawl, murky and electronically-processed wall-of sound drone with low-end rumble on “Mme Tempête” brings a total change of pace and mood. Then “Chantall” and “Fiona” switch things up again, with macabre street organ churn counterpointing piccolo piping with ominous low end, as Preisig’s lines slither and blend with processed sounds on the former, and the lighter “Fiona” continuing as a carnivalesque dance.
There’s a return to relative convention with “Mme Chapuis”, an alternative bride’s processional that has a hint of Tom Waits’s most tender and melancholic balladry. It effectively segues into the closing “Pour L’Orgue”, devoted to overlapping organ sustains and the rich and varied resonances they create, setting the listening environment abuzz with vibration.
In an unexpected coda, the Saint-Étienne organ finally gets to puff out its chest and spread a few feathers, metaphorically speaking (obvs.), and it’s a welcome sound after so much restraint.
Vyamanikal: Kit Downes organs; Tom Challenger saxophone.
Levitation: Stefan Rusconi church organ; Tobias Preisig violin.
Bruno Heinen Sextet – Karlheinz Stockhausen Tierkreis + Dice Factory – Dice Factory.
Veryan Weston, Jon Rose, Hannah Marshall – Tuning Out: Pieces for Tracker Action Organs and Strings.
Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 4 · Solo III für Orgel.
Philip Jeck + Charles Matthews + BJ Nilsen + Marcus Davidson + John Beaumont – Touch: Spire at St Botolph without Aldgate, 21 June 2012.