As the third release in a series of Rewire 2019 recordings, this time we focus on Dutch new music group Ensemble Klang and British composer Kit Downes. In collaboration with The Hague-based festival Dag in de Branding, Rewire commissioned Kit Downes to create and perform a new set of works for the Lutherse Kerk organ in The Hague, alongside Ensemble Klang. The performance, entitled ‘Debris’, featured Downes on the Lutherse Kerk’s almost 300-year old pipe organ, a rhythm section of piano, percussion and guitar positioned at the front of the stage, with a horn section playing from the back of the stage. Kit and Pete Harden (Ensemble Klang) explain how the piece came together, and what it was like to collaborate on this commission, below.
As a pay-what-you-want release Ensemble Klang & Kit Downes would like any donations to go to the NOWZAD animal rescue charity.
“’Debris’ was premiered at Rewire and Dag in de Branding Festival in 2019 – a collaboration between myself and the brilliant Pete Harden and Ensemble Klang. The music was designed to embrace spontaneity – a calculated risk between the players, with everyone having fluid roles in the overall ensemble sound. I was excited to work with people that were so skilled in moving between written, semi-scored and improvised roles, and in this sense it felt like we had a lot of common ground to work with. It opened up avenues where things were allowed to relate together or not, to work together or against – the trick became about finding themes with enough character to guide decisions, but that were also oblique and open-ended enough to allow personal decision making. This middle ground that I was looking for would allow each performance to assemble itself in a different way, and for the piece to develop with repeat performances. The first performance however was just about jumping off the cliff edge together – with the understanding that we were all listening in the same way, and with just enough unsaid to encourage surprises.
In terms of the overall ensemble, I wanted to break this down into different elements – a ‘rhythm section’ of piano, percussion, guitar – set up at the front of the stage, closer to the audience, providing the attack. Then a 3-part horn section up in the organ loft at the back of the hall, playing into the cavernous acoustic, sounding far away but playing with the greatest volume. Then somewhere in the middle (in all senses), glueing both sections together was the organ – the only instrument specifically designed to sound in that space, with the ability to blend sonically with both sections. Here lay another fortuitous surprise – the organ was tuned at a much lower pitch that the piano and vibraphone. This offered an opportunity – we tuned the horns down to the organ, kept the rhythm section at 440, and then the organ would use extended techniques (‘half-stopping’) to slide between the two – again becoming the glue between these two sections of the ensemble. With the pitch range the organ has (its very low tones being difficult to hear defined pitch) then even the range of the organ started to have particular allegiances with either section (low range with the rhythm section, higher range – and more obviously under 440 – with the horns) – apart of course from the key moments where we wanted the clash.
In general I have been looking at finding ways to use the pipe organ in broader contexts – this can often be either enjoying how abstract its own well-established sound is when played next to something associated with another genre (like an electric guitar for example), or using it in creative ways to try and blend with (or even copy) the sounds of other instruments from different worlds. Playing with its own history, but also with its limitations as well – in that often the oldest and most decrepit organs can be hiding the most extraordinary sounds.
Another element that I have always been interested in exploring is how to reach a place of musical trust and collaborative experimentation with a new group of people in a short time – and what that requires of me as a composer, what is required of us as a group, and how we find the communal confidence and desire to jump off the cliff edge together.”
Pete Harden (Ensemble Klang):
“Working on this release brought back fond memories, not just of the live performance, but also of the rehearsal process leading up to Rewire and Dag in de Branding 2019. In those few days before the premiere we had the pleasure of rehearsing in the venue itself, the Lutherse Kerk (The Hague), with Kit behind its historic 1762 Bätz organ. The ingenuity and beauty of Kit’s music here lies with the daring freedoms he afforded the players (most of whom he’d only just met), such that across those days the music became one with the architecture and space itself. The organ is of course built for that acoustic, it belongs there, but the saxophones, percussion and guitars are interlopers. The process of building that set was one of feeling out the structure and limits (both musical and architectural) so that when it came to the performance the ensemble was comfortable and in control but everyone was also able throw out a few surprises: Kit exploding at some point into an uproarious organ cadenza being a personal favourite.
Kit is typical of the kind of artist we seek out with Ensemble Klang. He makes a deeply personal music, one that sits in the cracks between established traditions. It’s a music whose honesty renders any background or influence trivial. I have great admiration for his harmonic thought (here you get everything from simple sensuous lines to hulking complex blocks of chords) yet with this set, what comes through clearly is his fantastic ear for sonic colour, just letting sound sing and be, resonating in that amazing space.
In this collection of interlocking works Kit splits the ensemble into two, with the majority of the sound-world rooted in the quartet of himself at the organ, Saskia Lankhoorn at piano, Joey Marijs on percussion and myself on electric guitar. But that world is also interrupted by short virtuosic interludes from the three horn players of Ensemble Klang and that organ cadenza by Kit himself. It gives an entirely contemporary turn on the antiphonal church music that would have been heard for centuries in settings like the Lutherse Kerk.”