“Vyamanikal” is the latest collaborative release from Kit Downes on organ and Tom Challenger on saxophone. It was developed and recorded at five different churches in Suffolk, UK while the pair were in residence with Aldeburgh Music, and is named after an ancient Sanskrit term for flying machines. The recording locations at least partially explain the birdsong frequently heard across the album and the gentle pastoral feel of some of the tracks, particularly the opening pair ‘Apicha’ and ‘Bdhak’: in the former, big round swells occasionally break the early morning spell, while in the latter rhythmic patterns are heard from the organ while the saxophone chirps and grunts.
The chugging organ chords in ‘Sa’ immediately announce a different mood. They’re followed by noisy burring sounds, as if someone breaking was drilling through the wall (and given the recording locations I don’t discount the possibility of some unannounced church roof repairs). The sax joins in with long held keens, rather than playing melody to the organ’s accompaniment; where melody is used, it tends to sound a bit out of place. In ‘Vistri’, the sax tiptoes around between stone columns of organ bass, before turning brittle and high-pitched over a full, rich organ chord in ‘Jyotir’, leading to some of the album’s most beautiful and gently euphoric moments. It’s generally the organ that leads the development of each piece, switching from delicate and ethereal to driving and bold and back again, while the saxophone follows.
My favourite pieces on the album are probably the last two, both of which drop the volume right down and dispense with all contrivances save the barest hints of tone, harmony, and rhythm. The smooth surging and fading of ‘Maar-ikar’ contrasts with the shimmer and flicker of ‘Nya-Aya’, but both show great subtlety and calm. With “Vyamanikal”, Downes and Challenger manage to convincingly convey the ambience of Suffolk’s historic churches while filling them with thoughtful and nuanced sounds; while the original builders of the organs played by Downes would perhaps find these seven pieces quite unintelligible, maybe this is merely a sign of how music has changed with the times.