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Learning new music is a remarkably quick process for Kevin. "I don't like to learn pieces at short notice, but the fact is that occasionally I have no other choice. Eight years ago, I had to learn Niccolo Castiglioni's Sinfonia Guerriere et Amorose (Symphony of Love and War), 41 minutes of nearly unplayable music. So, when I sat down to practise it, I set my mind to encompass it in an eight-day learning period, a frame-work the piece naturally slipped into."

Sometimes it's necessary to practise for twelve to fourteen hours a day...

He relies on the visual side since there is never time to learn things from memory. "You need to get the music to the state where the fingers can execute it by themselves with the minimal amount of communication with the brain, but you still have to look at the music. I practise bits and pieces of it over and over again until my fingers are moving faster than my brain, then I home in on what is difficult and link these with the easier passages, but the easier passages are still no less learned than the difficult ones. Sometimes it's necessary to practise for twelve to fourteen hours a day, during which you need to keep your mind alert. You just set your mental parameters and work within that framework."

He tries to teach all his students to work in the same way, but often finds that since they rarely have to learn the sort of music he does, it is rarely successful. He feels that new music is a good way to learning music and developing technique quicker. "The technique I have described for learning the Castiglioni symphony, for example, is only an enlargement of the technique I developed as a student for learning the symphonies of Vierne, Dupré and Widor. When I was 21, I developed a technique that allowed me to learn a French organ symphony every month. But there are other meth-ods of approaching the music too. It's not just a case of setting your mental parameters - with the organ symphonies, for example, I always started at the end and then work backwards. Therefore you are always working into something that you know, so psychologically it has a more potent and positive effect, rather than just ploughing into something that you don't know, which can be quite exhausting."

Relaxing away from the     organ...
Relaxing away from the organ...

Kevin does not advocate listening to a work before learning it: "why should you ever rely on someone else's performance of a piece to understand it yourself? It seems completely pointless to me, and besides, what would you do if there were no re-cordings available?"

Recently, Kevin has been recording the complete organ works of JS Bach for Nimbus, something he initially didn't want to do. Although these have had a mixed reception, with one critic claiming that he made Bach sound "too much fun," his approach has always been scholastic. "I try to take primary sources and playing practices as a starting point, and try to apply them to the instrument that I am using. I am perfectly happy to admit that I am not at the forefront of Bach scholarship because I am a player. Although I rely on the editors of good Bach editions, you have to be aware of all the sources, see for yourself what the differences are and make decisions accord-ingly. For example, where there are no holograph copies, the Bärenreiter edition goes back to what they consider to be the closest to the original. But as a player, I consider some of the later copies to have interesting things to say, some of which are not be a good idea to loose. Many later copies are closer to the Bach circle than some earlier ones since people who were connected with Bach in some way might have made them. A few Krebs copies, for example, are late, but he was a Bach pupil and there-fore his knowledge of the music must be considered, despite earlier sources."

By this time next year, the Bach recordings should be over. I asked what then: "more beer and an early grave I should think." There is in the pipeline a series of recordings entitled Organ Explosion, of which the first disc is already out, "a totally tasteless series of organ pieces played in a totally tasteless way! I would like to think that the lighter side of things will encourage people to listen to the more difficult and that the people who only listen to heavy music might lighten up a bit. I like to fly in the face of organ snobbishness, which is why I made my Edwardian Bach disc, because I knew it would upset some people. I also loved the way I was doing it."

The future for Kevin Bowyer looks set to continue the on same path it has for the last 20 years. His approach as a teacher and performer appears to have an almost missionary zeal. Perhaps his youthful wish to become a minister has, in some ways been fulfilled.

John Woodford  

Click here to download an mp3 of Kevin playing Enrico Bossi's Étude Symphonique at the organ of the De Monfort Hall in Leicester. (Organ Explosion 1, NPC 007). Permission kindly granted by Kevin Bowyer and Andrew Platts of NPC Records Ltd.
Track time: 4:30
Track size: 3.5 MB

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