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Kostis Kilymis / Sarah Hughes & Kostis Kilymis - More Noise Ahead / The Good Life

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Artist: Kostis Kilymis / Sarah Hughes & Kostis Kilymis

Album: More Noise Ahead / The Good Life

Label: Entr’acte / Organized Music from Thessaloniki / Consumer Waste

Review date: Mar. 26, 2013

After decades of development and thousands of recordings, why do we still think of improvisation as an end in itself, that it is somehow a genre? Why are we stuck on the idea that a recording of people improvising captures some ethereal moment? It’s a backward-looking view, one that robs the listener of the recorded medium’s essential strangeness and impoverishes our understanding of improvisation itself.

Writing in the liner notes to a new recording of compositions by Sarah Hughes, bassist and composer Dominc Lash says it more succinctly: “... the activity of the listener’s fantasy [...] comprises one of the great pleasures of listening to recorded improvised music.” For musicians, improvisation is merely one tool among many to explore a space, a musical phenomenon, so why assign it some pure, idealized status, or worse, write it off as a dead-end genre?

Hughes is among a contingent of musicians — many of which are featured on Compost & Height, the label and events platform she established with Patrick Farmer — that are gradually breaking listeners of the capital-I Improv habit. Kostis Kilymis is another of those musicians, and the name of his own label, Organized Music from Thessaloniki, contains its own criticism of the improvisation ideal. But how does this reevaluation sound in practice?

The Good Life gives us one perspective. It consists of two pieces, both recorded in Oxford, U.K. They are presented as unbroken performances, but who knows? Heard blindfolded, I’m not convinced you’d guess these were improvised – and it’s not because they sound “composed.” Rather, it’s because the performances come off so hermetic, not like performances at all. The overall arcs are diffuse and sprawling, more like a montage of events than a continuum. Inside these episodes, the instrumental identities of Hughes and Kilymis intertwine. Hughes’ zither rings clearly at times but Kilymis, restricting himself to a lexicon of no-input feedback, insistently wraps his laminae around the woodier, acoustic resonance coming from the prepared string instrument. After a few minutes of allowing this layering to develop, it’s as if no one at all is playing. These become sounds, alone in a room, merging, mutating and decaying. The idea of improvisation as a performance falls away and is revealed as a pretense, but not one without its uses.

Kilymis bends this pretense all manner of ways on More Noise Ahead, a co-release between his own label and Entr’acte. His palette is expanded to include small modular synthesizers, field recordings, a mixer and other devices. The notes tell us it was assembled, aside from the two-part live piece “Tiny Vices,” between 2011 and 2012. In a weird twist on The Good Life, however, the 10 compact pieces sound performed, not composed or assembled. Maybe that’s down to the clear presence of a background environment from the street on some pieces or the untamed nature of the sounds themselves – heavily modulated feedback, gated static, gnarly synth blasts and dense, low-frequency drones.

The overall effect is not far from a John Cassavetes film, which are also often said, somewhat mistakenly, to be improvised. The film professor Pamela Robertson Wojcik says his films, “... look and feel improvised due to a number of factors … the loose structure of the films, which tend to operate in segments of real time, avoid narrative causality, resist closure, and emphasize character exploration.” Cassavetes de-emphasizes certain filmic aspects, like plot, to capture other, more untamed aspects of life on film.

Kilymis draws these same open-ended characteristics out of his music not through improvisation alone, nor field recordings or the technology behind it, but through nuanced, almost invisible editing. You don’t see the joins. You don’t see where the improvisation ends and the afterthought begins. It’s all wrapped up in a big, kinetic mess. Both he and Hughes succeed mightily in returning some essential strangeness to recordings that draw on improvisation. Rather than being about that process as a musical development, they remind us that its pleasure — its challenge — is how it makes us explore not just another’s ideas and space, but our own as well.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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