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15 Questions to Kostis Kilymis / Syndromes

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I’m fine. I am settling in in Oxford, UK. The UK being my new home now.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Not much in terms of concerts. I haven’t been able to schedule things for a while since this move has been taking up most of my time. I hope to be concentrating on music and sound for a while, my label (organized music from thessaloniki) seems to still be active, and there’s also some new ‘syndromes’ material that’s being worked on.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?
I’m now in Oxford, which I’ve only just begun exploring, so let’s talk Greece for now. There’s always something good happening in the two bigger cities in Greece, Thessaloniki and Athens, even if this may not always be immediately apparent. Athens is particularly vibrant, the scene there has been widening and become more inviting to audiences, there’s more communication between bands/people, etc. The music may not be strictly experimental or cutting edge, but there’s a lot of participation, and in the midst of it, people do eventually start taking more risks with where they’re taking the music. Also, there are more venues now and with some clever programming you can expose a lot of people to music they wouldn’t have encountered before. People are being more and more imaginative when it comes to this stuff. Thessaloniki is not so open, shortage of any sort of venues means programming is usually more conservative and audiences are not used to seeking anything other than the obvious. There are people who still make an effort to produce a bit more than that – with some positive results - but it is a hard place to be ambitious in. Nevertheless, there are quite a few folks who produce noteworthy work there as well.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions or influences?
I’m not sure about influences. I’ve always been vaguely passionate about a certain direction in sound, but have never sat down to think about where it came from. I can list qualities of sound: space, tension, soulfulness, things like that, but it’d be hard to make more specific remarks on where the influence came from. I was certainly immersed in the so-called “reductionist” recordings that flooded the market shortly after the turn of the century, but those took me to many more places and people, before I had even started considering making something of my own. That said, my music wouldn’t have gone the way it did if I hadn’t encountered the music of Ralf Wehowsky, Kevin Drumm, Luc Ferrari, Stasis Duo and a few other names I am bound to forget right now. Filmmakers have also been important; Roeg, Herzog, Weerasethakul, Aoyama, Kurosawa Kiyoshi. As for instruments, I have been considering/assembling a mixing board setup since 2008. Earlier, I had been using my laptop for feedback and active re-recording of material. Various electronics are added or removed every now and then.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
Certainly the completion of my latest album, Temporary Perspectives was one of those; with it I arrived at some concrete sense of purpose in my music and felt I finally had something worth sharing. Soon afterwards came a short tour with Lucio Capece and Nikos Veliotis, in which I was surprised to find that I was able to stand shoulder to shoulder with these two beautiful musicians. Then, last December, I had the good fortune of sharing a stage (and now a 12” disc) with another magnificent person, Leif Elggren, one whose presence and influence still resonates deeply in me.

Keith Rowe once asserted that it is often certain people that “give one permission to do things”. How was that for you – in which way did the work of  particular artists before you “allow” you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
I think reductionism was important in this case, a lot of people focusing on narrow palettes of very specific textures and being able to claim the undivided attention of significant audience in the process, this certainly gave permission to dispense with a lot of layers and work with only the barest of elements. From that point and on, one is once more free to build towards anything they might desire. Then it’s the work of some people (the duo  of Tamio Shiraishi and Sean Meehan with their open-air concerts is one example), who took said approaches to sound and brought them together with ideas related to space, place, our listening environment, etc. Also, underground artists who do not fit the “musician” category, allow us to think beyond strictly musical ideas, and encourage us to consider and develop our work as part of a larger field of artistic expression.

What are currently your main artistic challenges?

To bring my live playing closer to my recorded work. Live, I usually perform using a no-input mixing board and other electronics, but my recorded work is pieced together afterwards, using additional elements such as field recordings and other concrete or non-concrete material. I should note, that I do not see this as a problem per se, but I find value in maintaining a healthy dialogue between the two approaches.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
The differences between the two are obvious and this issue has been done to death lately. I very much enjoyed recently, reading through John Butcher’s essay “Freedom and Sound - This time it’s personal“, wherein he more or less describes improvisation as a tool with which separate people or groups can bring their respective musical languages together. Obviously, this is something that is bound to bring you to uncharted waters, but other than that I no longer care so much about the widespread notion that improvisation - on its own - is the bearer of strange and magical fruit.
Composition on the other hand, allows one to reflect on pre-arranged, or nowadays (and this is more often the case in my work) pre-recorded material, and to focus more closely on the essential qualities therein. Live music exists in and for the moment but the actual “fixing” of this music to a recorded medium works differently, establishing a more stable set of parameters that are then free to activate the listener’s perception in myriads of unexpected directions and in myriads of different occasions. Maybe it’s just me, but I get a better grasp of my material when reflecting on it, and I’ve found I can present a more well-rounded statement when I take more time in working on the arrangement of sounds or ideas.
Of course it is possible to make a very strong statement through improvised music as well, though the majority of improvised music recordings these days sound very much like non-statements to me.

How important are practising and instrumental technique for achieving your musical goals?
It depends; there are things I can achieve with my editing software, without having to worry about having to capture the right sound. But my work is not chaotic, sometimes it is assembled from disparate sources, but these sources have to work together somehow. And if they don’t, I still have to re-record things like everyone else. So, when I’m recording raw sound, I have to be good with my mic placement, and when I’m recording a fragment on my electronics setup, I still have to avoid mistakes and I still have to know how my setup behaves in different environments. So, yes, it’s a good idea to practice, even though I can still get some work done - even on lazy days.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance?
Sound and performance are very much dependent on the space and the situation, aren’t they? This doesn’t only apply to electroacoustic music, it happens in all of music, every day. Every gesture is different, even if - strictly speaking - it carries the same information as it did the previous night. For my performances, half my soundcheck is usually spent finding the right tone to use in the room. Then there’s always some sound/music that is more suitable for this situation/room than the next sound or music. These parameters are of course not easy to quantify, but one must remain sensitive to them.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
I would say that field recordings fit these shoes for me. What is important here is that I don’t usually treat them as direct references to events or situations. I usually return to a particular recording largely because of the larger atmosphere it conveys, and this atmosphere I have found is something I can manipulate, using edits, layering, juxtapositions or subtractions. Simply because field recordings tend to be obscure combinations of disparate and uncoordinated audio signals, this makes them very easy to manipulate towards many goals and targets. In essence, I am searching for abstract material that I can then reshape inside my compositions. When I do work with field recordings these days, I tend to work from very limited batches of them.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a  group compare to a solo situation?
I like those rules. Though, on (1), I’d clarify that you can sometimes not actually hear another musician and still sense where they are regardless of that.
Both these rules have been stretched through the continued exposure of a younger generation of musician to less direct forms of music - forms that function on a less immediate or human level such as musique concrète, electronic music, noise, etc - but they still hold true and can serve as good guidelines as long as one reads them with an open mind.
A good group for me, is of course the result of cooperation, one mustn’t think too much of the various ideas we usually struggle to bring forward and allow for ideas to flow between the players. I have many times, for example, found myself in a position where I’ve wanted to insert a new idea or structure in the ongoing flow of some piece, and have found that - for the whole of the music to succeed - I would either have to get the other musicians to follow me, or to accept the fact that they on the other hand wanted to take the music elsewhere (and thus my idea had to be dropped). Either scenario is equally successful, even though your mileage my vary.
Group playing can also, in many cases, free your hands, and present you with opportunities to express your music on a level that you would have never considered possible.

Some people see recording improvised music as a problem. Do you?

Not when the music is great, no. But one has to know when to stop or edit. And a lot of what’s great in improvised music, sometimes comes from extra-musical parameters such as tension, space, atmosphere - all sorts of theatrical aspects that rarely come through in the recordings. So one has to maintain a certain distance when judging the material for such use. I see releasing a lot of improvised music as a problem.

Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
Music, I hope, is as valuable as ever. Its social function is changing though, very rapidly. I have no clear view on where things are going, it is a younger generation that is carrying these changes and I feel a bit out of the loop sometimes, since I am of the last generation in that very brief period in human history where people chose to objectify music. For the moment I have no clear insights myself, and can only hope I will be wise enough to recognise the true nature of these changes before it’s too late. I cannot be naive and blame Blogspot for the fact that people are not buying CDs anymore. Similarly, I cannot put my hands up and give up trying to make good music, because no one seems to care. It is a social question we are facing, and the future of recordings is a secondary issue to this problem.
Regarding the flood or releases, one can treat it as a bubble. There are two roads for it to go down, it will either pop, or eventually lose steam. A bubble will make things harder for a while, but one shouldn't lose sleep over it.

Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.

I’d hesitate to pick just two. Off the top of my head I can think of at least five young Greek artists that are worthy of some attention, and three of those have or will soon have recordings on my label. If pushed to pick two, then I could first mention my collaborator Giannis Kotsonis, who performs electronic and noise music under the alias Sister Overdrive, and whose recent tape on organized music served as a great affirmation of his skills and fine-tuned ears. Giannis is a skilled craftsman and the more time he spends making noise, the happier I am. Then there is Socrates Martinis. Another set of fine-tuned ears, Socrates works with field recordings, treating them as raw sound mostly. He has done marvelous work for labels such as Absurd, Drone and Entr’acte, but his low profile and use of many pseudonyms has kept him well under the radar so far.

Kostis Kilymis / Syndromes Discography:
No Islands/ w. Stephen Cornford, Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes (Another Timbre) 2011
If Other People Exist (then they are totally sealed secrets)/ w. Leif Elggren  (Firework Edition) 2011
Temporary Perspectives (Organized Music from Thessaloniki) 2010
Dust (Bagatellen) 2009
Just Another Daily Bummer (Organized Music from Thessaloniki) 2009
Accumulated (Organized Music from Thessaloniki) 2008
Thessaloniki 1963, A diary from b to c (Organized Music from Thessaloniki) 2007

Kostis Kilymis / Syndromes

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