Sarah Hughes & Kostis Kilymis · The Good Life

Sarah Hughes & Kostis Kilymis · The Good Life

Recorded while the two were flatmates in Oxford this is Hughes and Kilymis’ first duo release. Beautiful, intricately woven improvisations for no-input mixing desk and zither.

Sarah Hughes is an artist and musician currently based in Oxford. She plays zither and piano in improvising groups, is a founding member of the Set Ensemble, and co-founded Compost and Height. She has long-term collaborations with Patrick Farmer, Daniel Jones and Stephen Cornford and has also performed with musicians such as Antoine Berger, Seijiro Murayama and Dominic Lash.

Kostis Kilymis is an artist focusing on audio feedback systems and representation. His practice touches upon music, installation work and video – developed using a mixture of electronic and acoustic approaches. In performance, he has collaborated with various musicians such as Lucio Capece, Nikos Veliotis, Leif Elggren, Giannis Kotsonis and Patrick Farmer. He also runs the Organized Music from Thessaloniki record label.


The Good Life was recorded by Sarah Hughes and Kostis Kilymis while the pair were flatmates in the city of Oxford, and is comprised of two quiet, unhurried improvisations for zither, mosquito alarm, and no-input mixing desk. For the most part any sense of melodic or harmonic development is avoided, as is any reference to landscape, memory, emotion, or indeed anything outside the scope of unadorned sound. The album also seems to spurn any sense of narrative, with no subjective impression of beginning, middle and end, no rise or fall, no climax or release. Given this apparent lack of representation or drama, and the fifty-one minutes of slow, generally dissonant whistles, whines, and plonks, one would be forgiven for expecting The Good Life to be tedious, irritating even. Yet there’s something about this record that I find utterly and consistently enthralling.

Whether it’s a result of the complete absence of what might be called ‘content’, or perhaps the gentle pace and sparse barely-thereness of the sounds doing something to my brain’s chemical balance, I can’t help but feel completely relaxed and at ease when listening to this album, rather like the cat sprawled out contentedly on the CD cover, in front of a good warm fire no doubt. Actually I’m pretty certain it’s something to do with the dopamine. The only thing I can say about it, in terms of the music ‘saying’ something, is that the relationship between the two artists as flatmates may have brought a sense of domestic quietness and calm to the record, assuming their flat was an oasis of quiet and calm rather than a whirlwind of chaos. But even that is conjecture of the most tenuous kind, with scant evidence in the sounds themselves. I like music with representational content, as readers of my reviews for Fluid could probably guess, but this time I’m more than happy for these sounds themselves to be sounds, to lull me and de-convolve me with their soundness. And then listen again. The unhurried pace provokes unhurried listening. The Good Life is like a hot bath after a long, tiring day, but completely and unambiguously without water, if that makes any sense at all.

The Good Life is available on CD-R in a limited edition of 100 from Consumer Waste, an Oxford-based label that derives its name from the 100% post-consumer waste materials used in the handmade packaging. Great music, and minimal resource consumption – a win-win proposition!

OK, so caveats out of the way first – Sarah Hughes and Kostis Kilymis are both good friends of mine and I heard an early version of this album a while ago. Take these facts into account before you read on, but beyond this I have no connection to this release at all. So The Good Life was recorded in Oxford earlier this year when Hughes and Kilymis were two of several people sharing a house in East Oxford. They have both since departed, but have left behind this album as a memento. It is then, as might be expected, music that appeals to me quite a bit.

The two tracks here clock in at twenty-seven and twenty-four minutes and each explore a calm, mostly uneventful music made up of acoustic and electronic tones and textures offsetting one another, with just a few short passages of plucked or struck strings adding colour and a feeling of a scaffolded framework to the otherwise quite gaseous proceedings. Kilymis is at times, in other groupings, capable of producing quite loud, often densely droning music. Here, he moves closer to Hughes’ quieter, restrained sound world, but it would be foolish to assume that the louder, denser contributions to this album all come from his direction. In fact, as with most good electro-acoustic groups it is occasionally very difficult to work out who is making which sound here, and while the sound of softly struck strings of can clearly be attributed to Hughes’ zither other areas of the music, heavy tones and dry scraping sounds could come from either of them. Kilymis sticks to his minimal electronics while Hughes adds an eBow and a mosquito alarm to her zither, the first easy to figure how how it is used, the second is anyone’s guess.

Though there are a few passages of dense activity here, and one moment of suddenly surprising intensity near the start of the second piece Pussy Riot when a heavy, claustrophobic tone appears for a while, the music of The Good Life is, on the whole, a subtle though occasionally quite blatantly pretty affair, particularly for the bulk of Pussy Riot when Hughes’ slowly picked, chiming notes each appear and dissolve into a simmering bed of electronics that resembles a kind of cloudy Bohor. There is a constant hint at melody, similar to early Akiyama or Sugimoto when responding to being immersed in clouds of electronics, and in some ways this return to melody is disruptive in itself when taken in context. Hughes’ sounds seem to want to remind us of their acoustic origins, while Kilymis remains firmly in more artificially sourced territory. If everything seems very slow and calm on the surface, its these little contradictions in the music ensure an underlying tension remains. Knowing both musicians, and knowing their solo work and natural musical leanings, there is actually quite a difference between the two sound worlds each would naturally tread, but its testament to friendship, to sharing a living space, and to the act of improvisation in music that these two areas can collide in such a way to produce music at once trembling with uncertainty as it glows in its beauty. Not to be missed.

Choć nie zawiera muzyki spektakularnej, to najciekawszy album z omawianej trójki. Powstał w trakcie domowych sesji, w czasie gdy Sarah Hughes i Kostis Kilymis wynajmowali wspólnie mieszkanie. Intymność nagrania daje się tu wyraźnie odczuć – dźwięki nie przekraczają pewnego poziomu głośności, zapewne z uwagi na obecność za ścianą sąsiadów. Duet improwizuje na elektronikę (Kilymis) oraz cytrę (Hughes). Najistotniejszym elementem jest jednak „Mosquito Alarm”, czyli rodzaj dźwiękowej broni, stosowanej w niektórych europejskich krajach, w USA i Kanadzie. Emitujący bardzo wysokie częstotliwości, słyszane w pewnych wypadkach tylko przez osoby młode (przy ustawieniu na 17.4 kHz), ma za zadanie odciągnąć od pewnych miejsc bezdomnych, grafficiarzy i innych niepożądanych osób. Sarah Hughes manipuluje urządzeniem w taki sposób, iż częstotliwości zamiast budzić irytację i niepokój – hipnotyzują i wciągają. Wysoki dron zdobią partie grane na strunach cytry. Rezonans mózgu osoby słuchającej „The Good Life” musi wyglądać zdumiewająco!

6h00 du matin, je me lève, et je pense tout de suite à ce disque que j’ai encore envie d’écouter. Pourtant, ça fait déjà quelques jours qu’il tourne en boucle, mais je me plais vraiment bien dans cet univers, je n’ai pas envie de passer à autre chose. Il y a un aspect magistral et puissant dans ce duo, et c’est peut-être du à la facilité déconcertante avec laquelle les deux musiciens évitent soigneusement les écueils et les habitudes propres de l’eai ou de la noise: je pense notamment aux fétiches de l’urgence et de l’agression sonore. Ici, Sarah Hughes (cithare) et Kostis Kilymis (table de mixage bouclée sur elle-même) nous offrent au contraire une musique calme, gracieuse et poétique.

Deux pièces grandement improvisées composent ce disque donc: ‘Fossils and things’ puis ‘Puissy Riot’. La première est basée sur de longues notes interminables, sur des nappes fines et sombres qui me rappelaient par certains moments certains sons contemplatifs utilisés par Oren Ambarchi. Les cordes de la cithare sont délicatement frottées jusqu’à devenir indiscernables des fréquences de Kilymis, et ce dernier use souvent de sons simples, monocordes, à tendance lo-fi et glitch. De manière générale, les deux musiciens utilisent des sons simples, d’une intensité faible, et la musique est plutôt aérée et contemplative, voire statique, bien qu’elle soit tout de même ponctuée d’évènements minimalistes et inattendus.

Puis vient ‘Pussy Riot’ – qui n’est une référence au groupe russe que par le titre. Si j’avais surtout l’impression que les strates étaient égales sur la première piste, où que Kilymis était au premier plan lorsqu’elles se divisaient, c’est ici au tour de Sarah Hughes d’être au premier plan. Sur un fond sonore encore sombre et statique qui ressemble par moments aux bruitages du Cheval de Turin (je pense au vent obsédant), Sarah Hughes dépose une lente mélodie poétique et délicate, une mélodie lumineuse et bouleversante. Ici, les cordes sont dorénavant pincées, les attaques sont précises et intenses, et l’espace laissé à la résonance n’est que grâce. L’histoire évoquée par cette musique fantomatique est mélancolique, on s’y attache. Et j’aime m’y perdre, car c’est inattendu, intime, poétique, singulier et incroyablement intense.

Hautement recommandé!

There are only 100 copies of The Good Life. You can’t find it on Amazon. Its roughly tactile cardboard packaging is entirely handmade. Its content is improvisational, slow moving, almost devoid of melody. Gangnam Style it ain’t. For some people it will be difficult to listen to, in the same way as a dripping tap is difficult to listen to. But it is in The Wire’s top 50 albums of 2012. For a project that hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to court celebrity, that’s pretty impressive.

The CD consists of two tracks: the 27-minute Fossils and things and the 24-minute Pussy Riot. On both Hughes plays chorded zither (and mosquito alarm) and Kilymis is responsible for the electronically produced snap, crackle and pop. I would like to predict that I won’t be using the word ‘pop’ again in this review. The first piece in particular is about as far from the common conception of music as it is possible to get whilst still being on a compact disc. The apparently random plinks and scrapes, the length of time between ‘events’ and the sheer dissonance of these events may seem unappealing but there is a space, beauty and restraint to this recording that bears repeated listening.

This type of improvisational music is often described as immersive, but I don’t like that word. It makes me think of drowning, of heaviness, of an inability to move. Whereas this recording has a lightness to it, a shifting quality that is so subtle that it can catch you off guard: the sound you are listening to now is completely different from that of five minutes ago, and you haven’t noticed it change.

The second piece, Pussy Riot, is the more melodic of the two, the more immediate and the more grounded. But it is only a vestigial melody, a hint towards a musical reference point, a knowing wink at the outside world: Hughes’s plucked zither picking out delicate constellations against the electronic backdrop. Pussy Riot is also contains the most aggressive passage on the record, albeit an introspective aggression, like a fleeting shortness of breath. Then it’s back to serenity.

The Good Life, despite appearances, is an involved and involving record. Its title suggests playfulness, even a hint of irony, and there are traces of musical narrative in both pieces I have yet to explore properly and which may yet turn out to be red herrings. This is a type music with comparatively few precedents, and as such can be challenging. Hughes and Kilymis must be applauded for making something so challenging so appealing.

Not enough mosquito alarm in the music nowadays…

Hughes remedies that (I think I know which sound it is, but could easily be wrong, having nil experience with regard the devices) and, along with her zither and Kilymis’ electronics, creates a very satisfying, serene couple of pieces. The offsetting timbres of the soft zither and bubbly crackle of the electronics, right from the start of Fossils and things, is ingratiating, intelligent, luscious, a kind of prelude. It seeps outward from there, the zither bowed or otherwise excited, the electronics becoming more troubled, but the pair always maintaining a steady flow, careful but forward-moving. Maybe it’s the mosquito alarm – at any rate, there’s a fairly consistent, high whine – but one gets the image of slowly poling through a hot marsh, limited sight distance, but fairly calm, with just the slightest tinge of fear.

The tone on Pussy Riot is cooler but no less engaging, perhaps laden with a tinge of dread at the then current travails of the Russian trio. The zither plucks a spare lament over a slightly agitated stream of electronics. There’s a bleakness about it, along with the implicit melancholy of the strings, that’s very impressive, very immersive.

A really strong recording overall, perhaps my favorite that I’ve heard from either musician.

This 5” CDr by Sarah Hughes (zither) and Kostis Kilymis (no-input mixing board) is made up of two long, absorbing tracks recorded in Oxford, England in early 2012.

Hughes and Kilymis are adept at creating atmospheric drifts of sound within a vast, open frame. Both tracks are characterized by subtle shifts of audio color in which sounds and relative stillnesses foreground each other reciprocally, each making of the other an apt object of attention. In a sense the covert subject of the recording is construction and dissolution of audio gestalts. Hughes’ zither tends to consist of a series of tonal and timbral interventions against Kilymis’ background surf of quiet crackling, breaking the quiet surface into a series of heard ripples which recede in due time. Thus the internal composition of both pieces, traced out in real time, is defined in terms of figure to ground relationships and their reversals.

This nuanced recording, which rewards the close listening it naturally solicits, is the audio equivalent of sparse stains of pigment on an expansive, off-white canvas or of delicately crafted objects scattered deliberately in an otherwise empty room.

Part II. The Good Life

Fossils and Things (27:07). Open and clean, with clear air between the sounds that you can walk through (or a cat could walk through at least). Sarah Hughes’ playing of zither and mosquito alarm mirrors her physical art: Installations of objects strategically situated in empty, reflective, light filled rooms. She waits for the moment and places a note or some other event into the work. Once again, as in Draught, the space around this music is immense.

Kostis Kilymis stretches a gossamer backdrop of micro-undulating sound behind the poignant gestures of Hughes. Working extensively with feedback in galleries as well as in live music creation, Kilymis offers a glistening, textured surface of approximately the same finely grained roughness as the cardboard sleeves these releases are packaged in.

The track begins with crackles, much as Draught does, then delicate string vibrations, tap like drips, then silence. A high lonesome field forms a canvas on which glassy drops fall, the tick tick tick of a pulse. Subtle, metallic sounds like bowed metal. Quiet. Quiet.

Pussy Riot (23:55). Poised and delicate, Kilymis broadcasts his translucent background radiation beneath Hughes’ plucked notes. They fall across the surface and leave telltale marks in the mind. This duo has a coherence and a complimentary single vision, otherwise beautiful pieces like Pussy Riot would never evolve.

All four of the tracks from these two separate CDs can be listened to in any order without the listener having to learn a new language. That isn’t to say they have the same things to say, just that there is a commonality of means and execution. Two excellent releases. I just hope Sarah didn’t get back from the recording session to find her house full of mosquitoes.

Я долго не решался послушать этот альбом. Месяца два, наверное. Причина до их пор не ясна. И первые минут 15 я всё ещё порывался нажать кнопку “стоп” на плеере… Но всё же дуэт захватил моё внимание и одновременно я начал заниматься и другими делами. И вот такое сочетание прослушивания и повседневной работы в итоге оказалось очень подходящим.

Первые впечатления таковы: это электроакустический импров, тянущийся корнями к Wandelweiser’овским идеям. В Англии в последние годы появилась некая прослойка музыкантов, которые этих самых вандельвайзеров активно играют, и доказательством этому служит недавно выпущенный 6-дисковый бокс-сет на Another Timbre, на котором можно встретить и имена Сары Хьюз (Sarah Hughes) и Костиса Килимиса (Kostis Kilymis). В прошлом году они были соседями по квартире и записали этот дуэтный диск. Сара играет на цитре и отпугивателе комаров, а Костис орудует за ноу-инпут микшером.

Второе прослушивание: а ведь играют романтично! Сара перебирает струны цитры в самом первом отрезке первой пьесы, а Костис создаёт трескучий бэкграунд. Поначалу кажется, что это безэмоциональная фактура абсолютно безынтересна. Но, я вспомнил первое прослушивание: подобная романтичность возникает во второй пьесе, где Сара вновь меланхолично дёргает струны и делает многозначительные паузы. И вот эта меланхолия и служит одним из ключей к разгадке альбома. Следующий ключ — домашняя запись. Вот потому-то они не спешат, потому-то всего две пьесы, на 27 и 24 минуты, потому-то кажется, что нет эмоций. Вспомните себя в домашней обстановке: расслабленность, уют, тёплый чай, спешить некуда. Так и Сара с Костисом: мечтательно наблюдают за рождающимися звуками, меланхолично размышляют. Нет суеты, чаще присущей концертным записям или студийным, когда времени мало, а сделать хочется много. Что касается самого звукового материала, то это всё те же длинные ноты, моторчики, гудения, треск, приглушённый скрежет, разного рода шумы и так далее и тому подобное. Но всё это звучит так расслабляюще и по-домашнему, что остаётся только пить чай и наслаждаться прослушиванием. Вполне себе “Хорошая жизнь” — может об этом название альбома? Ну и нельзя забыть символ уюта — кошечку на обложке!