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In Writing

Mohammad: Secrets and lyres

March 2013

As musicians at the forefront of the Athenian music scene, Coti K, Ilios and Nikos Veliotis triangulate drones, strings and oscillations. Sophia Ignatidou interviews the trio.

For those keeping a close eye on the Greek exploratory music scene, the collaboration of three of its most established representatives was long overdue. Under the moniker of Mohammad, the trio of Coti K, Ilios and Nikos Veliotis have just released their third album, Som Sakrifis on Pan. They founded their stringed instrument-based drone group in 2009 but have known each other for over two decades prior to that. “We always discussed playing together, but it wasn’t feasible while I was living in Spain. This is not a project that can be developed online,” says Ilios.

Ilios, who serves as master-of-oscillators-and-electronics in the trio, initially ran his Antifrost label out of Barcelona, but returned to Athens with it in 2009. Throughout, he's released music by the likes of Billy Bao guitarist Xabier Erkizia, Joe Colley, Lasse Marhaug, Francisco López, Texturizer (The duo of Coti K and Nikos Veliotis) and the two previous Mohammad records.

He's also a field recordist, travelling with Francisco López to Greece’s Mount Athos peninsula, recording the indoor and outdoor sounds of the monasteries dotting its shores (2006's Hysechasterion) or to Japan’s Kansai region to record the chaotic reverberations of the local pachinko parlours. The overwhelming environments of halls filled by hundreds of pinball-like arcade games informed Ilios’s first solo release on Pan (Kenrimono, 2009). In between, he’s hosted workshops on sound composition and analysis, and intermittently organised the now defunct experimental music festival Electrograph.

His ever-expanding field of work is on a par with that of Coti K, Mohammad’s double bass player. An important figure in the Athenian electronic music scene, Coti K is a sound artist, soundtrack composer, instrument builder and produces other artists' recordings – including the American post-punk outfit Tuxedomoon's 2004 album Cabin In The Sky. He creates spacious, atmospheric electronics, embedded with environmental field recordings and sonic interference. His drone project with Nikos Veliotis, Texturizer, sowed the seeds for Mohammad.

Veliotis is the only classically trained musician in the trio, but he’s the first to declare an aversion to any kind of theoretical analysis, trying to dodge my questions. On the subject of what holds the group together, he says that they all share the same goal, which is nevertheless elusive: “We do have a common vision, but that’s something I really can’t put into words. Sound is like colours. We can agree that red is red, but we can’t explain what red means for each of us. Likewise, when we’re rehearsing with Mohammad, something surfaces that we can all agree on to be right, but the ‘how’ and ‘what’ are answers that elude us.”

Veliotis seems dismissive of contextualisation even when it comes to his own musical identity. Although he has been frequently labelled an improviser and a cello virtuoso, he refutes both. “I don’t think I’m a cellist because I don’t play just cello, I perform with other instruments too. Being an improviser is also a tag others use, but I don’t think I’ve improvised at any point in my career. I always have a plan in my head and I tend to take my time in deciding. I don’t think that has anything to do with improvisation,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I suppose my involvement with Cranc (his trio with Angharad Davies and Rhodri Davies) is the closest I get to improvisation”.

There is certainly something intuitive about Mohammad’s music, grainy drones becoming a physical presence with immense gravitational force. The growling vibrations of Coti K’s double bass and Ilios’s frequency manipulations unite to create a nearly impenetrable cloud of low-end, with only the quivering bows of Veliotis’s cello alluding to something lurking inside.

“One of the areas we wanted to investigate with Mohammad was low frequency intermodulation, which is basically how one sound affects the rest,” explains Coti K. Using this as their starting point they began rehearsing, hoping to stumble upon their sonic destination. “We were so excited about the project, we started having the longest rehearsal sessions I have ever had in my life. So many hours have gone into this”, reveals Ilios.

Their decision to do away with structured concepts came from a common impetus. “We all felt the need to create music that’s more sensual, something that pertains to the spiritual,” says Coti K. Field recordings create an eeriness. The track “Liberig Min”, on the B side of Som Sakrifis, starts with the hoot of an owl, and the sound of crashing waves (recorded on the Greek island of Tinos) creating an uneasy feeling. “Sakrifis”, the opening track, contains choir vocals reminiscent of an Orthodox church’s liturgy, transmitting not visions of the divine, but the mourning of the fallen to the tormented underworld.

Greece has informed their sound not just through field recordings but also through its tradition. “We love Greek traditional music, especially from the Epirus region and it has started to pervade our work too”, says Coti K. He is also responsible for the custom-made instruments the group uses on stage: portable versions of double bass and cello, which use contact microphones for amplification, while Ilios uses Limax, a controller allowing him to manipulate Max/MSP. The wooden cased controller provides him with more space for on stage movement than the oscillators he used in the nascent days of Mohammad, as both its appearance and its use resemble those of an extremely thin guitar.

Their performance at Cafe Oto, austere, in black, their eyes fixed on their instruments, remind me of the times I found myself in the corner of a dimly lit Greek Orthodox church pew, the scent of incense numbing my brain, silently listening to the morning chanting. Then too, there were more unuttered questions filling the air than there were forthcoming answers. Cagey as Mohammad might have seemed, I suspect after two decades of analysing sound and music, it’s only reasonable to change tactics when you don't find what you were searching for, or if you’re reaching out to the spiritual. Even though at times, they both mean the exact same thing.

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