Svitlana Nianio - A Mystery of the World

Svitlana Nianio - A Mystery of the World

October 23, 2017

Written by:

Ivan Shelekhov & Serhii Harahulia

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Ukrainian singer-songwriter Svitlana Nianio has always been connected with mystery. Not only aesthetically, but even when it comes to her biography information. She was a member of a Kyiv-based four-piece chamber band Cukor Bila Smert* [“Sugar, the White Death” in Ukrainian–ed.] since the late '80s . In the '90s, Cukor downsized to a duo and then disbanded. The band consisted mostly of Glière Music College students highly interested in both previously banned avant-garde and New wave/indie. They created a specific niche of their own, while playing onstage with noise-rock and chamber music originals of the decadent Kyiv Underground and Kharkiv Novaya Scena movements.

As with Cukor’s two albums, Svitlana’s solo record was also released by the cult Polish imprint Koka Records. Koka was the crucial record company that released the most interesting Ukrainian Underground bands, as well as traditional folk ensembles. In the 90s, Svitlana was touring a lot in Poland, and also in Germany while working with Cologne-based musicians and producers. With cassette imprint SHM Tapes as a link the Ukrainian Underground music found its way through to a 1993 release on the Hamburg-based label What's So Funny About. Most of the other records by Svitlana Nianio were self-released or made especially for mixtapes. One of them, a collaboration release from 1995 with composer Olexandr Yurchenko–“Знаєш як? Розкажи” [“Know how? Tell it!’ in Ukrainian–ed.] was reissued in Ukraine on cassette this year. There are also rumors of upcoming releases and reissues.

Listen also: From The Archives Podcast: 9. Ukrainian Underground Tapes

Since the beginning of the new Millennium not much has been heard about Svitlana Nianio’s activity. She gave her only interview to Russian writer and musician Dmitry Tolmatsky in the mid '90s. Surprisingly, some new music by Svitlana appeared through Soundcloud in 2015. Two years later she performed at Counterflows festival in Scotland. Later this year she took part in the showcase of Krakow's Unsound Festival in a collaborative project with her longtime colleagues, Polish avant-folk legends Księżyc and multi-instrumentalist Paweł Romańczuk (who, alongside his colleague Andrzej Załęski, recently made a collaboration album with French outsider music legend Ghèdalia Tazartès). Some associate Svitlana Nianio’s Casio or Fender Rhodes-driven baroque-like songs with so called avant-folk in its Slavic form. One may hear influences of contemporary classical, minimalist or even early music.

In September 2017 we met Svitlana Nianio in Kyiv. It was only a week after the Unsound show in Lviv, which held at the Philharmonic–her first Ukrainian performance in nearly 20 years.

*Here we use a Polish transliteration, as it can be found on the cover of their second album “Selo” [“The Village” in Ukrainian–ed.]. The proper Ukrainian transliteration should be “Tsukor”.
What makes me curious is a mystery of the world. Something that can inspire. Something that we can see only out of the corner of our eye. Or not even see but only feel, and we can’t even tell what it was. Some kind of dark mysterious side.

The Return

We were at your show in Lviv. It was really interesting and surprising. How would you evaluate such an experiment? Did you succeed in realizing your creative ideas in collaboration with Paweł Romańczuk and Księżyc?

Svitlana Nianio: This format was the festival's idea. It was also a surprise for us, because we met in Lviv for a few days, and even I didn't know from whom this idea came up–to gather such a band and artists. Actually, this may be because we performed together in the '90s. Maybe because we have a common aesthetic direction... All the artists have a different approach to creating music. We can say that we’ve found a certain compromise within the short period of time we were given, and we still have time until the second show. Perhaps there we’ll make adjustments to the program.

Has this program been exclusively written for these two concerts in the showcase of the Unsound festival? Was it initially planned to be recorded in the studio?

It was recorded as some sketches only... As for the further plans–I don’t know, because it's like the property of the festival, all of these records. We played there without two performers. Agata Harz and Remek Mazur weren't there. [Agata Harz and Remigiusz Mazur-Hanaj of Księżyc–ed.].

Why did you finally decide to perform? You haven’t played live for a long time. The last concert in Kyiv, which we know, took its place in the '90s.

I performed in Poland–the last time it was in 2006. Well, because the festival invited us, just as there were no such contacts before, nobody offered. And then, this Counterflows [festival] offered, and we decided to get ready because it’s likely that there is some kind of interest again. A wave of interest in recent years.

Your last material, "Kytytsi" [“Tassels” in Ukrainian–ed.], came out in 1999. Since then, we haven’t heard any new music until 2015. What were you doing at the time?

Actually, we continued to play, me and my colleagues... There are not so many contacts. We have the opportunity to record. Maybe some material will appear soon. Actually, this concert in Glasgow... it was recorded, but hasn't been mixed. So now we are waiting.

*photo credits: Księżyc with Svitlana Nianio and Paweł Romańczuk at Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland, October 8, 2017. By Kachna Baraniewicz.

The Affiliation

Who in the worldwide context do you see as an associate? Who’d you like to play with?

I can recall the positive impressions of recent years. For example, the Ghédalia Tazartès show [in Kyiv]—I was delighted very much. I get inspiration from artists who work solo. They can find themselves some like-minded people, but generally they hold a certain line... And it's an advanced age, and he performs all alone, and it all works!

Your early work is associated with the band Cukor Bila Smert’. At the end of the '80s there was a powerful rise of music in Kyiv. Do you feel an affiliation to this scene, and maybe the connection with some other groups of that time?

I think I feel it. For example, such electroacoustic groups as Verba Khlyos, as well as those that were in the Kievtsev’s compilations [Alexandr Kievtsev, bass guitarist of the band Kollezhsky Asessor, compiler of 90’s Kyiv underground music mixtapes–ed.]. There were also "short-lived bands". For example, we gathered at Pushkar’s spot [Viktor Pushkar, leader of the band Blemish, microtonal music composer–ed.], and composed something there with [a singer–ed.] Inna Blazhchuk or something like that... And such a specific sound, which was drum less. For example, some acoustic instruments... Well, I think that Verba Khlyos is first of all. Sashko Gridin and his colleagues... Also our Kharkiv colleagues, Hodosh [Evgen Hodosh, leader of the band Kazma-Kazma–ed.], his chamber experiments…

If we turn to Ukraine, there are certain associations with the "Kyiv avant-garde" of the 60's–Silvestrov, Godziatsky... Do you feel any kind of affinity with this group of composers?

When I was studying in the first grade of music school, Silvestrov, Yuri Shevchenko came to us, and we played their works. So, I'm acquainted directly. And for us they were young talented composers, and even at such a young age we admired, we somehow felt that this was some kind of special music. At least I remembered the works of Yuri Shevchenko because they were very specific. He is a Kyiv-based composer, for theater and cinema. The Silvestrov’s piano miniatures–it was inspiring, although they were young composers, but the status of their art was very high, it was obvious even for children. Volodymyr Huba, Hrabovsky–it’s a bit different style, but it still had some way to go in the context of studying.

Do you feel more affiliation to this contemporary classical tradition–because of your classical background? Or with so called "rock underground?"

It’s somehow going along, because education is education, but to feel free you have to try some other niches. Maybe it’s some sort of marginality too, but it’s not something negative. On the contrary, it allows you to stop, think and decide what to do next.

In particular, Silvestrov himself has a thesis that academicism is suppressing, it locks into a frame. And his own path is interesting here. He started with avant-garde experiments in the '60s, rethinking dodecaphony. While keeping his stylistic heritage, he moved to more traditional forms, and in his later years–to sacred music. Have you noticed anything in common? Because the Cukor’s album "Manirna Muzyka" [“Mannerism music” in Ukrainian–ed.] seems to be a pure experiment with the form, the structure, and your later works–they still use all of your stylistic heritage, but also have a tendency towards a traditional form.

Well, some of stylistic changes, they happened in the late albums, and the first reason is that we stopped playing as a band, we composed music... And Kokhanovsky, and Mazur, and Taran [Olexandr Kokhanovsky, Tamila Mazur and Eugene Taran of Cukor Bila Smert’–ed.]–all were involved. This was a collective creativity. And then everyone made their own ways, so someone still has some tendencies to this or that... So it’s still like some kind of marginality. It’s not like it’s some academic composers. It’s some kind of niche in the Underground context.

Throughout your work you’ve participated in a large number of collaborations, both here in Ukraine and abroad. What's your opinion as a musician–having such an experience of working with others?

For sure, such a positive experience was working with Yurchenko [Olexandr Yurchenko, a Kyiv-based composer and inventor of musical instruments–ed.], because when I first heard these charming sounds of hammered dulcimer I was very inspired, and somehow we have found a common ground. We tried to keep in touch all the time. And all that we made is my most positive Kyiv experience. But now Olexandr is retired because of health issues. Actually, he’s very ill now, and it’s frustrating that we can’t perform in concert. And my Polish colleagues, my German colleagues–it was also very specific and I’m glad that I tried different aesthetic directions. For example, the works with Guido Erfen, Michael Springer, Jochen Pape, SHM Studio–only positive impressions that enriched me as a musician. And there weren’t many of those collaborations, but all of them kept me staying focused, I should say. It’s good that it all remained on some compilations.

*photo credits: Cukor Bila Smert’ live in Kharkiv, Ukraine, early 90s. By Dmitrij Slediuk.

Performing Music

At the show we thought that you're moving towards the sacred music field.

Maybe it's some kind of aesthetic moments... Some kind of melodies that are being created that way, and their construction may remind of some kind of Medieval analogues or... It goes like inspiration, maybe, it pops up somehow from time to time...

Since the album “Selo”, and especially on your solo works, we can follow the tendency of turning to folk melodics.

Yeah, this element is present there. At least, I use some motifs in lyrics. And the way I build my compositions–there are also elements of folk stylistics, some intervals or harmonies... You can find many analogues—for example, someone sees the Pyrenees, someone—some motives of Caucasus, or, by the way, Turkish Janissary melos. I've been just coming across people saying: «Oh, you took... We had records with Janissary songs and something of those remind us of the piece of your song! Like you've been taking something from there and used it as a quote!»

How consciously do you do this?

Well, consciously, because I listen to a lot of music from that region and of that time. I just have a hobby of listening to music [laughing].

What kind of music do you listen to?

For example, I can recall Turkish classical music, some pieces by Dimitrie Cantemir. I just love this music, I listen to it, and maybe it influences me somehow.

Maybe there is some kind of symbolic or historical background?

I've just been interested in this period, and how they both interacted—the European baroque and Turkish classical music.

We often meet people online who want to know what your lyrics are about.

For some songs I prepare absolutely, from A to Z, finished lyrics. Such that I can sing. And there are many songs where I'm not able to come up with so many lyrics, and I take some phonemes from different languages. Something that is good for me to sing. For example, there are lyrics in Serbian, and it's really good to sing. It’s easy, it organically lays on a melody, and I take it as an example. But I have many lyrics that are beyond the music, they just made up somehow, and I can’t fit them. So I just have to fit to some phonetic designs. But this is not some sort of abracadabra. I try to compile something from those languages that organically fits these melodies.

Some of your topics and images can be traced regularly. For example, the images of snakes, guards, or the themes of traveling, maybe, some other worlds, the time–all of them are kind of aesthetically related, drawn up in some kind of a world. Do you get inspiration from folklore motifs, maybe Slavic, or can it be rather called a private myth-making?

What makes me curious is a mystery of the world. Something that can inspire. Something that we can see only out of the corner of our eye. Or not even see but only feel, and we can’t even tell what it was. Some kind of dark mysterious side. Something that follows us. Something that can scare us. The topic of death, which is already so close, which is perceived as a kind of liberation. Something that a human being can expect as if with joy. The topic of mysticism in general. As I come with pleasure to the transition… Something like that…

In your only interview you told about traveling throughout Europe, and there was a motif of a free attitude of performing music–you played in hotel lobbies in Transylvania, on the streets. Is that some kind of a folk tradition of street music that you were inspired by? Minstrel practices?

Well, yes, at that time there was a trend in playing that way. And I already was not afraid to pick up the keys and not simply go to the theater and say “Well, I prepared something for you, let’s make something together”, but I could just play there in a lobby. But, again, it was over kinda fast, because the trend has gone. It goes in waves… At that time you had to stick something to the music, some theatrical performance. The music wasn’t self-sufficient, but now the time’s different. Now you can just play some improvisations and it will look more classy than in the '90s. And you shouldn’t think that it’s some kind of marginality. But it’s a question of two or three years. It will also be gone and there will be something else.

Do you remember the play “Transylvania Smile?”

It was in Germany, in Cologne. Some performance group called Pentamonia. It was a group of five female dancers, and I was there playing live, and they were doing their performance part on the stage of Urania theater. It was the year of… '99? No, '96. And this beautiful title–we decided to keep it. Because “Transylvania Smile”, some dark reminiscences of some vulgar vampires or something like that. At that time it was in the context of dark folk.

In that interview you mentioned your curiosity in performative arts. Did you have other similar experiences working with cinema or theater? Your latest program sounds pretty cinematic.

To someone it reminded the soundtracks. I heard something about that. You mean these pieces that you heard during the show? Well, maybe. By the way, those were the pieces prepared by Romańczuk. It was his concept. Maybe it worked.

Well, I took part in performances… I have colleagues, artists from Poland. Skibiński [Wiesław Skibiński–a Polish graphic artist–ed.]… We also did a performance with a group TE 7EM. There were also colleagues from Germany… It was before the TE 7EM’s actions, in 2006-2008. By the way, in November I’ll be taking part as a graphic artist. The same group, the same people…

*photo credits: Svitlana Nianio with her band mates and Włodek Nakonecznyj (in the middle), the publisher of Koka Records, in Warsaw, Poland at NOW Festival, October 1, 2017. By Aleksandra Rózga & Svitlana Nianio live in Poland as a part of CBS, early 90s. From What so funny about records’ compilation.

Failure and Seriousness

You say that you don’t publish some of your archival pieces because you personally don’t consider them very interesting. Is there some moment of mistake or failure that could’ve become something of an instrument for you to use in a positive sense later?

For sure, a mistake can turn into something that you can use, and even unexpectedly–there are also things like that. You should look at the overall picture. I think that the worst things are not some kind of mistakes, technically or in general, but when there is no atmosphere, when it doesn't work and there’s nothing you can do with it. Then a musician starts to look for reasons: the sound isn’t right or the interrelation... But it doesn’t work. And mistakes, improvisations… Many people don’t even know what they are going to play, but organically, from the first note, they can hold the listeners’ attention. Some kind of artist’s charisma, as if he can afford everything he wants, all kinds of improvisations, all kinds of things, that he noted for himself. I think, that there is an experience anyway, that you gained in this life. Or maybe in some previous ones…

It’s somehow funny to me even when it’s some kind of a complete failure. I can’t take it without humor. I should say that any story from my life is a complete misfortune, anything you turn to. A lot of stories like that, I can’t remember now exactly… For example, you came up to play and there is no sound in the instrument, or you just mute the sound intentionally, cause you got out of mood. You just turned off the Casio and you made a look that you’ve been playing something. Something like that…

What kind of effect did it cause the audience?

The audience didn’t even notice, you see. Only Kurovskiy [Dmytro Kurovskiy–an artist, the leader of the band Foa Hoka–ed.] would later say: “I can’t hear the keys from the monitor!” Just nobody pays attention, and there’s a misfortune within misfortune! You сan talk to your colleagues like: “What are you playing?” It’s all absolute humour and some kind of adventure. A funny adventure.

But actually, your music is less related to humor.

I mean… you’re talking about failures. If it had been played by Monty Python, it would be appropriate. I think that you shouldn’t take it all so seriously. Moreover, it’s Underground. How can it be serious? Compositions, luck, failure? The biggest failure is when it’s not interesting to listen to, and that’s it. Well, that's in general. So, if there will be some new songs on Soundcloud… maybe it’s good if it won’t be a whole album or even if it’ll be just one song–it doesn't matter. You shouldn’t take it all so serious.

Co-author: Serhii Harahulia
Special thanks to Alexandr Klochkov for his contribution.

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Ivan Shelekhov & Serhii Harahulia

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