Underground tweenoise masters in the post-USSR.
Part 1: Solntsetsvety (part 1 first appeared in Stylus)
In mid 2010, I started billing myself as a DJ who played Solntsetsvety. Solntsetsvety, or Солнцецветы, a Russian word that translates to Sun Flowers (abbreviated СЦ in Cyrillic), is an artist network which has since the late 90s been spawning lo-fi tracks and albums ranging from harsh noise and pure experimental to transcendental kraut jams and lo-fi reggae, based sort of in cities Minsk, Belarus and Moscow, Russia, and sort of on their website, lesom.ru. The groups belonging to Solntsetsvety were hard to penetrate, even armed with digital translation and English articles on David MacFadyen’s Far From Moscow, but Solntsetsvety was magic – a mystery too intense to shrug off.
The groups belonging to Solntsetsvety are almost impossible to list. One is called Solntsetsvety. Then there are folky Magnit of Solntsetsvety, pop leaning Mohk, catchy Batmen of Grande Ukraine, noise-infused Simptom Pogremushki, pop concrète Sybarites, and, amid many more, the ever-shimmering, heavily manifesto’d Magical Unicellular Music (Volshebnaya Odnokletochnaya Muzyka, abbreviated as VOM). Perhaps the most famed СЦ projects, VOM are divided into countless factions in multiple countries (each labeled with a number: VOM1, VOM4, VOM5, etc), many of which have toured and recorded with Damo Suzuki.
Early on I tracked down a guy in Moscow, Аnton Krivulya, who seemed deeply involved with at least one Solntsetsvety project, Mokh or Moss. I sent him some DJ mixes, but he firmly denied any understanding of the English language. I accepted temporary defeat.
Fast forward to fall 2011: I’m at a Kram Ran show in Toronto with an original СЦ member, Aleksei Malakhov, who’s recently moved to Canada from Belarus. He’s trying to teach me how to pronounce Solntsetsvety; I’m making an ass of myself. This has been arranged by another СЦ-er, Belorussian Roma Bernstein (who has taken part in Solntsetsvety, Mokh, Sybarites, VOM and Simptom Pogremushki, among others), whom I met by chance while scouring the internet attempting replace some albums I lost in a hard-drive crash, and to whom I am completely in debt for organizing these interviews – which are at heart attempt to explain what Solntsetsvety is: an important apparition in the bleak, heroin-scar marked post-Soviet world.
Below are select answers I received from Roma, Roma’s young brother Tim Bernstein (Mokh, VOM, Simptom Pogremushki), old-school СЦ-er Aleksei Malakhov (now a Torontonian, past member of Solntsetsvety and VOM), and Solntsetsvety mastermind: recent Moscow immigrant Anton Krivulia: member or contributor to just about every Solntsetsvety project, described by some members as a magical genius. Many thanks to Roma for his help with translations* and organization, and to Anton, Tim, Aleksei, and past Mokh member Mitya Matievich (who helped out but did not answer these questions) for their assistance.
Solntsetsvety sound is bound by something unexplainable – it’s free, DIY, allows itself to blur the line between real and fiction, and the people who make it seem to know that the gross output of the collective is greater than themselves. In speaking with five of its countless members, I found a brilliant combination of humour and frustration: anger at the dysfunction of post Soviet life wrapped up in jovial, loose, sovereign spirits.
*Just prior to my second round of questions during this interview, Anton conceded that he does know English quite well, and would be communicating with me in English for all further investigations. Roma translated between us prior to that, and also assisted with other necessary translations.
What / who is Solntsetsvety (СЦ) and how did it begin?
Anton: In Minsk, as everywhere else in the Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991, deranged teens appeared in large numbers, not on friendly terms with reality. They rejected the society and the state in all their manifestations; it was a revolutionary generation, for it was not possible for an intelligent young man to live in the late Soviet Union without feeling intolerable disgust. We were doomed to marginal existence and chose refuge in art – established a land of our own and named it Solntsetsvety. It’s not right to say somebody is a “member”– it’s more like mist that you can enter or leave. We call Solntsetsvety an artistic group just to set forth at least some kind of coordinates. [We] accept everybody in the world into Solntsetsvety in absentia: membership became irrelevant.
Aleksei: The band started as acoustic punk-rock duo – I remember their first gig on a degraded truck in the ruins of suburban Minsk. They soon went electric with a full line-up.
Tim: Solntsetsvety are everyone. Sun Flowers – it’s some kind of a plant, I guess.
How is Solntsetsvety pronounced?
Aleksei: / s-o-n-ts-Ə-ts-v-e-t-i/
What are all the projects of Solntsetsvety? Who is in each / where is each located?
Tim: All is changing constantly, and new projects arise from time to time. As for the persons behind the names, they could be counted. Don’t waste this paper with the names, though.
Anton: Solntsetsvety came about as a survival method; the projects of Solntsetsvety emerged as such, each for its own moment. What made it possible for us to survive in the 00′s was our set of projects. The group was already nonexistent as a collective, but it did exist as an alliance of people with similar interests; each member could introduce creative projects [and] strengthen the common concept.
Aleksei: To name “all” would be pretty ambitious.
What binds these projects together and makes them Solntsetsvety?
Tim: This is a unique feeling. It’s like a wave of an ocean that will ruin the world to the initial stage; to its basic state.
Aleksei: It’s hard to tell what the kinship is based on – it’s inner feeling rather than musical style or lineup. For example, [my band] Green Brain Arts Band, Inc. had three Solntsetsvety members, but it had nothing to do with Solntsetsvety.
Why is everything on lesom.ru free to download?
Anton: It is impossible for a musician or an artist to make a living with their art in our country. Ones who cherish such illusions put in jeopardy their own lives and the lives of their family members. There are more effective ways to earn money.
Tim: I guess it began with “who will ever be interested in what we do”. Wanna listen – download, visit live shows or come on, do something better.
What labels have released Solntsetsvety albums?
Anton: We don’t exist for them at all, I think. For the local ones we’re not profitable, and for the foreign incomprehensible. Only one album – The Stone (Камень) was released with VOM4’s own money and administrative support from Moscow label Otdelenie Vyhod (Отделение Выход).
Tim: Clinical Archives net-label welcomes our music. Haze net-label released some.
Can you describe what makes Simptom Pogremushki different from other Solntsetsvety outfits?
Tim: SP-ki is a one-man project, with help from friends if they want to collaborate. It’s not bound to ideas or manifestos; it’s more personal and intimate… the word ‘pogremushka’ is compared with a ‘rattle’ (a childhood game; to conjure), ‘noise’, ‘thunder’, or a ‘pogrom’ massacre.
I’d like to hear more about the Sybarites project.
Roman: That was a funny story. Summer 2006, Mono and Anton [are] running around, telling me they invented a totally new way to record things – THE ULTIMATE ETHNOFUFLO recording method: everything unplugged. Bass guitar in a plastic bucket, the resonating sound picked up with a mic. Bass drum made by thumping an umbrella upon a cardboard box; distorted guitar solos sung by voice; lots of flutes and all kinds of percussion. They invited me to join and… we recorded an EP in one day.
Tim: Sybarites: “those who appreciate the finer things”… It’s connected with everyday life, all things / sounds crazy.
What is Magical Unicellular Music/VOM’s manifesto?
Anton: VOM is a musical form without musical text. Formally it’s discreteness of the constant. Units of discreteness are not equal between each other, because of the fluidity of consciousness into which they are immersed: each listener has his/her own subjective composition. Such is the principle, but the problem is that not all listeners perceive music purely, without allusions or matrices: many attempt to listen to VOM as Krautrock or minimalism.
Tim: It was a great idea to create a form of music which could be felt by everyone. Extremely primitive and soulful… popular among the trance scene.
Aleksei: The concept is even the most primitive form can make great music. Different incarnations have different lineups and sound, but what unites them is musical minimalism. Live in Detroit is based on one chord in different positions: it sounds like Bo Diddley was released from mental institution; like Kraftwerk decided to outsmart Can in being monotonous.
Roma: The best definition: ‘the people in the audience stare at the guys on stage playing instruments, but nothing seems to ever change. Then it clicks: the music starts playing inside the heads of the listeners, while on stage there seems to continue to be nothing happening’… for me, when that click happens – I enjoy that like few other things. My silly dream [is] to play with VOM5 on the main military parade in Belarus where they showcase their tanks and rockets, on one of those giant wheeled platforms that they use for transporting nukes. VOM is very emotional music for me.
How many factions of VOM exist? Who / where are they?
Aleksei: Oh no, never counted them.
What is a Solntsetsvety live show like?
Tim: You never know what will happen next. You get this feeling even if VOM is playing.
Aleksei: Depends on project, lineup, and Anton’s mood. In the beginning, СЦ was a typical punk outfit – shaven heads, dirty jeans, cheap guitars, lots of raw energy. Anton was often drunk. Then the image started to evolve. I remember one show in Bobruisk that had lots of death and black metal bands in it (I don’t know why this is so popular in Belarus – we always made fun of them). There are those drunken headbangers, leather jackets, inverted crosses and all that jazz, and sober Anton comes out in a white shirt, with a scroll of poetry in his hand and says “Hi, goblins”. They in turn yell “crippled faggot” (Anton held a cane due to injury). Then the band goes into high-tempo hardcore punk, and those guys can’t help but start dancing to it. Between songs, mutual insults resume. Great!
As time passed, СЦ floated into psychedelic… performance elements started dominating.
Roma: It depends. A good VOM concert is like a therapy (or surgery), other projects work other ways.
Anton: A classic performance of Solntsetsvety is when on stage come out many (many!) people well prepared for the gig, with neat haircuts, in nice suits, with sparkling new instruments as if for the last time. And then something happens that nobody has foreseen, but it’s exactly what everybody came to the gig for.
Where is the center or Solntsetsvety? (Minsk? Moscow? Online?)
Anton: The last 10 years the website has been the center of our activities. I strive for tangibility, and I wish and hope to see Solntsetsvety function trans-spatially.
Tim: There can be no center for everyone : )
Why has Solntsetsvety existed these past two decades? What are its musical, environmental, political, financial and spiritual influences?
Aleksei: In 1991 we were a bunch of guys living in a decaying Soviet Union, no money, no future, political rat race around. We wanted to have fun and did it in a way we could afford. We listened to garage, psychedelic and [punk]. We wanted to play our music, because everywhere in Belarus it was either pop or metal; very few local bands to listen to. One thing different from the West, there was no punk vs. hippie thing: both were ostracized and hated equally by cops, civilians and working-class youth. There was no dichotomy: while СЦ music was punk, the lyrics were Syd Barret-style. It really hit the spot. This facilitated a smooth transition to a more psychedelic sound (unlike in NYC where I heard snide remarks about how Bad Brains “lost their edge”). But… drugs, career changes and creative blocks took their toll. One contributor to line-up changes has been immigration; it’s natural to find ways of not being so dependent on lineup… incorporating electronic elements, or having a network of musicians. Since СЦ never had a musical dogma (nobody says “Play exactly like our previous guitarist/drummer”), everyone’s free to bring their thing to the music, thus keeping it from fossilization.
Anton: The main influence was undoubtedly the time we grew up in, the collapse of the empire, breakdown of the social order. Our generation is separated from society, it hates the state, and at some point the state gave a valid reason to be hated – Belarus became a dictatorship. But we always tried to live like some other world was real and what we did happened in some other coordinate system. The Beatles also meant a great deal to us; their music was true revelation in the Soviet Union. I’m influenced by Paul Valery, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, poets Aleksandr Vvedenskiy and Olga Sedakova, symphonies, post-punk culture…
Tim: As for me, I like to forget how to do something: forget known patterns and find something interesting in a newly discovered form.
Roma: Solntsetsvety is a way to clear your vision and get closer to reality, [and for me to] play music I want to hear but can’t – nobody else would make it. Environmentally and politically, financially and spiritually [life] feels like armageddon to me… maybe Solntsetsvety is a way to deal with that.
What is the future of Solntsetsvety?
Anton: Something should be changed, no doubt. [We have] no rational design.
Do you have hopes for how Solntsetsvety will be seen historically in Russia / Belarus and beyond?
Anton: The most important thing СЦ proposed is an idea for survival of the creative process and collective, expressed in our structure and technologies. Maybe our tree-like structure, like Bergson’s L’Evolution créatrice, can be a useful model for [others].
Anton, how do you feel about other members of Solntsetsvety naming you ring leader, and a genius?
Anton: I don’t know what the word “genius” means at all.
Do you strive to make your music an incomprehensible mystery to foreigners, or is that just a result of your process?
Anton: It’s not only incomprehensible for foreigners but for Russian journalists, listeners and sometimes for me. We’re based on illogical parallel expansion, and sometimes we’re even changing our past.