Eye Of The Sea: Svitlana Nianio

Exploring some of the Ukrainian artist's most shimmering moments

Svitlana Nianio & Tom James Scott

The Eye Of The Sea

Nianio’s voice feels eternal, a haunted tonality resting beneath the surface at all times, yet unerringly human. It’s been one of my constants these past few years, something instantly gripping and yet elusive. Her voice is pure, clear-cut and rounded, ghostly in the way it sails through her minimal, sparkling compositions, always hovering and weaving. As a musician and singer she’s been at the heart of her native Kiev’s experimental scene since the 90s, initially as part of experimental group Cukor Bila Smart and in the past decade a smattering of reissue projects have uncovered her work, slowly and with purpose. 

The Eye Of The Sea is Nianio’s first new work since 2016 and is a collaboration with English artist Tom James Scott, whose Skire imprint has been responsible for much of the recent discovery of Nianio’s work. Skire’s reissue of Lisova Kolekciya was my own introduction and prompted Night School’s reissue of its partner album Znyaesh Yak? Rozkazhy a couple of years later, in partnership with Skire. Nianio’s music has since always been there for me as a listener, a magic door into an enchantment that is hers alone. It’s an enchantment that isn’t always easy, her music is loaded with the weight of sadness, it is heavy despite being wonderfully airy, like mist drifting across an uncertain, dark landscape. Records like Znyaesh Yak? – a collaborative work with long term musical partner, the late Oleksandr Yurchenko – used a minimal approach that wasn’t afraid to veer into abrasion but on The Eye Of The Sea, Scott’s instrumentation is open without being trite, mediative without drifting into “ambient.” It’s achingly, stunningly, beautiful and something I urge you to accept in.

Tom James Scott’s music is often characterised by a liminality which at its most warm becomes luminous with promise. With Eye Of The Sea his awkward tendencies are smoothed out with Nianio’s otherworldly vocal to create, quite possibly, the most beautiful record I’ve heard all year.  Nianio is a powerful force despite her music being, on this occasion, soft, gentle and quietly vulnerable. Hers is a voice capable of stilling chaos, though on Eye Of The Sea she doesn’t have such a titanic task. Beginning as piano sketches composed by Scott and sent to Nianio in Kiev for vocal and additional instrumentation, the album blossoms into a phantasmagoric hallucination with each layer of sound. Scott’s playing often feels like the play of light dappling on an ocean swelling, with Nianio’s contributions gliding overhead and occasionally amongst the light. Chains’s open piano and electric keyboard playing meander, dazed, with Niaino’s vocal taking the composition’s hand patiently. The tonalities often feel like the dying minutes of a wind-up ballerina box, shimmering and high pitched but scattered into air.

Ipomoea sees Nianio’s performance resembling something of the folk song from another dimension, with an added layer of enchantment coming from reed instrument and light synth duet with Scott’s piano. It’s almost in moments like these you can feel the physical distance between the players, responding to each other over thousands of miles, yet completely plugged in to each other’s worlds. Scott’s playing is often suggestive of many different paths at once, never completely melancholy, never completely bright, always inquisitive and Nianio’s contributions guide the compositions into a ghostly underworld. Check out the title track: all plaintive, speculative piano notes pinning down a positively weeping stringed instrument and wordless vocal. On Heartsease we’re treated to layers of vocal, Nianio duetting with herself almost unselfconsciously, like we’re eavesdropping a private ritual. Slowly Turns The Spring feels imbued with the poesy of nature, aided no doubt by a subtle, posititive inflection in the music. On Lotus the music is more drone-like, sustained tones and chimes unravelling at a glacial pace, Nianio a benevolent figure overseeing the tone bath. 

Delicate, fragile, heavy but also fulfilling and airy, Eye Of The Sea is a special, special album. Largely recorded before Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine but coming into being with it in the backdrop, it’s a real wonder full of ghosts, hope and humanity. Unlike the artists’ musics apart, Eye Of The Sea strikes an optimistic note even at its most abstract; even at its most sad the music is brimming with beauty and awe, a quality that is gentle, not ostentatious. This music feels otherworldly but actually paints a beautiful picture of what people can do in this world; literally what Svitlana Nianio and Tom James Scott can do in collaboration but also in a more general sense, this is music of this world, or a better version of it.

  • Michael / Monorail Music

Svitlana Nianio

Lisova Kolekciya

Lisova Kolekciya is Svitlana Nianio’s 1996 album, originally reissued in 2017 by Skire and now getting a limited repress. Drawing on aspects of both traditional Slavic music and modern composition, listening with 21st Century ears it strikes a balance between Meredith Monk and Steve Reich, Nianio’s fluid voice wheeling and pirouetting over the repeated Casio keyboard patterns. Broken up into small vignettes labelled as episodes, it feels like an amble in an enchanted forest. Recorded with collaborator, the late Oleksandr Yurchenko and Konstantin Nazarenko, the music often feels like magic spun into an evergreen daybreak.

Svitlana Nianio has been active in the Ukrainian and Polish underground music scenes since the early ’90’s both as a solo artist and a prominent member of the now disbanded avant-rock outfit Cukor Bila Smert (Sugar White Death). Her music draws on aspects of modern composition and traditional Slavic music, with songs and experiments from that early period culminating in the 1999 album Kytytsi (Koka Records, Poland). Prior to that in 1995, Nianio recorded Lisova Kolekciya (Forest Collection) live in a simple home studio setting with Olexander Yurchenko and Konstantin Nazarenko.

Less indebted to folk tradition than Kytytsi, Lisova Kolekciya was performed using Casio keyboards, electronics, and voice, positioning itself more inline with Terry Riley’s Shri Camel in its otherworldly reinterpretation of the ancient through modern means. Retaining aspects of traditional music in its use of spare instrumentation and haunting vocal melodies, this largely unknown album pushes at the edges of what folk music might be, resulting in music previously described as being “deeply rooted in primeval myths, creating a world of magic realism, in which the temporal dimension and the other world constantly move and permeate.”

Originally distributed privately to friends in the 90s, Lisova Kolekciya (“Forest Collection”) has the air of traditional nursery rhymes haunted by an otherworld.

Svitlana Nianio

Transilvanian Smile 1994

“Transilvania Smile” is one of the first solo works recorded in 1994. During this time, Svitlana repeatedly visited Germany, where she had the experience of playing in parks and on the streets, gathering contacts of the local art scene. Her cooperation with the international choreographic group Pentamonia, based in Cologne and consisting of several girls who performed in theaters, took part in various performances, and were engaged in music. They met in the 1990s during joint performances with “Sugar-White Death.” After that, they corresponded, and the idea of doing something together arose. Svitlana attended several of their performances, which inspired her to write music for a new project, and the band members helped to realize their creative ideas. Later, they started rehearsing together.

The name “Transilvania Smile” was invented by the project participants, and it symbolized the mold on the mirror and the reflection of a smiling vampire. However, shortly before the premiere, they changed it to “Firefox”, as the participants actively used flashlights and the play of light and shadows in the scenography.

The premiere occurred in the local Urania theater, previously a gallery. Isabel Bartensein directed the choreography, and Svitlana played, sang, and improvised. She said it was an excellent experience for her and the band. Besides Cologne, they also performed in Aachen.

Later, Michael Springer offered Svitlana to record this material in his “Phantom” studio. They had already worked together and recorded music for their project (Svitlana Okhrimenko / Phanton). Michael was also interested in the Ukrainian independent scene and participated in the creation of several compilations that featured bands from Kyiv and Kharkiv. Svetlana played the piano and harmonium in the studio and also sang. After the recording, the material was never released in its entirety. Two compositions appeared on the cassette compilation “Shovaisia” (Hide) in 1995, some episodes were re-recorded for the “Kytytsi” album in 1999, but for a long time, the full version of this recording remained practically unknown to listeners and was kept in Svitlana‘s and Michael’s archives.

This album is one of the most personal and insightful works of Svitlana Nianio from the 90s, which you can now get to know in its original form and sound.

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