Thresholds: Sal Solaris, Bisamratta/M. Sultan, Crane's Dreams, Borisov & Salnikov

Sal Solaris (aka "Солнечная Соль"): "Thresholds" (2016)

The Russian electronic project known as Sal Solaris (Солнечная Соль) consists of two people: Konstantin Mezer and Ivan Napreenko. They are from Moscow and Rostov-na-Donu, yet the sounds generated by these gentlemen lie far beyond any objectively recognized coordinates. Not only are Sal Solaris renowned for daring experimentation in the outlying fields of discord, drone, and aural overload; they have also dedicated their newest album to the related theme of "thresholds" and whatever lies beyond convention. Risky endeavors are to be expected.

In order to pass from one low point to another, we need a breakthrough (Sal Solaris)

The most recent Sal Solaris compositions were collectively published as "Possessed," They were prefaced with an English-language definition from a Merriam Webster dictionary of that same adjective or participle: "[1] Influenced or controlled by something (as an evil spirit, a passion, or an idea) [2] Mad, crazed [3] Urgently desirous to do or have something." The imprecise word "something" appears here twice; the driving force behind possession or obsession remains vague, at best. From the outset, therefore, Napreenko and Mezer are concerned both with the causes of extreme behavior and with its unexpected consequences. 

One of these abstract forces emerged in an interview not long ago when Sal Solaris explained that their peculiar moniker comes from a 1997 edition of the long-defunct National Bolshevik Party newspaper, "Limonka." "It [also] has alchemical origins and refers to a new subjectivity––one that would be free from the illusions of a false consciousness." Any rejection of conscious, normal experience will require a great leap of faith.

Then the issues addressed in "Thresholds" are likened––by way of quick illustration––to the dizzying excess of life online. The internet lacks both a center and limit. It is both endlessly chaotic and constructive. Hence the observation from Sal Solaris: "Exposing oneself––in life, as in music––is always hazardous, even in a state of information overload. We should probably remind ourselves that there are no right or wrong choices, only [pure] choices and their consequences."

The precarious movement between causes and effects will arguably be unending, because conscious decisions often prompt unpredictable results; deliberate actions frequently lead to strange outcomes. Linear plans are led astray and straight lines become rhizomatic curlicues. Life slips out of our hands; it does not lend itself to categorization.

Sal Solaris (Konstantin Mezer [L] and Ivan Napreenko)

And that brings us directly back to "Thresholds"––an album exceptional both for its its numerous collaborations or remixes and the foregrounding of more rhythmic, sometimes hardcore techno. The LP addresses these shifting generic limits in the context of solar activity; both embody a sometimes unruly process of ebb and flow. "The Sun radiates heat and cools. Mountains [on Earth] are eroded and then ground down into sand. Any system tends towards minimum energy and maximum entropy––in other words, towards equilibrium. Prior to the onset of chaos, the universe will be a complex, thermodynamic landscape, rich in peaks and troughs, ridges and valleys."

The solar system is then used to make a related point regarding opposites in daily experience. "In order to pass from one low point [in life] to another, we need a breakthrough. In the same manner, a burning match increases energy, so that regents may cross a threshold––and then roll freely onwards." Given these metaphors, it's hard not to imagine a connection with "Iskra" (Spark), the newspaper of revolutionary ideas founded by Lenin in 1900. Its activity was not long––a mere five years––but the transgressive ideas therein changed the world. 

Exposing oneself––in life, as in music––is always hazardous

Again these musical and planetary matters are applied to quotidian mysteries: "This album attempts to ask what it means to be a 'burning match' in [fundamental] human situations. How, for example, may we cross a mountain pass, when it is covered with clouds? 'Thresholds' can be considered a box of matches––or perhaps an experimental map of [precious] 'mountain passes' for those who feel constrained in the valleys." 

Experimental music wants to inspire real-world experimentation in its audience. These, put differently, are the sounds of something unusual happening. Lest such symbols and parallels appear too abstract, the LP is equally full of theories from science that hope to explicate moments of transition or breakthrough. They include Eigen's paradox, in other words the complex patterns of "error correction" in life's most primitive forms, which are needed in order to reach the following stage of evolution. Some bizarre, even paradoxical force within basic life forms lets them violate normality––and move upwards.

Kindred motifs transpire in discussions of error correction in both crystal formation and cryptosystems––the algorithms used in online security services. Or, if one prefers zoology, Sal Solaris speak of the polygyny threshold model––defining superior fitness levels across mating patterns in nature––and therefore better survival rates.

Crane's Dreams ("Журавлинные сны," aka Roman Barinov) 

The most recently published interview with Sal Solaris brings even more useful information to bear. For example, Napreenko has the following to say about the music's relation to hope: "Our new LP gives listeners no reason to suggest that life will get easier. What does remain [after the last track has finished], however, is a [universal] need to do something. Our creative work takes shape upon that threshold [between hope and action]. It's like digging out a tiny opening for yourself––beneath a stone door. There's always pain involved in making an LP. In fact the album itself is [also] an attempt to lessen that pain and so... there's a vicious circle here. Thresholds are part of the fundamental dialectic between qualitative and quantitative changes." Some old political ideas find new and useful application. 

Thresholds are part of the fundamental dialectic between qualitative and quantitative changes

Various other aspects of Soviet culture are reworked in the newest material from the solo Saint Petersburg musician Roman Barinov, who performs on stage as Crane's Dreams––or in Russian as "Журавлинные сны." Now, as ever, he remains happier in virtual anonymity. This northern author of what he calls "modern classical, ambient, or drone" compositions remains a minor figure within his own materials. In virtually all photographs, as we can see above, Barinov is either turning away from the camera or standing somewhere in middle distance, overshadowed by autumnal clouds, shade, trees, or bushes. His face is usually obscured.

So what of those Soviet connections? A February 2014 recording from Crane's Dreams, in other words an eponymous album, included a handful of soundbites from classic Soviet cinema, together with a brief poem by Anna Akhmatova, bemoaning the gap between love "on the rim of a cloud" and real life. The oldest of those filmic fragments, hoping to bridge the same divide between romance and reality, came from "True Friends," a 1954 comic tale of private dignity. Three adult chums decide to fulfill a boyhood dream and enjoy a river trip together. They head off into peaceful nature. Their miniature adventure, conducted across meadows and forest clearings, would later become nationally famous as a celebration of smallness and mutual support, soon after the death of Stalin. 

Amity and an open horizon promised considerably more than the state.

Crane's Dreams (Saint Petersburg): "Home of My Youth" (2016)

Next, chronologically speaking, was "When the Trees Were Higher" from 1961. As a Soviet movie shown also at the Cannes Film Festival, it has always been considered a forgiving, thoughtful, and affectionate portrait of some utterly typical citizens. Majesty is wholly absent in a story of absent fathers and post-war orphans. Escapism––into the caring arms of another––is a more appealing option than ideologized pomp. Honesty and happiness here are both extremely quiet.

Fifteen blissful springtimes

Finally in these background materials of 2014, Crane's Dreams employed a third audio snippet taken from the movie "The Dawns Here Are Quiet" (1972). The film's central narrative concerns a group of anti-aircraft gunners on the frontline in WWII, all women. Shockingly, they are all killed in frontline action. Loud pathos quickly gives way to considerable empathy, especially when we discover in the film's denouement that their male colleague adopts one of the orphaned children. Families, one hopes, will last longer than any international conflict.  

These generational references continue on the newest Crane's Dreams album, which is called "Home of My Youth" (Дом юности). Cut and pasted audio this time comes from three primary sources. First among them is a 1982 documentary on the work of Soviet poet Sergei Esenin, whose evocations of the Russian countryside fell increasingly out of favor amid revolutionary processes of industrialization––and he eventually committed suicide in 1925. Nonetheless, Esenin still managed to remain in Soviet schoolbooks, despite increasing evidence of both debauchery and homosexuality in his life. Those competing emphases of sentiment and salaciousness meant that once the 1980s rolled around and perestroika was about to begin, Esenin's "true" meaning was up for (loud) debate. The significance of everybody's childhood favorite was questioned. 

Anna Akhmatova appears once more in "Home of My Youth," this time in a brief poem of 1962, written in her Komarovo dacha, just outside Leningrad. It celebrates the arrival of a "fruitful autumn... pouring a secret force into my fated body." Nature again comes to the fore after Stalin's death, following "fifteen blissful springtimes" that could not escape dangerous ideology. Only in the early 1960s was the horror of a failed system brought to light. The public learned of unforgivable transgressions––and preferred the embrace of nature.

In those first two historical references, we can already see how Crane's Dreams is/are divorcing life in the Soviet period from Soviet politics. The private realm is more important than the public. And indeed, the artwork for "Home of My Youth" (above) speaks again of private Slavic life, pure and simple; traditional architecture––offered to us in a photograph––symbolizes an antique heritage that has somehow lasted until the present day. The building in question is, admittedly, barely standing. 

Bisamråtta and Misha Sultan (Novosibirsk): "In Dreams of Sun" (2016)

These emblems are equally evident in a 2016 soundbite taken by Crane's Dreams from the Russian feature film of 2003, "Babusya." The movie is structured upon the same generational divide––i.e., it is built upon the borderline between Soviet and post-Soviet societies. An elderly grandmother––who passed through the Battle of Stalingrad––finds herself unloved by her children and grandchildren today. All sense of community has been lost. The house of one's youth is in ruins––or will be sold to the highest bidder.

A related feeling of (urban) demise and decay has always colored the improvised instrumentals of Siberian saxophonist Vladimir Luchansky––aka Bisamråtta––who is based in Novosibirsk. He also plays in the local outfit known as Kometjakten. Both of those alternative identities or names come in part from the widely loved Swedish/Finnish Moomin stories for children. Bisamråtta actually translates as "muskrat," a character in those same tales who's famous for his pessimistic insistence that life has no meaning. Childhood naivety and adult cynicism overlap.

We're more interested in the process than in any final result (Aleksei Borisov)

The last Bisamråtta collection examined on FFM consisted simply of two lengthy drone works, running together for over half an hour. Entitled "Försiktigt," they drew––presumably––upon the "Disintegration Loops" of Texan sound artist William Basinski. In that American composition, a small spool of magnetic tape plays for over an hour, gradually disintegrating as it does so. Fixed sounds and defined patterns eventually give way to nothingness; sound becomes silence. Basinski has claimed that he finished the recordings on September 9, 2001, just as the attacks began on New York's Twin Towers.

Within this and related absences, one might hope, a process of strength and self-discovery could begin. Tales of nothingness help to remove the presumed importance of a provincial address in Novosibirsk and suggest instead a quieter, though superior sense of cohesion and membership. A feeling of belonging––to nature, memories of the past, or absent friends, maybe––comes from nowhere. Especially if urban existence has, for most of Russia's twentieth century, been associated with little more than centralized anger and violent exclusion. Better to be nowhere.

The newest Bisamråtta recordings are are an Echotourist split with Misha Sultan (Mikhail Gavrilov), called "In Dreams of Sun," and claim to merge both "Nordic and Asian flavors." Their primary inspiration, however, seems to come from Africa––at least judging by the artwork. The famous image above depicts a man known only as Chuma, who was a vital member of David Livingstone's African expeditions in the 1860s. He would arguably have remained completely anonymous, were it not for his incredible heroism––together with another servant, Susi––following Livingstone's death in 1873.

A typically understated, under-lit performance from Bisamråtta

Chuma and Susi came to public attention after their employer Livingstone died in an isolated village, which is located in modern Zambia. The two men decided––in defiance of common sense––to carry their master all the way to a distant coastline. There, they hoped, it might be transferred to the British authorities and taken across the seas to London. Livingstone's heart was first removed as a symbol of love for Africa; his body was partially mummified and encased in a small coffin, which was then sealed with tar. Livingstone's empty frame, together with his notebooks, was shouldered by these two men for more than one thousand miles––so that an explorer might be afforded a dignified place of rest. Both Africans could easily have been struck down by robbers or disease. Chuma, perhaps inspired by his own incredible luck en route, would later return home and become involved with missionary work. 

A great deal was sacrificed to a precious dream and an undying friendship; that same triumph of spirit over body mirrors the ethics of prior Bisamråtta recordings. The sacrifices demanded of modern citizens by social constraints or habit seem laughable in the face of nineteenth-century explorers and their brave colleagues. Value systems of worth are sought therefore maximally far from home––in terms of time and/or space.

Carefully. Low fidelity (Bisamråtta)

One could argue that the predominance of––and lasting respect for––improvisational performance in Russian electronica are both a response to related social restraints. Limitations prompt a search for liberty, as with Bisamråtta. Any such discussion of audible freedoms on stage will probably involve the enduring influence of Moscow's Alexei Borisov or his side-projects, such as Astma.

His musical career stretches back to 1980, but even now––more than thirty-five years later––Borisov still maintains that his enormous catalog "is not arranged with any structural considerations in mind. I prefer the term 'no-art,' which can be understood in various ways. One could say, for example, that our work [in Astma] is neither art nor anything of value... We try to overcome those formal issues––in order to go beyond their limits. Perhaps that'll allow us to unearth something new... We're more interested in the [creative, chaotic] process than in any final result, although they don't necessarily exclude one another. So there is a certain ideological background at work... it causes [opposing] viewpoints to clash. And that might inspire a certain activism." Dialectics still have some romantic impact and import.

Put simply, a work of art (a concrete object or objective) is replaced with the working procedure––and that which constantly changes or remains active will never have a name. It never stays still long enough to join any established category; flux is ineffable. 

Borisov and Salnikov: "Hackney Attic 015" (2016)

One more example of that unpredictability has appeared in a live London recording made by Alexei Borisov together with Misha "MOX" Salnikov, himself an emigre performer in the same city. Recorded in the Hackney Attic, these two instrumentals run close to thirty minutes in length and are labeled simply as "Parts One and Two." Although it comes without any supporting texts, Borisov's contribution to "Hackney Attic 015" might arguably be understood in the light of some other improvisational efforts. One such reference point could be his live soundtrack (made with Sergey Letov) for Dziga Vertov's 1926 film, "Stride Forth, Soviet!" The silent feature was commissioned by Moscow's authorities, in order to celebrate their civic achievements––but Vertov was more interested in bringing machines to life and showing how they socialize. The politicians were unimpressed. 

I was able to make the sound as extreme as possible

In the same way, Borisov has spoken of his entire career as an "attempt to escape limitations––the kind of constraints that rock music, sooner or later, establishes.... By moving into avant-garde noise, I was able to better feel the 'physiology' of my sound. I was able to make the sound as extreme as possible"––and break through various barriers. "Noise consists of many components. It can easily be bound to a rhythm, a voice, or melody. Noise combines well with the sounds of nature, too." The sounds of chaos are more familiar than we think.

Borisov––rather admirably––has been inclined of late to link his celebrations of "boundless" noise to the social inclusiveness of modern Russian democracy and, similarly, to the participatory culture of life online. "Nowadays [in 2016] we see all kinds of specialized festivals, clubs, and galleries in Russia. Any [exhaustive] list of artists or labels is going to be huge. Tendencies can appear and disappear every day. At least there's more variety now than we ever saw in the '80s––even in the '90s."

He is also inclined to view the people of a varied, "post-threshold" culture in the same manner, after 1991. "I consider young people [in Russia] today to be both better educated and more informed. They're more open to experiments and collaborations. The cultural situation of the 1980s was more 'hermetic,' if you will. We collaborated less often with jazz musicians back then... There were less crossovers. Personally I was always interested in the symbiosis of [new] creative freedoms [after perestroika] and the gradual departure of our Soviet existence. Sometimes we thought that all that [freedom] would surely come to an end––and we'd end up back in a police van... again. I don't want that feeling [of the 1980s] to come back."

And so we see in these new experimental recordings from MOX SalnikovAlexei BorisovBisamråttaMisha SultanCrane's Dreams, and Sal Solaris two fundamental responses to a period of social or emotional liminality. Either one has the courage to break through convention and encounter the risks of massive change––or one rejects the values of that same, entropic society and heads for the hills. One departs for a place where communal values persevere, albeit in crumbling houses.

Alexei Borisov (L) and Misha "MOX" Salnikov in London


Sal Solaris – Error (Eigen's Paradox)
Crane's Dreams – Farewell, Grandmother
Bisamratta – Kalamazoo (w. Misha Sultan)
Aleksei Borisov – Part One (snippet with Salnikov)
Aleksei Borisov – Part Two (snippet with Salnikov)
Sal Solaris – Polygyny Model
Bisamratta – When the Night Falls (w. Misha Sultan)

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