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Inspired by space dreams, Maria Teriaeva’s enchanting synth-pop is a soothing balm for strange times

If there ever was a time to release a track called “SØS”, it would be in the midst of a pandemic. But Moscow-based electronic music artist Maria Teriaeva hadn’t exactly planned it this way.

30 April 2020
Top image: Ar Abeque

Just two days after Maria Teriaeva sent me her then-unreleased track called “SØS” from her new album, she had a real emergency on her hands. In a bizarre case of life imitating art, she posted an Instagram story of the medical personnel who turned up at her Moscow flat in hazmat suits, diagnosed her with Covid-19, and whisked her away to be quarantined in hospital. In the music video for “SØS”, Teriaeva stars as a scientist in a space laboratory during an unknown crisis. Were it not for the caption and the dimly lit hospital setting, you have mistaken the ballooned human figures for music video extras.

Teriaeva was discharged nine days later in full health. Nonetheless, the tour for her second album, Conservatory of Flowers, which had been three years in the making, was postponed until further notice. When I finally speak with her, she laughs off one particularly prophetic moment in the music video, when the camera lingers on the word “uncertainty”.

For all of its unsettling coincidences, the story behind “SØS” is one of rescue rather than crisis, driven by the magic and wonder of science. The video features a real scientist and modern-day hero: Mikhail Yuryevich Sotsky, an engineer at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, whose research on space debris, among other things, involves thinking up ways to stop asteroids from hitting Earth. (He also happens to be the father of one of Teriaeva’s friends). The video was filmed in his laboratory, yet what looks like a retro control panel from a sci-fi flick is actually Teriaeva’s instrument of choice, the Buchla Easel.

Conservatory of Flowers is a buoyant synth-pop record full of curious diversions

The 1960s avant-garde synthesizer and its inventor were the real inspiration for the video. “Something that interested me was that Don Buchla worked at NASA,” explains Teriaeva, who likens her writing process to research and investigation. She wanted the video to blur the lines between music, science, and space exploration to continue Buchla’s legacy as “he would often use spare parts from the space industry for his own inventions.”

Image: Andrey Raputo

Image: Andrey Raputo

Free from dystopian gloom, whatever emergency occurs in “SØS” is brightened with colourful visuals, paired with the Buchla’s analogue gurgles and celestial synth sounds. Near the end of the video, the artist is separated from her equipment and begins to float. Nothing symbolises freedom and euphoric breakthrough quite like escaping the force of gravity. If Don Buchla had wished for his instrument to take you out of this world, perhaps for a musician this might involve losing control. That sense of optimism and surrender carries over into the album. Conservatory of Flowers is a buoyant synth-pop record full of curious diversions that shifts away from the inward and introspective nature of Focus (2017), her first LP, and looks out onto the wider world, pondering human achievements and environmental troubles alike.

Though the album is serene for the most part, there’s no getting away from catastrophes here. The track “How Are You Feeling?”, which appears halfway through the release, is aptly named. It begins with gentle chirping birds, tranquil sounds which disappear as the mood changes to one of unease and alarm. The samples were provided by the Russian Bird Conservation Union, and are recordings of birds on the verge of extinction. The track follows a three-part structure. According to the artist, “it begins with a paradise on earth, then catastrophe ensues, and by the end man and nature reconcile and survive.”

Image: Andrey Raputo

Image: Andrey Raputo

The birds are not the only wildlife guest stars to feature on Conservatory of Flowers. The album was composed over one summer at her family dacha outside Moscow, and much of her surroundings made it organically onto the record. Teriaeva has been interested in imitating natural sounds with the Buchla since her first album, in tracks like “Borneo”. In a past interview, she told The Calvert Journal: “My friends who had visited Borneo told me they could hear the Buchla in the wilderness. Though the Buchla is an electronic instrument it can mimic the sounds of nature — of crickets and the rustling of leaves.”

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She wanted this latest album to take you on a journey “from the city into nature”. As she explains: “Each summer I’d do just this and go to the countryside, 52km away from Moscow to switch off. It’s a fruitful environment for me.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak, those film and album releases that haven’t been cancelled or postponed have instead been under Covid-19’s shadow. Yet timing hasn’t tainted Teriaeva’s latest offering. Listening to the album while staring out of the window in lockdown only adds to the experience. Enhanced by the inclusion of live instruments (in addition to the Buchla, the album features Nikita Shishkov on trumpet, Vasiliy Yanik on saxophone, Yana Chekina on cello, Sasha Elina on flute, and Vadik Korolev on vocals), it offers a sweet and bucolic escape at a time when our access to nature is most restricted or limited to our phone screens.

“Nature is something eternal that people will always need,” says Teriaeva. “Now, because of the crisis and the pandemic, we probably feel it stronger.” By this virtue, Conservatory of Flowers, is sure enough to bloom out of the rubble like poppies after a wildfire.

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