The Freelance Mentalists.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
  End of 0

One morning last September I got a text message from Peter Rehberg.  He had just arrived in town, booked on extremely short notice to play at an evening of electronic music here.  He was replacing the headliner, Mika Vainio (and btw that evening Peter ended up turning in a stunning, very tightly constructed set).

When we met up, Peter told me that Mika was apparently having problems and wasn’t making it to all his gigs.  Mika was living in Berlin then; I’d heard rumors of episodes where he would begin drinking and sometimes disappear for days at a time, incommunicado and whereabouts unknown.  People who knew him were alarmed by this development, clearly something beyond just overconsumption of alcohol.

Anyway, this morning I got the news that Mika Vainio passed away on 13 April.

His massive contribution to the music finally dawned on me when I learned – only very recently – that he, both solo and with his group Panasonic, began recording in the 1990s, whereas I’d always thought that they were already releasing records by the early 1980s.  To my ear, Panasonic (who later decided to change their name to “Pan Sonic” as a result of a cease-and-desist letter from the Japanese electronics conglomerate) were contemporaries of Throbbing Gristle, and constituted a minimalist missing link between Suicide and Richie Hawtin.

Anachronistically, their music sounded less like a form of techno than an experimental forerunner of it, while uncovering something atavistic in it.  In their focus on pure waveforms they seem to have discovered principles of physics from which minimal techno could emerge as a natural, logical extension.  

It was as though one of them scrawls a mathematical ratio on a scrap of paper, they set their analog equipment accordingly, add a simple click throughout, and voilà, a track is born.  Then sometime later, a DJ elsewhere hears the resulting pattern, puts a Roland 909 under it, and the musical idea reaches the rave and dance club in an only slightly mutated form.  The one time that I saw Pan Sonic live, at Vienna’s legendary dance club Flex, they and their two modest electronic boxes totally rocked the house, while offering virtually zero melodic material.

And then there’s Mika’s producing just plain noise, as a member of that inner circle of pioneer noisemeisters that includes Merzbow, Russell Haswell, and the late Zbigniew Karkowski, churning out blocks of apparently random hiss, rumble, crackle, and hum played at deafening volume.

But in addition to the quasi-techno miniatures and the in-your-face industrial confrontations, there are his ambient works, the ones that appear on Mika’s solo recordings – often released self-effacingly and somewhat self-destructively under the name “0” (try searching this ultra-minimal pseudonym in any digital database and you’ll see that his using it was nearly as self-defeating as having chosen “Panasonic” as the name of his duo).  For my money, the placid soundscapes on “Oleva” (from 2008) are easily better than nearly all of Brian Eno:  simple, elegant, clearly drawn lines as opposed to vague, ambient washes of pastels.

Among Mika Vainio’s vast output – 33 records under his name alone, and 32 with Pan Sonic, plus his collaborations with Alan Vega and many others – I accord a special place to his outstanding work on “the Vladislav Delay Quartet”, where he joins his Finnish compatriot Sasu Ripatti and is responsible for much of the sound design, including those ominous and at times oppressive electronic textures.  (The socialist-realist woodcut images on the sleeve are among my all-time favorite album cover art.)

Pan Sonic’s minimalism in music carried over to their mode of existence as well.  Their being a duo, often requiring just a couple of analog boxes, allowed them to play pretty much anywhere, resulting in gigs in far-flung places like Easter Island(!).

This guerrilla approach could also be seen in the fall of 1998, when they were invited to perform at the prestigious Ars Electronica festival in Austria.  As their venue, Pan Sonic played on a train that rolled around, into and through the huge Vöest-Alpine steelworks of Linz.  

On the following night, at the Rhiz in Vienna, Mika Vainio did a DJ set that has been uploaded here, and proves that he really was one of us:

Mika Vainio (1963–2017)

Rob Young has written a fine tribute for The Wire:

There’s an excellent history here:

Pitchfork has put together a nice selection of 7 tracks.  The video of “Endless” (Pan Sonic with Alan Vega) shows the similarities between their sensibility and that of their fellow Finn, Aki Kaurismäki:

                                                               ----John Wojtowicz


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