Mika Vainio, one of my favorite musicians since the mid-1990s, passed away on April 13 at the age of 53. As of now, I have no details on the situation other than the simple fact that he’s no longer with us. Nonetheless, I’m compelled to say a few eulogistic words about someone whose work helped to shape my personal aesthetics (to say nothing of shaping a whole subgenre of severely focused and unrepentantly physical music).
I first heard Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen’s Panasonic (yes, that’s how it was still spelled on the album artwork then) in 1997 while working at Tower Records in Chicago, where I bought an import CD of their landmark release “Kulma”. I knew they’d been active for some time before that, but it took a sort of ‘electronica’ boom of that period to really make their music more accessible Stateside. If I recall correctly, they were being featured in those clumsy types of “genre survey” magazine articles and being forwarded as peers to “IDM” progenitors such as Autechre (I guess because both acts rely upon a 230V electric power supply to compose their music, or something?) It was clear upon first listen, though, that this was something vastly different from the other recorded music available in the 1990s, and for some time afterwards.
Panasonic’s intense post-human surge of electronics, devoid of any easy cultural reference points and often relying on no more than the absolute fundamentals of sound, was a revelation: theirs was a music which seemed to eroticize the most supposedly sterile or cerebral of activities, teasing out the secret life of clandestine research processes by amplifying them to stun volume. Like an extended session of floating in an isolation tank, this music delivered more colorful imaginative experiences than even a great deal of the music which took the horror vacuii approach of going into hyper-detail. Its return to atomic elements of sound made for something perceptibly ‘new’ without even trying, quite a feat while working on the margins of a culture industry whose all-consuming obsession is for continual novelty. In this sense, Panasonic - and most Vainio-enhanced music I heard afterwards - felt also like a revolt. Much as earlier waves of musical minimalism (e.g. LaMonte Young, Terry Riley) rebelled against serialism’s academic fixation on complexity, Vainio and his fellow travelers seemed to be revolting against an entire culture that seemed steeped in the conceit that complexity in design was some unimpeachable marker of truth and beauty.
Shortly after hearing my first Vainio work on record, it immediately found its way onto whatever mix tapes I subsequently made for friends and for the slow bus crawl up Clark Street to work (I can still hardly go down this main traffic artery of Chicago without hearing the acidic synth washes of “Teurastamo” in my head). I digested more and more about the duo, being especially fascinated by their austere installation work and their legendary marathon performances. It was validating to see them eventually, and almost effortlessly, forming an international pool of collaborations with those who took a similar approach to unadorned and tactile audio: Alan Vega, Charlemagne Palestine, etc. These collaborations also struck me for the way in which one could no longer easier tell who was ‘influencing’ whom, making them an even more powerful testament to the destruction of those personality cults which interfere in the true exploration of music and other forms of art. Over time, I followed this golden thread of collaborations and it eventually led to a cascade of events that culminated in me making some of the best and most rewarding friendships I’ve had. For this reason alone, I owe Mika much more than I can communicate in a simple dedication on my next audio release.
Strangely, I never got in personal contact with Mika, even when composing my first book - an effort that, again, owed a lot to the ecstatically amplified pulse of his work and the way in which it achieved its enormity with only a light complement of “gear” pieces and with very little in the way of self-promotion. We crossed paths a couple of times, but for some reason I never felt compelled to seek out biographical info on him. Maybe I was intimidated by the legendary taciturnity of Finns or, more likely, I just felt as if his deep immersion in his own music told me most of what I needed to know about him. Those who know me well probably know that I’m too restlessly curious for my own good, and that spending a lot of time around large-breed dogs has probably influenced my desire to inquisitively sniff around at anything and everything. So being spared this inquisitive sniffing is probably as high a compliment as I can probably give to someone working in the sonic arts.
All the same, I’ve heard little but positive assessments of Mika as a human being, and now greatly miss the chance to have spoken with him a little more about his creative process and about his views on where we may be going as a species. It’s sad to lose yet another tremendous and original talent in a world that sorely needs them as counterweights to the reign of willful stupidity. Yet every triumph achieved in the name of Art for Life’s Sake is a lasting one that reverberates for years and years to come - I’m fully convinced that Mika’s work will endure, flourish, and remain a vital reference point for those who dare to fully explore their own creative instincts.