Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mika Vainio and DEM

This articles is part of my ongoing series on Desktop Electronic Music (DEM). The landing page provides easy access.

I have been studying the music of Mika Vainio, after his unexpected death this year. Though I was always aware of Panasonic, I must say that their work had no direct influence on mine (until now) since I was already working in parallel, exploring aspects of noise and decomposed beats. Nonetheless, there is much to learn from him.

Born in 1963, Mika Vainio had a varied musical career before forming Panasonic with two friends in 1993. The next year their debut EP was released, on the experimental techno label Sähkö Recordings. Under legal pressure they changed their name to Pan Sonic in 1999, continuing as an integral unit for another decade. Besides his work in Panasonic, Vainio released over sixty records in various solo and collaborative projects. When he died in April 2017, the obituaries recognised his "transformative effect" on techno music.

Panasonic's music has been described as a "forbidding array of pure tones, sinewaves, pulses, electronic squelches and ultrasonic waveforms" [Rob Young in The Wire #157]. These sounds signify the glitch aesthetic without necessarily being a product of errors and equipment breakdown. Consider that Vainio's live performance kit includes the OTO Biscuit, an effects box designed as a bit crusher and distortion unit. The noisy result cannot possibly be considered an "error", any more than running a guitar through an overdrive pedal is an error.

There is a problem here for anyone who sets out to make glitch music. A mistake can occur once, so there will be only so much music you can get out of any piece of equipment, only so many errors you can creatively harness. Mistakes repeated become the new intention. What was at first an accident becomes affectation or simply style. Is Panasonic's music post-digital, or simply digital, utilising to the fullest the possibilities the technology affords?

Panasonic's music is nothing if not repetitive, the tracks obsessively focused on "simplified contrasts of space, volume and temporal division" [David Toop in Haunted Weather]. Vainio's prodigious recorded output is indicative of a process that explores all possible variations within a certain musical phase space. He starts with a few constitutive musical elements, applies a particular set of constraints, and then generates macro structures as combinatory results. The clue is in the name, Panasonic, not a mockery of a Hi-Fi company, but an acknowledgement that Vainio wished to express "all sound".

I find this music particularly relevant for my current interest in DEM. Vainio seemed quite proud not to use a laptop computer in performance. Instead, he limited himself to a Vermona Lancet (monophonic synthesiser), Korg SX workstation, a Lexicon FX unit, and the OTO Biscuit already mentioned. We know this, since his technical rider is public.

This minimal setup was augmented by a flexible mixer. His description reads:

Mixing desk
with faders, 4 mono channels and 4 STEREO (!!) channels minimum, pre and post switches for fx, three range EQ and - most important! - 2 aux out-sends

The routing was necessary for setting up feedback chains with his two effects units. In my previous articles on mixers, I have considered the utility of a matrix mixer for creative expression. My proposed design might well have found favour with performers like Vainio.

I will soon present a paper at ISSTA 2017 that incorporates this discussion of Vainio, as an example of a corpuscular approach to music. I will also consider granular synthesis as part of my recuperation of the atomic theories of Epicurus. That takes us into some strange philosophical territory... the full text will be available in due course.


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