BY ASHER REISNER
It was in a quintessentially 21st Century way that I learnt of Mika Vainio’s death. Although, even a decade ago, death notice by YouTube comments would have seemed strange.
Now, I am not a fervent fan of Vainio, and so I felt the way one does when confronted with the unexpected death of a public figure somewhat on the edge of one’s awareness – that is, surprised and a little hollow.
I first came across Vainio a few years ago, in a documentary on musical minimalists – uploaded, as it happened, on YouTube. He was one of several minimal artists interviewed, so I searched for some of his music after watching. Whether it was the album art or the name, I can’t say, but one track in particular drew my cursor in and thereafter became stuck in my memory. From time to time, I continue to return to this track called Radio.
Radio begins with the distorted crosstalk of several overlapping stations competing for the antenna. All voices and no music. Then a hum, reminiscent of the sound of a microwave, begins in the background and grows in volume just as the distorted voices and static become quieter and peter out. For a while, there is only the hum. Then, a more alien sonority winds its way into the whole. This is a motif that will play until the end; it has a warm bass, and a plaintive, existential quality.
Radio’s textures are as transparent as glass; it is a union of seemingly simple elements. For me, Radio evokes an image in a way that most other works do not. It plays, and I see an alpine train, tracing an inky line through a field of snow. Perhaps this vision is simply a product of the knowledge that Vainio was Finnish. But I played Radio for a friend of mine once, and he took down the name of it, and saved it for one of his long drives into the mountains. I think there can be no doubt that Radio is the music of solitude; the voices fade away and the train leaves the station, leaving only the hum.
Minimal music has been described as inane; and sometimes, I am tempted to agree. It seems to lack one or more essential ingredients, rendering it inert to the unsympathetic ear. But perhaps it is the very absence of these ingredients that gives minimal music its emotional impact. I think I have come to understand that each piece has its own uniquely shaped void. A listener is needed to fill this void; or to superimpose themself on the piece’s partially complete landscape, thereby transmuting the sound into music.
As I write, I realise that my contact with Vainio was completely virtual. Like a radio astronomer, with YouTube as my telescope, I discovered his transmission amid the static of infinite space, and listened for a while.
After eight minutes and 59 seconds, Radio suddenly ends. The silence it leaves in its wake is much emptier than the one before it, and I always feel surprised, and a little hollow.
Image credit: Joséphine Michel