Mika Vainio performs at the opening of ‘Cities on the Move 7’, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, 1999 Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

50 Hz: Mika Vainio the Sound Artist

Leevi Haapala, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma

Also published in Kati Kivinen & Rikke Lundgreen (eds.), Mika Vainio: 50 Hz. Museum of Contemporary Art Publication 172 / 2020. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Transl. Silja Kudel

I don’t think that the actual sound, the change in air pressure, is the only thing we can call music. Music can also be visual and based on other things, physical things.
– Mika Vainio[1]

Musical background, background as a musician

Mika Vainio (b. 1963 Helsinki, Finland – d. 2017 Trouville-sur-Mer, France) was a composer, performer and DJ who achieved world renown in the field of experimental electronic music. Among his many professional accomplishments, he also carved out a notable career as a sound artist. From 1996 onwards he created more than 15 sound installations, most of them commissioned by biennials, museums and galleries in continental Europe. Many of his works were composed in collaboration with other artists, such as the band Pan Sonic’s Ilpo Väisänen and the Berlin-based artist, composer and label owner Carsten Nicolai. Vainio won admiration as the creator of highly distinctive soundscapes combining synthesizer music and carefully curated noise, achieving a recognisable minimalistic sound both in his recordings and live gigs. He left audiences spellbound by playing at frequencies that invoked a powerful, visceral experience. ‘The world is full of electronic music, but Mika Vainio’s signature style is easy to distinguish from all the rest who play with clicks, buzzes, silences, and low frequencies’, said Vainio’s friend, photographer Antti Viitala.[2] The titles he came up with, such as Onko (Is It?), Ilmanvaihto (Air-conditioning unit) and Hän Oli Ääni Joskus (He Was a Sound Sometimes), are laconically declarative, and he had a unique gift for using sound to evoke visual worlds and very specific moods.

[1] Michelle White. ‘Sähkö 20 Years Anniversary Special Interview with Mika Vainio & Tommi Grönlund’, cargocollective.com, 2014, https://cargocollective.com/mosaictheory/Sahko-20-Years-Anniversary-Special-Interview-with-Mika-Vainio-Tommi (accessed 15 May 2020).

[2] Antti Viitala quoted in Vainio’s obituary by Tuomas Karemo. A Quiet Life, Programme ‘Kulttuuricocktail’, Yle 16 December 2017, https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2017/12/18/mika-vainio-a-quiet-life (accessed 15 May 2020).

Featured image: Mika Vainio performs at the opening of ‘Cities on the Move 7’, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, 1999
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

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