One of the most hotly sought but rarely achieved qualities of music is surprise. This phenomenon works on several layers: musicians seek to make something new and unexpected, taking the whole music world by surprise; they attempt to transcend their past works by reinventing their sound, hoping to break new ground with their fans; and, finally, they strive to imbue each piece with surprise, engaging listeners by defying expectations. It’s this third category where Mika Vainio excels on Magnetite, employing a range of compositional tools and sound sources to achieve this purpose.
Vainio mines his sonic material from the edges of the cliff of tolerance. The harshness of the textures and frequencies he employs verges on a belligerent assault. But it’s just at this moment — of the listener’s fear, or inability to go on — that Vainio relents, allowing the sounds to collapse back into silence. He doesn’t allow the listener the satisfaction of dismissal or capitulation. As soon as one senses that this will be too much, Vainio shifts, jarring the listener out of their turmoil and back into the piece. Abrasive texture thus becomes an expectation-generator, which Vainio can manipulate in order to further enthrall the listener.
Vainio’s FM radio sources can act as expectation-generators as well. Via the ear’s scanning of the radio static we realize that we are seeking language, a semantic anchor in an opaque sea of noise. But Vainio gives us only a voice, not words, either by processing the receivers into unintelligibility or by leaving them between frequency bands, there dissolving into noise. It’s in our seeking of language that we become deeply involved in the sonics of Magnetite. The process is a form of pareidolia, like seeing a face apparate in the grain of wood paneling. This process evokes curiosity, which leads us deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. Vainio often creates huge disjunctions at the moments when we are most interested, because it’s there that he will achieve the greatest surprise.
Some textures suggest their continuation. For instance, an oscillator with a slowly evolving movement within it pushes the listener to expect a return to the zero point of the movement’s period. We expect crescendos to continue ever upwards. In quiet portions, we expect a slow rising motion out, a building up, before the music achieves peak loudness again. All of these aspects are further examples of expectation-generators, and voiding them provides further ways to fuck with the listener’s emotions. Vainio will cut a modulation off mid-period with a stabbing bass sound, or cut a crescendo off just before the peak. The quiet sections of Magnetite might give rise to further ambient sounds, or they might die off in a blast of distortion. In Vainio’s manipulation of what we expect, we become unable to rely on expectation to comfort us. This violation, which in pop music would be a kind of breach of contract, actually drives excitement, providing novel directions whenever the experience stagnates.
Perhaps the two strongest generators of expectation have little to do with the textures themselves but of their composition. These are rhythm and the repetition of phrases. Rhythm obviously creates the expectation that the sound will follow the beat; one of the ways jazz and rock music provided surprise was through syncopation, which can create tension in a rhythm like stretching a rubber band. Magnetite is not wholly arrhythmic, but its rhythms are sparse. They enter, and as soon as they develop to recognition (slow gong sounds, for instance, are common), Vainio destroys them with either unrecognizable noise or silence. Likewise with repetition. The more a phrase repeats, the more we expect it. You can guess what tends to happen to repeated phrases here: interruption, shattering, or sudden absence.
Expectation-defying music is no doubt challenging. When music conforms to most of our expectations (violating just a few to keep things interesting), it’s easy to engage with it because it speaks to known quantities. But, paradoxically, the defiance of expectation can provoke an even deeper engagement. It’s just a difficult one. Moments of surprise have an affective force that few other sensations can match. It’s the fight-or-flight response. Surprise creates fear and awe, but most of all uncertainty. When music does not conform to our memories of what music has been before it, we are uncertain where it will go. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it’s a powerful one, especially in a world where simple formulae can yield success. Expect it, then, to continue to remain at the edge of music with people like Mika Vainio, with only a few outliers from the mainstream testing its boundaries.