Pan(a)Sonic: Savage Drones and the New Age of Analog

Dave Rieder

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

    In April '99, the lo-fi, high-powered, analog minimalisms of Pan Sonic rolled into Dallas, Texas to open for the postrock group, TransAm--and from what one reviewer explains, we were lucky to see them: just a month earlier, the last stops on a European tour were cancelled due to a case of tour exhaustion. [1]

    Pan Sonic (originally Panasonic, until the American electronics company threatened to sue them) is a two-man Finnish group made up of Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen. As some of the story goes, Vainio worked as a DJ in the '80s; he was publishing music with Pertti Grönholm under the title, Corporate 09. Vainio and Väisänen met in the late 80s while Vainio was DJ'ing and Väisänen was organizing rave parties for the Hyperdelic Housers group. In the early '90s, the two started working on music together. Pan Sonic came into being in 1993.

    In an interview from '97, Vainio traces Pan Sonic's sounds to the following influences: the early synthetic improvisions of Kraftwerk (whose robotica aesthetic Trans Am's retro-fitted keyboard sounds seem related), '70s funk, Parliament, '80s rap and early electro, and Jamaican music [2]. On a different plane of connectivity--and from what I heard at their Dallas show--I'd link them to contemporaries like Ascii, Prolofeed, Andreas Tilliander, The Liver Sadness, and d'Iberville among others.

All of their CD recordings are live dubs performed on homegrown analog equipment. In a review from April of this year, Greg Baise explains how the group's friend, Jari Lehtinen, "made two composite sound generators for the duo: the Typewriter (the one in the typewriter carrying case) and the Fish Box (the one in the tackle box). 'They are the base of the Pan Sonic sound,' says Vainio of the devices that create Pan Sonic's combination of sonic sine waves and hypnotic beats." [2]

Asked about their composing process in a 1997 interview, Vainio explains,
Usually we don't have any plan. We just start to turn the knobs and see what comes out. We hear something interesting, something that sounds good, we try to build the track up around that. The sound is always first. Then comes the rhythmic things. [3]
In a follow-up question about the role of mistakes or accidents in these live recordings, Vainio continues, "Quite often we use errors and accidents in our music. Many new ideas come out like that. Sometimes we'll play something wrong or get something wrong with an instrument and we'll make that part of the track" [3].

Sensing the Body

In several interviews, Pan Sonic allude to their musical interests in physicality and the body. I wish they would say more. What I really enjoyed about Pan Sonic's live show--as I do of other artists connected to minimalist sound art traditions--is the way in which they let me experience new sense-abilities, new surfaces or topoi on what is traditionally and collectively called the body; what you miss on these artist's CDs is the physical sensation of their music. During their show, it was obvious that Pan Sonic developed music that was both sensual and intellectual, but it was the sensual side of their music that most impressed me. At base, their music is not meant for a functional ear. Their sound does not limit itself to an ear as organ for information. In other words, minimalist experimental music like Pan Sonic's is not meant to fit within a communications triangle of speaker-music-hearer. Pan Sonic's repetitive, low-fi tones are for the ear as much as the arm or a stretch of skin down one's back. The simplistic categories of speaker or hearer break down, the economy fundamentally changing. Pan Sonic is about body parts, as Alphonso Lingis has described our dismembered selves [4]. And at their show, Pan Sonic's originality was experienced as variations on a series of complex sounded planes. Their originality was born of the aural 'scapes they generated and the ways in which they rewrote an experience of the body upon these planes; in this sense, Pan Sonic's music is post-organism.

Traditionally, we assume an essential place for each of the variety of body parts constitutive of an organism. We assume that our bodies are an integrated set of functions. But, these organic bodies are not Pan Sonic's "targeted audience." If anything, they are striving for the body without organs, as Artaud and Deleuze and Guattari have expounded upon this concept. To experience Pan Sonic's savage dronings is to experience a "becoming disembodied." Theirs is sound for the lumpen, i.e., sound for decoded territorialities that have the capacity to pass ripplings of powerful, low-fi soundscapes across one's dis-organized body. To me, Pan Sonic is best understood as sound art that experiments with physicalogical surfaces upon which you can spread yourself thin.

Alphonso Lingis has written about the "anorganic" body's desire to spread itself thin. The anorganic body--a body "not defined by its constitutive organization, but by its states"--is connected to affects and feelings [4]. It is a complex desiring surface for excess energies, and it is upon these surfaces that excess energies attempt to spread themselves out, garnering as many pleasurable sensations as possible. To me, Pan Sonic's music develops planes upon which these sense-able pleasurings can spread. It breaks the body down into a series of resonating zones of affection, allowing you to experience the body as a sounding board, a tuning fork, or a medium for vibration, rhythm, and pitch. I remember standing there, thinking of myself as little more than a column of resonating flesh--no arms, no legs (Hamburger Lady)--just a column of vibratory pitch; and then the sound changed and so did my shape and the experience. It was pure soma, affect, and in these senses, pure analog.

"Analog . . .
the great new unexplored frontier"

At a time when the uses of digital technologies continue to expand, gaining wide-spread acceptance, Pan Sonic's reliance upon analog sounds may seem nostalgic, but, as the futurist, Paul Saffo, has argued,
Ever since the invention of the transistor, digital has been cool, and analog has been the forgotten old-fashioned stepchild. That is going to reverse itself in the next decade. Analog is going to be the great unexplored frontier, and digital will seem just a bit dull. [5]
According to Saffo, digital technologies will be surpassed by an upcoming age of "cheap, ubiquitous, high-performance sensors." These sensors will be part of a new age of smartifacts, intelligent machines that can sense and subsequently react to the outside world. Surpassing the use of bit-based tech', we are "going to add sensory organs to our devices and networks" (116). At one level of applicability we might have "'smart' courier boxes with sensors embedded in the cardboard skin that sense accelerations and box treatment en route." At another, we might have buildings constructed from nanotech' materials that sense changes in an outside environment, dynamically reconfiguring their density or overall weight distribution in reaction.

For Saffo, the consequence of these smartifacts is "the emergence of a newer analog computing industry in which digital technologies play a mere supporting role, or in some instances play no role at all" (119). He never really defines his notion of an analog world although he alludes to it's physicality. I wonder how Vainio and Väisänen would link their sounds to Saffo's ideas. I wonder what the long-term socio-cultural consequences of an analog age would be for music and the body. As many theorists have explained, digital technologies privilege visuality over aurality and tactility, discrete, abstract codings over pulsing flows of messy, unpredictable flow. If the next age is analog, Pan Sonic's savage, low-fi aesthetics could be jacked-in to this "great new unexplored frontier" of bodily affection. Thinking of Marshall McLuhan's statement, "we make tools and then they make us," as we are "made" by a mobile army of moving sensors, smartifacts, and analog technologies, perhaps Pan Sonic will be experienced as music for new modes of feeling and "knowing" as we spread ourselves towards the futures of sound.


1. Baise, Greg. "Mechanicollusion." Metro Times Detroit 21 April 1999. 16 July 1999.

2. "Pan Sonic History." pHinnWeb. 16 July 1999.

3. Small, Craig. "Panasonic: The Iceman Talketh." Hi Fi Magazine Oct 1997. 16 July 1999.

4. Lingis, Alphonso. "The Society of Dismembered Body Parts." Pli: Warwick Journal of Philosophy.
    Ed. Joan Broadhurst. (1992): 1-19.

5. Saffo, Paul. "Sensors." Institute for the Future: Ten Year Forecast. 1997.

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