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An expressionless bearded man stands staring in the middle of a shopping mall. Shown in time lapse, we see the man quickly blink, breath, and sway slightly as a repetitive piano melody revolves like a sonic clock. This is the minimal yet provocative first shot of the video for “It Flows”, the opening track for Project Vainiolla’s latest album, Animus. Whatever you may think of minimalism in art or music, one thing can be said of it: it gives us space to have our own unique relationship with the material. It may seem simplistic, even boring on the surface, but if you care to unpack it, you just may find that it’s more profound than having the blanks filled in for you. Animus borrows much from the minimalist tradition of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and the like, but it also holds some stylistic surprises, incorporating improvisation, atonality, and even Finnish folk music techniques, all used in an expressionistic way that seems to tell a story. Much like the quiet video, or the album’s two-dimensional cover, it seems simple but hides big ideas.
The mind behind those big ideas is Finnish musician and composer Kalle Vainio. Kalle is a university trained musician with an unconventional approach to music. The recording of Animus, to hear Kalle tell it, was half preconceived (in terms of structure and composition) and half improvised. His ability to go with the flow, and utilize the studio environment in unplanned ways is perhaps what makes the album feel genuine, even whimsical at times. According to Kalle: “The focus of the album was supposed to be on the grand piano and the use of extended techniques, like plucking the strings and beating the case, but the studio kept a little secret inside: a really old honky-tonk and upright piano… The studio crew said people like to use the honky-tonk for music videos because it looked cool, but I fell in love with the peculiar sound of it.” All sounds on Animus are apparently from different acoustic keyboard instruments, which is impressive considering the big sound that’s often achieved, including atmospheric overdubs that you would never guess come from a piano.
The album starts off with “It Flows,” a four minute hypnotic piano loop that increases in complexity and intensity. Layers of instrumentation and ambiance are added gradually over a heart beat sort of rhythm. It’s compelling, the way it builds to it’s climax and melodic development around 3:45, before calming back down and closing with the original piano theme. This sort of emotional build-up, which Kalle does amazingly well, the sort of ebb and flow of energy is the basic structure for most (but not all) of the tracks on the album. Some of the titles seem to elude to this idea of motion: It Flows, Becoming, Animus. Other titles sound more zen: Being, Non-being. It’s all suggestive of a sort of movement versus stasis theme, order versus chaos, the natural rhythm of life.
Within that sort of ebb and flow structure however, a lot of these pieces are less predictable and more eclectic than you might think. The album has a way of surprising you. “Becoming,” for example, has a soft twinkly intro, eventually accompanied by an almost haunting but subtle drone (a strange contrast). And just when you think this is a lull in the album, it suddenly breaks into full instrumentation, with that sort of four-on-the-floor heart beat rhythm again, but this time it feels almost joyous, similar to an Irish jig (perhaps the Finnish folk influence). Much like “It Flows” however, the tone is neither bright nor dark. It just has this emotional pull you can’t deny, or explain. Another piece that defies the patterns of the album is the last and title track, “Animus.” apparently composed in part by using a dodecaphonic, or serial method (an atonal method of composing pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twentieth century). It’s sparse. There’s no mesmerizing piano loops or intense build-ups, just piano strings being plucked and struck, seemingly at random. It’s an eerie place to end the album, like walking through a haunted house after being on a roller coaster.
Animus seems to be an album of paradoxes. It’s simple and complex, intellectual and expressionistic, strange and beautiful. It’s a multi-layered work written and performed on essentially one instrument, living up to the ethos of minimalism. On the other hand, it’s varied in ways that other minimalist albums aren’t. It’s a tough project to pin down, and I’m no closer to doing that than when I was first struck by the intriguing video for “It Flows.” The video too has eclectic beginnings. As Kalle explains, “The director of the music video Raimo Uunila was also a camera man in a documentary film, Äänimies (Soundman), about people who are hearing voices in their heads. He was really excited about the footage that he was filming (meaning, the bearded man in the video). He suggested that he could use the footage from the documentary in the music video. I saw the footage and loved it. “ Here I am, reading into these enigmatic images, imagining themes and ideas, and half the footage wasn’t even conceived for the music. It doesn’t make my or anyone else’s reading any less or more valid of course, it just demonstrates in a powerful way, the subjective nature of aesthetics in general and minimalism in particular. I suppose I could go into the suggestive quality of montage, or the synchronicity of life, but I’ll leave that for you to sort out.
You can hear and purchase Animus on Spotify or iTunes and follow Project Vainiolla on Facebook.