Contemporary Epics: The Hafler Trio – Trilogy in Three Parts

It’s impossible to speak of ‘contemporary epics’ without given especial mention to The Hafler Trio (the nom de guerre of Andrew McKenzie). While Kenneth Kirschner and Pat Maherr, discussed previously, usually restrict themselves to relatively modest durations, it’s rare for music by The Hafler Trio not to exceed an hour or more. This characteristic dates back as far as 1991, with the release of Kill the King, its single span lasting 73 minutes; the companion albums Mastery of Money (1992) and How to Reform Mankind (1994), ran to 75 and 78 minutes respectively. Those three albums form a trilogy, and large-scale trilogies have continued to be a feature of the Hafler Trio œuvre. Exactly As I Say (2004), Exactly As I Am (2005) and Exactly As I Do (2005), each double albums, together form a trilogy lasting almost 5½ hours. How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (2003) and sister work How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (Lengthwise) (2004) are each trilogies in their own right; together they too last nearly 5½ hours. Most recently, McKenzie’s occasional collaboration with Autechre has finally become a trilogy with the release in August of ae3o3 (which on its own has a duration of 3¾ hours); together with æ³o and h³æ (2003) and æo³ and ³hæ (2005), this trilogy is now the longest of all, stretching to a massive 5¾ hours. Even the albums not part of trilogies occupy long durations: Hljóðmynd (2000; 1 hour), Normally (2003; 2 hours), Where Are You? (2004; 1 hour) and Scissors Cut Arrow (2004; 1¾ hours). On all of these albums, individual tracks occupy a complete CD; faced with music on such a scale, it’s understandable why, quite apart from the multitudinous disjecta membra that red herringly encompass each release—not to mention the eternally bellicose attitude of McKenzie himself—The Hafler Trio can seem off-putting, unapproachable and daunting.

However, there’s one trilogy conspicuously missing from the above summary, and for me, it’s the best as well as being the most immediate: the tautologically-named ‘Trilogy in Three Parts’. Comprising Cleave: 9 Great Openings (2002), No Man Put Asunder: 7 Fruitful And Seamless Unions (2003) and No More Twain, Of One Flesh: 11 Unequivocal Obsecrations (2003), the ‘Trilogy in Three Parts’ lasts a little over three hours, and constitutes one of the most rapturously beautiful drone works ever made. The three titles draw on language from the traditional wedding ceremony, and this reflects the fact that the first of the parts, Cleave, was created as a nuptial celebration. All three are founded upon the same fundamental, a rich, deep bass note C, possessing an inscrutable timbre that’s suggestive of both cello and double bass, but clearly has more going on within it. This fundamental is powerfully omnipresent; everything else takes place above it, sometimes below it, always in relation to it. The music comes across as a luxuriant paean to the harmonic series—or, rather (and Messiaen’s Technique comes to mind when i say this), a celebration of all the explicit and implicit harmonic richness contained within that single deep fundamental note. Despite their ostensible simplicity, there’s a huge amount taking place in these pieces, and over the years, when i’ve not been basking in their astounding beauty, i’ve subjected all three parts of this trilogy to considerable scrutiny and analysis. But this isn’t the time when i want to embark on a lengthy unpicking of them—and in any case, each part of the trilogy is so utterly fluid that, for those unfamiliar with them (and i’m assuming a fair number of my readers won’t have heard these pieces), a first encounter is best approached with a minimum of intellectual baggage.

Cleave: 9 Great Openings begins the trilogy. As the work’s subtitle suggests, a series of episodes takes place above the low C, each focussed on one or two pitches drawn from those that are closest to C in the harmonic series (in other words: C♮, D♮, E♮, F♯, G♮, A♮ and B♭). Each of these episodes emerges smoothly from the fundamental, with a specific, distinguishing timbral quality. Sometimes the timbre is passive, resulting most from the relationship between the notes, such as when an even lower note G causes beats against the low C (~26′); elsewhere, the timbre is actively different, at one point projecting an “ah” vowel sound (~31′), at another resembling a sawtooth wave (~38′). Apart from these episodes, each of which last up to a couple of minutes, there are lengthy passages where only the fundamental drone is heard; but the drone itself is fascinating to listen to, ever in flux, never static, utterly hypnotic.

The central panel of any triptych is often distinct from its neighbours, and the second part of the trilogy, No Man Put Asunder: 7 Fruitful And Seamless Unions is no exception. It’s the most harmonically oblique, opting instead for pitches that are not closely related and that cause strong dissonances with the fundamental (D♭, E♭, F♮, A♭ and B♮). This different outlook is announced in the very first episode, seven minutes in, when a loud semitone clash is underpinned by an astonishingly powerful deep bass pulse (heard on good speakers/headphones the effect is amazing). The timbres, too, are far removed from that of the low C, exploring a wide range of diverse sounds, shimmering (~25′), stammering (~42′), softly stabbing (~45′), whistling (~52′) and glowering (~54′); but the most striking of all is also the most unexpected: a harsh metallic E♮, highly consonant and therefore absent from the rest of the piece, its incongruity causing a kind of ‘æsthetic dissonance’ despite its strong tonal relationship to the fundamental. The powerful pulse heard at the start returns towards the conclusion, which ultimately brings about the first change to the low C, its stereo field audibly narrowing shortly before it cuts off (both this piece and Cleave end in an abrupt cut-off).

No More Twain, Of One Flesh: 11 Unequivocal Obsecrations completes the trilogy, and harmonically speaking, is the simplest of the three. Beside C, only two other pitches are used, F♮ and G♮, forming the barest of intervals with the fundamental (the perfect fourth and fifth, respectively). Frequently in the work, the pitch F occurs beneath the fundamental, causing intense, shuddering beats to ensue. This is the only way that the low C can be undermined, and this is echoed in the nature of the timbres above, which despite being fixed to pitches are sufficiently rich to detract from them and at times give off a distinctly atonal quality. Often the timbres are harsh and grinding (e.g. ~34′), and as the work progresses, there are times when the fundamental starts to become unstable, losing its stereo focus (hinted at in the previous piece) and even, at one shocking moment (~51′), being extinguished completely. Ultimately, the disturbances worrying its surface prove too much, and the fundamental collapses into a muted, mono shadow of its former self, fading into transparency.

As ever, words can’t capture the sheer marvel of these three pieces, which i believe to be the absolute zenith of drone music. Effortlessly blending simplicity and complexity, consonance and dissonance, activity and passivity, beauty and ugliness in equal measure, they’re quite simply a work of genius, and their combined three hour duration is one of the most sublime and exhilarating musical experiences you could ever have.

Thankfully, at time of writing copies of all three parts of the Trilogy can be found very cheaply indeed on Discogs. There are no download options available, but you can hear a brief excerpt from No Man Put Asunder: 7 Fruitful And Seamless Unions on my 17th Mix Tape; the excerpt—which includes the deep bass pulse mentioned above—starts 58 minutes into the mix, and lasts around 3½ minutes.

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