The Hafler Trio – An Answer

by 5:4

Let’s turn our attention to drones. The respective roles of time and material are perhaps nowhere more controversial – and polarising – than in drone-based music. Even if you find yourself drawn into the complexities of one form of drone, another can push you away with its relative monotony. For precisely this reason, i’ve always been fascinated by drone music, and it’s an idiom that includes some of my absolute favourite compositions. i wrote about one of them some years ago as part of my ‘Contemporary Epics’ series: The Hafler Trio‘s miraculously wonderful ‘Trilogy in Three Parts‘. As well as being a work i return to very often, at the start of this year i had the pleasure of discussing it as part of an ongoing series of conversations between Andrew McKenzie and Thaddée Caillosse, exploring the Hafler Trio legacy. The episode in question focused specifically on the Trilogy, and our lengthy conversation touched on a considerable range of topics related to and arising from it, along the way revealing fascinating insights into the thought and compositional processes behind the music, plus more than a few tangential asides taking in philosophy, listening practices and love. Anyone interested in The Hafler Trio and wanting to glean more about McKenzie’s approach to his work may well find this conversation to be of interest. It’s available via the Simply Superior Bandcamp site, along with plenty of other juicy things pertinent to the entire Hafler Trio oeuvre. Dive in, and be prepared for a long swim.

Even more recently, McKenzie has dusted off and polished up his three contributions to the first series of releases by Fovea Hex. The Explanation, The Discussion and An Answer were originally released as limited edition bonus discs accompanying the EPs Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007). While many Fovea Hex releases have included accompanying remixes of their music, the three Hafler Trio pieces are rather more ambitious, best regarded as self-contained electronic works into which fragments and morsels of Fovea Hex material have been to a greater or lesser degree folded, embedded and woven. A decade and a half on from their original release, McKenzie has released a standalone edition of these pieces under a new, typically Haflerian, collective title: This is Our Problem: What Will Our Joy Be Then?.

An Answer stands out in two important respects. With a duration of an hour it is by far the longest of the three (the others last around 20 minutes), and its relationship to, and incorporation of, Fovea Hex material is more abstract. The piece originally accompanied the Allure EP, the three parts of which are essentially dronal in nature. The opening song (‘Allure’) is rooted on B-flat, the second (‘Long Distance’) and third (‘Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent’) on A natural, and these two pitches – primarily B-flat – are adopted as the basis for the drones in An Answer. Where the ‘Trilogy in Three Parts’ played out above (and, towards the end, even below) a deep, resonant bass note, in An Answer the drone functions less as a fundamental than as a roaming harmonic centre, by no means limited to low registers. The piece is structured in a number of episodes – five of them, in fact – though i tend to hear the first four, together lasting around 30 minutes, as a kind of extended prologue for the large final episode that occupies the latter half of the piece. As with much dronal music, there’s a clear sense of the drone pitch as a focal point; everything else is heard in relation to this pitch, colouring it, expanding it, challenging it, obscuring it.

In the first episode it lends the buzzy B-flat something of the tone of Indian music, bringing to mind the sympathetic resonance of a sitar, whereas in the second (starting around 11:20) it sounds akin to a shaft of pitched wind rushing through a tube. Bringing to mind echoes of a much earlier Hafler Trio work, 1988’s Intoutof, this episode causes one’s attention to keep moving between the complex, shifting inner sonic components while always remaining aware of the drone, which itself varies between being strongly focused (at times reinforced by additional unison tones) and periods when it becomes aerated due to more assertive pitch elements that cut across it, roughing its surface and agglomerating together, creating the impression of a noise column. Though the third episode (~20:53) is the shortest and simplest – mainly just a waxing and waning C/F-sharp hum (a short excursion away from B-flat) with a lightly granular surface, it is significant due to the fact that it features the unexpected sudden intrusion of a glimpse of Fovea Hex material. Clearly the sound of voices, it’s the only time in An Answer when the music sheds its abstract intangibility, puncturing the surface of the music with a brief B-flat/A dissonance – as if the entirety of the Allure EP had been condensed into a single, frozen moment. But in no time it’s gone again, followed (~25:01) by an episode where the pitch integrity and dynamic stability of a B-flat/F drone is affected by beats and fluctuations due to other tones and timbres being introduced to it. It sounds almost experimental, as if McKenzie were throwing sound forms together in a lab to see what spontaneous reactions occur – in this case causing an apparent overload, bringing the first half to a lightly pulsing, scratchy close.

The unbroken 30-minute second half, though something of a synthesis of these opening episodes, sounds much more elegant and refined. The B-flat becomes sprinkled with a mixture of beautiful bell-like sounds and apparent soft pulsations of light. For a time it feels like it’s going to be all about certainty, the drone consolidated by octaves above and below, massively strengthened in due course with tolling piano accents (a sequence redolent of the Organum SanctusAmenOmega trilogy, which dates from around the same time as the original Fovea Hex EPs). However, as they progress these accents are answered by increasingly complex aftermaths, metallic and clangorous, harmonically vague. Ultimately, this play of (un)certainty arrives at a point where the B-flat becomes rivalled by A, culminating in a kind of ‘crossing the streams’ that produces a lovely period of shining ambiguous, the music seemingly transfixed by its own luminosity. The intensity fades, but the ambiguity doesn’t, softly subsiding into not merely a semitonal but a microtonal floating blur.

As with so much music by The Hafler Trio, throughout An Answer there’s an ongoing polarised tension between austerity (solemnity might be a better word) and ecstasy, or, considering the new overall title for these three pieces, between problem and joy. It’s what made the work – and its two more modest companions – sit so perfectly alongside Fovea Hex 15 years ago, and it’s what continues to make it such a compelling standalone example of drone music today.

This is Our Problem: What Will Our Joy Be Then? is available as a digital download from the Simply Superior Bandcamp site.

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