The Hafler Trio: Whistling About Chickens

I’m asking for trouble by reviewing this. The title may come from the observation that “writing about music is like whistling about chickens” (although it’s never clear who first said this, and I always thought it was “dancing about architecture” anyway). And this music is particularly difficult to write about. It’s deliberately, wilfully obscure; it appears to follow some kind of system or code, the key to which is kept tantalisingly out of reach. And, while frequently striking and beautiful, it’s for the most part extremely minimal, requiring great effort and concentration on the part of the listener.

First, some facts. The Hafler Trio are not a trio; they have had other members, but this is essentially the project of one man, Andrew McKenzie. McKenzie has been active in the fields of music and sound art for twenty years, collaborating along the way with many luminaries of the underground. His own body of work as the Hafler Trio has been characterised by a serious, scientific mode of enquiry into the nature and application of acoustic phenomena. Often accompanied by extensive written documentation, and housed in unusual and attractive packaging, the Hafler Trio’s releases have always been about more than just the music.

Whistling About Chickens is the first Hafler Trio release for some years, and consists of recordings made between 1995 and 2001. McKenzie’s public silence during this time is due to a number of factors, most notably – and sadly – his ongoing battle with hepatitis, and associated struggles with medical treatment and residency status in his adopted country of Iceland (for details, see http://www.brainwashed.com/h3o). It’s a double CD packaged in an outsize wallet, with a text-heavy 24-page booklet.

Disc one, ‘The whole hog, including the postage’, consists of eleven tracks which vary in length from two to twenty minutes. The prevailing mood is one of stark electronic minimalism, with occasional rhythmic interventions. Several of the pieces begin almost imperceptibly, before introducing activity into the soundfield; but this activity is hardly ever intrusive or aggressive. Instead, phased drone patterns slip and fold into networks of hazy frequencies and layered, undulant feedback. ‘One Other Vantage Point’ introduces a stepping metallic figure and ends with the jolt of a processed female voice, while ‘Restriction of Movement’ flits by on a seductive rhythmic pulse and liquid textures reminiscent of classic 70s Tangerine Dream. Best of all is the lengthy – and, relatively speaking, appropriately titled – ‘Marvellous Vitality’. A skeletal, attenuated rhythm occupies the last ten minutes of this twenty-minute piece, coiling elegantly around alien sounds and frequencies.

Things get heavier only on ‘Illegal Admiration and Contemplation’, with its scorching burst of feedback. Frustratingly, however, this gets cut off after only two minutes, when a more sustained period of dissonance would have been welcome. It’s a rare lapse of judgement in an otherwise utterly convincing disc.

The second disc, which rejoices in the title ‘Arguing with pigs about the quality of oranges’, is even more minimal than the first. Supposedly divided into three tracks, there is only one index point, and it’s impossible to tell where one track ends and the next begins. The drones and frequencies hover uneasily around bell chimes and long periods of silence.

What the music doesn’t quite convey is the sense of playful mischief brought to the enterprise by the packaging and documentation. McKenzie teases us with hints that there is an overall theme or concept to the album, from the references to animals and birds in the titles to the opaque texts printed in the booklet. But the Hafler Trio don’t give up their secrets easily, and the sense of mystery endures.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)

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