October 1, 2022

The Hafler Trio – Exactly As I Say (Phonometrography)

“The harder it is to understand, the more powerfully it attracts one. People do not try to plumb the depths of works which let all their treasures float on the surface.”
(Prof Sigurdur Nordal: ‘Three Essays on the Icelandic poem, ‘Völuspa’’ [London 1970-71])

During the twenty-odd years of its earthly manifestations, H30, as it’s affectionately known by its many admirers, has been involved in some profoundly weird shit, as befits a contemporary and sometime collaborator of the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, Psychic TV, Zoviet France and Throbbing Gristle. The history is far too complicated to be compressed into the nutshell required of a review such as this. Suffice to say that the staggeringly prolific Andrew McKenzie, H30’s presiding genius, has been ploughing one of the more lonely and obsessive artistic furrows in the turn-of-the-century soundscape, and, in a very real sense, each of his projects is defiantly unique, utterly unreal, and really senseless.

Exactly As I Say is a 2CD walk on the wildside of Tantric transcendence. One CD is entitled ‘Diksha’, and the other, ‘Para Bindu’. For what it’s worth, a diksha is a subtle transfer of the guru’s divine energy into the heart, body and soul of the disciple: it can take the form of a spoken word (mantra), a subtle radiation from the eye, or a physical touch, or of a long-distance transmission via, for example, a photograph, or, in this case, I suppose, a CD. Para Bindu refers to the point-source in Tantric symbology that represents the Seed of the Ultimate Sound.

So this is New Age twiddley-poo, right?


H30 is an art project in the most serious and mysterious sense: in the sense that its apparent meaning is merely a lure – a smoking mirror that invites us to look at ourselves and to interrogate our own meaning by dislocating our assumptions about and expectations of meaning, by tricking us into confronting ourselves at the deepest and most disturbing levels.

To be prosaic for a moment, and to misapply description to the ineffable, the first listening to Exactly As I Say is a considerable test of both one’s patience and one’s endurance: each of the two CD’s is just over an hour long (they’re both exactly 1:03:56, to be exact), and neither moves, dynamically, much beyond the sonic equivalent of waving a white flag in a blizzard. ‘Diksha’ offers a long, long intro of a sort of episodic breathing, punctuated only by a brief energetic moment – a kind of snore – halfway through, followed by a single sound – a slowly modulating, shaped F-plus-harmonics – for half-an-hour, then a very, very, very long fade-out to silence. It’s like watching a plane disappear into the distance. There’s no single moment when you can definitively pronounce – there – gone – it keeps blinking back into your vision, microscopically, for a microsecond. ‘Para Bindu’ begins similarly, and, similarly, half-way through, there is the brief emergence of a recognisably human voice, inhumanly extended over several minutes, finally merging into the background drone – a single tone with delicate applications of harmonic cadence, until, towards the end, there is a dramatic shift from the base F to a prolonged G#, before the final fadeout.

If, however, one has the time and patience to go through all this all over again, and, preferably, yet again, and to follow the suggestions on the sleeve this time (ie to listen on good speakers, not headphones, in a darkened space, at very high volume), one’s rewarded with – well, let’s just say (Attention, young Paduan!) the beginnings of understanding.

The semi-mythological Trickster – upsetter of applecarts, scourge of Apollonian orderliness – manifests in different forms in different cultures: Coyote and Raven in North America, Eshu and Legba in Africa, the Monkey King in China, Krishna in India – and has attracted a fair number of artists to his wily ways, from Whitman to Duchamp via Beuys and Schwitters (Joseph Beuys’ famous 1974 installation piece, ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’, involving his three-day-long self-incarceration in one small room of a New York art gallery with a coyote for company was no arbitrary choice of companion). Trickster has also always attracted an inordinate number of lightweights who, misunderstanding his proper role, are actually mere playful brats. (I’ve never been able to decide, myself, whether or not Andy Warhol was a manifestation of Trickster or just a trickster, an emperor with no clothes. It’s two of his film pieces I remembered, however, in the course of trying to think of art work with which to compare Exactly As I Say: ‘Sleep’ [1964] is one static shot of a man sleeping for eight hours; and ‘Empire’ is another eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building taken from the 44th floor of the Time-Life Building one evening in July 1964.)

One set of associations that is definitely worth highlighting in terms of H30’s provenance is a quirky New York nexus originating around Robert Rauschenberg’s revolutionary ‘White Paintings’ (large canvases painted a uniform white) of 1951, which were the inspiration for John Cage’s seminal ‘Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds’ (1952) – a piano piece written for a pianist who is instructed to sit at the piano and play nothing for precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds. John Cage was working, around this time, in the studio set up by Bébé and Louis Barron, two of the pioneers of electro-acoustic music, most famously remembered for their composing the glorious electronic soundtrack to the 1956 sci-fi classic, ‘Forbidden Planet’. Both consciously and unconsciously Exactly As I Say refers back to this nexus (and as many more besides, doubtless) in a manner that implies that the work of H30 is arguably Modernist, for all its industrial/post punk accretions, and is actually as attached to history as grunge and garage is not (or tries to be not). Which isn’t to say that it’s irrelevant in a post-postmodern landscape (or soundscape) – far from it. It just carries, like a snowball, a cumulative weight of precedent, a sort of cultural inertia, that must be getting more and more difficult to overcome with each successive project. (The attachment to the heroic being a Modernist characteristic, of course.)

Total kudos, therefore, to Andrew McKenzie for inviting Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós to collaborate with him on this project, and to Jónsi for accepting. Although he might as well have selected some random passerby for all that the technical manipulations and extensions of Jónsi’s sampled voice render it totally unrecognisable, the fact is that it is Jónsi’s voice, and that that carries with it as much resonance as the absence of sound does in John Cage’s piece.

There have been many fruitful – if largely ignored – historical collaborations between musicians and other artists. John Lennon and Yoko Ono is one of the more memorable ones. You may have seen that fascinating early vintage video of the young Jeff Buckley playing a shower-attachment horn at an ‘eighties Fluxus event. More recently, Sigur Rós themselves collaborated with the choreographer Merce Cunningham on ‘Split Sides’ in 2003, thereby, incidentally, producing their most distinctive post-Ágætis album – the EP Ba ba Ti ki Di do. An earlier, similar H30 collaboration with the enigmatic Autechre in 2003 attracted some chin-stroking from a few subsequently somewhat bemused (even by Autechre fan standards) Autechre fans. Some cynics will read this as cynical mutual opportunism. But I side with Trickster on this: both Autechre’s and, now, Jónsi’s coolth could only be enhanced by orders of magnitude by association with one of the coolest artists on the planet.

(Or not, as the case may be.)

I haven’t mentioned the packaging, which is an artwork in itself – like opening a gift, a very special, very carefully crafted origami box decorated with beautiful calligraphic aphorisms. Except it’s not in Japanese, and the text is prolix sub-Joycean gibberish. That’s Trickster for you. Treat yourself.