​words ​by jh | article

​miles and me
​jon hassell explains how he was lost and found in the luxuriant jungle of bitches brew

​THERE'S SOMETHING I keep saying about how important it is to remember that flowers are the sexual organs of plants. What I'm usually trying to say is, what could be more "spiritual" than the evanescent erotic beauty of, say, stockings or lacy underwear as floral like decoration surrounding the profound mating dance which leads to us being here. Thinking of things this way cultivates an appreciation of art in which false (read: "verbal") contradictions are resolved. Man-made "opposites" like "sacred" and "profane" go to bed together and make divine little goddesses who remind us that Nature doesn't speak in words. Goddesses become "witches" (those who hadn't lost contact with the pre-verbal world). Witches become "bitches" (those whose "animal" instincts tend to overrun social contracts).

The lush Fender Rhodes piano chords and their melodic outlines being tossed around in secret games within the luxuriant jungle of Bitches Brew are like so many dark blossoms and dangling vines to me—vines which I found myself clinging to for dear life around 1971, swinging across the chasm of an impending composerly career in what later came to be called "minimalism"—a genre of music which seemed to aim at the ears and head and not much of the rest of the body. This is that North/South thing—whether within the body or the body politic —whose attempts at resolution I later came to call Fourth World. Thank Goddess you were there, Miles. This music—as all great art must—extended the vocabulary of my imagination. I could dream and fantasize in a way that I couldn't before.

And it made me pick up my horn again and start to think about how I might try to resolve another set of "opposites" that had been handed down: the composer/performer dichotomy—with music as preconceived text, to be read later (as in nearly all Western classical music), or music as response to the moment (as in jazz and nearly all non-Western musics). This polarity came into high relief a year or two later when I began to study Indian raga—a form in which these elements are perfectly merged—with the great vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. This is, of course, an equation with many possible solutions. Think of Duke Ellington. And Miles (who loved him madly) who continued the evolution of a music which, in its elegant balance between structure and improvisation, became truly "classical" in the global sense of that word, i.e., equal attention to "then" and "now", to "North" (above the waist, electric keyboards) and "South" (below the waist, drumskins).

Just as some tribal people have sacred instruments which are kept in a special place and only brought out once a year to be played so that the potency of the sound isn't squandered (the flip side of the "Ambient" idea?), I've always reserved my immersion in powerful music like Bitches Brew for special times. This was also something of a survival technique since I knew this was an atmosphere in which I could get too lost and I knew there was no way to follow this act.

I doubt that Bitches Brew would sound exactly the same to me without the intense, florid beauty of Mati Klarwein's cover painting (above) which seem so intrinsically one with the music as to have crystallised in a "flash of the spirit" (cf., Robert Farris Thompson's book of the same name) when both were born at the same moment. His universe of imagery struck such resonant chords within me about the unity of "sacred" and "profane" that I could easily imagine all of my music having been attempts to illustrate that world. (It's been my good fortune to count him among my closest friends for many years now and three of my records are graced with his work.)

Honoured at being asked to reflect on how the music that came out of those three probably hot and humid days of a New York August have resonated in my life, I found a few threads whose intertwining suggests a nice coda pattern in our kente cloth of connections.

Look no further than the cover painting for the perfect reminder of flowers as sexual strategies. The beautiful blossom at lower left, among whose pink petals and folds one can find feminine essence galore, morphs skyward into fire and water and decorated bodies in an ecstatic snapshot of the cycle of Nature. This is the ceiling of my kind of Sistine Chapel. And I know it was Miles's kind too. Mati had, in fact, a stunning walk-in "chapel" (his title) composed of paintings of even more deeply erotic/spiritual iconography, and he told me Miles had been enchanted by it and had almost bought the whole thing.

Finally, a little "musical iconography": check out the first John McLaughlin guitar bend on 'Miles Runs The Voodoo Down', then listen to track 12 on my latest record, Dressing For Pleasure—the one titled 'Mati' that has the de/reconstructed licks of a chorus of African... shall we say "witches"? •

This article first appeared in The Wire

Issue 130, December 1994 | www.thewire.co.uk

strange magic

by john payne




JON HASSELL IS a creator of connections. He's an artist with fresh intuitions about how music, visual art, language, history, food, scents, "culture," the body, the brain and just about everything else forming our beliefs about human nature can be viewed as individual threads in a single, very large fabric, and how that fabric might be endlessly rewoven.

Hassell—winner of the Best New Genre/Uncategorizable Artist at the L.A. Weekly Music Awards 2005—has called what he does "Fourth World," which in his music indicates a way of proceeding that crossbreeds rhythmic and tonal wisdom from the ancient world with the very latest in digital technology, along with evolved conceptions of form, texture and harmony; his music is both composed and improvised, reconciles Eastern and Western, and increasingly Northern and Southern. Fourth World music and methodology have been enormously inspirational, to put it politely, among the raging hordes of electronic, New Age and world-music artists of the last 20 or so years, owing primarily to the widespread influence of Hassell’s collaborations with Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel.

The good-humored, lanky Hassell was born in Memphis, where he daydreamed to the music of Les Baxter and Eden Abez but went on to earn a degree in theory and composition at the renowned Eastman School, and to study electronic and serial music with Stockhausen. Through his initial recordings with minimalist divinities La Monte Young and Terry Riley, he met Hindustani raga sage Pandit Pran Nath, whose teaching emboldened Hassell to invent a new way of playing his trumpet, one that would hybridize traditional jazz/classical technique with Pran Nath’s tone-bending Kirana vocal style.

Hassell’s current Maarifa Street / Magic Realism 2 on his own Nyen label is another jaw-droppingly beautiful ride into a steamy, throbbing realm where Hassell’s hybrid of Indian and gamelan microtonality merges with fat dub-style bass lines, gauzy electronic chordings and Hassell’s octave-split horn voicings to create a distinctively futuristic gleam. As always, the emotional ground has to do with mystery and awe, rather than a mere tippy-toe dance on the clouds. Among other things, this sound addresses clichés of the "world music" kind, e.g., vocal samples by Indian classical soloists over Pygmy or Burundi-derived beats. This is strictly by design.

"You can divide things into hip, pre-hip and post-hip," he says. "Pre-hip and post-hip have things in common: hip is a dangerous part, because you’re totally involved in being au courant. Post-hip means that you’ve punched through the sound barrier, and you’re discovering that clichés can be true; you’re discovering that what we call a cliché can be fundamental. And you then have the courage to be there wholly."

Maarifa (the word means knowledge or wisdom in Arabic) is a recombination/reconstruction by Hassell’s bassist and co-producer/programmer Peter Freeman, via digital editing and distortion/treatment, of material that Hassell and his band worked out live in three European concerts, which material had already been based on music culled from various Hassell recordings. The concept is similar to what Hassell did in his first Magical Realism disc in 1983 and on 1997's The Vertical Collection, and allows for astounding possibilities—the idea, for example, that Hassell never has to record one new note for the rest of his life, such is the depth and infinitely variable substance of his recorded work.

Hassell also draws recombinative inspiration from the things that move us sensually.

"It's like watermelon and prosciutto or whatever," he says. "It's there, and therefore you think about it when you're making something to eat. Why not put that in there? Then you listen to other people who come into contact with it freshly. You’re lucky enough to have this kitchen full of ingredients, and then you throw them together in a mad burst of appetite..."

And then 20 restaurants on Melrose charge $90 for it.

"That’s right. It's like avant cuisine, but you want to avoid the fact that somebody else heard about your earlier restaurant and is making dishes like that—so you’re searching out new technology, more ways to mix.


ONE DANGER IN modern digital music-making is in the infinity of possibility. As we have heard from the vast bulk of recent electronic pop artists, and have seen on 10 billion Web sites, the technology is clearly there, but the content isn’t. The potential vastness of sonic variation makes it easy for the vision-challenged composer to get lost—paralyzed, even. And it’s very easy to make complex and shiny music literally at the push of a button.

"The Dutch architect Rem Koolhas called that a 'premature sheen,' says Hassell. "Premature because you didn't go to school and the conservatory and learn how to write for strings and become a Claude Debussy and know how to write the real sheen, the mature sheen." I wonder sometimes why people listen to music throughout their waking hours. Actually, too much is bad for you. On his Web site, (www.jonhassell.com), Hassell notes that one ought to differentiate between gourmet and gourmand. "The iPod—5,000 songs? We need to go on a music diet," he says. "With the Web and cheap recording technology and all those elements that killed the music 'industry'"—he laughs—"Big Brother is still is up there saying, 'Listen to music, it's good for you!'"

The digital "revolution," too, has brought new ways of disseminating information about music, useful for non-Top-40 types like Hassell, whose site is a fertile wonderland of far-reaching ideas about the interconnectivity and uses of the past and the future in music, language, food and sensuality explored in ever-shifting form (audio, visual, text). This all will be further detailed in his forthcoming The North and South of You, "a book of ideas toward creating a personal and social paradise rooted in the musical paradise of the Fourth World paradigm."

In order to grasp some of these potentials for creativity, and how we’re being cheated out of it, Hassell suggests that we consider this current dilemma:

"Formulations like axis-of-evil, good-bad, with-us-or-against-us are the norm in the EGN (Era of Great Numbers)," he writes. "Maybe we've arrived at the condition of Americans Not Knowing What Other People Think (of Them and Why) reaching critical mass. A scale effect: more and more Americans knowing less and less (as a percentage of what there is to know)."

What to do? "In order to grasp the enormity of the situation—that we are living in a psychologically geometric space, carved from words, slogging our way through a multidimensional traffic jam where accidents are happening all around you every second—you have to suspend disbelief and try to imagine the unimaginable, to feel intuitively that which is not yet known." •


 

This interview first appeared in the LA Weekly Online
October 2005 | www.laweekly.com


All text, images and sound not otherwise attributed are protected by copyright © 2017 Nyen Music.
All paintings by Mati Klarwein © 2017 Klarwein-Archives. Used by permission of the Klarwein family.

A childhood in Memphis, a classical conservatory education, composition and electronic music study with Stockhausen in Cologne; a passage through the New York minimalist sphere with Terry Riley, Reich, Glass; having a window opened onto the world's music and a new approach to the trumpet via vocal master Pandit Pran Nath; a questioning and deconstruction of the European dichotomy between classical and popular, sacred and sensual; a pioneer of digital transformation and sampling—all of this led to Fourth World—the unique blend which Jon has described as "worldly music" to underline a more subtle equation at work and discourage the simplistic labeling of "world," "jazz," "classical," "minimal," or "ambient."