​words about jh | ​interview

jon hassell
​mixing it | BBC Radio | ​1994

Mixing It:

Now, Jon Hassell: you may not know the name but you probably know the sound. A very distinctive trumpet sound, muted and swirling around in electronics and you can hear him playing on albums by people like David Sylvian, 808 State, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and Talking Heads, an impressive list if ever there was one, or you can catch him on any of his ten solo albums where he plays an original mix of styles he calls Fourth World.

​ Well, he was over recently from the States and we got him to take us through his eventful career and explain what exactly is Fourth World.
Jon Hassell:

Well it began as a term some fifteen years ago to describe my interest in ethnic music combined with my interest in electronics technology. I studied with Stockhausen and with an Indian musician and an incredible classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and I began doing things like, he would sing a phrase and I would play the phrase on the trumpet, given that raga is a form that depends on curves, it’s shape making. It’s like making a beautiful shape and that resulted in a sound that was very vocal. But I was also deeply touched by Miles Davis and jazz. So I wanted to show that there was a music in which improvisation played a part but it wasn’t jazz, which in fact reflected the state of music in the rest of the world. It’s the only music in the Occident in which there is no improvisation in classical music. I wanted to take these three elements of Indian music, the background the tamboura, the foreground of the solo, and the tabla. I used those as a model but I didn’t want to have an association with Indian music. So I would create an electronic background, which might be made up of a sample of pygmy voices mixed in with a sample of Yma Sumac, a little bit of Hollywood orchestration behind her, something from the fifties, plus a bit of gamelan music from Java. Then my playing the Raga, Darbari. I’m leading up to a record called Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism. This was an attempt to take the spirit of various places and then create a world that doesn’t exist.

The thing that you are particularly well known for is your trumpet sound. How did you first develop that sound? I mean did you one day think I’ve got to come up with a new trumpet sound, and put it through a load of devices and think “Yes that’s it.”

That as I explained before was just a result of attempting to play these ‘curves’, to play a constant glissando of any raga. It’s an act of deep concentration for me to try and hold this conch shell feeling. This is where the sound comes from really, this attempt to play these curves.

Bluescreen 2. Tell us a bit about the group and the name.

“Bluescreen” as a term is a new metaphor for sampling. Bluescreen is the technique in video and film where an actor is filmed against a blue screen and then anything can be projected into the background. So one moment you’re on a mountain, then the sea, then dessert. You are taking something from it’s original context. For example taking a snare drum from a session from Sun studios in 1950 and then recomposing it into some new mosaic.

You were actually sampling long before samplers were invented.

Yes, via tape manipulation and tape cutting and that kind of thing. Musical collages have always been of great interest to me. Bluescreen was the name of the band and the record was called Dressing For Pleasure. It was on Warner Brothers’ and came out in ’92 or ’93.

Are there any particular tracks on this that you like?

Yes, there is a little more of an attempt to reach into my inner psyche. Pop musicians in general have no problems reaching into their psycho-sexual poetic worlds. Classical musicians are people who come from a classical background. I mean you can’t imagine someone like Philip Glass singing a ballad of how he’s feeling because his lover has left him. I tried consequently to make a little move into that direction. I tried to open up re how I felt, and what was the fundamental thing behind what I did. The answer with this is that it’s always kind of been an erotic fantasy for me. The thing with music is that I try and divide it between pre-orgasmic and post-orgasmic. I put myself in the latter category. It’s a way of designing something that I want to hear in a blissful state, something which I want to hear which takes me someplace mysterious and wonderful. So this record had some of that in it. A track like ‘Sex Goddess’ which has samples of girls that I have been with in my life, also a Les Baxter sample in the background, merging this idyllic fifties idea of Tropicana, along with a bit of hip hop.

Jon, tell us about the album you did with Farafina who are from Burkina Faso. How did that happen?

I have spoken before about my desire to weave things together so it doesn’t have a geographical association. This was impossible with a traditional balafon group from West Africa. The balafon is an instrument with a gourd underneath it, and is related to the xylophone family. It has this very strict pitch and that’s it. That’s the key to the concert. If you try and do something to that key harmonically well… There was a bit of a problem but there were occasional places where it really took off. I was saying before about layering things. Sometimes it just gels and when it did it was just thrilling. The last track on this record was the most successful at this. A track called ‘Masque’. It’s from a record called Flash of the Spirit. which was produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and myself. I think it has something quite beautiful in it.

Now you have just handed me a very lovely looking CD and book called The Vertical Collection. What is this exactly?

This was recorded around my performance at the Manca Festival in Nice. It’s a kind of avant garde festival which took the theme this year of Fourth World. Vertical Collection are samples of material from anytime in my career, as opposed to a Horizontal Collection which would take the best of my last ten CDs and line the tracks up. Pieces are made up and anyone who knows my entire catalogue would be able to say this comes from that album etc. So there are anything up to five different mixtures of things. This is a limited edition of a thousand copies, a kind of a gift around the festival performance.

So it’s a kind of avant-garde greatest hits album of sorts.

In a way.

Any plans to release?

None. I’m so disenchanted with the big record companies and the big releases. Now I’m really interested in doing small things that get around due to word of mouth and become something that someone wants to get. It may even appear on the internet.

What’s your favourite track on this release. Tell us a bit about it.

‘Gift of Fire’ is a title on an album I did entitled Dream Theory in Malaya. Parts of ‘Gift of Passage’ was a sample off a record I did called Power Spot. These are just two of the tracks that were sampled in order to create these little codes which point back to the origins of the material. If you listen to the entire thirteen tracks it has a kind of a strange consistency as a piece. •

This interview was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s experimental music programme, Mixing It, hosted each week by Robert Sandall and Mark Russell.
See www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/ for details of streaming broadcasts.



The following is the full of text of a note, directed at the Penn (U. of Pennsylvania) community, that was enclosed in one of the packages of materials that Kathy Change distributed the morning of October 22nd 1996, the day she set fire to herself.

(Note that this was written in the atmosphere surrounding the first Gulf War. -jh)

All that you have and cling to in fear

Is as worthwhile as a poisoned pie.

A universe full of love and wonderful possibilities

Would be yours if only you would reach for it.

You are sitting in timid conformity

On a hayride to hell.

You’re just about there.

Get off that truck now.

Break out of the ranks of evil

Do a dance for freedom.

I am angry, impatient, full of anxiety

And full of hope and love

But after 18 years of trying and being rejected

And being a pariah and a fool

I have finally concluded that my charism

And social magnetism register high on the negative scale.

Now that I’ve put in the first word,

This movement that I’ve tried to start,

Would probably do better without me,

So I will try to make a dramatic exit.

I’ve tried to do this several times before,

And failed.

If this is the right thing to do,

Heaven will help me.

If not,


Nevermind. I’ll be seeing you around.

I look at you and you are so beautiful

It makes me shy.

Your sympathy makes me want to hide

Because I feel unworthy.

For the cause I want to grab you

Drag you to meetings and demonstrations

But I’m afraid of putting you on the spot

Making you uncomfortable, scaring you away

So I am frozen in wanting

to merge my mind and heart with yours

Imprisoned by the invisible barriers

That I know must be broken through

I scream shrilly

I am an ungainly presence

Trying to break through the complacency

with my wild rage.

I have crashed this party

I do not belong here.

But you do. You are the children of the host.

You can talk to each other as peers

And take your rightful places

At academia’s table

with calm and gracious poise.

As crazy as I have been,

You can be cool.

Have confidence in your beliefs

You are a step ahead of everybody else.

Underneath their herd stupidity

Even the demo emulating morons and their sold out mentors

Who appear to be the majority in your milieu,

Are human beings

Who long for the world to be freed and set right

Even though they don’t know it.

Do them the great kindness of forgiving their stupidity

And put them in touch with the real heart

Of humanity.

To reach through the mask

Is your task.

There is so much at stake;

The country, the world, the future.

Don’t be put off by trivialities.

With you as its champion

Good will surely triumph.

How great will be your glory

How multitudinous will be your blessings

The highest happiness will be yours.

For many years I have though that Penn

Would be a good place to start the Transformation.

If this action I am taking succeeds

I hoped it might spark some interest

In what I was trying to say.

I hoped my writings would be printed and made available.

Maybe Transformation Parties could be held.

I am taking this action out of hope

Not despair.

By destroying my material corpus

I want to free my spirit

So that it can jump inside of you

I think that you would enjoy being filled

with conviction and can-do optimism

I think you would feel good

to be cleansed of the blase brain rot that clogs your mind

Yes there is such a thing as true morality, a real

distinction between good and evil, right and wrong.

Decisive moves must be made on behalf of good.

These are the addresses of some Penn people to whom

I have sent my packages.

Maybe you would like to meet and talk.

I have also sent packages to WXPN

and the Daily Pennsylvanian.

October 7, 1996

The multitudinous war crimes and crimes against humanity of the U.S. government have been documented and detailed, and every American is more or less aware of the criminality of his government, and yet we continue to respect its power and authority. We continue trying to work through the electoral process. We plead with our congress people to work for the well being of all the people and the planet instead of catering to the special interests of big money and organized crime. It is as though Gary Heidnik, the man who imprisoned, tortured and murder women in his basement, was the headmaster of a girls’ prep school; and upon discovery of his crimes,he was duly criticized, but allowed to remain in his position of power and responsibilty, presumably to continue his atrocities. The U.S. government is a much bigger and far worse criminal than Gary Heidnik, and it must be relieved of its duties immediately without further bureacratic hemming and hawing. The crimes of this present system are so enormous, an the dangers to which it is exposing us are so deadly and world threatening, that a sincere and forthright call to the American people to depose this evil system and come together now to peacefully replace it with true democracy, would be received with an overwhelmingly positive response from the people. Media workers are in a position to make this call and it is their responsibility to do so.

It is a waste of energy to get angry and gripe at the government. The government must be replaced by a truly democratic selfgovernment of, for and by the people. Those people working in industries essential to maintaining life should democratically take over their work places and organize an emergency economy to supply the needs of the people. The rest of the people should meet in their communities to organize a new directly democratic community based selfgovernment. This should be done immediately, because every day that we continue with business as usual, the problems just get worse. I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people in general.

I want to protest this entirely shameful state of affairs as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. Around twelve years ago, I don’t remember the exact year, a woman from Boston set herself on fire in Independence Square. For the next five days the Philadelphia Inquirer was filled with reports of investigations into who this woman was and speculation as to why she did this act. Since I have been in Philadelphia for fiften years, all the while making myself very visible demostrating my position opinions, dancing and waving my flags on the streets of this city, I believe I should create at least as much as a sensation in the press. If the news media buries this story it will be proof of the extreme prejudice of the media. I want this statement and my other writings to be printed in the newspapers of this city. I want the people of this city who have been seeing me around for so long to finally hear what I’ve been saying. I want my ideas to be publically discussed. If people talked about my ideas, they would realize that transformation of our society is possible, and they would feel better.

I first planned to take this action a year ago. I wrote up final statements, xeroxed them, and then I backed down. A year ago, economic collapse seemed to be the most imminent danger threatening us. Today the likelihood of the impending war with Iraq rapidly escalating into a nuclear holocaust eclipses the likelihood of economic collapse as being by far the more serious and scary crisis. I am propmted to take this action by the dire urgency of the world’s environmental crisis, and the enormous unnecessary suffering and repression being endured by all the world’s people because of the oppressive geopolitical system. Of all the world’s people, only the American people have the power to change this global system of abuse, and therefore, it is their responsibility to do so. I hope my action will not be viewed as tragic, but rather, in the light in which it is intended. I am performing this ritual sacrifice in hopes that it will increase the efficacy of my prayers to all the people to have faith in the ideals, choose the path of peace and transform this nation and world.

I also want to make a statement about life and death. Death is natural and inevitable. Death is good, because it allows life to make a fresh start. The spirit is everlasting and always returns to life through rebirth. I am not certain exactly how this happens, but I believe that the spirit recycles itself somehow. It’s true that we are each special individuals whose lives are precious, but we are also part of a great spirit body, the universal collective spirit. By dying, we dissolve our individual ego personality and rejoin the spiritual totality, before returning to alife in a new body. It’s a completely wonderful process, and not sad at all, except perhaps for the people we leave behind, who may miss us. But there are so many beautiful people in the world, that they should not miss the departed for too long. There are always plenty of people around to love.

This society places too much emphasis on the unconditional sacredness of life. Anti-abortionists believe that it is more important to save life than to guarantee the quality of the life they save. This belief in survival as the highest priority contributes to the deterioration of the quality of life for everybody. When people do not practice birth control and all the babies are saved, then we overpopulate. We kill wild animal species, strip the earth of its forests and wilderness, and the planet becomes ecologically imbalanced and punishes us with environmental disasters. When there are more people than we can care for, the quality of life diminishes for everyone. A life is worth saving only if it is worth living. It could be argued that to live with physical handicaps and adversity may be good for spiritual growth. But to live in moral degradation is not good in any way. Because our society is so corrupt, unfair, environmentally destructive, and in a state of deterioration, rather than improvement, we are all living in a state of moral degradation. Our society is like a cancer on the planet. The goal is for everybody to improve, not to commit mass suicide.

For eighteen years I have been trying to urge people to throw off the corruption and go for the good, but I don’t see my efforts as being successful in any way, except that it’s given me something to do. I do not want to live off of this evil society any longer. My life is dependent on this society, and so I want to end my life. I demand that life must meet a standard of true morality or else it is not worth living. In Orwellian fashion, this society equates repression with morality. But in truth, repression of people who are only trying to enjoy themselves and not hurting others is utterly immoral. The real struggle is not between races, or classes. It is not people versus the elite.

The real struggle is between good and evil; between intelligent behavior and blind obedient conformity. Good is what promotes health and happiness. Evil is what causes deterioration and disease. If we choose good, it will be a triumph for everybody. Every person from the poorest to the richest, from the humblest to the most powerful, will gain. Everybody will discover real joy and peace of mind. The benefits will be so absolute that I cannot imagine any other outcome.

We are entering an age that will be as different from what came before as day is to night, or as summer is to winter. Throughout this passing age, humanity has had to work very hard at being constantly on the defensive, and prepared for war. Now as we dissolve the enmity, we can all relax and enjoy life.

As a plan my action, I think of all the things that might hinder it. What if the post office fails to deliver my press statements? What if someone stops me from carrying out my intentions? I don’t know if I will succeed, but I will drop this statement in the mail and proceed, trusting in fate to bring about whatever is meant to happen.

Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world. America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.