​words about jh | ​interview

Altered States: Fourth World

from ocean of sound
by david toop | 1997
altered states: fourth world

“Peeling to the lethargic beat of tumescent music, she wore vivid makeup, glitter in her hair and crystalline clothes, all hooks, straps, sequins and secret snappers. The stripper’s art needs special garments made to tear away like the husk of a pomegranate. So you do not notice the woman as she is, because you are looking for fulfillment of the mind’s eye. You are examining an idea—depravity or pleasure, or their perilous symbiosis.”

—David Thomson, Suspects, 1985

“Peeling to the lethargic beat of tumescent music, she wore vivid makeup, glitter in her hair and crystalline clothes, all hooks, straps, sequins and secret snappers. The stripper’s art needs special garments made to tear away like the husk of a pomegranate. So you do not notice the woman as she is, because you are looking for fulfilment of the mind’s eye. You are examining an idea—depravity or pleasure, or their perilous symbiosis.”

David Thomson, Suspects, 1985

​IN A CREEPING, convoluted trail suggestive of plant growth, David Thomson constructed a novel, or a lattice of biographical sketches, from the imaginary web of lives as they might have been lived by cinematic characters outside the frame of the cinema screen. These characters, their previously unknown pasts and futures—Walker from Point Blank, Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Evelyn Mulwray and Noah Cross from Chinatown and so on—snag and pull at each other in this web, implying an invisible world occupied by the ragged stories of every fictional identity ever invented.

A similar process of dragging icons and overlaying them, sliced translucently thin, onto fictional histories, has been one of the key devices of technological music. Feasibly, you could extrapolate a novel from the interweaving stories buried within John Cage’s Variations IV , but richer possibilities unfolded in the early Eighties when Jon Hassell began to capture, loop and laminate fragments of sampled sound on albums such as Aka-Darbari-Java. A student of Stockhausen who had recorded with Terry Riley (In C), La Monte Young (The Theater of Eternal Music), Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian and Peter Gabriel, Hassell formalised that process by naming his 1994 band Bluescreen, after the cinematic technique of filming foreground action against a blue background, “adopting this metaphor in musical ways, creating magical textures in sound, making something familiar sound fresh and exotic by separating it from its background and combining it with something new and startling.” Finding a review of David Thomson’s Suspects in the LA Weekly, he hit on this as another metaphor connecting to his own search for a music which was almost psychotropic in its capacity to activate alien worlds in the imagination through strange juxtapositions.

Previous albums, particularly Earthquake Island, Vernal Equinox, Possible Musics and Dream Theory In Malaya, along with his collaborations with Gnawa musicians from Morocco and the Farafina percussionists from Burkina Faso, were made in the spirit of creative anthropology exemplified earlier in this century by the surrealist writer, traveller, critic and documenter of dreams Michel Leiris. Writing on ethnographic surrealism in The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford offers an outline of the territory: “I am using the term Surrealism in an obviously expanded sense to circumscribe an aesthetic that values fragments, curious collections, unexpected juxtapositions—that work to provoke the manifestations of extraordinary realities drawn from the domains of the erotic, the exotic and the unconscious.”

That could be a précis of Jon Hassell’s oeuvre. But with Aka-Darbari-Java the perfume of ethnopoetics was supplemented by parallels with literature and the advanced technology of hyperreality, indicated through affinities with Latin American Magic Realist writing and the video technique of Keying In. As for the sound, sluggish shapes undulated in the depths of a liquid fog formed from particles of air passed through metal > electronic transformations > the pitches of an Indian raga > slowly turning variations of a drum cycle from Senegal recorded in Paris > glittering spirals of noise lifted from gamelan music and an Yma Sumac record (already a repository of colonial myths) orchestrated in Hollywood Exotica style by Les Baxter.

This was a form of music, Hassell suggested which would leave behind “the ascetic face which Eurocentric tradition has come to associate with serious expression.” Taboos were transgressed, notably in the music’s sensuality, and its free use of source material, but this was not untutored montage. The raga—Darbari—can be heard as interpreted by one of Hassell’s teachers, the great Kirana-style vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, recorded by Alan Douglas in New Delhi and released 18 years later on Ragas of Morning and Night.

Though he is now hampered by age and Parkinson’s Disease by the mid-1990s when he recorded with the Kronos Quartet, Pran Nath’s approach to teaching was once formidable. “It is necessary to remain one hundred years with the guru, then practice for one hundred years, and then you can sing for one hundred years,” he has said. The last time Hassell and I talked, back in 1989, Jon tugged and worried at the contradiction between lengthy (though not quite that lengthy) study and the instantaneity of Xerox culture.

“It’s a quandary for me,” he said, “because I did develop a physical dexterity when I studied Indian music with Pandit Pran Nath. I decided at that point I wanted to walk into a room and have something that was in my nervous system which I could activate and bring with me wherever I went. It’s a problem to know what to do with that in the age of sampling and audio sleight of hand, because the audience is looking for the final result, basically. They don’t care if it took you twenty years to arrive at it or whether somebody sampled it off of a record and used it.”

He had just released City: Works of Fiction at that point, an album produced with a lot of digital editing and a strong influence from Hank Shocklee’s Bomb Squad productions for Public Enemy and a vocal sample from P.E.’s ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’. City set an industry standard for digitally sliced soundtracks of the city twitching in delerium tremens: chicken sacrifices and dogfights in the basement, bullroarers on the bridges, camcorders at the murder scene, TVs in the lamp posts, sex temples, knock-down kidneys at car-boot sales, fake breasts, fake Cartier, the smell of a thousand cuisines. As Japanese composer and bass player Motohiko Hamase wrote for the sleeve notes for his Technodrome album: “City…provides a thorough expression of city music in one of the most remarkable accomplishments of recent years.”

The reference points for this album were characteristically broad, mostly extramusical, ranging from Ben Okri’s City of Red Dust, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Jean Baudrillard’s portrayal of America as “the primitive society of the future”, to Federico Fellini’s custom-built celluloid city of Reggiolo, Salman Rushdie’s tropicalised London and Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles 2019. In a long version of Blade Runner screened in San Francisco, a scene later excised from the commercially released director’s cut version showed two women, like Japanese Butoh dancers, moving slowly on a nightclub stage to the liquid techno-throb that Vangelis envisaged (prophetically, yet still miscalculated by more than twenty-five years) as music of the next century. A fertile texture of images: body, machine, global, intimate, expressive, emotionally withdrawn.

Like Terry Riley, playing saxophone in an electronic hall of mirrors in early recordings such as ‘Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band’, Hassell had created an otherworldly studio sound that had become recognised as his signature. This use of digital delay, combined with pitch shifting, created its own problems. “When I started studying with Pran Nath”, he said, “I realised that the basic art of raga is, as he says, the music between the notes. That’s to call attention to the fact that if you have a grid and each one of the lines on the grid is a pitch level, the art is in drawing precisely a beautiful curve between one level and another level. It’s like calligraphy. Trumpet’s a lonely instrument. It’s one voice. When I realised I could have a replica of the trumpet playing with me, then it was as though instead of drawing the curves with one pencil I could hold a handful of pencils and draw the curves. In trying to make these curves in raga, a very breathy, vocal-type sound resulted. Basically, it’s playing the mouthpiece, not the trumpet. I blow it like a conch shell—that’s the most primitive, fundamental aspect of what I do. This is the only instrument other than the voice that works that way. The sound is strange to start with, so when I add the electronic eye-shadow, the mistaken conclusion is that it’s all done with mirrors, not meat.” So a voice within seemed to be saying—as it does to most trained musicians from time to time—to bare the expertise behind the plug-in mask. His next project was planned as a solo album, untreated, unadorned, unplugged.

But the album that emerged, eventually, was far from the naked intimacy of a solo acoustic trumpet. There was a naked intimacy, or should I say provocatively dressed nakedness, but this was absorbed into the associated imagery of the music rather than the instrumentation. As the title—Dressing For Pleasure—indicated, this was a further footstep in the move away from ascetic aesthetics, into hip-hop, jazz, ragga and the ritualised sex of the modern primitive movement. Dressing For Pleasure can be placed next to all the younger hybrids of hip-hop, jungle, trip-hop and so on, linked by a connecting thread which has little to do with age or geography. That thread was tenuous, yet it constituted a sonic assault on musical fundamentalism.

An avid internet user, Jon Hassell has some interesting observations on fundamentalism, pertinent to the tensions between nationalism and transglobalism. Click yourself on to the internet and you can find electronic discussion sites devoted to heraldry and folk dancing.

“Maybe it will become convenient to redraw a map of the world according to interests and who wants to live in which era”, he says from his home in West Hollywood as we talk on the telephone. “We could have wars between the fifteenth century and the twenty-first century… In the past, having been coming from the abstract, instrumental side of things, music was metalanguage for performing. I always felt that music took off where words stopped. Hip-hop changed that, because hip-hop allowed a new relationship between words and music, one that I felt more comfortable with. At the same time, every record I’ve ever done has always been some sort of a fantasy, an erotic fantasy. They’ve always been in this same constellation of sensuality, where the Gil Evans sound equals this sense of feeling good at a certain place at a certain time—maybe post-orgasmic music as opposed to pre-orgasmic. I keep asking the central question: What is it I really like? What is it that I really want to hear? And both in the personal realm, the sex fantasy realm, and the musical realm, it comes down to shockingly simple things. I love lush sensual atmospheres. I love beautiful chords. I’m in love with harmony. Strangely enough, I’ve taken the path of disciplines which didn’t have a lot to do with that—at least in the sense of traditional chord changes like studying raga. Although there are vast harmonic implications. It is, in fact, very covertly harmonic, but I’m talking about the beauty of having one note and you’ve got these chords changing underneath. Within each chord, that note takes on a different kind of character. It’s a different picture each time, but using the same foreground. Brazilian pop music seemed to pick up on that right away—’One Note Samba’ et cetera.

“Why did Brazilians choose this, or why did Gil Evans choose those harmonies out of the repertoire that existed at that point. There is something going on there, some deep essential drive towards the beautiful. The beautiful is defined here as being that which drags you most profoundly without any abstract constructs. Without talking yourself into beautiful.” At the heart of our emergent sense of beauty in the present is a new tonality, which Jon sees as a development of samples being detuned and overlaid, particularly in hip-hop, to create dense, strange harmonic dissonances. To people who don’t insist that music must be Eurocentrically in tune, these are very pleasurable, but to those whose first and formative listening experiences are hip-hop, this new tonality is normal.

Jon sends me an essay from Skin Two (issue 14), written by Pat Califia and entitled ‘Sex Magic: Modern Primitives, Latex Shamans & Ritual SM’. “Modern primitives live, for the most part, in urban enclaves in the age of the machine”, she writes. ‘We have to find a way to synthesise the rhythms of nature with our electronic lives. A fuzzy-headed, sentimental longing for a bucolic utopia will not save us from toxic waste or nuclear weapons. We need a world where we can have both computers and campfires.” In condemning misguided appropriations of pre-industrial, communal ritual for the post-industrial, private theatre of sex, this brilliant essay illuminates some of the murkier areas of Fourth World theory.

And in Dressing For Pleasure, there were musical developments of the Fourth World idea also. ‘Destination: Bakiff’, for example, sampled and chopped snatches of Duke Ellington’s recording of ‘Bakiff’. Composed by trombonist Juan Tizol, the original tune is a heady piece of exotica. “When Ellington and Strayhorn composed the Far East Suite in 1964”, wrote Mark Tucker in his notes for the Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band boxed set released in 1986, “they may have been inspired by their recent visit to the Orient, but surely they drew upon memories of Juan Tizol’s earlier studies in musical exotica, among them ‘Caravan’, ‘Pyramid’ and the atmospheric ‘Bakiff’. Tizol’s Puerto Rican origins seem to have little to do with a piece like ‘Bakiff’, where musical impressionism is the product of its composer’s imagination, not his first-hand experience with indigenous Caribbean idioms.” And for Ellington, these explorations were stimulated by an interest in Africa and the diaspora. “As a student of Negro history”, he said, “I had, in any case, a natural inclination in this direction.”

In the Fourth World, nothing is simple. “Possible musics, possible cultures, possible architecture, possible lifestyles, etc.”, Hassell says. “This is an idea that boils down to the range of possible relations between individual, tribe and nation in the mass electronic age. Imagine a grid of national boundaries and on to those project a new, non-physical communications derived geography—tribes of like-minded thinkers. Since a situation like this has never before existed, it follows that old, narrow-band approaches can’t work and that new approaches must be creative. That means intuitive and improvisational. I would like the message of Fourth World to be that things shouldn’t be diluted. This balance between the native identity and the global identity via various electronic extensions is not one that can be dictated or necessarily predicted. One should be very humble and respectful of our lack of knowledge about how those things combine, and be informed by knowledge of the way things used to be in smaller numbers—that’s where it becomes very useful to look at other cultures, small cultures, and try to develop a modus operandi for the new age, not New Age.” •

This piece first appeared in Ocean Of Sound

by David Toop (Serpent’s Tail, 1997)



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.