​words about jh | ​interview

Do The Right Thing

He’s worked with David Sylvian and 808 State, sampled pygmy songs and James Brown bass-lines, now Jon Hassell is stalking the beats at the heart of the city.

Biba Kopf meets the topographical trumpeter for a meta-lingual chat.

​THE FACE OF the city is not permanent. Its outline is eroded by crosswinds blowing in from the desert and the sea, from the arctic steppes and the Indonesian rainforests. They bring in spores of alien customs, ancient and new. Sitting at the crossroads of the great commercial routes, the city is pulled out of shape by the travellers, the migrants, the refugees and the stragglers too weary to go any further. Clustering around their own, they congeal in quarters that resound with the voices and noises of their places of origin.

Consequently, there is no one sound of the city. Its heart is regulated by all manner of pulses. just as the processes of transformation at work on the face of the city are constant, its musics are in permanent flux, evolving an indefinite number of possible permutations. Rock’n’roll, jazz, rap and hip hop mingle with the gospel choruses and muezzin calls to prayer rising above the pandemonium of traffic, the crackle of commerce and the silent hum of electricity.

Like the city itself, the composer is a condenser of the many currents passing through it. Before his aptly-titled new album City: Works Of Fiction, Jon Hassell was not the artist you’d most immediately locate in the metropolis. Yet his records have invariably been a conduit for both ethnic sources and the sort of electronic modulations associated with state-of-the-art recording equipment. His highly individual trumpet sound is the ancient breeze disturbing the humidity, carrying the spores from India, Java, Malaya, Senegal or wherever, through the subways and skyscraper ventilation shafts into the conditioned studio environs where they seed his compositions.

Deceptively tranquil, his music patterns handclaps, paddled water rhythms and padded footfalls inside a studio-created heat haze that almost stills the teeming activity it contains. Though his earlier records largely originated at the riverside, in desert settlements or jungle villages, his source materials are translated into entirely new settings. These settings don’t so much swallow them up as allow themselves to be worked upon by the constituent parts. As such, even on his most rural-sounding records, Hassell’s own role is akin to that of the city. Like New York, Jakarta, Vancouver or his present homebase Los Angeles, he lets himself succumb to balkanisation, so to speak. As its title suggests, City part-explains his working methods, while it musically fictionalises cultural drifts from the village to the metropolis. Only the dullest of his purist listeners, who misguidedly place him at some new age/world music axis, will consider his present reversal of traffic directions mildly heretic.

“I SEE MYSELF in a process of constant redescription of my musical self in the same way I do my personal life,” remarks Jon Hassell wryly, during a flying promo visit to London. “I try not to be dull. No one’s unconscious is dull, there’s no such thing as a dull unconscious. I’m merely tapping everything that comes into me and making my own idiosyncratic fantasies and reconstructions of it…”

Presently a citizen of the megapolis Los Angeles, he has been overlaying his dream theories about faraway places, crisscrossed with nomads, minstrels and wandering poets, on topographies of the cities where the mass of us live.

“I began to see the flaw of thinking that the spiritual equals tranquil,” Hassell explains. “I learned the lesson that the idea of being spiritual is much wider than lighting incense and chanting. It has to do with learning how to move through the world in which you live with grace and poise. That means doing the right thing.

“That is, one can develop a modus operandum for walking through the city as one would as a skilful hunter walking through the forest knowing how to negotiate the terrain. In fact, I’d begun this process way back on an ECM record, Power Spot, which was another foray into the idea that strength and power was not to be left out of the do the right thing equation.”

The city as motif cements his empathy with the urban rap and hip hop techniques of constructing musaics from the vari-toned and multi-textured sound debris. Without forcing the issue, Hassell draws some imaginative musical comparisons between certain pygmy musical/storytelling constructions incorporating environmental noises and montaging “shards of James Brown or this and that” with dancebeats. Even so, coming from a composer of calming, mostly instrumental musics, albeit occasionally interspersed with incomprehensible voices, Hassell’s championing of vociferous vocal dance forms seems somewhat ironic.

“What I’m talking about is an idealization, in a way. What it promises,” he explains. “Because you are taking little, already formed chunked things, a chord, a rhythm, a voice, a cry, something like that, and as you’re orchestrating with these chunks of completely different tonalities, you can get very interesting tonal relationships that my ear perks up to.” Though no raps galvanise City, Hassell did invite Mancunian acid house merlins 808 State to remix the track ‘Voiceprint’ as a promo trailer. If they come across as unlikely dance partners, they are. Where Hassell and 808 State come together is at that orbital crossing-point of his compressed experiments in environmental sound-creating and their acid-into-ambient-house meltdowns.

HASSELL AND FRINGE pop have intersected elsewhere, far away from the dancefloor, most notably on his collaborations with David Sylvian, whose song ‘Brilliant Trees’ seems to me to be a perfect transcription of the composer’s trumpet spirituals into words. If Hassell himself is more reserved about the results, it is not without reasoning.

“To the extent he is incorporating my vocabulary into his own vocabulary, the experience is not so revelatory for me as it perhaps might have been, if I may be so bold to say, for him, remarks Hassell, diplomatically, going on to explain his position on vocal music. “It’s a strange quandary for me, because I studied with a great Indian musician and vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath. And, anyway, the voice is the instrument from which all other instruments come, at once the most flexible instrument and the one that is most resonant with our being.

“On the other hand music itself represents for me a kind of meta-language. If you start walking with daily language, and you break into a run with poetry, then by the time you’ve accelerated past the poetry level you’re airborne into the musical sphere. To be in this sort of meta-lingual state where you can escape from the little word cells that are the architecture of our mind and get back to a pre-verbal state, well, that’s a great virtue of music for me. So to re-combine these states, start working with words again on top of this musical level, is very complex, and every time I think of doing it, I just can’t, because it doesn’t seem natural to me. But I don’t rule out the word by any means.”

Few other trumpeters could rap up such a good case for music without words. And when Hassell forsakes speech to blow some, he layers contours of silence over the myriad noises of the city, re-training dance-crazed ears to hear the other voices drifting in from its distant shanties and satellites. Open up and listen. •

This interview first appeared in The Wire
Issue 78, August 1990 | www.thewire.co.uk



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.