​words about jh | ​interview

​do the right thing
​biba kopf | ​the wire | ​1990


​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

do the right thing

by biba kopf




    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
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."