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Jon Hassell

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atmospherics: stories in words and pictures

atmospherics : stories in words and pictures

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world music magazine #5

CURRENTLY LIVING IN Los Angeles after many years in New York, composer/trumpeter Jon Hassell is the pioneer of a style he describes as 'Fourth World'. A mysterious, unique hybrid of music ancient and modern, acoustic and digital, composed and improvised, Eastern and Western. After compositions studies and university degrees in the USA, he went to Europe to study electronic and serial music with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Several years later, he returned to New York where his first recordings were made with minimalist masters La Monte Young and Terry Riley through whom he met Master Indian raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, and began a long and intensive study of non-Western musics.

Since 1977 he has recorded 10 highly influential solo albums which have over the years been so widely appropriated, that many of their innovations have streamed anonymously into the vocabulary of contemporary music. En-route he has worked with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, and the Kronos Quartet.

Jon Hassell is one of the world's most innovative musicians and one of today's most influential composers. His music has established a genre that goes beyond notions of jazz, fusion, neoclassicism, new music or new age. Jon Hassell's concept of Fourth World music transcends the so-called 'primitive' and the so-called 'futurist', by seamlessly uniting traditional rhythmic and melodic concepts, with recombinant aesthetics made possibly by the creation of high technology. This year he continues work on a book exploring how the Fourth World paradigm might be applied within the wider context of culture and society.

Jon Hassell: Lets start with where I'm coming from. I have this thing about "North" and "South", and every time I'm asked to define what "Fourth World" means, and there are about 15-20 definitions that are equally good but one the one I use, is that it's an attitude, something that happens when a respectful, intelligent and creative mind meets the tension between "North" and "South".

By tension I mean creative tension. That is to say, nothing happens unless there's some kind of dynamic. And I think of North and South not only in global terms, but also for example, within the body. So the equator is at the belt line, and the Northern people spend most of their time above the equator, and Southern people have a more balanced, or perhaps maybe over-balanced lean towards the other side. In the great geopolitical struggle in the past, and with typical western blinkered vision, the First World described the western world: the US and Europe.

The Second World was Russia, and anything outside of that was the Third World. Fourth World is a respectful look at the advantages of both, and the best part of both those approaches; with of course the full knowledge that we have to do a lot of work to correct the overbalancing of the North. Northern peoples developed technology to stay alive. It was cold, and what do you do? You can't just go dancing on the beach, Or go picking fruit from off of trees. So technology developed in the North. There was however, another kind of technology that developed in the South—the technology of the Spirit. That technology of the North became communications technology, here in the North, and communications technology was vastly different from any other kind of technology, because it had the ability to send ideas to wherever a radio could reach. That shock—that overpowering phenomena of media control by people of the North has affected the traditions of the South, and has destroyed certain traditions, and has debased many traditions among people of the South. They have seen dollar signs, and so people do things that are going to make money, and get them out of the village, and get them into where the high-life is. That is not to say that's all bad or that it's all good, but just to say that these are the forces that are at work. It's like being in a forest, a hunter has to know what the territory is like, to walk softly, don't step on twigs. So we too have a new kind of jungle. One has to learn how to navigate and negotiate this territory.

I came from a classical background, through music conservatory. I did a Masters Degree in composition, and went to Europe to study with Stockhausen, and that whole avant garde thing in the late '60s. Then I met Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, who were doing what has come to be known as minimal music, out of which come Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. I played with them, and I was doing my own compositions, but I came out of that world of classical music. There was too much 'rationality', let's say. And I got into this Other form, this other movement which was going on, which was an attempt to re-balance in a way—to get back down to fundamentals. That is to say this—What makes the body feel good? Like tonality, knowing that there's a tonality there, and something departs from it and comes back to it. That was radical with regards to the avant garde!—whose approach was like, every note was equal. To me that whole thing was a demonstration of psychosis!


• The move to what you've just described. Was it a deliberate conscious thing?

In retrospect, I have to say that I respected my intuition, which is to keep asking myself, what is it that I really like? To keep going beyond the 'cultural givens', that say what you are supposed to like. During all this, I met a great classical raga singer, Pandit Pran Nath, who had been brought to New York by La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and some other fans of his. So from that point of view it was almost like starting my musical education all over again. I started learning raga on trumpet. In raga the method of teaching is oral, forget about paper and pencil. Your teacher sings phrase. If you get it the phrase right, he sings it again. If you don't hear it that time, then he goes back one step and sings an easier phrase. So it's kind of taking you through step by step, until you hear this very intricate calligraphy that's going on. in order to do that, I had to learn how to play the trumpet differently. I now related to it in a very primitive way. That is to say, I started with the mouth piece and just thought of it like a conch shell. So I had to make the sounds and pitches with the mouth piece, and then almost as if I was blindfolded and someone stuck the trumpet on the end of the mouth piece, that was what I was trying for. That is what I still try for. It is difficult to hold onto that but...


• Was that as a result of your training with Pandit Pran Nath?

Yes, definitely. That was an attempt to play raga, so I got the idea that there were other things to do in music other than to go from scales. But I would listen to him doing a rag. I would have my eyes closed and be listening for 15 minutes and then realize that he had only touched the first three notes of the raga, because of the many ways of approaching, and weaving. And this whole form, a way of forming notes, that's like a radical thing. No one ever says anything about that in western music. So then I tried to transpose that, and I started adding the other things of my own environment. Our jungle of the North, has to do with electronics and radio. So I added a harmonizer, which gives me an extra pitch. And I started playing parallel intervals, and using curves that I was learning from Indian music, rather than playing Indian-styled music, and having a tambura background and a tabla or rhythmic underpinning. I thought of another way of orchestrating that, so to speak. The background could be a loop, like a continually changing chord sequence, sort of like a harmonic tambura, or the drumming. I tried to stay away from Indian drumming, because I didn't want this association. I wanted to do something which was more undefinable, and so I gravitated towards African or Afro-Brazilian drumming, and sometimes mixed it with Indian drumming.

My first record was Vernal Equinox in 1977. I was trying to make the point that there was another kind of improvisational music, other than jazz—as in Indian music, which is not improvisational, it's like a balance between the classical pre-thought things, and the stuff that happens on the moment. Every other 'classical' music outside of the western tradition always has these elements. I've asked if anyone knows of one that doesn't and if this statement is not completely true, and no one has come up with any. The western classical tradition is the only one in which response to the moment is not present. It was present in Baroque music. When you played figured bass and harpsichord and all that, there were things to be improvised on, a bit of improvisation could be done, but basically western classical music is all fixed—like giving a prepared speech, rather than having a conversation or doing something from your heart at the moment...

...Miles Davis' On The Corner, I would touch on as being a prototypical Fourth World album, but I was trying to stake out my own area. I did a record in 1980 called Earthquake Island in which I tried to pull together all my favorite things at that point. I had Brazilian drummer Nana Vasconçelos, and Badal Roy, the tabla player on Miles' On The Corner, Miroslav Vitous, on bass and Dom Um Romao, on percussion. But at that point, I think that things went a little too far into jazz. So that's the origins of the mixture that I try to keep. Again on this mixture theme, there's a record I made called Aka-Dabari-Java. Aka is the name of a pygmy tribe, Dabari, is the name of a raga, and Java is a state.


• What methods do you use in creating music?

I had always done sampling before, chopping up tapes and loops, and that kind of thing, but when the Fairlight synthesizer appeared, that was the first one that allowed you to do looping and sampling, and to be able to play the sample on the keyboard. It was with the use of that, that I took approximately a 1 second sample of a pygmy voice, a 1 second sample of gamelan from Java, and 1 or 2 seconds from some Johnny Mandel Hollywood orchestration of the '50s and I was playing a rag over all of that. I didn't keep it pure, so these things were merged in a way. One could call it Post-Modern—I had no idea of what Post-Modern meant at that time, but these things merged in a way that is undefinable geographically. It's sort of like a fantasy of what another imaginary country might be, what would have happened if instead of the history of music being what it was—you know, instead of Beethoven, Mozart, and the western composers, being the definition of western classical, what would have happened if there bad been another kind of history. To me Miles Davis was more 'classical'—if by classical you mean a 'balance between emotional and improvisation, and free-thought and structural thought. That to me seems to be a much better definition of 'classical' in a global sense than Beethoven and that tradition. And so I think on the back of this album, I wrote what I was trying to do, and that was make 'coffee-colored' classical music, where all the influences are around. And yet the question still comes down to a very personal creative thing. You have to find something within that. It's not just a matter of taking this thing and putting it on top of that thing. A lot of so called 'world music', is like a 'pop form,' with a little sprinkling on top. It's like let's get this Indian musician to come and put something on top of this like a 'layer cake', there's one layer on top of another. My ambition was, and is to do something different, and I had this sort of ideologically pure version of Fourth World—I'm being slightly ironic here, because I don't want there to be an ideology—But that, there are as many versions of a response, as many versions of music, or art or thinking that could come out of a mind which has a musical vocabulary. So you have to find another way. It is not just an easy formula. There are things bubbling up from the streets.


• What of your use of sampling?

With sampling, I saw this forum arising with music collage, which is what sampling is in its broadest sense. This form of musical collage was selling millions of records. It was suddenly a futuristic pop item event! I started thinking, I'd been looking at all these exotic cultures for influences, but thought why not look in my own backyard and so make my own statement in that flavor. Hip hop was like a continuation of the African spirit, and the perseverance through difficulty; and was a response, an intuitive response to the African-American environment. In the same way that a pygmy's environment would be what is around him, in Watts or Brooklyn, in New York, the closest things around them was the radio, and so it is like music about the radio, and using it.


• The term Fourth World, what does it mean, and what is the significance of that title?

I remember being shocked hearing Reagan once use the term Fourth World, to describe the poorest degree, the most extreme poverty of the Third World.


• And you've turned that term into a celebration?

Yes, its a kind of logo, saying the Third World, meaning the traditional World, the First World, meaning the technological one, and adding them together, to create something that goes beyond both, by taking the best of both, the most life-affirming, humanistic aspects of both.


• Does Fourth World have a spiritual dimension to it?

Absolutely. It's the absence of a spirit, or at least one of its aspects, that I'm ascribing to the First World, The Northern World. The South had its own technological evolution.


• It seems to me that you're talking about a new musical language, but it also seems clear, that you are talking about things that go beyond music as well?

Definitely; in the process of making this cultural mix of this musical mix, and thinking about what is the magic touch to add—just the right kind, and amount of electronics or technology, to something that is traditional—how do you make these combinations, and yet still remain respectful to the traditional thing, and not destroy it? This is the whole question about subtlety, and balance in the musical realm. It is also applicable to the larger cultural realm. So for many years now, since about 15 years, I've been writing. Every time I run across some cultural event or some news story that was related, for instance let's say exploitation of medicinal plants and herbs that are found in the South American or African jungle, which have not been properly paid for, or for which the inhabitants have not been compensated for. In a way it relates to the musical thing. You come in—it's free, it's there, you take it, it's like being a broker. You buy a musical tradition, and then you come to the west and sell it. This is part of world commerce in a way, but it needs to pointed out that these things happen The label I did the pivotal Fourth World records on, was a label called E.G., which came out of Brian Eno's management company. I proposed then doing a series called Earth's Greatest Hits, with field recordings, but being a bit more creative with it, and having recorded ambiences as part of it. And part of the profits from that would go back to the countries, via a group called Survival International, returning some of the profits back to where they came from. So there is a political side to Fourth World. There's a cultural side, a psychological side, in saying North and South within the body. Basically I've been working on a book that just needs to be organized and worked on, but the ideas, and the words are there.


• This proposed book, is it more than music, does it contain discussions on culture, politics, economics?

Oh yes, and much more. Music is just the starting point, just a reference. In fact, it's mostly these other things, and it's extrapolations into the wider cultural world. If only politicians would go deeper on a cultural level, and see how to relate to the great cultures other than their own. That culture, which is underneath the current manifestation of political leadership, wherever that may be.


• Fourth World, does it include language, and consciousness?

Yes, music is just a reference, you start with that idea, and you just keep letting it grow into these other areas, and just keep using the same sort of rationale, and it goes into every area. I think everyone has to become more of what formerly was called an artist. You have to respond intuitively to a given situation. Situations are always in flux—we are in a chaotic situation. If you try to approach it with a rigid formula or totally rational mind, you will wind up wrong perhaps 80 per cent of the time. If you try and do it intuitively, you'll be right something like 60 per cent.


• The Fourth World concept, how will it evolve, and how does it fit into a consumer driven world?

Survival amounts to a redefinition. You have to redefine yourself all the way along as soon as something becomes a fixed entity, you have to invent another title for it. "Bluescreen" was another term to me, for saying Fourth World. Bluescreen, in filming, is the technique, where you shoot an actor against a bluescreen, and then you can insert electronically whatever background you want. The actor can be in any environment. So now he's in Abu Dhabi, now he's in Los Angeles, or Toronto. So in a way it was a metaphor for sampling, where you're taking an object out of context and putting it in another context—and that was like another creative way of describing what I was doing. You have to try and keep on your toes, and not be boring. It's much more interesting to me to have an African band discover electronics than it is for a Western band to discover African music.


• Why is that?

Because one arises from a vital organic development, still in touch with the body. The western mind has become so abstract, that it's often not connected to the body anymore.


• Is it also a question of motive, that a western band may get an African band in for commercial motives, is there an element of that in it?

Sure, that's why in a sense, 'world music', which was something I had a great deal to do with, starting in 1976—and if you look at 1976, you'll see what the range of musical offerings were. You'd see how prescient, what I did was. Then it moved into the pop world. Brian Eno heard this record and became enchanted with it. Then we did a record together, and then Talking Heads were working with Brian Eno, and they went through their so-called 'African period', and then the rest of the pop thing—the whole 'ethno-chic', thing, is something I feel very strongly about. Personally I can't touch it. I get revolted by it, because I have my own personal history and discovery, I'm kind of sitting on the sidelines looking on. My musical response to all of that, is that I can only do certain things. I have this history, it would have been like asking Miles in 1990, to go back and play what was happening in 1970—it wouldn't happen. Sure I could have exploited that whole scene, and become 'Mr Fourth World', and try and make thing out of it. But when an idea becomes fixed, it doesn't let in light any more, and it dies. One of the projects that I have is to do a real, up and personal Brazilian standards thing, with like really lush strings and arrangements. In my own personal universe, that would be like avant garde. I often divide the world up into three eras: there's pre-hip, hip and post-hip. Doing that project would be an act of 'post-hip', rather than for me to round up another group of multi-national instrumentalists and go on tour.


• What's your view of the current music scene?

The big picture, especially in Europe and London, is that there is a very interesting mix in what is going on. One of the good things about technology is that it allows people with little or even no musical education to work in a tactile way with sound, and arrive at some poetry in that soon the result depends on the person, whether their sound world, the intuition has been overly colored by the market place into which they have been born, or whether they can look beyond that, and bring in other things. I think that there are definite positive currents in that direction. There are limitations to what is coming up from the streets; but there are also limitations from what is coming down. I mean there's something you can do by having musical education, knowing that certain interval is a major sixth, and therefore you can move around musically in a certain way. It's like having a word vocabulary, which can be disastrous if carried too far. When you become a concert musician, who can only do one thing and relate music in one way, that can cause problems. The ideal is to have both the vitality from 'below' and the abstract tools from 'above'—so to speak.


• What are your current projects?

1993 was the last recording I did for a major label called Dressing For Pleasure. The band was called Bluescreen. The "Bluescreen Project" is one new thing. Howie B's Pussyfoot label is probably going to release that, which is interesting, to put it in that club, new music context, and to have people approaching it from that scene. I did a record with Ry Cooder and an Indian classical flautist called Ronu Majumdar, tentatively entitled 'A Day For Trade Winds'. It's kind of lyrical, there's no splicing—just takes, that was nice. I enjoyed playing without electronics, I tried to carry that over into my concert situations.

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