​​1980 | ​possible musics

First, let it be said that this title (and this record) form a powerful nucleus of two concepts which became extremely influential: the pluralizing of “music” to suggest that there is more than one (foreshadowing the “diversity” movement before the term “political correctness” poisoned the well) and the 1+3=4 formula as a symbol for an idealized interbreeding of “first” (technological) and “third” (traditional) world influences in a way that aspires to be both “metaclassical” and “metapop.”

​This formulation framed a lot of possibilities that are still being explored and refined (and inevitably, banalized). In October 1977, I did a concert at The Kitchen (premiere showcase of the New York scene) which was supposed to feature some of the Earthquake Island musicians but that didn’t work out so I made some background textures from isolated tracks of the 24-track tape along with a transformation of the lush intro to a 10cc (the UK group) song into a “harmonic tambura” (another musician functioned as a kind of “tape DJ”, cueing all the backgrounds) and played over that with my newfound technofriend, the harmonizer.

​A glowing New York Times review of this concert (“Jon Hassell, Trumpeter, Opens Vistas”) was a great moment of validation and inspired me to go beyond the diary entries of mounting despair (alternating with ecstatic notes of love about spicey soirées with the young French-Vietnamese trapeze artist, the svelte London model showing off her new Kamali bikini at my loft on Park Avenue South, and the soothing sweetness of the Spanish-Filipino with hypertrophy of the clitoris who later had an operation, became a model, then a nun).

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​T​he one piece of mine that I played for Pran Nath, and his approval (“Playing this instrument like no one before… they will line up for you around the block”) made me feel like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. The flavor was “mine” but the essence of his teaching, his “shape-giving”, was deeply embedded.

​In June 1979, I did another Kitchen concert which introduced an early version of ‘Charm’.

This is the recorded version. As for the title, I was thinking of various aspects of “charm”: the snakey melodies of a snake charm(er), quark charm inphysics, girl charm (self-explanatory). This was the the long, bellwether, piece which recast clearly the three traditional raga elements into new forms: the tambura role being taken by the Burundi Cloud loop from Earthquake Island; the tabla role was taken by the udu (pottery drum from Nigeria), assisted by congas—all played live over downspeeded conga loops; and of course the solo role was the melismatic trumpet, here harmonized in parallel fourths with backwards echo (long reverb recorded on trumpet then tape played backwards so that the reverb begins from nothing and then rushes up to meet the note played).

Brian Eno was then living in New York and had picked up my Vernal Equinox record and—by his telling—had spent a lot of time that summer immersed in it, so he came up to me after the concert and introduced himself and suggested that we work together on something. So we started hanging out a bit, having dinner and long talks, some nights at the Mudd Club and we discovered a great flow together which has continued on and off to the present day. He was working with the Talking Heads on Fear of Music at the time, so David Byrne joined in the hang (an apotheosis of which was reached when we three white boys got mugged together at an outdoor Caribbean Festival in Brooklyn that developed into a full-fledged riot. Headline: uncomfortable social reality scrapes the knee of idealized rainbow-tribe visions. Too bad no pictures of this.) and I was turning them on to some music, mostly African, they hadn’t heard before on the French Ocora label.

That African wind—and some of my trumpet (on ‘Houses in Motion’)—can be heard blowing through the Talking Heads next record, Remain in Light and on into much of the music world during the coming years. So Brian and I—with David dropping by from time to time to check it out and, memorably, to offer his starpower on the record if desired—began work on Possible Musics at Celestial Sound and I, of course, called in the incomparable Nana who turned me on to Aiybe Dieng, a terrific Senegalese drummer, and Brian brought in some people he’d worked with, like Percy Jones, who did that great bass part on ‘Chemistry’:

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My ongoing affection for the joyously polyphonic music of the Pygmies shows up in the call-and-response form of ‘Ba-Benzélé’.

Brian had great musical intuition and was brilliant at focusing attention on things which a “virtuoso” mindset would tend to overlook (e.g., the simple melody of ‘Delta Rain Dream’).

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Delta Rain Dream

There was always mutual learning going on between us, a healthy creative tension and ultimately, a place of congruence between his art school, non-musician approach and my musicianly, composer-virtuoso view (probably a somewhat defensive one, since I’d spent lots of years getting to where I was and just who was this “amateur” who couldn’t read music!).

However, if I had been less naive I could have foreseen that—with “Eno is God” grafitti sprouting all over the NYC subways that summer—my strategy to offer him co-billing on the LP jacket for sales reasons would lead to years of trying to explain how my sound was already in place before Eno. It’s not that some form of co-billing wasn’t deserved, it’s just that my obscure “downtown” reputation guaranteed me a position in the shadow of his high-pop profile and the mood of pop critics of the time was to assume that he was the creator of all.

Anyway, the record got lots of attention (London Times, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Interview, Village Voice), including the “Ten Best Albums of 1980” list of the New York Times.

Actuel magazine cover, 1980
Byrne, Eno & Hassell, photo by Annie Liebovitz

In Europe, Jean François Bizot, editor of the influential French magazine, Actuel, got wind of the ferment and came up with a double page foldout cover of Byrne and Eno and Hassell shot by Annie Liebovitz.

Brian had pushed E.G., his management company, into starting a label, Editions E.G., and I tried unsuccessfully to convince them that they should give a big push to this record in France based on the Actuel story. Apparently, they just didn’t have a clue that, in France, Actuel was like a combination of Rolling Stone and Time-Life all-in-one and that the “Fourth World” concept would flavor a sizeable portion of the music world’s output over the next 20 years. I remember Brian (“ambient”) and Terry Riley (“minimalism”) and myself (“fourth world”) hanging out at my house in West Hollywood a few years ago and remarking just how much of the current musical DNA could be traced back to my living room at that moment.

Meanwhile, I had been doing a few live concerts—the Mudd Club, Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Partially to demonstrate that this music was not all coming out of the studio but was being performed live, I put ‘Griot’—from the AGO concert—on the record.

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Finally, this was a time of trying to correlate the deep, traditional practice I had been following under Pran Nath along with my new “pop” associations and possibilities. I felt compelled to write something special for the press release (and for myself) which would put it all in context. The brief essay titled, “Some Answers To The Question, What Are Some Of The Possible Musics On This Planet At This Time?”, looks a little bit like the first “Fourth World” manifesto.

Thank god I kept agendas all these years. Jumbled together on a page are the mundane (daily notes to pick up things, career pitches, concerts, departure dates, deadlines) and the rhapsodic (usually the rising and falling flares of love and sex and music).



di-o-ra-ma: A three-dimensional miniature scene with painted modelled figures and background


lssey Miyake gives me the shirt off his back (literally) in the bar of the Algonquin. Daniela Morera, New York editor of Vogue Italia, had introduced us before and he had decided to use my music in his ultra-hip shows in Milan and Tokyo.

29July79 Sunday.
Louis Malle calls, tells me he likes very much the records I gave him. Wants to get in touch in September. We met at a party a few days before. In attendance, Margeaux Hemingway, Michel Piccoli who I had loved (and identified with) in Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt). What an honor to have had a chance to chat with Louis Malle, this great film artist and music aficionado, to have a private, man-to-man, mock-lament together about how bereft we suddenly felt when the girls walked out of the room where we were. The records referred to must have been Earthquake Island, Vernal Equinox, maybe Pran Nath’s Evening Ragas.

10Aug80 Sunday.
The Morning of Madame Chang(e).
The most extraordinary event this AM in the park, walking Beeper, seeing Kathy Chang with amp and all: talking herself, social change, etc. and keeping really cute little girl movements with her body going all the time. Then I carry her amp and walk with her back up to hotel, we go to 333 (my loft), have breakfast, talk, smoke, she does stretching exercises and dances to Possible Musics in front of mirror. I was surprised to see that this was the way I had written it in my agenda that first day I met her; I learned later that she had actually added the “e”. Kathy drifted in and out of my life for a few months afterward and I hadn’t heard of her for 16 years until I opened the NY Times one day in October 1996 and saw her in her star-shaped bikini bra dancing with banners emblazoned “Pollution”, “War”, etc. under the headline “Penn Remembers a Woman Who Immolated Herself,” Kathy Change.

Meet Gil Evans for lunch at Chinese Restaurant on 7th Ave. We used to live in same building before I did the window thing and split for California. I’m dumbfounded to learn that he’s not rolling in royalties. (This is GIL EVANS, people! Porgy and Bess! Sketches of Spain! Into the Cool! If he were living in France he’d be wealthy and wearing the Legion D’Honeur.)

We walk over to Masabumi Kikuchi’s studio where Gil sits down at keyboard and lays down some changes. This whole idea—that I’m here with Gil Evans, watching him stretch out those fingers and find those chord voicings that were so deeply grooved into my soul—blows me away. What a dear, sweet man—

Flash forward to 2002: Having dinner with Miles Evans, his son, the (what else could he become with a name like that?) trumpet player, at Chan Dara in LA and ogling the Thai babes together. It feels good to maintain some contact with this noble lineage.

Write outline of EGH for presentation to Sam. Sam was one of the heads of the label, Editions E.G. “EGH” is Earth’s Greatest Hits. What a great idea: re-package the most incredible pieces at ethnic music-chosen by myself, Eno, and Robert Palmer of the NY Times—and return the profits to the tribes who made the music! Again, short-sightedness ruled and the world had to wait for the likes of Bob Geldof and Peter Gabriel.

Nice gathering chez Brian and Alex with Walter, David Byrne, Kristine McKenna, Toni Basil, Laraaji. The Actuel cover gang celebrates: Brian Eno with his then girlfriend, Alex; Walter DeMaria, the earth artist; David Byrne of the Talking Heads with Kristine McKenna, the music writer and Laraaji, the ‘new age’ musician who Brian put on his Opal record label.

Late in 1980, who’ll notice that this was the point at which the word “perception” began being used by politicians. As I remember it was Alexander Haig, Secretary of State under Reagan, who I first noticed “re-purposing” this concept into geopolitical discussions. I often think about how words slide into the public vocabulary and how fuzzy that point of entry is and suddenly you hear it everywhere. And about how you have to have lived long enough to experience a cycle like that before you can be aware of it. And about how, many millions of other things all had entry points before I came into the picture and which I’ll never have time to know about.

Back home in Memphis for Christmas, receive FedEx package with congratulatory note from Walter DeMaria attached to copy of New York Times. This was my first look at the “Ten Best Records of 1980” list with Possible Musics cited.



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.