​words ​by jh | article

artificial boundaries,
expanding horizons,
possible musics

​by jon hassell

​'Chez Sphinx' by Mati Klarwein

Twenty years later...

The earnest and idealistic tone here reminds me of a simpler time before every sound in the world became available as a "sample." Not to mention the awkward prose and the "hey guys!" style-tweaking to accommodate the mostly-male content of the magazine in which it appeared. Despite a few judgments that cause me to cringe now, most of the basic points touched on here are still worth thinking about. And I feel particularly compelled to put on record my intuitive feel for the consequences of the "scale effect" (see comments on "majority rule" in section called "Break-Up Points") before Garret Hardin's brilliant formulation in his 1985 book, Filters Against Folly.

j o n   h a s s e l l

​FROM AN OCTOBER 29, 1981 New York Times background story on Chad/Sudan/Libya:

"Geneina lies on the indistinct border between the Sudan and Chad. This region is known as Darfur, and area the size of France which was once a proud, independent sultanate run by a dynasty of rulers that lasted 560 years. From Geneina, caravans of pilgrims overland to Mecca make their way east. Men of the Tuareg stock of desert nomads roam the areas, dressed in long white robes and white turbans. With their camels and mules and trappings they recognize no international boundary lines that appear on maps but not on the shifting sands and dry river beds they traverse..."

​Life is increasingly filled with abstraction—things you can't see or touch or taste but to which we collectively give the power to rule our lives. Lines that exist only on paper and in the mind; tick marks on the face of a watch which arbitrarily segment the steady, unbroken flow of time into separate units (who invented the second?); the technology of language, which by the very naming of an experience separates this act from the seamless landscape of inner life (and allows us to use the word "love" a million times without having to experience it once) are all abstractions which rule our lives.

Note this passage from anthropologist Edmund Carpenter's book Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! (the phantom in this case being invisible electronic media which surround and swallow cultures):

"In preliterate societies the separation of spirit from flesh is thought to occur in the surrealist realm of dream, art, ritual, myth. Daily life, in the field or on the hunt, is intensely sensate, with all the senses alert and the spirit imprisoned in the body. We reverse this. Our electronic workaday would divorce images from physical reality. As counterpoint, we turn physical reality into pastimes: the hippie world of sensate experience serves to balance the nonsensory spirit world of electronic media. Like natives, the young enjoy the best of both worlds though it's hard to know which one of these worlds to call 'real.'"

A direct result of these workaday, electronic media technologies taking effect at the same time as the population explosion is the creation of a public climate where reputation looms larger than achievement, image is substituted for character, and the cardinal sin is to be unknown.

Carpenter continues: "News is what is reported; what isn't reported isn't news. Unreported events don't cease to exist, of course; they simply fall into an area devoid of social and moral restraint." In other words, what you don't know about, you can't be expected to respond to.

Let's look at some unreported musical events (cultures) on this planet before they become surrounded and swallowed by contact with the self-conscious-making magic of recording and broadcasting technologies, and allow them to take their rightful place in the evolution of consciousness.


An important lesson to learn when examining the music of many small tribal cultures is their embracing of music as a sacred gift, a "beyond words" way of expression that is reserved for use at the right time, to be perceived by ears and bodies fresh for the experience.

In Western technoculture, the use of totally abstract music à la Muzak as background for human events inevitably results in trivialization and a loss of the sense of specialness and meaning. Brian Eno's creation of the genre "ambient music" formalizes this affectless situation as it exists. In effect, the concept of ambient music says, "If there's such constant sound input that you can't listen to it all, why not say it's okay not to listen and here's some music for listening or not."

new simplicity

The optimistic view might be that we're going to reach such an overload level of symbol density that we'll be forced to arrive at a new simplicity—an ability via artificial intelligence to combine many individual symbols operating in complex relationships into "chunks" of information which then can be treated as a single megaword.

The heading "new simplicity" is itself a simple example of chunking or a higher-level description of the detailed information in these paragraphs. Douglas Hofstadter, in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, refers to this as "pruning the giant tree of possibilities."

break-up points

Given the number of people expected on the planet by A.D. 2000, this notion of an overloaded symbol bank breaking up into chunks suggests a similar pattern for a high-density future population breaking up into clusters of New Tribal territories (a persistent visual theme of the fantasy illustrators found in this magazine). This doesn't seem unlikely considering the present situation of tribes among tribes whose boundaries are no longer defined necessarily by geographical proximity or origin but are delineated by life-style and held together by a principally media-imparted sense of national unity.

Perhaps concepts such as "majority rule", which came out of small-number experiences, also have break-up points in a mega-populated world. For example, if 101 people of a tribe of 200 vote for a particular course of action, this leaves only 99 disgruntled people. But in a mega-tribe of 200 million, this would translate to 99 million who are forced to live under choices they don't approve of. The equation changes when multiplied by such enormous factors.

This is a difference in scale which those excessively hypnotized by abstract thinking ignore. Instead they prefer to point out that "the percentage is the same." To them "average" means that a man with one foot in ice and the other in boiling water can be said to be "comfortable."

Perhaps, in some unforeseen way, the corporate musical imperialism which irons out regionalisms in its drive toward worldwide musical hits in Western pop style (Coca-Cola everywhere!) will also ultimately exceed public tolerance levels. Perhaps the result will be a return to a multiplicity of musics arising from tribes of like-minded people once again living within boundaries formed by hills and river beds (like the Tuareg nomads mentioned in the opening), linked worldwide by satellites.

This new respect for ancient ways facilitated by selective use of advanced technology must surely be one of the key ideas of our time, and will ultimately affect the way we think in the future.

separating the baby and the bathwater

Just as many natural things may be separated by abstract boundaries, so other things may be joined artificially, by either habit or custom.

In Western culture, religion is naturally associated with sobriety and rigidity. Cultures where spirit life is joyful and sexual, or where leaders are expected to communicate the wisdom of grace and strength by dancing, are seldom taken seriously by Eurocentric minds, who, by media attitudes, are taught to observe this from a safe distance as a bizarre kind of Mondo Cane behavior.

In the same way, classical or formal music in the West takes place in an atmosphere of reverence governed by rules of etiquette. In Euroculture, no form in which improvisation is a major element is considered "classical", while in most other parts of the world the high musical experiences are always those in which some response to the feeling of the moment is included. Furthermore, Western thought habits dictate that anything that is overtly sensuous, with certain rhythmic inflections, is automatically perceived as belonging on a lower rung of the cultural ladder (jazz, rock, pop, and so on). Obviously what we have here is a kind of cultural racism that reduces non-European-derived art to "curio" status and thus neatly dismisses it from serious consideration in the same rank as our Western masters—all of whom, it may be pointed out, are white, born in the last three hundred years, and from cold climates.

The outlawing of certain attitudes in formal, structural music forces a strict dichotomy between what "high culture" salutes and what "high culture" likes to dance to. A sharp separation such as this couldn't exist in small, integrated cultures where both young and old members of the tribe participate in common ceremonies and celebrations whose function is directly related to the major events of daily life and existence:

"Each member of the community knows perfectly...which variations he can execute. As great as the improvisation may seem, it is thus restricted to within this framework that is simultaneously metric, rhythmic, and melodic. This technique is the fruit of long apprenticeship...Just as every child learns to speak by hearing speech, so does the Pygmy child learn to sing by hearing singing, the boy with his father, the girl with her mother. Thus, the children progressively acquire the repertory of formulas that later, in their turn, they will use and pass on. This is the sole means, purely organic, of learning polyphony." (Liner notes from Ocora LP 558526 discussing Central African Empire Pygmy music.)

​the four "b"s: beethoven, brown, ba-benzélé

This revised list of "B"s illustrates a desirable balance between formality and vitality: faced with a choice of Brown (James) or Beethoven (Ludwig van) as my only records on a desert island, I'd say J.B. wins hands down. But the balance of structure with on-the-spot fun which is transmitted by the polyphonic after-the-hunt music of the Ba-Benzélé pygmies endures beyond both.

the same yardstick

I have this make-believe idea: imagine a record store with bin dividers labeled "Newspapers" (good for a day or two's listening), "Magazines" (keep it around for a week or a month), "Novels" (finds a semi-permanent place on your bookshelf), and "Reference" (source works to be consulted for a lifetime)—along with appropriate pricing related to disposability. Perhaps this method of classification would cause music writers and readers alike to think twice before devoting a lot of time to preparing or digesting lots of words about Newspaper-quality music written in serious art-criticism style, as if Elvis and Jackson Pollock were cultural equals.

Given the limited choice in Western music between energetic, trendy ephemera and dead high-culture masterworks, perhaps it's not so strange that I notice a great many artists (or people in other disciplines) who in their own fields are quick to discern Newspaper-quality (derivative, one-trick) from Novel-quality (original, multi-leveled), yet remain remarkably fixed on the "Newspapers" and "Magazines" of music.

Perhaps this is the inevitable fallout of the Pop movement as summed up by the elevation of the Campbell's soup can to iconic (worthy-of-serious-consideration) level—an individual's okay art statement in its time, but hardly the stuff to build a culture on.

"A genuine culture," wrote anthropologist Edward Sapir, "is the expression of a consistent attitude toward life, an attitude which sees the significance of any one element of civilization in its relation to all others. It is, ideally speaking, a culture in which nothing is spiritually meaningless."

beyond conditioning

To anyone who takes this seriously, it's obvious that one must attempt to transcend the fixed game of technoculture, beyond passive consumption of media-ordained "right stuff," just as one's emotional growth can build on, or proceed from, the childhood "givens" via a wider knowledge of possible responses.

It's a matter of degree: too much attention is paid by too many to too narrow an idea of what possible musics (or possible futures) there could be. And that's because few people really have a comprehensive knowledge of what's been happening on a global level all these years.

Virtually all the pop music in the West (excepting jazz, the first modern collision of tribal music with Euromusic) fits into the song-with-accompaniment form (chords and melody). When kid-with-guitar says, "I'm a musician now," or a pop star is called a "composer," some rudimentary ability in this simplest of forms is all that's being talked about.

This is somewhat the same situation as having nearly all attention in visual art focused on the collage form, or the Polaroid, and reportage of work in other forms—sculpture, painting, and so on—relegated to the esoteric "specialist" magazines.

Brian Eno deserves the Trojan Horse Award for being the first to slip music of more unusual form (Discreet Music, Music for Airports) in front of a pop audience whose attention his song-with-accompaniment efforts had previously captured.

what's wrong with this picture?

One has the tendency to imagine both the past and the future in terms of the present.

Just as a vision of the past should not be conjured up as if all events had taken place in the glow of the electric light bulb, a vision of the future, with people zipping around in antigravity devices listening to some hyper-song with hyper-guitar accompaniment is equally unimaginative. Are there going to be Republicans and Democrats forever?

overvaluation of cold-climate thinking

Buckminster Fuller says that evolution is basically a matter of synthesis.

Although it may, at first, seem an oversimplification, try squinting your eyes to see the big picture without the confusion of detail: what's happened is that cold-climate tribes had to develop technology in order to control a hostile environment, and now that very technology has developed in ways that enable them to impose their attitudes on warm-climate tribes (who have, quite naturally, evolved in other important but undervalued ways).

Now is the time for the technoworld to use its knowledge to go beyond this pattern—to begin to see the unforeseen ways in which the best of their attitudes will become ours, and ours become theirs, resulting in modalities which I refer to as Fourth World—a returning to, and a stepping forward at the same time.

It seems natural to me that a step into the future, will have some relationship to a deeper comprehension of the rich multiplicity of the earth's tribal musics. like a scientist who must isolate a single element from a compound in order to understand its nature and how it acts within a complex structure, we should make an effort to preserve the remaining "pure" traditions with the same concern shown toward the works of (e.g.) Michelangelo—with an ear towards understanding how these sounds make the day brighter and give courage before the hunt; to understand which music made sorrows bearable and expressed the mystery of creation before the entry date of the first transistor radio into the village. •

This feature first appeared in Heavy Metal

March, 1982 | Mati Klarwein's 'Chez Sphinx' (1973)

appeared as the accompanying illustration.

Also on this page is Mati Klarwein's 'Outline' (1985)

sound on sound

by mark j prendergast

    Jon Hassell has been at the leading edge of new music for three decades, with major contributions to Western avant-garde and World Music. Following the re-release of two classic albums from the early '80s, Mark J Prendergast presents a retrospective of Hassell's work.

"JON HASSELL IS more than a superb musician, and more even than a gifted composer. He is an inventor of new forms of music—of new ideas of what music could be, and how it might be made. His work is drawn from his whole being, and, by implication, from his whole cultural experience without fear or prejudice. It is an optimistic, global vision that suggests not only possible musics but possible futures." (Brian Eno, November 1986.)

Hassell's drifting, digitally altered trumpet lines have been a mainstay of new music for three decades now. The release of City: Works Of Fiction last year brought an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm from a younger audience addicted to House music. Its urban sound clicked with minds willing to accept innovation, and 808 State even produced a House 12" of 'Voiceprint' from the LP. Reviews were good, and this year the CD release of the Hassell classics Dream Theory In Malaya and Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism brought even more praise. Q weighed in with a 4-star gusher of a review, citing Hassell's work as "visionary", "magnificent", and a direct influence on the music of Sting, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel.

bridging the generation gap

Of course, Hassell's trumpet spans several generations and movements. An early convert to jazz, he went through American conservatories and on to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. There he met lrmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, future founders of the experimental German band Can. Back in America he teamed up with Terry Riley for 1968's renowned In C, the first minimalist recording. From there he went on to work with La Monte Young, to travel in India and, crucially, to meet Talking Heads and Brian Eno and offer a pivotal appearance at Peter Gabriel's first WOMAD in 1982.

His contribution there and the release of Aka-Darbari-Java in 1983 cemented the idea of World Music for all time. With his array of musicological qualifications, Hassell continued to explore via the work of David Sylvian (Alchemy 1985), Kronos Quartet (White Man Sleeps 1987) and Peter Gabriel (Passion 1989). Hassell's trumpet sound is unlike any other in modern music. Its effect on Brian Eno's 1982 On Land is positively frightening, sending a cold electrical shock down the spine of the listener. On Peter Gabriel's Passion, however, it is sensuous, mystical—full of the desert atmosphere so integral to the Scorsese film for which the music was written. It can cross continents, genres, eras. It can unify cultures and, more than any other sound, it has helped splice the divided First and Third Worlds. Not for nothing has Hassell been feted by the American critics, and in 1980 he made The New York Times' Top Ten essential albums with the Brian Eno collaboration Possible Musics.


Hassell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1937. His father worked for the internal revenue service, and played the cornet. Jon grew up in the jazz age in a racially segregated state, a white boy in love with black music. His memories are quite vivid.

"You can imagine what the atmosphere was like for me as a teenager, growing up in the Memphis of the 1950s. I had picked up this cornet and started imitating whoever the going trumpet player was. I liked Stan Kenton. He was a major hit for me when he came through town with this big combo called the Innovations Orchestra, which included an 18 year-old Maynard Ferguson who was blowing a stratospheric trumpet at the time. The combination of that sound and all those strings was a heady brew for a teenager in high school in Memphis." Hassell's circle of friends extended across the racial barriers of the time, and he frequented dance clubs in the ghetto areas on the fringes of Memphis. Hassell was witness to a cultural crosspoint that years later would formulate his musical direction. Yet his background dictated a university education, and after high school he traveled to New York state to study composition and orchestral trumpet.

"I enrolled in Eastman School of Music in Rochester. I got a scholarship after the first year, an aspiring musician who played in dance bands in the style of Glenn Miller. I studied legitimate orchestration at Eastman, which was just about the right transition required to put me face to face with another part of the musical spectrum. People like Ron Carter and Chuck Mangione were in my class—but Eastman was a very conservative school, and by the time I got my master's degree I was one of those young turks into atonal/12-tone music. A post-Webern as they called us then."


Hassell became fascinated by the work of German electronic genius Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had become famous for building pure electric music from tone generators and oscillators. His ideas attracted loyal students, and from giving Summer courses at Darmstadt, Stockhausen had to expand his tuition to cover a full year's curriculum in Cologne. During the mid-1960s Jon Hassell would spend two and a half years studying with him. "I really was impressed by his 'Gesang der Junglinge', 'Kontakte' and 'Gruppen' for three orchestras. I really wanted to know where the notes came from. At the time I was in a scholarly or experimental vein, had temporarily given up the trumpet and was devoted just to the abstract side of music. Stockhausen was my first contact with what you could call a thoroughgoing, through and through musical artist. His life was completely devoted to his music. I went there, to The Köln Course For New Music, and was exposed to the music of Berio, Pousseur and Boulez."

Jon recalls that Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt were classmates of his. The two would later form the openly experimental rock group Can, who made improvisation ethnicity the modus operandi of German heavy rock in the early '70s. Hassell was impressed by their wackiness, and especially by the the zany imagination of Czukay. Another significant event during his period in Germany was hearing Stockhausen perform a composition by La Monte Young, the man credited as being the first to play minimalism. Young was overtly eccentric, and used a complicated system of piano tuning called 'just intonation' which created shimmering waves of reverberations.

Again Hassell's career was about to take a left turn.

"When I left Germany in 1967 I arrived back in New York and went to the centre for the Creative & Performing Arts at Buffalo, University. Terry Riley was a guest for one of the semesters and part of his stay was to form an ensemble made up of both composers and performers. That's when I started to play trumpet again. Terry had interest from David Behrman at Columbia to record his 'In C', and thus I ended up on that record.

"Terry was very influential, and what struck me was his description of atonal/Webern and Stockhausen's music as 'neurotic'. Now that made me stop and think. Avant-grade music was a perfect model for 20th century problems, and the fact that it originated in Vienna at the same time as Freud was no mere coincidence. So we thought there's things you can create that you can actually enjoy listening to and that you can float away to. And of course the history of drugs in America is inextricably interlaced with this early Minimalism, there's no question about that.

sonic sculptures

The next period in Hassell's life would be packed with experiment and adventure. While pushing forward academically (working on a Ph.D in musicology, involving advanced studies in Gregorian chant), Jon was simultaneously working with La Monte Young, and on 'sonic sculptures'. In 1969, while still at Buffalo, he created 'Solid State', a tuned sound mass which surrounded an audience with vibrational forms evoking the imperceptible shift of sand dunes. A hit on the US art circuit, Hassell was granted a National Endowment for the Arts Award for this in 1977. Hassell explored the idea further with his Landmusic Series (1969-1972), a collection of sound monuments. 'Ocean/Desert', for example, consisted of the live sound of the ocean transmitted to underground speaker silos at a remote desert location. Hassell describes these ventures as "my personal contribution to the Minimalist genre". His work with La Monte Young took up most of his performing time up to the late 1970s. Both worked intensely on 'Dream House', a concept of continual drifting music and colour alterations, and in 1973 Hassell appeared on a recording of the same. Because of LaMonte's antagonism to the recorded medium only three items have ever appeared in 40 years of exploration. An influence on both rock via The Velvet Underground and on New Age via Minimalism, Hassell considers him vital to his career.

"He is extremely important. An innovator of the sound that Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley make. Now the essence of his music is not necessarily the easiest to capture via reproduction. It's best heard in a four hour concert where he and his wife Marian Zazeela are projecting sound and vision, and the listener drifts in and out at various stages of consciousness while simultaneously viewing these gradually changing interlocking forms related to Persian calligraphy. That is something very difficult to put on record!"

However, Hassell's biggest break from Western classical music came by chance during the early '70s. Back at Buffalo he met Terry Riley again, who presented him with a tape of an Indian singer named Pandit Pran Nath, an expert in the age-old kirana style of Northern Indian singing. Shortly after, while at a new music festival in Rome, Hassell met him for the first time—a meeting that would literally change the course of 20th century music.

"Myself and La Monte were doing the 'Dream House' at Documenta in Rome and Pran Nath was also on the bill. I was completely dissatisfied with abstract music and very keen on my trumpet again. I was listening to Miles Davis's On The Corner at the time. It had a real Fourth World feel to it—almost one long piece with tabla and so forth. I was practising the trumpet a lot, putting wah-wah pedal on it, trying to move it beyond the norm. Anyhow I heard Pran Nath warming up before the Rome show and I started to accompany him, and patterns started to come out which I never imagined were possible. It was like something out of Gurdjieff's Meetings With Remarkable Men.

"With Pran Nath here was a lens back through the last five centuries into a tradition that was passed down orally which was pure music, a purely devotional form of sound. it was simple, yet the deepest possible illumination, the drawing of a line that reached back into the early history of man. That is the essence of everything I've done since, the foundation stone of all my best work."

a passage to india

In 1972 Hassell and La Monte Young went to Dehra Dun in India to study with Pran Nath spending a good deal of time meditating in the temple of Nath's spiritual master. Hassell absorbed the atmosphere with relish, and was keen to transpose the singing style to his trumpet. Back in America both Young and Terry Riley organised tours for Pran Nath, who became an integral part of the new music scene. Here in essence was the genesis of what today we call World Music. While pursuing more academic work on Indian raga, Hassell began seriously to consider a recording career. His first album, Vernal Equinox, was released in 1977. It featured integrated raga lines with electronically treated trumpet.

"From 1973 up until then I was totally immersed in playing raga on the trumpet. I wanted the physical dexterity to be able to come into a room and be able to do something that nobody else in the world could do. My aim was to make a music that was vertically integrated in such a way that at any cross-sectional moment you were not able to pick a single element out as being from a particular country or genre of music."

earthquake island and possible musics

On 1979's Earthquake Island Hassell turned back to jazz improvisation with the help of ex-Miles Davis/Weather Report musicians and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasçoncelos. The latter also accompanied Hassell to Canada at the invitation of Brian Eno for the recording of Possible Musics at the Lanois brothers' studio. On that album's six incredible tracks, Hassell's digitally pitched trumpet lines come at you like a fireball from another land. With Percy Jones on bass and 'cloud guitars' and Eno on a variety of Prophet synths, Moogs and treatments, Hassell's sound found the sonic background that it needed to fly. The album's 1980 release put Hassell on the popular map as a voice of astonishing individuality. From there his star was in the permanent ascendant.

This lndo/African confection was Hassell's demonstration of a tension, as he put it, "between the construction and freedom that exists in all great non-Western classical musics. The contrast between our structural music and the sensual sounds of Third World countries"—hence the 'Fourth World' moniker.

Possible Musics' gliding trumpet lines, with their heavy harmoniser and echo treatment, were what hooked most listeners. Here was an original sound made by somebody who, like any great musician, had lived through his music. The 1981 release of Dream Theory in Malaya brought an unprecedented wave of support from critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and its current re-release on CD is a reminder of just how many risks Hassell was willing to take at the time. Abandoning the smoothness of the 1980 work, here he aims for a visceral shot of South East Asian tribalisms. It is a grand melange of pottery drums, bowl gongs, bells, bass and drums, coordinated by guitarist Michael Brook at Grant Avenue, Ontario. Daniel Lanois, Eno and Brook all participate, but it's wholly Hassell's show as the sleeve notes demonstrate.

"Dream Theory in Malaya is named after a paper by visionary anthropologist Kilton Stewart, who in 1935 visited a remarkable highland tribe of Malayan aborigines, the Senoi, whose happiness and well-being were linked to the morning custom of family dream telling—where a child's fearful dream of failing was praised as a gift to learn to fly the next night, and where a dream-song or dance was taught to a neighbouring tribe to create a common bond beyond differences of custom. The Semelai are another tribe not far from the Senoi who live in the largest swamp area of Malaya. A recorded fragment of their joy-filled watersplash rhythm was restructured and became the generating force for the composition 'Malay' as well as providing a thematic guide for the entire recording."

towards world music

Though Hassell was an honoured guest on Talking Heads' Remain In Light album of 1980, it was Dream Theory that put him on the cultural map. Peter Gabriel phoned him to encourage his participation in the 1982 World Of Music, Art and Dance Festival in Bath. His presence alongside the Master Drummers of Burundi and The Royal Court Gamelan of Indonesia finally cemented the idea of World Music in the UK. Gabriel was familiar with all of Hassell's records, and was fired by their sound. He had some more unusual fans, too—Dream Theory impressed the French Ministry of Culture who, in the same year, enrolled Hassell as a conferee in the Rencontres Nord/Sud, a colloquium of international artists on world culture.

Another spin-off of Dream Theory was an invitation to score Sulla Strada, an opera for the Venice Biennale which the normally restrained La Monde praised to the heavens. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hassell's 'future primitivism' won him many European awards. Having become an international celebrity in 1982, and contributing to Eno's aforementioned On Land along the way, Hassell was determined to push ever forward into new musical territory.

magic realism

By 1983 he had a new album ready, entitled Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism. Recorded once more with Dan Lanois in Canada, this time the music featured advanced computer sound-imaging techniques, with Hassell taking control of all keyed voices, instruments, mixing and treatments (except the drums, which were the work of Abdou Mboup, working in Paris). A rallying attack on Eurocentricity, Aka-Darbari was Hassell's greatest achievement up to that point. Its current CD re-issue highlights its magnificence even more, the clarity of the digital mastering bringing to the fore dozens of new details in what is Hassell's most sophisticated and smoothest listen.

Consisting of seven tracks, 'Empire 1-5' and 'Darbari Extension 1 & 2', the album takes one's mind to a place high above the earth where every culture is within aural reach. Hassell's sleeve notes describe a trumpet tracing Indian Darbari motifs over Senegalese drumming, Hollywood orchestration of the 1950s, Aka pygmy voices from the Central African rainforest, and Gamelan cascades from Java—but no matter how often you heard it then or hear it now, the disc never sounds the same twice.

The American critics raved, calling it "unearthly", "the soundtrack music to a film that plays in the mind". The alternative moniker of the album, Magic Realism, made obvious references to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers. Even Britain's Melody Maker was positive: "Anyone interested in the new frontiers of electronic music should take the time to investigate Jon Hassell's unique blend of magic and science."

Nowadays it's the sound that bites—no-one since has made music of such rich abstraction. As Hassell wrote at the time, "The ability to bring the actual sound of musics of various epochs and geographical origins all together in the same compositional frame marks a unique point in history."

So how does he view that historic recording today? "There I was using little tiny fragments, like a painter making a construction out of newspaper. There are numerous fragmentary computer samples circulating around each other especially on the 'Darbari' tracks. On 'Empire' one can discern this voice which is that of Yma Sumac, a singer with a four or five octave range billed as the Hollywood lnca princess in the 1950s. Les Baxter was her arranger and the music was very Hollywood exotica. The fragment of her voice is mixed in with pygmy singing and a little bit of that orchestration. Aka-Darbari is my favourite recording. It has a very special place for me, a very visual work akin to painting. The blendings are so natural and have had such a positive response.

I never thought at the time about the market for this or whose going to hear it or appreciate it or anything. I'm happy it made such a positive impression." •


chronology 1983-1991

1983: After the successful release of Aka-Darbari, Hassell forms The Jon Hassell Group with JA Deane, Jean Philipe Rykiel and occasionally Michael Brook and Richard Horowitz. A world tour is undertaken starting in Tokyo through Paris, Venice Amsterdam, Stockholm, Brussels, Oslo, Berlin, Hamberg, Chicago and culminating at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

1984-1985: Hassell's contributions to David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees and Alchemy (Words With The Shaman) make for some of the most evocative music of its time. "Of all my collaborations," said Hassell, "David's work is the closest to my temperature." Scores Shadow Work, an American stage play with director Peter Sellars.

1986: Release of Power Spot on ECM and The Surgeon Of The Nightsky Restores Dead Things By The Power Of Sound on lntuition; both records involve group ensemble playing inspired by 1983 world tour. Scores another Peter Sellars play—Zangezi by Russian Futurist poet Khlebnikov. Newsweek hail his music as "throbbing with a visionary poetry all its own".

1987: Writes string quartet 'Pano De Costa' (Cloth From The Coast) for the Kronos Quartet's White Man Sleeps album (their biggest seller). Another ethnic composition 'Map Of Dusk', appears on Sub Rosa compilation La Nouvelle Serenite. Plays on Lloyd Cole's album Mainstream.

1988: While working with Farafina, an eight piece group from Burkino Faso, teams up again with the Eno/Lanois production team for New York recorded album Flash of the Spirit. Tours with Farafina—Berlin Jazz, Tokyo La Foret Museum, Sardinia, New York and beyond.

1989: Records title track for Peter Gabriel's album Passion, the theme music for Martin Scorsese's controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ. The album is hailed as a masterpiece. A permanent move to Los Angeles sees him re-unite with Terry Riley for a re-mix of a Chinese recording of 'In C'. Forms new 'City' group with Gregg Arreguin (guitar), Jeff Rona (keyboards), Adam Rudolph (percussion) and Daniel Schwarz (bass). Goes to New York in Sept/Oct for a series of explosive concerts at the Wintergarden of the World Financial Centre. Brian Eno mixes all concerts.

1990: Release of City: Works Of Fiction. A high-tech recording, it draws on the urban/ethnicity of black American rap music, African literature, writers like Italo Calvino, Jean Baudrillard, and film directors Ridley Scott and Federico Fellini. UK response is overwhelmingly positive. Select's Richard Harris gives it the 5-star treatment, describing the contents as 'pure magic'. Manchester's 808 State re-record the track 'Voiceprint', for club consumption.

1991: CD release of Dream Theory in Malaya and Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism to critical acclaim.


This interview first appeared in Sound On Sound
July 1991 | www.soundonsound.com

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."