​words about jh | ​interview

​jon hassell
​mixing it | BBC Radio | ​1994


​​Mixing It: 

Now, Jon Hassell: you may not know the name but you probably know the sound. A very distinctive trumpet sound, muted and swirling around in electronics and you can hear him playing on albums by people like David Sylvian, 808 State, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and Talking Heads, an impressive list if ever there was one, or you can catch him on any of his ten solo albums where he plays an original mix of styles he calls Fourth World.

Well, he was over recently from the States and we got him to take us through his eventful career and explain what exactly is Fourth World.

Jon Hassell: 

Well it began as a term some fifteen years ago to describe my interest in ethnic music combined with my interest in electronics technology. I studied with Stockhausen and with an Indian musician and an incredible classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and I began doing things like, he would sing a phrase and I would play the phrase on the trumpet, given that raga is a form that depends on curves, it's shape making. It's like making a beautiful shape and that resulted in a sound that was very vocal. But I was also deeply touched by Miles Davis and jazz. So I wanted to show that there was a music in which improvisation played a part but it wasn't jazz, which in fact reflected the state of music in the rest of the world. It's the only music in the Occident in which there is no improvisation in classical music. I wanted to take these three elements of Indian music, the background the tamboura, the foreground of the solo, and the tabla. I used those as a model but I didn't want to have an association with Indian music. So I would create an electronic background, which might be made up of a sample of pygmy voices mixed in with a sample of Yma Sumac, a little bit of Hollywood orchestration behind her, something from the fifties, plus a bit of gamelan music from Java. Then my playing the Raga, Darbari. I'm leading up to a record called Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism. This was an attempt to take the spirit of various places and then create a world that doesn't exist.


MI:

The thing that you are particularly well known for is your trumpet sound. How did you first develop that sound? I mean did you one day think I've got to come up with a new trumpet sound, and put it through a load of devices and think "Yes that's it."

JH: 

That as I explained before was just a result of attempting to play these 'curves', to play a constant glissando of any raga. It's an act of deep concentration for me to try and hold this conch shell feeling. This is where the sound comes from really, this attempt to play these curves.


MI:

Bluescreen 2. Tell us a bit about the group and the name.

JH: 

"Bluescreen" as a term is a new metaphor for sampling. Bluescreen is the technique in video and film where an actor is filmed against a blue screen and then anything can be projected into the background. So one moment you're on a mountain, then the sea, then dessert. You are taking something from it's original context. For example taking a snare drum from a session from Sun studios in 1950 and then recomposing it into some new mosaic.


MI:

You were actually sampling long before samplers were invented.

JH: 

Yes, via tape manipulation and tape cutting and that kind of thing. Musical collages have always been of great interest to me. Bluescreen was the name of the band and the record was called Dressing For Pleasure. It was on Warner Brothers' and came out in '92 or '93.


MI:

Are there any particular tracks on this that you like?

JH: 

Yes, there is a little more of an attempt to reach into my inner psyche. Pop musicians in general have no problems reaching into their psycho-sexual poetic worlds. Classical musicians are people who come from a classical background. I mean you can't imagine someone like Philip Glass singing a ballad of how he's feeling because his lover has left him. I tried consequently to make a little move into that direction. I tried to open up re how I felt, and what was the fundamental thing behind what I did. The answer with this is that it's always kind of been an erotic fantasy for me. The thing with music is that I try and divide it between pre-orgasmic and post-orgasmic. I put myself in the latter category. It's a way of designing something that I want to hear in a blissful state, something which I want to hear which takes me someplace mysterious and wonderful. So this record had some of that in it. A track like 'Sex Goddess' which has samples of girls that I have been with in my life, also a Les Baxter sample in the background, merging this idyllic fifties idea of Tropicana, along with a bit of hip hop.


MI:

Jon, tell us about the album you did with Farafina who are from Burkina Faso. How did that happen?

JH: 

I have spoken before about my desire to weave things together so it doesn't have a geographical association. This was impossible with a traditional balafon group from West Africa. The balafon is an instrument with a gourd underneath it, and is related to the xylophone family. It has this very strict pitch and that's it. That's the key to the concert. If you try and do something to that key harmonically well... There was a bit of a problem but there were occasional places where it really took off. I was saying before about layering things. Sometimes it just gels and when it did it was just thrilling. The last track on this record was the most successful at this. A track called 'Masque'. It's from a record called Flash of the Spirit. which was produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and myself. I think it has something quite beautiful in it.


MI:

Now you have just handed me a very lovely looking CD and book called The Vertical Collection. What is this exactly?

JH: 

This was recorded around my performance at the Manca Festival in Nice. It's a kind of avant garde festival which took the theme this year of Fourth World. Vertical Collection are samples of material from anytime in my career, as opposed to a Horizontal Collection which would take the best of my last ten CDs and line the tracks up. Pieces are made up and anyone who knows my entire catalogue would be able to say this comes from that album etc. So there are anything up to five different mixtures of things. This is a limited edition of a thousand copies, a kind of a gift around the festival performance.


MI:

So it's a kind of avant-garde greatest hits album of sorts.

JH: 

In a way.


MI:

Any plans to release?

JH: 

None. I'm so disenchanted with the big record companies and the big releases. Now I'm really interested in doing small things that get around due to word of mouth and become something that someone wants to get. It may even appear on the internet.


MI: 

What's your favourite track on this release. Tell us a bit about it.

JH: 

'Gift of Fire' is a title on an album I did entitled Dream Theory in Malaya. Parts of 'Gift of Passage' was a sample off a record I did called Power Spot. These are just two of the tracks that were sampled in order to create these little codes which point back to the origins of the material. If you listen to the entire thirteen tracks it has a kind of a strange consistency as a piece. •


This interview was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3's experimental music programme, Mixing It, hosted each week by Robert Sandall and Mark Russell.
See www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/ for details of streaming broadcasts.


bbc radio 3: mixing it




MI: Now, Jon Hassell: you may not know the name but you probably know the sound. A very distinctive trumpet sound, muted and swirling around in electronics and you can hear him playing on albums by people like David Sylvian, 808 State, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and Talking Heads, an impressive list if ever there was one, or you can catch him on any of his ten solo albums where he plays an original mix of styles he calls Fourth World. Well, he was over recently from the States and we got him to take us through his eventful career and explain what exactly is Fourth World.

 

JH: Well it began as a term some fifteen years ago to describe my interest in ethnic music combined with my interest in electronics technology. I studied with Stockhausen and with an Indian musician and an incredible classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and I began doing things like, he would sing a phrase and I would play the phrase on the trumpet, given that raga is a form that depends on curves, it's shape making. It's like making a beautiful shape and that resulted in a sound that was very vocal. But I was also deeply touched by Miles Davis and jazz. So I wanted to show that there was a music in which improvisation played a part but it wasn't jazz, which in fact reflected the state of music in the rest of the world. It's the only music in the Occident in which there is no improvisation in classical music. I wanted to take these three elements of Indian music, the background the tamboura, the foreground of the solo, and the tabla. I used those as a model but I didn't want to have an association with Indian music. So I would create an electronic background, which might be made up of a sample of pygmy voices mixed in with a sample of Yma Sumac, a little bit of Hollywood orchestration behind her, something from the fifties, plus a bit of gamelan music from Java. Then my playing the Raga, Darbari. I'm leading up to a record called Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism. This was an attempt to take the spirit of various places and then create a world that doesn't exist.

 

MI: The thing that you are particularly well known for is your trumpet sound. How did you first develop that sound? I mean did you one day think I've got to come up with a new trumpet sound, and put it through a load of devices and think "Yes that's it."

 

JH: That as I explained before was just a result of attempting to play these 'curves', to play a constant glissando of any raga. It's an act of deep concentration for me to try and hold this conch shell feeling. This is where the sound comes from really, this attempt to play these curves.

 

MI: Bluescreen 2. Tell us a bit about the group and the name.

 

JH: "Bluescreen" as a term is a new metaphor for sampling. Bluescreen is the technique in video and film where an actor is filmed against a blue screen and then anything can be projected into the background. So one moment you're on a mountain, then the sea, then dessert. You are taking something from it's original context. For example taking a snare drum from a session from Sun studios in 1950 and then recomposing it into some new mosaic.

 

MI: You were actually sampling long before samplers were invented.

 

JH: Yes, via tape manipulation and tape cutting and that kind of thing. Musical collages have always been of great interest to me. Bluescreen was the name of the band and the record was called Dressing For Pleasure. It was on Warner Brothers' and came out in '92 or '93.

 

MI: Are there any particular tracks on this that you like?

 

JH: Yes, there is a little more of an attempt to reach into my inner psyche. Pop musicians in general have no problems reaching into their psycho-sexual poetic worlds. Classical musicians are people who come from a classical background. I mean you can't imagine someone like Philip Glass singing a ballad of how he's feeling because his lover has left him. I tried consequently to make a little move into that direction. I tried to open up re how I felt, and what was the fundamental thing behind what I did. The answer with this is that it's always kind of been an erotic fantasy for me. The thing with music is that I try and divide it between pre-orgasmic and post-orgasmic. I put myself in the latter category. It's a way of designing something that I want to hear in a blissful state, something which I want to hear which takes me someplace mysterious and wonderful. So this record had some of that in it. A track like 'Sex Goddess' which has samples of girls that I have been with in my life, also a Les Baxter sample in the background, merging this idyllic fifties idea of Tropicana, along with a bit of hip hop.

 

MI: Jon, tell us about the album you did with Farafina who are from Burkina Faso. How did that happen?

 

JH: I have spoken before about my desire to weave things together so it doesn't have a geographical association. This was impossible with a traditional balafon group from West Africa. The balafon is an instrument with a gourd underneath it, and is related to the xylophone family. It has this very strict pitch and that's it. That's the key to the concert. If you try and do something to that key harmonically well... There was a bit of a problem but there were occasional places where it really took off. I was saying before about layering things. Sometimes it just gels and when it did it was just thrilling. The last track on this record was the most successful at this. A track called 'Masque'. It's from a record called Flash of the Spirit. which was produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and myself. I think it has something quite beautiful in it.

 

MI: Now you have just handed me a very lovely looking CD and book called The Vertical Collection. What is this exactly?

 

JH: This was recorded around my performance at the Manca Festival in Nice. It's a kind of avant garde festival which took the theme this year of Fourth World. Vertical Collection are samples of material from anytime in my career, as opposed to a Horizontal Collection which would take the best of my last ten CDs and line the tracks up. Pieces are made up and anyone who knows my entire catalogue would be able to say this comes from that album etc. So there are anything up to five different mixtures of things. This is a limited edition of a thousand copies, a kind of a gift around the festival performance.

 

MI: So it's a kind of avant-garde greatest hits album of sorts.

 

JH: In a way.

 

MI: Any plans to release?

 

JH: None. I'm so disenchanted with the big record companies and the big releases. Now I'm really interested in doing small things that get around due to word of mouth and become something that someone wants to get. It may even appear on the internet.

 

MI: What's your favourite track on this release. Tell us a bit about it.

 

JH: 'Gift of Fire' is a title on an album I did entitled Dream Theory in Malaya. Parts of 'Gift of Passage' was a sample off a record I did called Power Spot. These are just two of the tracks that were sampled in order to create these little codes which point back to the origins of the material. If you listen to the entire thirteen tracks it has a kind of a strange consistency as a piece. •


 

This interview was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 3's experimental music programme, Mixing It, hosted each week by Robert Sandall and Mark Russell.
See www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/ for details of streaming broadcasts.

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."