WHEN THE FIRST WOMAD Festival occurred around the summer of 1982, showcasing a dazzling diversity of musicians brought in from around the world, it felt novel, and, as it turned out, ahead of its time. Although a large audience manifestly failed to turn up, the line-up was top-heavy with Western musicians, who, along with writers and the independent end of the music business, had been pushing this internationalisation of musics' boundaries for several years. Alongside Gabriel, were The Police's drummer, Stewart Copeland, a reincarnated Robert Fripp, The Beat, and Colin Walcott, Don Cherry, and Nana Vasconçelos', proto world-jazz outfit Codona. Also eagerly awaited and making his debut in the fields of Shepton Mallet that weekend was the avant-trumpeter, Jon Hassell.
Hassell was already a cult figure in Britain, brought to the post-blank generations' attention by his collaboration with Brian Eno. In 1980 they had released Possible Musics. It was Hassell's record but Eno brought recognition factor and took up the promotional tour of duty, talking up Africa as the future for the next hundred years at every opportunity. Alongside the main title was the phrase and promise, Fourth World Volume 1. By the time of WOMAD two summers later another release had slipped into the world; Dream Theory In Malaya, described as volume two in the Fourth World series. And the next summer a third, Magic Realism, (though without any volume control) completed what for many was a truly inspirational trilogy of records. These records, in Hassell's words on Aka-Darbari-Java/Magic Realism, proposed a 'contemporary coffee-coloured classical music'. Recently in an attempt to deflect his work from being too closely identified with the all-consuming category of world music, Hassell has taken to using the working title 'worldly music'. All three of the records highlighted the beautiful phased trumpet playing, a glissando effect he had already cultivated for over half a decade since journeying to the east, and arriving at the feet of the renowned Indian vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath, keeper of the flame of the Kirana Gharuna school. No stranger to technological adaptation though, Hassell has repeatedly used a series of devices to multi-track the trumpet so he can play against and alongside himself, techniques that both anticipate and have become commonplace since the emergence of computers in music. As rhythmic and textural backing to the trumpet, Hassell built spectacularly intricate sound worlds, intimately reminiscent of music from any number of gone worlds; be it Moroccan Maghreb and the whirling dust world of the north African desert; the lush swamp-like verdancies of the Indonesian tropics; or the bare heat-ridden plains of north India. In instrumentation these promiscuously mixed both hi-tech futurism and lo-tech ancient tradition, bowl-gongs and the studio as instrument, loops upon loops, The music resembles yet is never formally connected with any specific tradition, although Hassell can claim many years of familiarity with the Indian classical raga and drone tradition. Hassell made this space (without any specific place, a key into his fourth world.) Within the music fraternity Hassell is seen as a founding father of early ambient, turning up the heat on many a chill-out compilation.
In 2002, twenty years after the WOMAD debut on UK shores, and Hassell is once again in Britain, this time to perform with Baaba Maal, and Howie B at a special Only Connect evening in London's concrete art cavern, The Barbican. Much of the evening is a return journey through Hassell's possible musics; a sample from Aka-Darbari-Java (ADJ from here on in) floats across the auditorium as the evening sets in. But what is different is Maal, a vocalist of unworldly power and focus, who sets up a tension within the sound palette against the sultry and languid instrumentation. 'An experiment' says Hassell of integrating vocals into the palette. He appears keen to continue this vector in the life story of Fourth World, which on this April evening has reaffirmed the influence and prescience, along with the startling originality, of the early Fourth World albums.
Fourth World is also part of the musical frame, which has endured influence and imitation, becoming a generic term for identifying related sub genres of many a young musician. Hassell has used interviews to set out a way of approaching the world, epitomised in the phrase and the music, though not exclusive to it. For a long time Hassell has been preparing a 'low-temp, long cook time' book, which extends Fourth World into the category of over-arching ways of doing. At present a draft version, named after an old Cole Porter standard, The North and South of You, An Erotic Worldview is completed. He begins another draft any time soon.
The core contention in the book is that perhaps, just perhaps, the technologically and rationality rich, but rhythm and sensuality poor, North, (for which read West) has dominated the sensuous but technologically adrift South. The global equilibrium between our norths and souths, an out of balance equatorial waistline, have been amplified and externalised by our art, culture and creativity. It is a particular story of cultural evolution where the north in its need for warmth has overwhelmed the south's life of joy and celebration in colour, pattern and rhythm. Over the millennia survival resources turned to technology, which in turn incubated communication's technology, one channel amidst a variety by which the North presently exports to the South (by which Hassell means the non-west) a frozen, rationalised, and abstracted version of itself—in effect the consequences of its struggle to survive. Hassell asks us to imagine what would have become of North American movie-making if Cameroon or Argentina, or Java had been first with these technological means of communication? What movies would the world be watching if we had grown up watching 'Southerns' instead of 'Westerns'?
There isn't a literal relation to geographic location, but geography becomes a metaphor for states of mind. Hassell talks of north-headed southern people, and south-headed northerners, offering the psychologically repressed Saudi Arabians as an example of north-headed southerns and Björk as an example of a south-headed northerner. During the course of an ongoing, though primarily email, dialogue with Hassell I display some caution towards buying into this all-embracing 'dream theory', initially broadening the dialogue by mentioning both David Rothenberg's poetic words about 'the idea of north' in relation to the idea of the wild, where the former marks a place in the imagination for the latter, and also the oft-made point of the northern rim cultures, where actual technological adaptability is married to a co-evolution with the environment; from George Dyson's Aleutian Kayak boat-builders, the house-building pacific rim Haida, to Edmund Carpenter's east coast Inuit, 'Nature here,' as has been written elsewhere 'is an elegant strategy for design.' Hassell acknowledges that a straight correlation between climate and cultural evolution isn't exactly what he is getting at but remains adamant:
"These examples suggest that it wasn't the forbidding climates alone which brought on the headlong rush of a northern technological imperative. It was maybe something else. Certainly it says that there are different responses to the forbidding climate but the one 'we' got stuck with is problematic. Knowing what we know about the impact of environment on everything wouldn't it be a mistake to dismiss a view based on observations of different-headedness as a result of physical/emotional responses to the most basic features of environment?"
He also acknowledges the 'broad brush strokes' of the generalisations he is invoking but maintains the, "geographical north has been the incubation place for, by far, the preponderance of 'mental north: the place where the instinctual is devalued, the place where the dichotomy between human and animal is most strong, the place where the microchip is valued over the samba. Of course", he continues, "the northern mentality has migrated, supercharged by the northern media megaphone!"
I draw another thought, of China as a vast reservoir of scientific knowledge, so compendiously brought to the West's attention by Joseph Needharn's multi-volume odyssey, Science and Civilisation of China. I wonder whether China's historical scientific creativity over thousands of years, many long before Western science got in on the act, contains nothing of this north/south division, whether if anything China is of the south. Hassell responds by stating he believes, "the parlour game of 'is China south or north?' is a plus no matter what. It's not as if the general idea is disproved."
It would be nice if Hassell's ideas could take their place within the flow of the history of science and technology, rather than as a prop to the acritical gadflying tilts by pop writers at the academic establishment and its way of doing things. The relation between climate and cultural evolutionary adaptation is already of considerable interest to others, academics and non-academics alike, and the frame Hassell is working within already has various related advocates. Another west coaster, though this time a medicine man, Neurobiologist William Calvin has written about the evolution of mind during the Ice Age. In The Ascent of Mind Calvin tries to show how it was the previous ice ages which triggered the emergence of consciousness. Climate brings on leaps in evolution, Calvin believes, current climate change being no exception. Another evolutionary argument has recently been argued, by the geneticist, Jared Diamond, who in Guns, Germs and Steel, suggests the west's successes can be traced to the environment of its ancestral home, namely the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. This was, he states, home to the most varied and useful domesticatable wild plants and animals, leading the Crescent's hunter-gatherers to settle down and become the first farmers and herders. Their animals carried germs which mutated into diseases. The farmers developed resistance to the diseases but, those unexposed did not. In time it was these Fertile Crescent cultures which first developed metal tools, writing and subsequently empires, the basic requirements for the later cultural conquests down through the ages. There are other arguments, providing reasons enough for the possible origins of the West's need, desire or rationale to subjugate the earth and thus develop the technology to 'master' nature. Lynn White, an academic historian, delighted his environmental contemporaries in the sixties, when he laid the original responsibility of ecological catastrophe with Christianity, and its invocation of anthropocentric stewardship as primal cause for the exploitative relationship between man and nature, which then moved further out of control as the centuries passed. Others relate the origins of a hardened and abstracted rationalism to the rise of science, associated with the move from earth to solar centred cosmologies, the scientific method, and the growth of humanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, giving way to the Enlightenment, and ensuring the disappearance of both magic as a way of doing, and enchanted relationships to the natural world. Be this as it may, such approaches found mainly in the history of science, feel at kilter with contemplating whether the primal experience of hot and cold, benign or adverse weather, and the conditions of climate, may have, over millennia, brought on an inner migration away from a sensual self that thousands of years earlier would have been much more accessible to people all across Old Europe.
HASSELL HAS A thought-provoking way of looking at why things are the way they are, and for quite a few it feeds any number of further strands of questioning thought. Part of this relates to music. Since Hassell is first and foremost a musician, it is not surprising to see his sense of hemispheric imbalance put to rights in his southern movie music. Hassell describes Fourth World as "a viewpoint which provides guidelines for finding forms of balance between accumulated knowledge—'wisdom'—and the conditions created by new technologies, so that music from various cultures whose characteristics are responses to a given 'place' (which were isolated in the pre-media epoch) are the 'vocabulary' with which we can think about ways to respond to our 'place' in the new geography created by our media world —'cyberspace'." This is a big aesthetic proposition, and requires some serious unraveling. Hassell seems to be one of a very few musicians consciously exploring these edges; where technologies of new music meet the place-sensitivities of centuries old music. With his music he celebrates the construction of artificial worlds, where premedia musical cultures act, "as chemical elements, building blocks for the new cultural compounds and hybrids", reminiscent but wholly different from the original authentic soundworld. He has described this as a "desire to weave things together so it doesn't have a geographical association... like a fantasy of what another imaginary country would be"...of "trying to create something that could have existed if things were in an imaginary culture, growing up in an imaginary place with this imaginary music". Hassell's music, created from such building blocks, evokes any number of other questions, not least the dynamics of hybrids and collaging; the relation between future and tradition; place and non-place; and cutting across all of these, an aesthetics of environment, since Hassell is sculpting from music and sound rooted in land and geography, but using the tools of technology; the means by which his hand made creations are realised.
In fact, the man has been mucking around with different setups for technological gear all through his adult life. In conversation he acknowledges that a partial source of Fourth World relates to the technology of the tape recorder, as so much of what Fourth World collaging is about is splicing up different reels of cultures and sticking them back together again in surprising and unanticipated form. All through his journey there is the application of this same splice philosophy—collage techniques—whatever the technology, or at the meta level, the layering of thought forms. This is paradoxical, since despite all the denunciations of the technology-driven aridities of the Northern world, technology is a critical further element in Fourth World's composition. "Don't be misled," Hassell wrote in an email, "I'm not a Luddite.—not yet, anyway. Among the credentials I'll present on that morning in 2017 when the digerati gangs are sweeping the provinces clean of analog counter-revolutionaries, are the notes (played and written) on Aka-Darbari-Java, where I riffed lovingly on the poetic possibilities of digital transformations". ADJ was released years ago in 1983; his most recent record, Fascinoma, in 1999 was recorded in a downtown chapel, acoustically, and lowered the technological imperative. Here the "daily contact with 'tone' was a blessing and an experience vastly removed from the process of making a computer make a music". He has also talked of using "the best of both worlds", and at times there is a suspicion that he is not completely comfortable with the implacable thrust of the across-the-board technologisation.
Yet Hassell's path has repeatedly orbited and returned to the evolution of sampling. From tape splicing to digital morph sampling—highlighting it as a particular and sinewy sub-section, sample even, to be attended to in any self-respecting philosophy of technology of the late twentieth century. It isn't at all surprising that quite a bit of this comes from the first days of the tape recorder, and the prehistory of the technology of recording. Hassell was part of the minimalists' generation, and any number of other musicians, who saw in tape a world of new possibilities. From Steve Reich in San Francisco, with 'It's Gonna Rain', to Stockhausen in Cologne. The recording angel, from a certain perspective, liberated a generation into any number of new and over-layering choices. A partial explanation to Fourth World, is that so much of his music is essentially about layering and melding one source with another. This is both a context-driven interpretation and one which sees Fourth World as originating in significant part from immersion in collage-inducing technologies. (1)
For a while Hassell in the seventies, along with some colleagues, appears to have tried to extend the relation of the splice to video, converting his own techno development into a commercial entity. Bluescreen (2) is the cinematic technique of filming foreground shots against blue background, which initially became a metaphor for sampling, similar to the video technique of keying in an alternative. The "exploration of ideas reflecting off the surfaces of other ideas," he says. On Dressing for Pleasure, for which he formed a band Bluescreen, he expanded the foreground/background effects into the realm of fantasy, and as a result he describes himself as "the Leonardo of the Xactoknife in the pre-Adobe Photoshop era." He adds, "the idea was to refresh the meaning, the ambience, the flavor by 'de-gestalting' the normally wedded fore- and background. And, of course, to say that the musical sampling process mapped on to the bluescreen process perfectly."
"Now that I think of it," he continued, "I had a visual arts leaning, but it was always around sound and sound installations, working with technical materials. I had a piece in the Experiments In Art and Technology Show in New York, that Robert Moog helped me to build. A kind of visual demonstration of tape delay in a way, so I did have that kind of epoch in which I was hanging around people like Walter De Maria, the earth artist. I did some projects, mostly unrealised, dealing with sound and sculptural ideas out in the outdoors, taking off from the Earth Art ideas."
His earth art projects centred on the creation of 'invisible sonic sculptures' in outdoor settings. Hassell himself relates them conceptually to the 'Land Art' movement, although it feels as if these sculptures echo many of the concerns of current sound art. The 'invisible sculpture' (3) premise of Solid State was the forerunner, and it is usually included in a list of Landmusic projects. De Maria, contemporary of Robert Smithson, is famous for his New Mexico field of lightning rods, and Hassell's fraternising shows in familial form the parallels and crossovers between the Minimalism/Ambient sound trajectory and the Minimalism-Land-Art evolution.
Years ago in an edition of Andy Warhol's Interview Hassell extended his connection with land art territory into related ecological territory. "I started thinking about the notion of boundary," he stated in the interview. "The straight line stands for abstraction and abstract thinking, and the land stands for what we've got to work with. And I was thinking how words and language are like the demarcation lines, the boundary lines of emotion and feeling and the dream life. There can be presumed to be a kind of unruly continuum there, which is only crudely demarcated by words. And perhaps in exactly the same proportion that the dream has been forgotten on a general level, this unruly emotional life is only known through the window of the word, unless one gets smart and starts looking behind things..." In another long forgotten piece for, of all magazines, Heavy Metal, Hassell wrote, that "perhaps the result will be a multiplicity of musics arising from tribes of like-minded people once again with boundaries formed by hills and river beds linked worldwide by satellites."
This feels intriguingly like an expression of something which was in the ecological-new media crossover zeitgeist of the time. It is as if a whole bunch of people with a range of experience and perspective all alighted on something similar, which made neither practical headway, nor received any real media attention, beyond perhaps Northern California's Co-Evolution Quarterly. This slice of Hassells' work resonates with such one-time young Americans, as, for instance, Paul Ryan, Peter Fend and his Ocean Earth Construction and Development Corporation (OECD), and Gene Youngblood, all three US art-types who explored the blurred eco-boundary (4) between new media and expanded consciousness and the further possible reaches of using technology for a future which was closer to, rather than further from nature. The co-incidence of Hassell's engagement connected the making of music to this outer counter-cultural ecological consciousness, and its spore suggests envisioning a future reinhabited with an admixture of very lo-tech mixed with very high tech-satellites. In time, other alliances came to the fore, particularly apprehending geographies from the bioregional point of view, that is, understanding natural watersheds as organic boundaries, and enabling peoples into imagining how to re-embed lives within a sense of place.
Once again with Hassell's version of geography there was a splice philosophy at work, this time in splicing up and recombining the music and the place, jumping between, or splicing together, layering places and epochs, using the former as the chemical elements, and waiting to see what hybrid merged out of the alembic and phase transition. "This was my fervent hope! An attempt to scramble the imagery so much that I couldn't remember what was real or fictional. Of course, this may be a fun thing to do at home but catastrophic on a worldwide scale." The result is a music of imagined places, places of the mind, and places where the mind can go. If there was a splicing up of nature, it was not out of a lack of appreciation or respect for nature, but rather used nature itself as an element in the periodic table of materials. It is a magical technique, so that what you hear can bring a clarity and intensity to imagined nature to make it too real, a kind of Technicolor nature. The question for those who believe in the need to rekindle the broken umbilical link to place, is whether there are places of the mind, within which the holding qualities of the pattern of place can both be nurtured, and combined with the likes of Hassell type co-ordinates for impossible cartographies.
If Hassell can be found in any particular location it is with some unidentifiable south-east Asian meeting in the mind; a lush, verdant dreamscape, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Island utopia, endorsing Brian Eno's declaration that Hassell conjures not only possible music but possible worlds. The initial trilogy of albums, plus the next release—Power Spot, and the live out-takes from a mid eighties European tour, the incredibly titled The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound, while emphasising different elements of the Fourth World vision, remains its imaginative heart amplifying a musical vision prefiguring the growth of combinatorial, cross-hybidised forms, where the very old is mixed in with the latest in studio gizmos and technological know-how. Listen to the 'water-splash rhythm' which sets the organisational frame for Dream Theory in Malaya, and it conjures a joyous other, easy to escape into. And contemplate the 'visionary anthropology' of Jungian Kilton Stewart, which informs the conceptual backdrop to Dream Theory (with its linguistic tip of the hat to Freud) and consider how twenty-first century Gamelan propels the music, even if there is nothing explicitly identifiable with Bali. Rather, it is inspired by, in Hassell's words, a '"remarkable highland tribe"—the Senoi, who developed a culture of family dream-telling'...where a child's fearful dream of falling was praised as a gift to learn to fly the next night and where a dream song and dream dance was taught to a neighbouring tribe to create a common bond beyond differences of custom." The mind of the tribal is never far from the man's modus operandi, such that in a further elaboration of the Fourth World way Hassell says that "since the cultural richness of tribes can be nothing other than the expression of their localities, "going global" is a fearsome slogan, suggesting the eventuality of a "white noise" culture made up of same-sized bits, distributed evenly. The fourth world process imagines another outcome to the inevitable: an equipoise which is based on zooming in (to singularity) and zooming out (to generality) simultaneously." On Dream Theory, and the other recordings this chimes with an ethos of poise, grace and balance found in tribal cultures, and which Balinese traditional culture took to a particular conclusion through the gesture of balance (5).
By envisioning a steady-state futurism Hassell realised at least some of the yearnings of those at the Ecotopian end of the eco-spectrum. Whether it was inspiring and evocative, whether this vision spoke to more than a few in the mainstream is a moot point. From the mid-eighties he moved on and out of this imaginary terrain.
As comparable sound stream cross-pollination from multiple coordinates—both time wise and geographically—began to seep into the working methods of other musicians, Hassell appeared to tire of it. At the same time what Fourth World represented had become a new orthodoxy by the early nineties. Hassell took a sidestep into hip hop, reconfiguring the Fourth World ambit, taking in the sounds of urban USA, with Africa, with City: Works of Fiction, and after that the steamy fusion and hardwired jazz of Dressing for Pleasure. This didn't mean his playing changed. Nor composing, which he describes as very hands-on. (6)
Two further examples show how diverse his application of Fourth World was to become. In 1985 the Kronos Quartet asked him to contribute to a record of contemporary composers. Hassell took as a starting point a book on Black Atlantic Culture, Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit, a strand of which connected Eastern seaboard South American black people's visual sensibility to both musical and choreographic modalities, and detailed how African cloth could be seen as 'rhythmized' – these composed textiles made into larger pieces by combining the narrow-loom strips according to rules about how patterns fall together or don't. The title of the piece, 'Pano da Costa', refers to the colourful, 'syncopated' textiles of a coastal region of Brazil.
Much more recently with his last release, Fascinoma, he abandoned the hi-tech studio to work with trumpet and the natural acoustic ambience of a Santa Barbara church. On the release he works understatedly through jazz inflected pieces, including 'Nature Boy', and Hassell's own compositions, 'Sensuendo' and 'Datura'. Produced by Ry Cooder, and recorded by Kavi Alexander, it uses an unusual UK system, custom-built analogue triode vacuum-tube recording equipment, which Cooder's Water Lily records have released several records using. The press notes talk of building on 'the idea of not creating something from scratch, but having to harmonise with the beauty that's contained in a room. Fulfilled when you walk into the room, 'Nature Boy' feels as right to do as the B-minor Mass." He describes this as the conjunction of futures and simplicity, a move which "basically, I wandered into, following intuition, not wanting to repeat past formulas". When talking about the record in a 2000 web interview he noted that this was far from a one-off."
Today many identify Hassell and Fourth World with the earlier era of his work. A primary part of this identifiable Fourth World way of doing things has been the layering of new on old and the heady brews which result. Hassell, who often puts potent metaphor to use, speaks of the many constituent parts of cultures as being elements originated in a mysterious chemistry, where each new element transforms the make-up and composition of the previous chemical mix. From this he often goes on to mix in digital—layers, and space—and evolutionary metaphors to arrive at a form of description, which is heady in its mindspace as well as linguistic novelty. In one of those earliest forays into exploring Fourth World, the Heavy Metal piece, Hassell wrote, "the optimistic view might be that we're going to reach an overload level of symbol density, that we'll be forced to arrive at a new simplicity—an ability via artificial intelligence (computers) to combine many individuals operating in complex chunks of information which can then be treated as a single mega-word ... an overloaded symbol bank breaking up into chunks suggests a similar pattern for a high-density future population breaking into clusters of New Tribal territories." On a different occasion he wrote: "Hybrid forms are more obvious now ... perhaps the symbol bank is near capacity and the only alternative is exploration of ideas reflecting off the surfaces of other ideas. Or perhaps this is what the creative process has always been about and now, for some reason, it has become visible in conscious application." (7)
WHERE DID FOURTH WORLD BEGIN? Hassell, originally a Southern boy, was born in Memphis, home, as Talking Heads, David Byrne, once reminded us, 'of Elvis and the ancient Greeks,' is from a family with deep south roots. Middle-class, Hassell comments on how his parents played by the rules, as lifetime partners. His father seems to have done him the favour of a lifetime by turning Jon onto learning the same cornet "he had played in a college band, set me off that path, locking myself in bathroom (for reverb) and picking out 'Stormy Weather' or other bluesy tunes." As a student in the early Sixties he went to the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York, and at the Catholic University in Washington DC, where he was close to completing a PhD on plainsong. By this time he was deep into the Modernist serial music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen, and took himself off to Cologne to study under the tutelage of the original master of electronica. At some point in the following months he turned his back on Stockhausen. Terry Riley's description of Stockhausen and modernist music as 'neurotic', seems to have struck a deep chord, and appears to have voiced directly and simply his frustration to much of western abstracted rationalism in contemporary music. This suggests something life changing, but it isn't that surprising in the magical sixties, when ecstatic altered states, revolution in the air, and sex as revelation, turned many a head toward the east. "Having been programmed to follow a nice predictable path—maybe with an academic career or as an orchestral player, after my study with Stockhausen I returned to the USA , dropped acid and from there fell in with two of the original minimalists; Terry Riley and La Monte Young". This encounter with the minimalist forefathers seems to have underscored his disillusionment with his past. "Being around Terry Riley and La Monte Young, coming into contact with people who were concerned about feeling good via music ... (that it was) not just some intellectual exercise. It was more holistic. It spoke to the whole body. I'm talking about what they would later refer to as 'minimalism.'" Alongside this he "met a beautiful, young "fourth world" girl, got divorced, started trying to reconcile my daylight world (high culture) with my night preferences (code for "erotic") ... and began asking why Miles Davis' music was one place in the cultural scale and, for instance, Philip Glass in another."
When Hassell was Creative Associate at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, after returning from Europe, Terry Riley was invited to be a guest tutor for a term. Riley and Hassell began rehearsing and next recorded In C, the early minimalist work, which Hassell is a guest on. Much of the rest of Hassell's time was spent performing with Young, as collaborator on the latter's just intonation performances. Actually at the turn of the seventies Philip Glass was another obscure avant composer toiling with his minimalist muse while making a living as a New York taxi driver. Across town, Young, the other East coaster in the pantheon of minimalists, was extolling the remarkable vocal abilities of an Indian classical singer. Before long Hassell also got to hear the voice of Pandit Pran Nath. It changed his life.
Pran Nath is the key influence in Jon Hassell's journey, along with a small coterie of others. Born in Lahore, Pakistan Pran Nath was taught in the austere, pure intonation of the Kirana school, or Gharana. His singing was known as singularly devotional, and throughout his life he showed scant interest in success. The singing, as with all other parts of one's life, was for God. If you take all the gharana's of Indian music," Young was to state years later, "and place them on a line with a pitch at one end and rhythm at the other, the Kirana gharana would be at the extreme end of the pitch end of the line. And Pandit Pran Nath would be at the extreme-pitch end of the Kirana gharana." By the late sixties Pran Nath had lived a wandering aesthetes' life, including a significant part of the nineteen forties in a cave temple at Tapekeshwar, a few miles north of the Indian Himalayan town of Dehra Dun, passing the days apparently naked, bar a covering of ashes, singing to God. After leaving the cave refuge Pran Nath spent much of the fifties and sixties teaching in Delhi, the power of his voice holding all who heard it in thrall at the purity and beauty of the singing.
It was the voice which La Monte Young originally heard on a recording in New York, "...the most beautiful thing I had ever heard" he wrote in the Village Voice, determining Young with his partner, Marian Zazeela, to bring the singer to the USA. He did so in the first months of 1970.
Terry Riley had given Hassell a tape of Pran Nath's singing, but they hadn't met. Accompanying La Monte to perform Young's Dream House work, in Rome in 1971, Hassell discovered Pran Nath was also performing the same evening. "Pran Nath heard me warming up and he picked up the phrase and sang circles around it, and patterns started to come out which I never imagined were possible. It was like something out of Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men."
"I met Pandit Pran Nath, and began to see how raga represented a beautiful balance." This is understatement. Hassell began to immerse himself in Indian music, and became a student of the Pandit or teacher. Pran Nath's approach offered a way into a vast ocean of sound, integrating the many musical forms into the singularity of the harmonic world of the Indian tambura, where melody in the form of a raga was interwoven into this lattice. He found himself asking, "Why couldn't there be another form like this in a 'contemporary' language?" In entertaining this question Hassell was laying the foundation for all the music he has made since he began putting out recordings, beginning with Vernal Equinox, and continuing through to Aka-Darbari-Java. He was also beginning to imagine the possible frame of mind for Fourth World. Pran Nath, in enabling him to see the "microworld of connections" between musics, had sent him out on a journey which continues to this day.
"All I have", Hassell was to say years later in an interview with Theresa Stern, "I owe to Pran Nath". Soon after he died, Jon placed a tribute to his teacher on Young's OtherWorlds website. It begins:
"I had a dream about Guruji this morning. I was listening to him sing a montage of raga lines and knew (even as they were being played back effortlessly by my brain or ... were they coming from someplace else?) that I would have difficulty being able to play or sing them back to him, as in a lesson and I now become aware, here in recounting this experience, that this was the way I was usually listening to him, trying to grasp the points of pitch around which his aural calligraphy wrapped itself...I'm sitting here now thinking and feeling for the thousandth time but more intensely than before what a rare man he was and silently praising the delicate tissue of chance that brought me into the presence of a being through whom I could glimpse the kind of devotion to an act—prayer in the form of music, music in the form of prayer—that took many lifetimes to occur, somehow rising above the gravitational pull of physicality!'
What was it that he learned from Pran Nath? As Hassell's trumpet voice floated high in the layered mix of instruments at the Barbican, I was reminded of the way Hassell and others describe this trumpeting as calligraphy of the air. The form of the trumpet danced across the aural sketch-pad, reeling gracious thin curves, followed by a chunk of fattened sound, thickening out the sonic ink strokes, before a momentary squall of notes, or the trumpet split to play alongside itself, splaying into a multi-tracked haiku across the auditorium. For anyone who has looked into the elegant restraint of Islamic calligraphy something of this sonorisation is understandable.
"I had to find a way to make the meend", Hassell told Hungry Ghost's, Marcus Boon a couple of years ago, "by using my lips as a secondary voice, transferring the vibration point from the vocal fold to the lips and thinking of it as a conch sound, blowing primitively into it and making the pitches with just the lips and the resonating chamber. The Indian music world has traditionally believed the voice is the ur-instrument from which all other instruments spring. So it is with singing that any musical learning begins. In Indian raga the method of teaching is oral, your teacher sings a phrase, step by step, until you hear this intricate calligraphy going on. In order to do that, I had to learn how to play the trumpet differently. I now related to it in a very primitive way. That is to say, I started with the mouthpiece and just thought of it like a conch shell."
"The technique is not singing through the trumpet. It's transferring the vocal function to the lip, the lip becomes the vocal fold, the lip sings, the lip holds the pitch. It's like a surrogate voice", which means that unlike almost any other trumpet you might hear, with Hassell it's a unique combination of mouth, with the lips simulating the vocal folds; singing with and as if the trumpet is an extension of the nervous system.
"If you have a grid and each one of those lines on the grid is a pitch level, the art is drawing precisely a beautiful curve between one level and another level. It's like calligraphy. When I realised I could have a replica of the trumpet playing with me then it was as though instead of drawing the curves with one pencil I could have a handful of pencils and draw the curves". It was this technique, first encountered with Pran Nath, coming down through a centuries-old oral transmission of singing, which Hassell began to incorporate into his body of musical knowledge. It has continued to develop with years of practice. He continued with Boon:
"It was such a revelation to me, to see that there was this background grid on which these arabesques were being traced—and how it extended the range of possibilities that had been laid out for me in Western musical training ... What it revealed to me was that jazz was a subset, a 'raga family' ... because there were a fairly limited set of intervallic variations. But because raga is all about shape-making, it turned me on to seeing African and African-American music, every music through the lens of that shape-making ability. The 'calligraphy in air' aspect was such an immense revelation for me."
Hassell shipped out to California in 1975, living near the ocean in Malibu, "practicing with my raga lessons and my pause button...and I'd go up into the hills and practice and try to make those curves. I basically studied Tilang for two years or more. The collision of my western training with this raga culture, which is a complete embodiment of sensuality and structure...like Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, where the game was a combination of all science, and art, all in one thing. If anything came close to that it was raga. And who knows that art? Who would have the knowledge to understand how many things converge in that, being able to summon up the memory of this particular calligraphic event or situation ... Raga is like this smoke in the air which presents the listener with the feeling of being in a dream which imparts knowledge all at once. It reminds me of Terence McKenna's saying that drugs are chemical gifts of the gods ... it's almost like a printed circuit, or an operating system that you may as well consider sacred...the chemical result of a plant that allows your brain to receive a certain kind of knowledge all in one swoop."
How does this fit within the larger Indian scheme of things? Well, raga has been at the heart of the Indian aesthetic viewpoint. As Hassell intimates, so much begins and returns to raga, and finds itself repeated across many traditional art forms, including though hardly exclusive to music. Its cyclical and non-sequential characteristics are central to, for instance, both the 'continuous narrative' of much of Indian art, beginning from modal music and aesthetic rapture—known as rase—where cyclical sequences of movements, scenes, or acts emerge. And each part of such sequences emphasises a single aesthetic mood, another overlapping influence from raga. (8)
All this by way of a master singer who spent significant periods singing to God, in a cave temple, in North India, a well known and long held practice in a country where the intensity of devotional activity is a commonplace. Hassell does not know whether the Kirana school is particularly revered or influential in the Indian musical world, but what Pran Nath did, strangely, was to plant the school within a group of profoundly alienated Western musicians and now the vines of this form are growing in a completely new way. The influence is unusual, since this group of musicians hold a particular currency of credibility with so much of the Western new music world, but show less interest in maintaining a traditional, classical culture like that of India. It is Hassell's old friend and fellow musician Terry Riley who has done most to extend Pran Nath's legacy into the present day. Hassell describes Riley as Pran Nath's foremost disciple in the West, having studied with a singular intensity and duration. At one juncture he talks of Riley's son, a classical guitarist, who recently, after a number of years became interested in Hassell's work for the first time. If this music talks past the generations, could this mean that Fourth World is of its time? May it even evoke a strong musical futurism for many, knowing that musical futures change, and may fade into sand, an abandoned exploration, its markers missed by musical generations to come?
It's possible to envisage Fourth World as a strange mutated offspring of Pran Nath, through the interpretational lens of Hassell, and thus also a Western, Southern/Northern part of the Gharana. North is South. Possibly. Hassell relates the memory of playing Charm, from Possible Music, to Pran Nath, and being profoundly moved when the singer indicated his liking for the piece. Its remaking in a contemporary idiom and with contemporary technologies was irrelevant. "For him," Hassell told Boon, "there was no backwards or forwards, there was no avant garde", a perspective beguilingly alien to the Western modernist outlook, at once captive to the arrow of time, while stranger to the eternal present.
Of course Fourth World, although immersed in raga, has been an attempt to create something new. Hassell has talked elsewhere of how he moved "from the path of avant-garde minimalism and towards something that began as a painting in the essential raga elements drone background, drumming, solo line—with something new; the drone could be electronic, the drumming could be Afro-Brazilian, and the solo line was the trumpet with its electronic shadow."
What might this something new be in relationship to the tradition of Indian raga? If at the core of Fourth World is raga, although there is also something very different, which begs the question, can Hassell's music be seen as part of a future tradition of Indian music? The remarkable renaissance of Indian music may have reached, at the beginning of a new century, its highwater mark. Part of this renaissance involved its planetary dispersal, a transmission, which feels entwined in aspects of the cultural evolution of consciousness. But as new forms of communication take hold across the planet, the raga's traditional handing on from one generation to the next, as its way of preserving and renewing itself, is slipping away. In turn the uncertain future Indian music faces, in a new century, including its possible disappearance, can be related to the Western driven technologisation, both of making music and more generally, a particular instance of Globalisation upending a regional culture, the resulting chaos making it difficult to maintain the culture which has historically held the music. But also part of this story is the literally thousands of Western people who have been so moved by exposure to Indian music, be it the northern or southern traditions, that their lives have taken a new path, with immersion in particular schools, instruments and skills. Some of this has borne a generation of classical Indian musicians in the West, but at the same time encouraged people to look at ways of carrying on the traditions into the contemporary world.
A way of looking at Fourth World, and Jon Hassell's work, is to think of it as part of a Western splinter in the Indian musical tradition, the western engagement with technology invoking a possible future for the Indian musical tradition in the twenty-first century wired world. Will it be possible for these musicians, and others to create a relationship between the arctic cool of electric blue technology, absorbed into the deep brown heart of Indian music, so it develops a way of surviving, and indeed flourishing, in the next decades? Or will such a Western sourced splinter created out of the Indian raga, soon become, if it isn't already, something other; completely separate, distinct and over time unrelated, which will unfold during the coming century. Perhaps, de facto, the transformation into the Western context, makes for something entirely different. There is not much space in the West for oral transmissions of music, let alone a technological adaptation of that oral transmission. However, if this harbinger of a twenty-first century electric blue Indian earthmusic maintains its links to its umbilical mother tradition, it may yet feed, replenishment and renew the Indian musical tradition. Maybe it is doing this already.
"I have something more to say before I leave you," Sotuknang told the people as they stood at their Place of Emergence on the shores of the present Fourth World. This is what he said: The name of this Fourth World is Tuwaqachi, World Complete. You will find out why. It is not all beautiful and easy like the previous ones. It has height and depth, heat and cold, beauty and barrenness; it has every thing for you to choose from. What you will choose will determine if this time you can carry out the plan of Creation on it or whether it will, it must in time be destroyed too."
These are the first words of the chapter on the Fourth World, where the myths of the four worlds of Hopi Indians were recorded in their sacred Book of the Hopi at the turn of the twentieth century. I have never seen an interview where Hassell is asked about the connection between his Fourth World and that of the Hopi (which means peace) people, and Hassell did not know of the Hopi Fourth World when he envisioned his Fourth World. Still he is of the generation who began to look anew at Indian American culture. The words also relate to the next stage on from Third World, where cultures are not developing towards the conditions of First Worldom. This is another facet in the crystal of all-pervading primitivism, which is part of the heartland of Hassell's world. 'We must make vivid again those fading regions of our being which lie "beyond description"' he writes in the work in progress, vivid being the operative phrase. How similar this feels to these words: "the sense of reality is heightened to the point where it sometimes seems to blaze." This is Stanley Diamond on primitive life's experience of nature and bodily functions, another anthropologist who turned to the deep past for resolution from the modern. Jon Hassell's Fourth World may only be one of many responses in a generation who travelled the journey to the east and into prehistory and the tribal, beating a path away from the tribulations of modernity. Diamond's story and the world he makes from it, sits well with so many others in the unusually gifted, anthropologically tempered early-sixties generation who came of age and education before the decade began to turn properly upside down. If today, the journey for Hassell includes technology, recombinant aesthetics, and sex fantasy, it began with that decade-long migration into the east and the old earth world, and places where the lived experience was blazing in vivid, Technicolor. In the technology saturated west today there is an apprehension of this past, though scant sense of how to bring it into our contemporary lives. Fourth World's mix of chemistries draw on the sensibilities of the many souths of our bodies and mind, into a planetary future, which if at present is beyond reach in this world, holds true and clear to a dreamt ideal of what could come to be. •
Indeed the uses he makes of technology follow the same enabling possibility wherever, be it the sixties tape recorder or the morphing screen pastes of computers. So much so that others talked of Aka-Darbari-Java, as "melted through recombinant aesthetics made possible through digital technologies". All of this, he says of the evolution from the advent of splice/collage technology through to digitisation, was a means to realising long-held collage aims. It is also the sounds he heard, rather than the technology which precipitated the change in musical form that occurred at the same time for instance, after the Possible Musics/Dream Theory/ADJ trilogy, with City, and Dressing; "Since the work comes out of the sound, things that allow you to get different sounds will plant a new seed and then you can grow it. It wasn't as if I was hearing ADJ textures earlier. Theoretically, one could have gone through enormously complicated splicing procedures to get similar results ... so it was the facilitating interface that opened the field. Like the invention of a "keyboard" in the land of monochords."
Possible Musics began his on-off association with computers, which for a while introduced a new level of integration, so that much of the collage work wouldn't have been possible without computers. "Mimicking Stockhausen's early electronic pieces and of the musique concrete guys, i used to splice up chords and make them into loops, running them against one another to check out the cool permutations. i did many tape pieces before digital happened. 'Contagious Magic' on Possible Musics is a live performance over a digital sample (a short 'trap' of a section of a Miles concert), whose main rhythm was being clapped by five performers along with some live 'trapping' of the (digitally harmonized) trumpet in performance which was then flashed back into the performance. I don't think anybody had done that live sampling before. The primitive Fairlight sampling synth I used on ADJ opened up a lot of possibilities."
"As to the television innovation; the TV screen was just a sidebar which took two years of my life", he states today. They are a matrix of lens shapes, which went over the TV screen and sort of abstracted the picture. I wish I had a picture ... by masking—sampling if you will—the TV screen...think of a perforated sheet over the screen and then a matrix of cabeshon shapes (a flattened hemisphere) placed on top so that the dots or lines are magnified, distorted ... as the picture moves, there's a watery movement which abstracts the picture (thousands of small dots squeezed into 75 large ones). i made another version where acrylic rods brought the picture (in benday dot form) out in front of the screen six or seven inches. It 'harnessed' the stream of graphic power being sent out to millions of tv sets. There were lots of other unrealised versions, buried in earth, face up, etc."
These sculptures included Sonic Environment Relocations, such as 'Ocean-Desert'—where the sound of the ocean to underground speakers was transmitted to just below the surface of the desert floor to a remote location. Hassell wrote that it was "like an echo of prehistoric times in which the desert was actually the floor of the sea!" More recently he put together a proposal for extending the 'Ocean-Desert' idea into a 'Sound of the World Plaza' (or 12 individual plazas) where a 'spectacularly characteristic sound environment located in each time zone is satellite-relayed 24 hours a day to one central location'. It could also be a video plaza. There is also the Improved Nature Series, with subtle amplification parks placed in trees in a city park, amplifying birds which fly within range of the speakers, and the Frozen (Cinematic) Moments Series which apparently plays on film experience, so that scenes are actualised, for example a 'prepared' tennis court where invisible speakers create the sound of the ball hitting in various places on each side of the court (Homage à Blow-Up) and lastly the Architectural Sound Monuments. Hassell describes this last thus. "An outdoor plaza in which the theoretical "circle of fifths" is realised sonically---as an actual circle with C G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# F emanating from underground sources. As one walks around, different sonic fields, tonalities morph."
There have been occasional 'Solid State' performances, most recently in 1997 at the Amsterdam Planetarium, organised by the Centre International de Recherche Musical (CIRM), in Nice. In a report about the evening CIRM's director Michel Redolfi wrote that "we were able to create slow but massive shifts of space...sonic dune effects. The magic of your piece was dramatized by the realistic night sky that was slowly manipulated (subliminal shooting stars—gradual spinning of the sky). Castenada would have loved itl ...After 15 minutes people started to leave their comfortable seats and walked almost religiously in the darkness of the starry night."
There's some implicit dovetailing with this when the director of a film version of Californian writer, Ernest Callenbach's book, Ecotopia, approached Hassell about providing the soundtrack. The film never saw the light of day, but the director's saw the connection between Hassell's music and the mid-eighties Ecotopian visions. So much of this relates to the continuation of soundworlds in relation to the lay of the land, seemingly partial organic source of much of the earthmusic of the world, from the deep past to the deep present. Hassell may not have followed any path of shining Bioregionalism, but took the paths out beyond geography. That is he began to conceive of Fourth World music, a music that adhered to virtual rather than geo-physical co-ordinates. Inspired by 'flashes' whilst listening to third world musics, and using first world technology Hassell felt "no obligation to be 'complete', 'accurate', or to provide equal time to all cultures. On the contrary the big lesson to be learned', he appears certain, "from 'poetic ethnomusicology' is that musical personality is more the result of excesses, of passions, of obsessions—of a psychological landscape which, once upon a time, was complementary to the geographical landscape. Since telemedia have replaced the geographical landscape, and since telemedia tend toward sameness, anyone who wishes to make music of personality must create a fictional landscape to relate to."
The great anthropologist Gregory Bateson contrasted the West's constant state of being out-of-balance with that of the Balinese. Balinese ethos, manifest in the islands gamelan and culture is an example of a culture in a balanced steady~state. As source to this ethos Bateson returned repeatedly to the importance of postural balance in the life of the islanders. They are, 'forever picking their way, like a tightrope walker, afraid at any moment lest they make some mistep' he wrote. Bateson believed Balinese generalise ideas of body balance into human relations and noted that before the arrival of Europeans, through the islanders eyes 'the world was steady'.
Bateson used Bali as a steady state mirror to the West out of balance and out of control, where technology rather than being in a steady state is in a runaway condition. Hassell's music doesn't derive directly from Gamelan culture. He says, "Bali just happened to spread its legs—coyly—in my imagination as a place where sensuality and 'classical" culture are not at odds ... so I often default to that as an example. I like to think of it as 'tropical hindu'. That said much of Dream Theory particularly, and many other pieces evoke a futuristic steady-state gamelan culture. And also as a music of, and in, balance, a distinctive contrast to the rollcall of twentieth century modernist music and as culture out-of-balance, played out again in almost more extreme form in much popular subculture, both of which evince increasingly desperate attempts at climax tension and resolution. Hassell sees his music as steady-state, "I'm quite at ease" and in the draft of his book points to how he believes that a state of mind which respected that WE'RE ALL ARTISTS is inevitable in the rebalancing of the equatorial waistline."
"I'm only inspired by what i hear...with raga teaching: a phrase is sung, you repeat it; if you grasped it, the teacher moves on to a new phrase, a little more complex, building on the last one. What a joy! how different from the Western system of teaching via the abstraction of scales, etc. Both are useful but it's a matter of leading, with inspiration, to a point where the abstraction can enter the picture instead of vice-versa. Any notation that I do is just to capture a field of pitch possibilities. so working with sound objects (loops principally) and then letting some reaction to that build the next element. I don't really have it dichotomized into rhythm vs. pitch system as in Hindustani systems...it's all a matter of smearing things together until it gels—an underlying structure could come from a quirky, slightly out-of-time loop which is squarely periodic in it's iterations...another one with a longer cycle and a different character—a harmonic might be added, or a rhythm pattern might be formed around some part of a loop—which could have several strata to it."
With this provocative take on hybrid emergence, twenty years on I ask Hassell about moving through the glass ceilings of complexity, and whether today, he remains as confident about a genuine movement into the floorspace of a new simplicity? And how hybridities relate both to complexity and simplicity, in any new floorplan. Simplicity is a watchword with Hassell, "Say things as directly as possible" one interview has him stating. What they don't say is the simplicity and elegance of the Fourth World idea. "I think that I was simply saying that it was more optimistic to think that info overload was going to result in 'chunking' and that was a better outcome than an infinity of small bits floating around. Look at music sampling: you press a key and—where you would've had one note play—you now trigger what could be a whole complex of pitches-textures-timbres, let's call it a phrase, which then becomes a 'unit'. now this cuts both ways: as filtering out the skill formerly required to play the phrase, allowing the unskilled to simulate skill (is that a sin? yes, from the professional and no, from the amateur) ...and as a fabulous new tool for the skilled to carry further into a previously-unheard-of texture.
"Not that this process of chunking was going to save-or destroy the world...but that we could learn from the phenomenon for possible use as a metaphor for the purpose of simplifying our thought processes. Or for developing an appreciation of the kind of wisdom which is embodied in 'primitive' thought—no need to correct for over-atomization in the jungle—which might become the model for a futuristic version of 'primitive': externally, it appears like the old version but internally, it's wisdom has been arrived at by having gone through the atomization and decided there's a better way. I often use this breakdown: prehip—hip—post-hip; where post-hip may share external features with prehip but the people at that stage have passed through hip—the stage where mass fashion reigns—and come out the other side with their own style based on knowledge of all three. Chogyam Trungpa, the Buddhist teacher spoke of 'crazy wisdom'. So think pre-wisdom, wisdom, and crazy wisdom."
Richard Lannoy, remarks in his ground-breaking study of Indian culture, The Speaking Tree, about how raga shares with these other forms "the cyclic conception of creation flowing from the one into the manifold and returning to its source, (which) appears to have had some influence on the flowing, sinuous, organic forms that swell to the surface in high relief without breaking away from the matrix and appear to melt back into it".
Such an aesthetic expresses itself in a creativity which has for thousands of years subtly interwoven the architectural with the sculptural, to create an organic, rather than mathematical and structural, synthesis. The result for Lannoy is visionary art, though he relates this to the oneiric, the Greek word for dream.
"We do not 'see' dreams", writes Lannoy, "but experience them as a simultaneity of multiple sensory impressions and memories. Indian art is generally synaesthetic—a mixture of media combined in a manner which resembles, but is not identical with, oneiric experience!' Which have been uncovered by the many techniques of ecstasy, Yoga, of which, Hassell delights in reminding us, raga is but one form.
If Hassell often uses calligraphy of the air as the core metaphor to visualising raga and his trumpet making, in its context the calligraphy is being drawn across a dense, lush verdant aural sketchpad. Lannoy writes of Indian art as derived from a single original plantlike organic substance, where the "surfaces are smooth and convex, figures cluster in sinuous stalk patterns, their bodies weaving in poses of the dance their arms like tendrils of creepers terminating in blossoming hands", with its qualities of the vine, and the creeper, It is common to find the snaking roots of lianas adhering to the surface of rock. This smooth and sinuous form is as common to Indian nature as gnarled tree forms are in Europe. The sculptors spontaneously turned to these most typical natural analogies, as their Romanesque counterparts in Northern Europe studied the growth of oak and elm. One often in India sees the trunk of one huge tree locked in the embrace of a creeper, or one trunk coiled round another in a marriage of a sensuous as the couplings of the Indian deities." Lannoy shows how in the sensuous kineticism of Indian art human figures are dwelt upon "almost as a special kind of plant."
Which feels not too dissimilar to a music close to Hassell's heart, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew "...the luxuriant jungle of Bitches Brew are like so many dark blossoms and dangling vines to me" he wrote one time. There is an organic, steamy verdant quality to much of Hassell's work, gradually moving its way further into the foreground, as he tries to up the sexy ante, and downplay anything too tranquil in his music. The synaesthesia of the music is also very much in the mix, and the multi-layering of the senses, in the way Lannoy attempts to express the Indian sensibility, feels closer to how Fourth World operates as a whole, than the various attempts to frame it in Western descriptive language.
This article first appeared in Fourth Door Review, no 6
2003 | www.fourthdoor.co.uk