Discography | Stage

Solid State | 2006

Solid State in performance—Peter Freeman and Jon Hassell.

Musicworks Fall 2006: Sonic Geography
by Doug Harvey

LOS ANGELES IS a chronically fragmented city, and that fact is reflected in most of its cultural landscape. It’s New Music scene is no exception, with a dozen or more autonomous scenes ranging from the heights of Disney Hall—host of the LA Philharmonic’s recent stellar Minimalism festival featuring John Adams, Terry Riley, Glenn Branca, and many others—to the depths of long-running downtown experimental noise venue The Smell. These particular extremes are, in fact, within blocks of one another, though there’s only a very slight overlap between their constituencies. The conceptual discontinuity is so strongly embedded that geographical concerns aren’t even considered—and as a result, surprising new phenomena crop up in the unlikeliest places.

Take, for example, The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This venerable institution—founded in 1913 at the northern edge of South Central Los Angeles and home to some of the most highly-regarded wildlife dioramas in the museological world—hardly seems the kind of venue to find exciting experiments in New Music. Nevertheless, museum visitors were recently wowed by a double whammy of unique aural experiences—both prominently featuring avant-garde trumpeter/electronic composer Jon Hassell. Hassell is perhaps best known for his ongoing “Fourth World” hybridization of global tribal rhythms and forms with contemporary electronics processing, as exemplified by his collaborative work with Brian Eno on Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics (1980), though his activities run the gamut from 60’s electronic minimalism (he studied with Stockhausen and recorded with La Monte Young and Terry Riley) to 1999’s lyrical, jazz standards-heavy CD Fascinoma.

This audio twist at the NHM is a hybrid of its own, resulting from the combination of a series of invitational artists interventions into the museum collection and the public outreach series First Fridays, featuring late-evening lectures, performance, poetry, film screenings, and DJ sets that have become something of a favorite among students from nearby USC. These twin streams of programming recombined to produce “Sonic Scenery,” a set of exhibit-specific soundtracks on audiotour headsets created by artists ranging from multi-culti hip-hoppers Ozomatli and post-rock experimental guitar god Nels Cline to academic composeur Stephen Hartke and Marshall Allen’s Sun Ra Arkestra (who spent a whole night jamming in the Ancient Latin America Hall to generate their swaggering Nino-Rota-meets-Carla Bley-in-Tijuana improvisation.)

Of the two enormous main mammalian diorama halls that take up the bulk of the NHM’s main floor, the North American was tackled by literalist Bay-area sample pranksters (and Björk collaborators) Matmos, who fashioned a short but nuanced faux-soundscape for each of the 17 displays, to be viewed in sequence—resulting in a baroquely pleasurable sound-collage that—in situ—plays with the programmed choreography of conventional museum audiotourists. The African Hall was taken by Hassell, who produced a haunting text-sound composition out of a handful of looped fragments of Swahili conversation with just enough harmonics and shimmering reverb to make it to provide the numinous frisson suggested by its title “Wilderness Psalms”—and to subtly mimic the empty-auditorium acoustics of the enormous wood-paneled museum gallery.

​A “First Friday” opening included a panel discussion, a history of ambient music in the form of a DJ set, and plug-in headphones-only “silent sets” by Matmos and others. But the real treat was at the last “First Friday” of the season, which centered around a rare live performance of Hassell’s “unrecordable” 1969 sound-sculpting installation Solid State mounted in the exquisitely opulent original marble rotunda, a mixture of Spanish Renaissance and art nouveau architectural motifs with the hushed lights and sonic ambience of a cathedral. Hassell and fellow knob-twister Peter Freeman placed their array of sound-generating equipment on the floor on the far side of the central giant figurative bronze light fixture (the muses of History, Science, and Art holding aloft the illuminating gas?), and as the 150 or so audience members sprawled on their backs or wandered the circular balcony, began sculpting.

Solid State is an entirely electronic work made from sounds generated by early Moog synthesiser in the basement of S.U.N.Y Buffalo in 1969—from the oscillators, two sets of pulse waves (a wave type characterized by dense overtone spectrum) tuned in perfect fifths C G D A E B F# C# were recorded to tape. In the new version, a CD with the original spectrum is gradually hand-modified through two very hi-quality, 1/3 band Klark Technik graphic EQ filters.

Four large speakers arrayed between pillars around the balcony of the domed rotunda transformed the two channels of sound into a complex matrix of overlapping patterns that shifted and evolved over the course of an hour according to Hassell and Freeman’s decisions, but also as one moved through the space. Only a few people moved around—including one lady inspired to perform an impromptu modern dance interpretation. A few others assumed yoga asanas but most of the audience sat or lay flat on the floor, engaged on a more contemplative level with the surprisingly trance-inducing electronic abstraction. Either way, the audience was privileged to take refuge in a bubble of simultaneously sacred and virtuosic experimental creativity for a full hour. Which is exactly the kind of unexpected epiphany that keeps LA’s music scene alive.

Hassell is busy with several projects—the exquisite Maarifa Street whose subtitle, Magic Realism 2, hints at connections to Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism (1983)—was recently released to critical raves, and a full length Eno remix is rumored. His official website www.jonhassell.com offers updates on current projects as well as extensive historical materials. The fall series of the NHM’s “First Fridays” is still up in the air as I write, but Hassell is also included in a related NHM project at the Naturalis museum in the Netherlands with a piece that samples Dutch wildlife and Javanese gamelan. And be sure to visit their sub-site www.sonicscenery.com to purchase the soundtrack CD including Hassell’s “Wilderness Psalms.” To hear Solid State, you’ll just have to wait until it pops up in some other unlikely venue. ​

Doug Harvey is the Art Critic for LA Weekly,
a multidisciplinary artist, curator, professor, etc.



The following is the full of text of a note, directed at the Penn (U. of Pennsylvania) community, that was enclosed in one of the packages of materials that Kathy Change distributed the morning of October 22nd 1996, the day she set fire to herself.

(Note that this was written in the atmosphere surrounding the first Gulf War. -jh)

All that you have and cling to in fear

Is as worthwhile as a poisoned pie.

A universe full of love and wonderful possibilities

Would be yours if only you would reach for it.

You are sitting in timid conformity

On a hayride to hell.

You’re just about there.

Get off that truck now.

Break out of the ranks of evil

Do a dance for freedom.

I am angry, impatient, full of anxiety

And full of hope and love

But after 18 years of trying and being rejected

And being a pariah and a fool

I have finally concluded that my charism

And social magnetism register high on the negative scale.

Now that I’ve put in the first word,

This movement that I’ve tried to start,

Would probably do better without me,

So I will try to make a dramatic exit.

I’ve tried to do this several times before,

And failed.

If this is the right thing to do,

Heaven will help me.

If not,


Nevermind. I’ll be seeing you around.

I look at you and you are so beautiful

It makes me shy.

Your sympathy makes me want to hide

Because I feel unworthy.

For the cause I want to grab you

Drag you to meetings and demonstrations

But I’m afraid of putting you on the spot

Making you uncomfortable, scaring you away

So I am frozen in wanting

to merge my mind and heart with yours

Imprisoned by the invisible barriers

That I know must be broken through

I scream shrilly

I am an ungainly presence

Trying to break through the complacency

with my wild rage.

I have crashed this party

I do not belong here.

But you do. You are the children of the host.

You can talk to each other as peers

And take your rightful places

At academia’s table

with calm and gracious poise.

As crazy as I have been,

You can be cool.

Have confidence in your beliefs

You are a step ahead of everybody else.

Underneath their herd stupidity

Even the demo emulating morons and their sold out mentors

Who appear to be the majority in your milieu,

Are human beings

Who long for the world to be freed and set right

Even though they don’t know it.

Do them the great kindness of forgiving their stupidity

And put them in touch with the real heart

Of humanity.

To reach through the mask

Is your task.

There is so much at stake;

The country, the world, the future.

Don’t be put off by trivialities.

With you as its champion

Good will surely triumph.

How great will be your glory

How multitudinous will be your blessings

The highest happiness will be yours.

For many years I have though that Penn

Would be a good place to start the Transformation.

If this action I am taking succeeds

I hoped it might spark some interest

In what I was trying to say.

I hoped my writings would be printed and made available.

Maybe Transformation Parties could be held.

I am taking this action out of hope

Not despair.

By destroying my material corpus

I want to free my spirit

So that it can jump inside of you

I think that you would enjoy being filled

with conviction and can-do optimism

I think you would feel good

to be cleansed of the blase brain rot that clogs your mind

Yes there is such a thing as true morality, a real

distinction between good and evil, right and wrong.

Decisive moves must be made on behalf of good.

These are the addresses of some Penn people to whom

I have sent my packages.

Maybe you would like to meet and talk.

I have also sent packages to WXPN

and the Daily Pennsylvanian.

October 7, 1996

The multitudinous war crimes and crimes against humanity of the U.S. government have been documented and detailed, and every American is more or less aware of the criminality of his government, and yet we continue to respect its power and authority. We continue trying to work through the electoral process. We plead with our congress people to work for the well being of all the people and the planet instead of catering to the special interests of big money and organized crime. It is as though Gary Heidnik, the man who imprisoned, tortured and murder women in his basement, was the headmaster of a girls’ prep school; and upon discovery of his crimes,he was duly criticized, but allowed to remain in his position of power and responsibilty, presumably to continue his atrocities. The U.S. government is a much bigger and far worse criminal than Gary Heidnik, and it must be relieved of its duties immediately without further bureacratic hemming and hawing. The crimes of this present system are so enormous, an the dangers to which it is exposing us are so deadly and world threatening, that a sincere and forthright call to the American people to depose this evil system and come together now to peacefully replace it with true democracy, would be received with an overwhelmingly positive response from the people. Media workers are in a position to make this call and it is their responsibility to do so.

It is a waste of energy to get angry and gripe at the government. The government must be replaced by a truly democratic selfgovernment of, for and by the people. Those people working in industries essential to maintaining life should democratically take over their work places and organize an emergency economy to supply the needs of the people. The rest of the people should meet in their communities to organize a new directly democratic community based selfgovernment. This should be done immediately, because every day that we continue with business as usual, the problems just get worse. I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people in general.

I want to protest this entirely shameful state of affairs as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. Around twelve years ago, I don’t remember the exact year, a woman from Boston set herself on fire in Independence Square. For the next five days the Philadelphia Inquirer was filled with reports of investigations into who this woman was and speculation as to why she did this act. Since I have been in Philadelphia for fiften years, all the while making myself very visible demostrating my position opinions, dancing and waving my flags on the streets of this city, I believe I should create at least as much as a sensation in the press. If the news media buries this story it will be proof of the extreme prejudice of the media. I want this statement and my other writings to be printed in the newspapers of this city. I want the people of this city who have been seeing me around for so long to finally hear what I’ve been saying. I want my ideas to be publically discussed. If people talked about my ideas, they would realize that transformation of our society is possible, and they would feel better.

I first planned to take this action a year ago. I wrote up final statements, xeroxed them, and then I backed down. A year ago, economic collapse seemed to be the most imminent danger threatening us. Today the likelihood of the impending war with Iraq rapidly escalating into a nuclear holocaust eclipses the likelihood of economic collapse as being by far the more serious and scary crisis. I am propmted to take this action by the dire urgency of the world’s environmental crisis, and the enormous unnecessary suffering and repression being endured by all the world’s people because of the oppressive geopolitical system. Of all the world’s people, only the American people have the power to change this global system of abuse, and therefore, it is their responsibility to do so. I hope my action will not be viewed as tragic, but rather, in the light in which it is intended. I am performing this ritual sacrifice in hopes that it will increase the efficacy of my prayers to all the people to have faith in the ideals, choose the path of peace and transform this nation and world.

I also want to make a statement about life and death. Death is natural and inevitable. Death is good, because it allows life to make a fresh start. The spirit is everlasting and always returns to life through rebirth. I am not certain exactly how this happens, but I believe that the spirit recycles itself somehow. It’s true that we are each special individuals whose lives are precious, but we are also part of a great spirit body, the universal collective spirit. By dying, we dissolve our individual ego personality and rejoin the spiritual totality, before returning to alife in a new body. It’s a completely wonderful process, and not sad at all, except perhaps for the people we leave behind, who may miss us. But there are so many beautiful people in the world, that they should not miss the departed for too long. There are always plenty of people around to love.

This society places too much emphasis on the unconditional sacredness of life. Anti-abortionists believe that it is more important to save life than to guarantee the quality of the life they save. This belief in survival as the highest priority contributes to the deterioration of the quality of life for everybody. When people do not practice birth control and all the babies are saved, then we overpopulate. We kill wild animal species, strip the earth of its forests and wilderness, and the planet becomes ecologically imbalanced and punishes us with environmental disasters. When there are more people than we can care for, the quality of life diminishes for everyone. A life is worth saving only if it is worth living. It could be argued that to live with physical handicaps and adversity may be good for spiritual growth. But to live in moral degradation is not good in any way. Because our society is so corrupt, unfair, environmentally destructive, and in a state of deterioration, rather than improvement, we are all living in a state of moral degradation. Our society is like a cancer on the planet. The goal is for everybody to improve, not to commit mass suicide.

For eighteen years I have been trying to urge people to throw off the corruption and go for the good, but I don’t see my efforts as being successful in any way, except that it’s given me something to do. I do not want to live off of this evil society any longer. My life is dependent on this society, and so I want to end my life. I demand that life must meet a standard of true morality or else it is not worth living. In Orwellian fashion, this society equates repression with morality. But in truth, repression of people who are only trying to enjoy themselves and not hurting others is utterly immoral. The real struggle is not between races, or classes. It is not people versus the elite.

The real struggle is between good and evil; between intelligent behavior and blind obedient conformity. Good is what promotes health and happiness. Evil is what causes deterioration and disease. If we choose good, it will be a triumph for everybody. Every person from the poorest to the richest, from the humblest to the most powerful, will gain. Everybody will discover real joy and peace of mind. The benefits will be so absolute that I cannot imagine any other outcome.

We are entering an age that will be as different from what came before as day is to night, or as summer is to winter. Throughout this passing age, humanity has had to work very hard at being constantly on the defensive, and prepared for war. Now as we dissolve the enmity, we can all relax and enjoy life.

As a plan my action, I think of all the things that might hinder it. What if the post office fails to deliver my press statements? What if someone stops me from carrying out my intentions? I don’t know if I will succeed, but I will drop this statement in the mail and proceed, trusting in fate to bring about whatever is meant to happen.

Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world. America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.