​words about jh | ​interview


jon hassell, hyperreality
and the magic of tone
john payne | LA Weekly Online | ​1999

​​SINCE 1977, THE Los Angeles–based composer/trumpeter Jon Hassell has recorded 11 solo albums that blur the boundaries separating “serious” and popular music. He’s collaborated with an eclectic group of artists, including Brian Eno; Farafina, a traditional ensemble of drummers and dancers from Burkina Faso; director Peter Sellars; fashion designers Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo; choreographers Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey; and the Kronos Quartet.

Hassell is also the inventor of Fourth World, a hugely influential composed and improvised music that hybridizes African-derived polyrhythms, Indian microtonality and Balinese sonorities, melted through recombinant aesthetics made possible by digital technology. Quite often, Fourth World is none of the above. And lately, Hassell has explored the wonders of playing music absolutely straight.

Fourth World is not just a musical style but a way of viewing life itself, rooted in its creator’s past, in Memphis, Tennessee. “My father had a cornet lying around the house, so I played that, used to lock myself in the bathroom, play ‘Stormy Weather’ and stuff like that. I heard Stan Kenton on the radio, I heard Les Baxter, Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s ‘Caravan’, and Ravel—a permanent Technicolor oasis in my spirit.”

Hassell left the South for the Eastman School, where he studied composition and allied himself with the 12-tone types into Webern and Schoenberg and Berg, et al. After a stint in the Army, he earned a master’s in composition and nearly completed his Ph D in musicology at Catholic University of America. But by then he’d discovered Berio and Stockhausen, and “I just had to find out where these blocks of notes were going.” He went to Cologne to study with Stockhausen, from whom Hassell learned a lot about the wherefores and could-be’s of electronic music. “I saw how one applied statistical means; there were exercises where you’d notate short-wave radio bits, you’d see how scores were constructed. Stockhausen started a different point of view: Instead of building sounds up by defining all the parameters, start with the whole and then infer the parts of that whole.”

Returning to America, Hassell met Terry Riley, who was at that time recording his classic In C. This was Hassell’s first contact with American Minimalism, whose mesmerizing repeated figures brought him home to something he’d missed: sensuality. “I remember Terry calling all of that other music over there, the post-Webern things, ‘neurotic.’ And it was so self-evident—this is the sound of Freud in Vienna, and Schiele and all that.” Hassell’s subsequent work with La Monte Young found him further exploring minimalistic music that reconciled the body, mind and spirit, a “vertical” way of playing and listening to mutating structures created by overtones in flux.

There is an instantly identifiable “Hassell sound.” On his best-known albums, including Possible Musics (1980) and Dream Theory In Malaya (1981), it’s not at all like “trumpet”; amid the pitter-pattering rhythms and generally steamy ambience, you think you’re hearing voices, huddled together, cooing, giggling, chanting. In fact, you’re hearing Hassell’s voice, or, rather, his mouth and voice box—he’s singing with his trumpet. It’s a technique he developed in his studies with Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, whom he met in the ’70s through both Young and Riley, who had studied with Pran Nath in India. At around the same time, Hassell got into Miles Davis—On the Corner, that era—and started playing with a wah-wah pedal. “That’s when the daylight world and the night world came together; the daylight world is, you’re painting white-on-white painting, as in the minimalist-school compositional effect, and then at night, when it comes to groove, you’re putting on Miles.”

Whence comes the Fourth World. “I saw how Indian music had structure and sensuality at the same time, so rather than literally using the tambura, I translated the tambura into an electronic cluster of samples or an electronic drone, and then added whatever rhythmic elements one can infer. I didn’t want to reference; I wanted to get a new idea about what could be.” With Pran Nath, Hassell learned that there’s no limit to musical variation when one coils among the notes. “There are 12 notes between B and C, and there’s all that other space in between, and you’re doing a little tie, right? I heard Pran Nath start off, and 15 minutes into it I realized he’d gone only two or three half-steps, because of all the possible ways of making the curves.

“In the Indian tradition they say that all instruments come from the voice, and my technique came from having to learn that shape-making from the voice. Timbre and musical expression are interrelated—a lot of Indian instruments and voices derive from that, because you can’t drive a truck (tuba) in a graceful curve; it has to be something which is malleable enough to make all these curves (sitar, voice). I find the tiniest vibration that I can with the mouthpiece and then try and trick myself into thinking I’m still playing only the mouthpiece. If I can do that, I can do anything.”

Hassell’s electronic devices have often inspired the pieces themselves. “I was learning to do the vocal-like slide technique, then this harmonizer (a digital multiplying effect) came along and I started playing in parallel fourths or fifths, sort of mirroring the birth of polyphony, how plainsong began with just one line and then, given various ranges of voices, started singing in parallels, and then somebody got the idea to play on top of that, etc.” His use of harmonizer can approach the orchestral—’Blue Night’ on Dressing For Pleasure, for example, on which, via a switching device, one harmonizer plays into another and into another.

Hassell took sampling into the realms of hyperreality on the 1983 Aka-Dabari-Java / Magic Realism, where his supercollaging found him using one second of a gamelan, one second of a voice, one second of Yma Sumac/Les Baxter orchestration, with a drummer playing underneath it all. He addressed “the poetic possibilities of digital transformations… a background mosaic of frozen moments… a sonic texture like a Mona Lisa which, in close-up, reveals itself to be made up of tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal.” Here Fourth World became what Hassell called a “coffee-colored classical music of the future.”

Then Hassell heard Hank Shocklee’s stupefyingly complex collages on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and saw that collage—techniques and philosophies directly deriving from Stockhausen and the musique concrète crowd of the ’50s—had entered the popular consciousness. “It was very related to Pygmy music—it was based on what was around them that they picked up in the morning, what the Pygmies heard, Pygmies imitating birdcalls and rhythms coming out of spear blades and things like that. And here you’ve got kids living in the Bronx and whose environment is the radio. Hip-hop is like the music of the loudspeaker, it’s doing the same thing Pygmies did with birdcalls.”

The advent of MIDI and sophisticated sampling technology led Hassell into new realms with the albums City: Works of Fiction and Dressing For Pleasure (whose title derives from the fetish world), complexly faceted and funky works on which he extrapolated from hip-hop into how far sampling could be taken. Not coincidentally, Shocklee had cited Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts as an influence, a record whose gambit of planting ethnic samples atop electric rhythms Eno and Byrne had, after consulting with Hassell, taken for themselves. “I should do a record where I sample My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” he says. These days Eno and Hassell are good friends, though he doesn’t see much of Byrne.

Considering the devilishly electronic nature of Hassell’s previous albums, I had to wonder about his current entirely different course, soundwise. His new album, Fascinoma, was recorded in a church in Santa Barbara, on magnetic tape, with one stereo microphone and no digital effects. Perhaps Hassell has experienced a bit of electronic/media overload these last few years—or suffered too much of its ensuing clever irony.

There’s also the problem of the Hassell-derived “future/primitive” musical kitsch (ethnic samples + electronics) we suffer in every elevator. “Inevitably, you question, Well, gee, would it have been better for this never to have happened? You come to a certain point in collective thought where progressives suddenly become the carriers of orthodoxy. Of course, the ad world is all ready to pick up the latest contrarian view and turn it into a commercial—William Burroughs doing Nike ads, like that.”

Fascinoma was produced by the ubiquitous yet unobtrusive Ry Cooder, whom Hassell calls a “spirit catcher,” a master of “authentica.” The album sees Hassell—aided by a team that includes pianist Jacky Terrasson, bansuri (flute) player Ronu Majumdar, guitarist/clarinetist Rick Cox and percussionist Jamie Muhoberac—going back to the fragrant songs he loved as a youth (such as ‘Nature Boy’, ‘Poinciana’ and ‘Caravan’), “touchstones, like little windows opening out of my 1950s world.”

Fascinoma digs deep into the mysteries of pure tone—almost. While it boasts an authentic audiophiliac analog experience, that’s not quite an authentic way of describing it, as the players also employed samples, and the performances were edited. But the technology is minimal, and most of the cuts were played straight through, with little rehearsal. The church setting allowed Hassell to build on the idea of not creating something from scratch, but having to harmonize with the beauty that’s contained in a room.

“There clearly is a relationship between timbre and what kind of music you play; they’re organically related. So, when a certain quota of beauty is already fulfilled when you walk into the room, ‘Nature Boy’ feels as right to do as the B-minor Mass.”

Fascinoma’s way of recording has given Hassell ideas for future projects. “I’d love to do a record with Jimmy Scott, in that intimate one-microphone way. And I’d like to do a record with João Gilberto, just me and him up in the church. I’ve been so enchanted by his sensuality and his rhythmic grace and everything, you could put it up with the masterworks of the world.” Gilberto’s music, says Hassell, is unassailable.

“There is beauty, like naked beauty. If you want to talk yourself out of it, okay, go ahead and talk yourself out of it.”

Digital technology has given birth to musical methods by which one can easily mix ‘n’ match elements from as many “cultures” as one pleases, a situation that has led to cries of “colonialism” toward artists who weren’t deemed to be “respecting the source material.” It’s always phrased this way—and one wonders how such respect could be sufficiently demonstrated. One is reminded of the Brazilian Tropicalistas of the late ’60s, early ’70s, proudly proclaiming their “cannibalization” of all and any music (European included) they could get their hands on, or the Indian musicians who adapted the violin for their ragas.

Who may cannibalize without guilt? Jon Hassell? Maybe so—one has only to listen to see that he has consistently created something new out of his lovingly borrowed elements.

“The crux of it is, Is this better than the thing you’ve appropriated? Does this add anything to the world, or would it be better to hear the source that you took from?” Remember that Hassell’s early inspiration came from career inauthenticists such as exotica king Les Baxter, whose purpose in life was to provide people with pleasurable escape. It’s a stretch, but you could say that Les Baxter’s fake music was honest in its guileless hunger for adventure.

“It’s so simple and yet it’s so difficult. I keep saying, ‘Put yourself in a dark room and keep asking the question, What is it that I really like?’ There are things you’ve been told that you like, things you’ve been commissioned to like, and things you’ve been told it’s not right to like. I don’t see the difference in kids playing out now; I pray that they hit the spot where they start thinking, ‘What is it that I really like? And not what has been foisted on me.'”

Hassell, like a lot of musicians in LA, has had his stab at composing for big Hollywood films, including the soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence. He recently scored Wenders’ upcoming The Million Dollar Hotel, in which he also appears onscreen as a down-and-out musician living in a Skid Row dive. For his acting debut, Hassell drew on his musical side, and he enjoyed it.

“In attempting to present yourself, you have to groom yourself to perform onstage; it’s the same dynamic—you want to be yourself as much as possible, be as comfortable as possible. It’s a lot easier being myself without an instrument on my mouth. So it was fun, a lotta fun.” He laughs. “I play a shabby trumpet player.” •

This interview first appeared in the LA Weekly
November 19th, 1999 | www.laweekly.com



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.