He's worked with David Sylvian and 808 State, sampled pygmy songs and James Brown bass-lines, now Jon Hassell is stalking the beats at the heart of the city.
Biba Kopf meets the topographical trumpeter for a meta-lingual chat.
THE FACE OF the city is not permanent. Its outline is eroded by crosswinds blowing in from the desert and the sea, from the arctic steppes and the Indonesian rainforests. They bring in spores of alien customs, ancient and new. Sitting at the crossroads of the great commercial routes, the city is pulled out of shape by the travellers, the migrants, the refugees and the stragglers too weary to go any further. Clustering around their own, they congeal in quarters that resound with the voices and noises of their places of origin.
Consequently, there is no one sound of the city. Its heart is regulated by all manner of pulses. just as the processes of transformation at work on the face of the city are constant, its musics are in permanent flux, evolving an indefinite number of possible permutations. Rock'n'roll, jazz, rap and hip hop mingle with the gospel choruses and muezzin calls to prayer rising above the pandemonium of traffic, the crackle of commerce and the silent hum of electricity.
Like the city itself, the composer is a condenser of the many currents passing through it. Before his aptly-titled new album City: Works Of Fiction, Jon Hassell was not the artist you'd most immediately locate in the metropolis. Yet his records have invariably been a conduit for both ethnic sources and the sort of electronic modulations associated with state-of-the-art recording equipment. His highly individual trumpet sound is the ancient breeze disturbing the humidity, carrying the spores from India, Java, Malaya, Senegal or wherever, through the subways and skyscraper ventilation shafts into the conditioned studio environs where they seed his compositions.
Deceptively tranquil, his music patterns handclaps, paddled water rhythms and padded footfalls inside a studio-created heat haze that almost stills the teeming activity it contains. Though his earlier records largely originated at the riverside, in desert settlements or jungle villages, his source materials are translated into entirely new settings. These settings don't so much swallow them up as allow themselves to be worked upon by the constituent parts. As such, even on his most rural-sounding records, Hassell's own role is akin to that of the city. Like New York, Jakarta, Vancouver or his present homebase Los Angeles, he lets himself succumb to balkanisation, so to speak. As its title suggests, City part-explains his working methods, while it musically fictionalises cultural drifts from the village to the metropolis. Only the dullest of his purist listeners, who misguidedly place him at some new age/world music axis, will consider his present reversal of traffic directions mildly heretic.
"I SEE MYSELF in a process of constant redescription of my musical self in the same way I do my personal life," remarks Jon Hassell wryly, during a flying promo visit to London. "I try not to be dull. No one's unconscious is dull, there's no such thing as a dull unconscious. I'm merely tapping everything that comes into me and making my own idiosyncratic fantasies and reconstructions of it..."
Presently a citizen of the megapolis Los Angeles, he has been overlaying his dream theories about faraway places, crisscrossed with nomads, minstrels and wandering poets, on topographies of the cities where the mass of us live.
"I began to see the flaw of thinking that the spiritual equals tranquil," Hassell explains. "I learned the lesson that the idea of being spiritual is much wider than lighting incense and chanting. It has to do with learning how to move through the world in which you live with grace and poise. That means doing the right thing.
"That is, one can develop a modus operandum for walking through the city as one would as a skilful hunter walking through the forest knowing how to negotiate the terrain. In fact, I'd begun this process way back on an ECM record, Power Spot, which was another foray into the idea that strength and power was not to be left out of the do the right thing equation."
The city as motif cements his empathy with the urban rap and hip hop techniques of constructing musaics from the vari-toned and multi-textured sound debris. Without forcing the issue, Hassell draws some imaginative musical comparisons between certain pygmy musical/storytelling constructions incorporating environmental noises and montaging "shards of James Brown or this and that" with dancebeats. Even so, coming from a composer of calming, mostly instrumental musics, albeit occasionally interspersed with incomprehensible voices, Hassell's championing of vociferous vocal dance forms seems somewhat ironic.
"What I'm talking about is an idealization, in a way. What it promises," he explains. "Because you are taking little, already formed chunked things, a chord, a rhythm, a voice, a cry, something like that, and as you're orchestrating with these chunks of completely different tonalities, you can get very interesting tonal relationships that my ear perks up to." Though no raps galvanise City, Hassell did invite Mancunian acid house merlins 808 State to remix the track 'Voiceprint' as a promo trailer. If they come across as unlikely dance partners, they are. Where Hassell and 808 State come together is at that orbital crossing-point of his compressed experiments in environmental sound-creating and their acid-into-ambient-house meltdowns.
HASSELL AND FRINGE pop have intersected elsewhere, far away from the dancefloor, most notably on his collaborations with David Sylvian, whose song 'Brilliant Trees' seems to me to be a perfect transcription of the composer's trumpet spirituals into words. If Hassell himself is more reserved about the results, it is not without reasoning.
"To the extent he is incorporating my vocabulary into his own vocabulary, the experience is not so revelatory for me as it perhaps might have been, if I may be so bold to say, for him, remarks Hassell, diplomatically, going on to explain his position on vocal music. "It's a strange quandary for me, because I studied with a great Indian musician and vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath. And, anyway, the voice is the instrument from which all other instruments come, at once the most flexible instrument and the one that is most resonant with our being.
"On the other hand music itself represents for me a kind of meta-language. If you start walking with daily language, and you break into a run with poetry, then by the time you've accelerated past the poetry level you're airborne into the musical sphere. To be in this sort of meta-lingual state where you can escape from the little word cells that are the architecture of our mind and get back to a pre-verbal state, well, that's a great virtue of music for me. So to re-combine these states, start working with words again on top of this musical level, is very complex, and every time I think of doing it, I just can't, because it doesn't seem natural to me. But I don't rule out the word by any means."
Few other trumpeters could rap up such a good case for music without words. And when Hassell forsakes speech to blow some, he layers contours of silence over the myriad noises of the city, re-training dance-crazed ears to hear the other voices drifting in from its distant shanties and satellites. Open up and listen. •
This interview first appeared in The Wire
Issue 78, August 1990 | www.thewire.co.uk