Jon Hassell tribute
Photo by Aaron Siegel
interview by Jason Gross
I first saw Jon Hassell perform his own music years before his first album was released. It was on my 19th birthday in 1975 at a gallery space in NYC. This was his first full concert billed under his own name, and was part of La Monte Young's Dream Festival, which also included solo concerts by Terry Riley, and the first US performances of La Monte's monumental "The Well Tuned Piano." I had previously seen Jon play trumpet in La Monte's ensemble, The Theater of Eternal Music, had read about his more experimental pieces, and knew of him as one of the performers on Terry's "In C" recording. Jon had already composed the tape piece "Solid State," which was presented in this concert, but this was the first time he would be playing live along with it. He had invited my then-professor, David Rosenboom, to join him on percussion (Jon later told me he had also invited my other teacher, RIchard Teitelbaum, to play keyboard in this concert, but he was unavailable). "Solid State" itself was an hour and a half long. In this concert, the tape played alone for about 45 minutes, at which point Jon joined in on trumpet and David on percussion, playing along with the tape for another 45 minutes or so.
Back then, Jon was an experimental music composer. One of the few, like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Pauline Oliveros, who were rejecting the academic Euro-centric world of "contemporary classical" music and striving to create a more populist and accessible new music unlike anything that came before, yet looking to improvisation and non-Western musics for inspiration. Jon had just started studying with Pandit Pran Nath, and I was personally fascinated by the new trumpet techniques he was developing through these lessons. My impression of this first concert was that he was really starting to create a new style of music that, even though it was still unformed, had amazing potential. Talking to him after this concert, I remember him being very frustrated with his performance and very self-deprecating. This showed me that he really did have a vision for where he wanted to go with it.
I first "officially" met Jon in 1976, when David Rosenboom invited him to lead some workshops at York University, Toronto, where I was studying. At this point, Jon was still very influenced by La Monte Young and as such was looking for "disciples," a role I was quite willing to fill. I spent many hours playing multi-phonic drones on my alto flute, in tune with Jon's scalatron [an electronic instrument], while Jon practiced his ragas and his tunings, occasionally stopping to explain to me what he was doing.
Just as his York residency was over, Jon was invited by the Lovely Music label to make his first album under his own name, in a series of records they would release all together that included Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and others. He decided to stay at York and record it in the Electronic Studio there. He needed a new place to stay so I invited him to crash in our living room for as long as he needed. He stayed in our farm house a few blocks from campus for the next few weeks, while we worked on what would become Vernal Equinox.
There are more stories about this process, but after Jon left to go back to NY, I would visit him there often, and worked with him on a piece he did for the Merce Cunningham Dance Co. in '78, and in the early '80's I worked with him on three more recording projects, a European tour, and was his assistant while he worked on his string quartet, "Pano da Costa." After he moved to LA, we continued being friends and talked often. We ended up knowing each other for 46 years.
In 1976, after a gig Jon & David did at the Music Gallery in Toronto, I asked David if Jon had given him any written scores or any sort of verbal instructions to prepare for their work together. At that point I knew David's own music quite well and what they had just played (and what they played together the year before in NY) was definitely Jon's own music. David said that he was getting a lot of instructions from Jon, but nothing in the visual or verbal realm, that it was all communicated through energy and intuition. That's exactly how Jon worked. Aside from a specific keyboard voicing, he never explained what he wanted, you just had to intuitively understand it. Once while he, Michael Brook, and I were working on Sulla Strada in Italy, I actually asked him what sort of rhythms he'd like me to play on the udu. He said, "play whatever you want." I took that to mean to express my personal vision. After the take, he said, "you can play whatever you want, but not that." I realized then that what I had done was try to place my personal expression next to his, to somehow match them, while what was actually needed was to place my personal expression within his own vision. Jon had a unique sense of timing and sequence that could only be understood intuitively and physically, almost without any thought at all. Too much thought placed things outside his realm of communication.
Even while working on his through-composed, totally notated piece, Pano da Costa, commissioned by the Kronos String Quartet in 1985, he took a very intuitive and physical approach. He rented a violin, viola, and a cello in order to understand what these instruments physically felt like to play, and rented an Ensoniq Mirage so he could play along with his sequenced lines. I was his assistant and music copyist on this project and it was fascinating to watch Jon manifest his music separate from the physicality of an actual performance.
Dream Theory and Power Spot were both recorded in the same studio and only about a year apart, even though PS came out much later, so they were somewhat similar. I played a smaller role on PS, but for DT, we had many rehearsals leading up to the actual recording sessions, and we then reworked it again for a European tour in '82. Much of what I recorded for PS was actually not used. The tracks for Vernal Equinox, recoded five years before DT, were essentially percussion jams playing along with prerecorded trumpet lines. Sulla Strada was unique in that it was just me, Jon, and Michael [Brook] recording in someone's living room in Florence in '82. I recall there were many takes to get things with just the right feel. The three of us also had quite a few unrecorded jam sessions, which I now wish we had recorded.
LIVE VS. STUDIO
They were very, very different processes from each other. Except for VE, the studio work was all about layering. Individual instruments rarely played together at the same time. Recording sessions were about relating to what had been previously recorded. Playing live was all about integrating the ensemble's sound in the moment.
INFLUENCE OF HASSELL
I started working with Jon before he defined his work as "fourth world," and while he was still looking to define his own unique sound. Watching him search for his own voice and his own sound world effected how I went about finding my own voice. 8 months or so after working with him on VE, I started a group called The Glass Orchestra where my objective was to create a self -contained "world music culture" using only instruments made of glass. We were mostly influenced by Harry Partch, gamelan, and experimental electronics. Jon's own, as yet undefined, music was not an influence but his method of searching outward and inward simultaneously was. In the many years since, I have never tried to emulate Jon's unique sound but continue to be inspired by his unique form of exploration.
I'm finding it fascinating, with both Frederic Rzewski and Jon passing away on the same day, how little overlap there is in their appreciations. It's really a testament to how successful Jon was in divorcing himself from the music world in which he spent the first 20 years of his career. Interestingly enough, they were both striving to create a more populist music, but each went about it in almost opposite ways. Ways that clearly reflected their very different personalities; Jon ever the sensualist, and Fred ever the intellectual. It seems I may be one of the few musicians who were equally influenced by both of them (perhaps to my detriment, in Jon's eyes).
Listen to this 1982 recording of a show that Frasconi did with Hassell:
See the rest of the Jon Hassell tribute
Also see Frasconi's Bandcamp page
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