Jon Hassell tribute
John von Seggern
interview by Jason Gross
PSF: What was your impression of Jon's work before you met him?
JVS: Jon Hassell has been one of the most important musical influences in my life, ever since I first heard Possible Musics Vol 1 back in high school. It was otherworldly, futuristic and neoprimitivist at the same time, bringing together ideas and influences that I hadn't heard combined before. I listened to it obsessively over and over, trying to learn the lessons it held for me, and this and other early Hassell records like Dream Theory in Malaya and (a bit later) Power Spot became a crucial part of my musical and creative foundation.
It's fair to say that Jon affected my thinking about what music is and does more than any other artist.
Being a lifelong fan also helped me a lot when I started working with Jon -- I was well familiar with his entire body of work and it was easy for us to refer back to various earlier tracks he had done as a shorthand for the creative concepts we were working with.
PSF: How did you get involved in working with Jon?
JVS: I've been involved in the L.A. music scene since the early 2000's as a DJ/producer, sound designer, and software consultant, and through my work I got to know Steve Tavaglione, Rick Cox, John Beasley and other L.A. musicians who have known and/or worked with Jon over the years. Beasley played keys with Jon in the 2000s and also on an electronic jazz record called Simplexity that I co-produced, that was the most direct connection. I also worked with Jon's long-time collaborator (sound designer/guitarist) Rick Cox on the soundtrack for the Pixar film WALL-E (with composer Thomas Newman).
Back in 2013/4, Jon started looking for a new bassist/technologist to take Peter Freeman's place and one or more of these guys recommended me. We met up and had some jams with Rick at his studio in Venice and that became the band, just Jon and Rick and I, joined on occasion by Hugh Marsh on violin when he was in LA for soundtrack sessions. Jon was looking for someone who could do next-level computer audio manipulation and software processing and I fit the bill, as well as being familiar with just about every record he had ever made.
PSF: How would you describe his method of composing and working in the studio?
JVS: Jon had the most refreshing way of working in the studio, literally any idea could be proposed and given a try. He would simply experiment and try new things out every time we got together, and record everything. Then he would exhaustively go through and listen to everything and search for the perfect moments where everything came together spontaneously.
One of the most perplexing things I found about working with Jon is that I am used to doing a ton of post-processing and editing on any live recording I do, but with Jon, I found that no clever edit or remix could really capture his interest like the original moment had. Everything either came together perfectly in the moment, or it got thrown away. Recording sessions with Jon included a lot of exploring unknown territories and sorting out the results later. Searching for gold. I think this is how he always worked. He seemed to have every recording he had ever made right there in his house in LA, from multitrack analog tape right through every generation of audio recording technology, up to the master playlist of potential tracks that he kept in iTunes on his MacBook Pro. He exhaustively recorded everything and released the transcendent moments. His greatest talent was identifying those moments I think.
On these sessions for his last two albums in particular, he was all about exploring new technologies and techniques. He wanted to do things that had never been tried before, and then flip the results backwards and upside down. Through a blender, if possible.
One tool we used a lot was TS from Ircam Labs. We were taking snippets of sound from Jon's own past recordings, slow them down by 1000% and then apply delays, reverbs, and so on. Rick also had a pedal that would let him taken a single instant of any sound texture and freeze that in time to make a static ambient texture, similar concept. We did all kinds of things like this with samples from Jon's old records, a large chunk of the sounds on the album were made by recycling sounds from Jon's past work, transformed beyond recognition (or nearly).
There were also moments where we had a vibey atmosphere or groove going in the studio between the 3 of us and then afterwards he would comment to me that it sounded like something he did before and we should try to move on from that instead of just repeating sounds from the past. That was the most inspiring part of working with Jon, even at the end of his life he was still 100% about exploring new ground and finding new things that could be done with the latest generation of musical technologies.
We worked in Ableton Live for these sessions (for LtP and StS) and Jon ended up learning more and more about how to work in Ableton as time went on. I designed a custom effects rack for his trumpet and keyboard in Ableton that he used live and in the studio while we worked together, and we did all the recording in Ableton as well.
At one point early on, he commented to me that 'I've had to learn how to sample audio so many times...' The tech kept changing on him and he would have to learn the process all over again with the new gear.
For a long time I did all the editing and mixing on the recordings we worked on, but after awhile he was doing a lot of the editing himself in Ableton.
PSF: How was it different playing with him live?
JVS: When we played live, we weren't trying to discover new worlds of sound every time, we were trying to perform ideas that we'd captured in the studio with some degree of fidelity, so it was a different headspace.
On the L.A. gigs and European tours I did with Jon, he made flowcharts of some of the tracks showing how different sections might enter and lead to one another. I mostly played loops and pieces of our studio recordings from the computer and mixed these with effects while Jon played trumpet through an Ableton + Eventide software-based setup that I designed for him, and Rick Cox was doing his postdigital guitar thing, triggering loops, effects and atmospheres with his guitar playing. I also played bass guitar on some things.
PSF: What differences did you see in working with him on Listening to Pictures and Seeing Through Sound?
JVS: There was really no difference between these two albums, nearly all the tracks come from the weekly recording sessions that Jon and Rick and I had at Rick's studio in Venice for a number of years. Originally, I think Jon was aiming to make one album out of these sessions but we recorded so much material that he ended up with two albums' worth.
PSF: What effect do you think he had on your work after playing with him?
JVS: Working with Jon has had a profound effect on my approach to music. That feeling of approaching a blank sonic canvas and being willing to just try ANYTHING, not wondering what genre or style it will turn out to be. So liberating.
I've been taking this approach in my own work through the pandemic and have a couple EPs of material about ready to release under the name A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, that will be out in the fall.
PSF: How would you describe Jon on a personal level?
JVS: Jon was witty, irreverent, funny. He was dead serious about his art but at the same time he mostly liked to goof around in the studio and just try random fun things to see what would happen.
He could be incredibly stubborn at times -- a necessary trait for a great artist I think.
He was absolutely uncompromising about his art.
For me he was also a connection to another era of art and music, to people I read about when I was in school.
He lived in NYC in the 70s, worked with Brian Eno, knew La Monte Young, studied with Stockhausen at Darmstadt.
One of the earliest Western musicians to learn classical Indian music (from Pandit Pran Nath in NYC).
FOLLOW-UP FROM JOHN:
"To finish this off, here's a photo I took last time I was at Jon's house, in Feb 2020 just before the pandemic. He had pieces of paper with quotes like this all over his house though mostly in his office and in the bathroom.
Some were his own ideas and some were quotes from people who had influenced him.
One of the things I like best about this image is the crossed-out and edited bits -- typical of Jon -- he was continually changing and updating his ideas as new information came in.
I only hope I can continue to do the same as I get older and follow Jon's example."
See the rest of our 2nd part of our Jon Hassell tribute
Also see the 1st part of our Jon Hassell tribute, with additional interviews and more
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