Perfect Sound Forever

JON HASSELL

Interview by Jason Gross (July 1997)

There's not many things that make all the work and time that I put into this zine worthwhile but getting to talk to one of my favorite composers/musicians/theorists has to be one of them. Jon Hassell has made huge impressions on the music we hear today and what we'll be hearing tomorrow also. It was his vision of creating music that incorporated elements of Western and Eastern music into something new- Fourth World. This encompassed not just a musical style but a whole way of seeing and experiencing things. This has been laid out by Hassell over the course of his career through not only his own recordings but the contributions he's made to other performers who latched onto his ideas like Brian Eno, Talking Heads and David Toop. I won't argue with anyone who also says that his work became a big inspiration for trance and trip-hop- as a matter of fact, Hassell was more than receptive to the new dance music that was being produced, incorporating it into his Dressing For Pleasure CD as an extension of his own ideas. Thankfully, Hassell isn't willing to rest on the great work that he's done as he's now even looking beyond his own 'Fourth World' ideas.

Still, I've never gotten over hearing his other-worldly music years ago and have never heard anything quite like it since- it was spacey but not empty-headed, suggesting eerie, un-knowing stangeness which actually becomes comforting once you've given yourself up to it. I was so fascinated with his work that I wanted to go through his whole past (which I haven't seen really chronicalled yet) to find out where all of this came from. While there's some clues, it's still a glorious mystery, much like his music.

Photos by F. Scott Schafer
Infinite thanks to Malcolm Humes



PSF: You're from Memphis originally. Did growing up there in the '50s have any lasting impression on you?

The things that are invisible to you are often the things that most surround you. Memphis is /was a cultural crossroads. I had lots of interesting 'cross-cultural experiences', as it would be called today. An African-American man named Henry Barnes was a great friend to my family. I remember his taking me out to a juke joint that he had built himself...real country stuff...made of planks and R.C. Cola signs held together with chicken wire. I remember this incredible musical texture going on but I can't remember what it was exactly. I just remember it was funky and vital. It's only in looking back that things like that come to consciousness as being influential.

Also the weather there... it's kind of a sultry place...humid and hot in the summertime. I suppose that supports my love of the exotic and tropical.


PSF: How did you start out with learning music?

I had taken lessons and learned theory. I did a lot of big band stuff with Glenn Miller-type bands which played on hotel roofs. My father had a cornet that was lying around the house that he had played in the Georgia Tech band. He used to bring it out and play one or two tunes he knew on it. When it came time to study music at school, that was what was around the house, so I picked it up.


PSF: When you started, who were big influences?

I remember Stan Kenton coming to town with his "Innovations" orchestra... five trombones, five trumpets, five saxophones and a string section with Maynard Ferguson screaming these high notes.... That was powerful.


PSF: How did things change for you when you went away to school? (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester New York)

That was the first time that I had contact with people who were in the realm of entertainment, in the upper strata of the musical world, if you will. I remember one the first things that I saw there was a live TV broadcast of Lena Horne with Mitch Miller conducting the Rochester Symphony- that made my jaw drop. That didn't happen in Memphis. I hung out with a radical group of student composers who were into Webern, Schoenberg, etc. We considered ourselves apart from the general conservative feel of the Eastman school, which was very "Americana" in feeling.


PSF: After Eastman school, what were you doing?

I got my Master's degree there and then I went into the army band in Washington D.C. to avoid getting drafted. After that, I did all my work towards my Ph.D. in musicology at Catholic University but never did the thesis.

I was doing some tape pieces and reading this serial music journal called Die Reihe from Germany, which had articles by Stockhausen and other so-called post-Webern composers. I was really taken by Stockhausen's "Gesang der Juenglinge" ...one of his first electronic pieces. It had a lot of 'sampling' of boy's voices which was then used as a chordal and structural elements. I had to find out what was behind these clusters of notes and all so I had a grant to study in Cologne for two years along with my wife, a pianist I met at Eastman. I had to learn enough German and French to get by, so doors into the European musical world were cracked.

Irmin (Schmidt) and Holger (Czukay), who later formed the band Can, were also in my classes with Stockhausen.


PSF: I asked Irmin about the time you were in Germany and if he thought that you might have stayed and worked with Can. He said that he thought you were really into your own individual work and wanted to follow your own path.

The idea of starting a rock band wouldn't have occurred to me at that point. I was on another track.


PSF: What happened when you came back to the States?

I had a fellowship at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo. This was a Center funded by the Rockefeller Foundation for musicians who were composer/performers. During that time, I met Terry Riley. David Behrman was there as one of the school's Fellows, producing for Columbia Records "Music in Our Time " series. Terry Riley's In C was done with musicians at the Center so David brought Terry up for a few months while the musicians there rehearsed and recorded it there. My wife also appeared on the recording, playing the pulse piano. It was really a revolutionary idea. This American experience being around Terry and later LaMonte Young was a great antidote to the European experience with Stockhausen...coming into contact with people who were concerned with feeling good via music- not just some intellectual exercise. It was more holistic. It spoke to the whole body. I'm talking about what they would later refer to as 'minimalism.'


PSF: There's a similarity in your work and Terry's with regard to Indian music.

Before my ear-opening study with Pran Nath, I wasn't aware of the ornamental delicacies of raga, which I have since tried to assimilate into my vocabulary. The line of melody is precisely drawn against the invisible grid of the tambura. It was amazing to discover such a subtle musical form. There were all these new ways to go between C and D or C and C sharp. I remember listening to Pran Nath do concerts where I'd look up and realize that 20 minutes had gone by and he hadn't gotten past the first two or three notes of the raga.


PSF: It does seem like your trumpet playing is very similar to the Indian singing style.

Just about everything I have, I owe to Pran Nath. For the first few months with him, I learned by singing. A phrase would be sung to you, you'd sing it back and if it was correct, you'd move on to something more complex. If not, you work on it again or do something simpler. It was aural/oral transmission.

Then I started to try to do that on trumpet. I had to completely forget everything that I'd ever been taught I'm still trying to forget it. It was a matter of trying to make the mouthpiece sound like a voice merged with a conch shell.

I worked on the 'alap', the slow introductory section, of one raga for the first two years. The whole technique evolved out my having to draw, or figure out a way to draw, the kind of curves he was drawing with his voice.


PSF: What kind of work were you doing after meeting Terry?

After the whole In C epic, LaMonte Young came up to the school and Terry introduced me to him. Terry actually left New York not long after that and I started playing with LaMonte's group (Theatre of Eternal Music)- this was the late '60s/early '70s. This was another major formative thing for me. Once again, there was this idea of using music as kind of a spiritual enrichment. That went along with my studies with Pran Nath because raga is a kind of a musical yoga or discipline. LaMonte absorbed that Eastern feeling in which everything was slowed down enough so that you could actually experience yourself in relation to what was going on. A flock of notes isn't being thrown at you to process intellectually but instead you're there in a midst of this sound world in which--as you sit longer and longer--you perceive more details and start to listen vertically to the constantly changing structures created by overtones in flux.


PSF: It's not music to get stoned with but it's really that you're emulating those effects, right?

One begets the other. Heightened perception asks for a certain way of listening and that certain way of listening asks for a certain perception. Which comes first, who knows?


PSF: What were you doing after working with LaMonte?

I invented a television lightscreen and was partners in a corporation to exploit it. This sidetracked me from music for a couple of years. About this time my marriage ended and I entered into a new relationship with a girl who was an African-American/Native-American mixture... A bit of Fourth World on a personal level. During this time I started listening to Miles in his electric, wah-wah pedal period and I began practicing again.

That was one of the things that forced me to focus on the dichotomy between the abstract, white-on-white, pure world of, let's say, classical 'mimimalism' and the world of shadows that happens when the lights get turned down low and it gets sexy and you start to think, 'What kind of music do I want to listen to?' I saw that this dichotomy was a Western thing. As I looked at other musics, I saw that the sensuous part was not left on the cutting room floor -- it was music for above and below the waist simultaneously. This became my sine qua non for music--my own and others.

I had done an electronic piece called "Solid State" (1969) while I was at the Center in Buffalo which was presented as a 'sound sculpture' in a museum or gallery setting. It was a big solid piece of sound that was gradually eroded into rhythmic shapes by sequential filtering. This was partly a response to the mega sound-surround happening in the club experience of the time. It was also a response to the overtone world that I was experiencing in LaMonte's Theater of Eternal Music performances...all the delicate, filigree stuff that was happening in the overtone spectrum. "Solid State" brought that down into the range of the fundamentals of those overtones.

Later, I did a version of that piece at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in New York in where I had Walter De Maria, the earth artist playing dumbek, and I was playing trumpet against the rhythmically-shifting sound mass.

In retrospect, this can be seen as a transition away from the path of avant-garde 'minimalism'--Glass, Reich, etc. and toward something that began as a painting-in of the essential raga elements--drone background, drumming, solo line--with something new: the drone could be electronic, the drumming could be Afro-Brazilian, and the solo line was the trumpet with its electronic shadow. When I discovered the harmonizer, I started playing these quasi-raga lines in parallel fourths and fifths. The result is something between vertical, or 'melodic' and horizontal, or 'harmonic'. It was more like, 'diagonal.'

So I gradually began to extend out of the raga, finding connections to bits and pieces of jazz or Yma Sumac or movie music or Ravel, realizing that I could finally do that without a bolt of lightening from the Hindu Gods coming down to strike me dead for deviating from the path.

A pivotal moment for me...one that helped to validate this musical adventurousness was after dinner one night with Pran Nath at LaMonte's loft. I played "Charm" from Fourth World Vol.1/ Possible Musics for him. This music has the elements that I've been talking about: African drummer and a Brazilian drummer and I'm doing the harmonizer thing with the parallel 4ths. Instead of a tamboura, there's this little 3-chord figure that keeps repeating. He seemed impressed, probably especially with the trumpet doing so much 'meend' (sliding) and told me "good" His approval was a powerful moment for me. I had an even higher respect for him to be able to open his ears to that and to see beyond his tradition.


PSF: Could you talk about your work with Brian Eno?

"Charm" was done at a concert the Kitchen (New York) in the late '70s. Brian already had Vernal Equinox, my first record. So Brian heard that record and he later wrote about how he played it over and over during that summer he was living in New York. He was very taken with it. He came to that concert and we met afterwards and he suggested that we do something together. That began our long friendship, which continues 'til today. He was working with the Talking Heads at the time so he and I and David Byrne started hanging around. I began pointing them in the direction of the things that I knew like the French Ocara recordings which had beautiful and authentic recordings from all around the world.

Brian and I went into the studio to do Possible Musics. At that time, Brian was known to me as a guy who did big washes, big watercolor sweeps. I imagined that he would be filling in that tambura part that I was talking about before.

This record could have easily been 'by Jon Hassell, produced by Brian Eno.' That would have been correct billing. But at the time, I was trying to pay the rent and I decided that I wanted it to say 'Jon Hassell/Brian Eno.' This later became a problem for me because he had such a high profile in the pop musical world, it often became 'his record', so to speak. That was painful.

The next thing was Bush of Ghosts, which came to me as a project that we all (Brian, David and I) were going to do together. We were starting from the premise of what the Residents had done with Eskimo, that idea of fake ethnic music. They were going to go out to the desert somewhere in California, get an 8-track and send for me. At the time, I was a 'downtown Soho composer' struggling to make the rent every month so I couldn't even get the plane fare to fly there. I got a tape back a month or so later and it was some North African vocal over a bass and drum loop.

I was outraged. This was clearly a not-too-subtle appropriation of what I was doing over rock drum and bass I thought it was a very unethical thing to do and the fact that I was never credited--even for being an inspiration--is a testament to the testosterone in the room at that time. Psychologically I imagine it went something like, 'We're rich and famous...we can get away with it, so we'll do it.' Maybe there was a self-hypnosis that permitted them to ignore the origin of the whole situation. That created a rift for awhile. This made the struggle for my own musical identity in the marketplace all that more difficult and I still run into the consequences of this arrogance.

I must say that--given that Brian is now one of my dearest friends and that I'm godfather to his daughters--this event is family-like: a brotherly transgression of the past which is not forgotten but which is also not an obstacle to mutual love and respect.


PSF: Going back to the Possible Musics record- is that where you saw the whole idea of 'Fourth World' begin for you?

That's the record where I invented the term although it could have been easily applied to the one before, Vernal Equinox. There was nothing like that around at that point--I often say to line up all the record covers produced in 1980 in one place and it becomes apparent how singular this record was. It made a big impression on a lot of people, including Peter Gabriel, who then started his 'ethnic' period, other people heard him as an originator, and so on...


PSF: The record really has an 'other-worldly' quality to it like it's transporting the listener somewhere.

That was me. That's what I was trying to do. I was trying to transport myself. The exotic is central to me. I don't understand why the 'exotic' doesn't have the automatic appeal for everyone that it does for me. In fact, I think it does but it's just not acknowledged. I put that experience first and foremost. It's not as though I have a 'real life' with glimmers of exoticism--like living in a Victorian house with exotic trophies around the room--it's more, 'If something really feels good, then why don't you do it all the time instead of only doing it on Saturdays?' Fourth World is an entire week of Saturdays. It's about heart and head as the same thing. It's about being transported to some place which is made up of both real and virtual geography. It's about a beautiful girl and a beautiful situation at the same time.


PSF: You have erotic aspects to your work then?

The title of the last record I did, Dressing For Pleasure, is a code name used in the fashion/fantasy/fetish world. I like the idea that there are an infinite number of results to 'dressing for pleasure' and only one- nakedness- for 'undressing for pleasure'. It has to do with creativity in ornamenting one's life.

I felt that it was time for me to break out of the grey norms of 'new music' in titling, subject, etc. I was also coming to terms with the reality of what was actually going on in my life. All the music I've done is --in some sense--an accompaniment to my fantasy life. This goes back to that Western dichotomy between the sensual and the intellectual. I've tried to merge those things. It's saying that all of these things are connected-- not spirituality over here and sex over there. It's all one thing which has become divided because of an over-reliance on verbality and abstraction at the expense of feeling and spirit .


PSF: Could you talk about the ideas behind Dream Theory?

The title itself comes from an account of visiting a tribe in Malaya. They had this culture of 'dream people.' The Senoi was one of the tribes. Their ideas about dreams were that they were as important to daily life as anything else was. They would gather in the longhouse each morning and children would recount their dreams and they would be interpreted then. For instance, a child's dream of falling would be interpreted as a gift from the God that would teach you to fly. They're instructed to continue the dream. So the next night would be another sequence and it would become like 'dream work.' You could control attitudes and events based on how you led yourself to dream them. What an interesting way to interpret that. In standard Freudian terms, those dreams of falling would reveal 'underlying anxiety'. Through their eyes, it's a gift--something to be thankful for, something to work with. Imagine how a culture would develop with that kind of framing of experience versus the dark view from Vienna, under all those rain clouds.


PSF: How did you see your ideas about 'Fourth World' develop over the next few years?

I wanted the mental and geographical landscapes to be more indeterminate- not Indonesia, not Africa, not this or that. I thought I was more successful in trying to create something that COULD HAVE existed if things were in an imaginary culture, growing up in an imaginary place with this imaginary music. It was made up of different elements and sometimes it would tilt toward a known territory like Southeast Asia as, for example, with Dream Theory In Malaya.

Aka/Dabari/Java has a special place in my heart for the way that things mixed there with the one-second sample of the Pygmy voice and a one-second sample of Javanese gavalean and the raga Dabari with me playing on top of it, a patch of Yma Sumac/Les Baxter mixing with the Pygmy voices. In the liner notes, I called it 'coffee-colored classical music of the future'...What would music be like if 'classic' had not been defined as what happened in Central Europe two hundred years ago. What if the world knew Javanese music and Pygmy music and Aborigine music? What would 'classical music' sound like then?


PSF: In the mid to late eighties, you were working more with steady groups/bands.

I was doing a lot of concerts and touring. A record would usually come out of stuff that was developed in a concert situation. Then we'd go in the studio and dupe stuff that we'd been doing in concert. There was always a feedback link. I could take a track from one of the records and show you a place on another record where I used some part of that in a completely different way. It wasn't like 'here's the kit for this record and now I'm going to throw the kit away.' Things were always being added and I wouldn't discard a part because it was used before, especially if it was transformed in some way.

We would start out trying to play Aka/Dabari/Java or Dream Theory and it would be possible or impossible and/or have to be adapted some way. Then that turned it into something else and so on.


PSF: I got to see one of those live shows that you did with a four-piece band at the World Financial Center in New York around the late '80s. It was really interesting because there were tiny amplifiers set up all over the area and in the crowd.

Those were part of the rainforest installation Brian Eno had going in the space... using tapes from the Amazon... He mixed the band live... We would segue from the rainforest environment into the concert. That was the L.A. group which I had put together for the Opal/Warner CD, City: Works of Fiction.


PSF: With this new group, it seemed like you had more of a Miles Davis influence with your work.

After years of trying to make the case for an improvisational music which is 'not-jazz' and staying away from cliches of jazz instrumentation and style, I started to feel free enough to let more obvious elements of my respect for Miles creep in from time to time. Also I was beginning to flirt with hip-hop textures and fascinated that musical collage was becoming a mainstream form. I was also not just looking at other parts of the world for the exotic but realizing that the 'exotic' could be right here. It was realizing that there's another kind of music being put together here in my backyard (I'm talking about hip-hop again). Instead of a pygmy waking up in the forest, hearing a bird and trying to imitate it, you're waking up to hear shards of radio. The radio environment was 'nature'... raw material for hip-hop. That looked very futuristic to me and as a concept, it still does. This attitude was touched on in City but realized more fully in Dressing for Pleasure.


PSF: There was a quote from the promo for that where you talk about a 'counter-point of ambience.' What did you have in mind?

Each sample possesses a unique ambience derived from the studio space, recording equipment, instruments, etc. So instead of counterpoint referring to the relationship of two or more melodic lines occurring simultaneously, I used it to refer to samples in juxtaposition.


PSF: You also mentioned a 'techno/primitive paradigm.'

My very first notion of how to describe this music was 'future/primitive.' That came from Albert Goldman's book on Brazilian culture. That was another was to say Fourth World. It's become debased as a catchphrase now and I try not to use it. I don't want to join in the herd trampling through the campsites where I delicately and respectfully visited 15 or 20 years ago.


PSF: What do you think will happen to Fourth World?

I'm very concerned with the 'banalization of the exotic' as I said before. When everyone is into the 'exotic', then what's 'exotic'? Fourth World means: get yourself a world vocabulary; use it with subtlety and a keen sense of surprise; follow pleasure; trust your intuition (after you're sure you know what that is).

I'm working on a book about the extension of Fourth World into the social and psychological fabric: different ways of seeing things based on what's been done before and imagining how people could do things in the future.

I'm imagining a new record of lush and offbeat arrangements of standards...sort of exploring the link between the shape-making of raga and the unique shaping of phrases by a master like Joao Gilberto set somewhere in Johnny Mandel territory. I want to call attention to the unique sound of the trumpet itself without the electro 'eye shadow.' If a strange sound is in a strange context like my records it's qualities are less likely to be noticed than in a known context--like standards.

So, you see, for someone with my history, doing something like this would be very 'Fourth World'. So its a mode of response to contingency... not a gospel.



See Jon's favorite music


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