Perfect Sound Forever

Early Fourth World: Jon Hassell in Canada (1972-1982)

Andrew Timar mixing in Studio 'C', Electronic Media Studios, York University, Toronto, 1972 (note the box of 7" open reel tape and two tape recorder remote controllers sitting on the mixer and fingers on the stereo master volume faders). Andrew Timar playing West Javanese suling with Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Toronto, 2017. "In the intervening 45 years I've reduced my musical equipment down to a single-node bamboo ring flute with no keys."

by Andrew Timar


Intro

My story begins in 1976, forty-five years ago when I was auditing music classes at York University's Downsview campus. Then located in the city of North York, Ontario, Canada, a suburb of Toronto, York U's sprawling 457 acre Keele Campus is today located in the north westernmost corner of the much expanded city. In the 1960s through the 1970's the campus emerged out of the rich surrounding farmland, grey concrete buildings springing up like brutalist puffballs in the fall. Though the turkey farm was long gone, during my first year, I could still smell the pungent odour of old turkey guano on the main commons as the ground thawed from the long winter freeze.

That's the campus where I first met composer, trumpet and electronic music innovator Jon Hassell sometime during the October of 1976. It happened on a memorable afternoon in music professor David Rosenboom's Electronic Music class in Studio "C" in the basement of Steacie Science & Engineering Library. Down in those Electronic Media Studios (YEMS) is where Jon & David held jam sessions with the musical collaboration and technical assistance of a number of David's students and his Teaching Assistant Michael Brook. One of those night-time recording sessions was preserved on analogue tapes which Jon took back to New York. Some of those same students - among my closest musician friends then - went on to contribute to Jon's musical journey in the '70s and '80s in ways both large and small. I'm still in touch with a few of them today. In Part 2 of my story I'll share recollections of those sessions by those who were there and shed light on how those tapes served as the origin story for Jon's debut studio album Vernal Equinox (Lovely Music, LP 1977).

While I wasn't around YEMS during Jon's proto-Vernal Equinox jams and recordings, we did establish a musical connection based on mutual interests such as incorporating aspects of electronics, Hindustani and Carnatic music and environmental field recordings in our music during his fall 1976 residency. I attended at least one of the exciting Toronto concerts Jon gave with David.

After returning to NYC, Jon kept in touch with me, on and off for the next six years or so. Our rapport was strong enough, and I assume he valued what I brought to his music enough - he was the prototypical collaborative musician - that he called me to perform in two of his Toronto concerts. He also honoured me by including my musical contributions to his third and fourth albums (Fourth World Vol. 1, and Vol. 2).

As for my own musical journey, Jon's late 1970's explorations energised my thinking about the paths I was taking, as well as those I wasn't. We had in-depth discussions about his emerging notions around Fourth World music. I encouraged him to write about how he shaped its theory and performance practice, and it made sense in my capacity as the founding editor (1978-1982) of the Toronto avant-garde music magazine Musicworks to publish it there. The result was his fall 1980 essay Possible Musics1, a concatenation of thoughts as he grappled with articulating category-defying, complex and sometimes controversial and competing ideas.

"In western culture, no form which allows improvisation is considered classical. Further, anything that is openly sensuous and/or uses certain rhythmic inflections or even certain instruments is automatically relegated to some 'low' category..." Jon wrote. In the next sentence, he calls out cultural racism but then immediately proposes a way out of that cul-de-sac. It's solution he was already pursuing with Brian Eno, and very soon with many others.

"Obviously, a kind of cultural racism is at work here which, more often than not, reduces non-European things to 'curio' status. The current cross-breeding of the artschool/artpop attitude with elements of the classical avant-garde will help chip away at this centuries-old superiority complex and hardening of the categories."

Jon's connections with Toronto-based musicians continued until the last decade of his career. Until the mid-1980s guitarist, composer and producer Michael Brook - who as I mentioned took part in the York U. Vernal Equinox sessions - toured and recorded with Jon. Then from around 2006 on, violinist Hugh Marsh (whose interview is in the August issue of PSF) contributed substantially to Jon's oeuvre. Also worth mentioning are the significant contributions to Jon Hassell, Brian Eno and Harold Budd albums during 1980s by Daniel Lanois and Bob Lanois in their Grant Ave. Studio. Under an hour drive west of Toronto in Hamilton, Ontario that studio was built in 1976, coincidently the same year Jon came to York U and recorded much of Vernal Equinox.

Those are the broad stokes of the Canadian intersections with Jon's story that I'll be diving deeper into.

But how did he end up in at York U. in the first place? What forces brought Jon repeatedly to Canada until the 1980s to gig, teach, experiment, record several influential early albums and to live for several weeks in a former farm house located on Toronto's northern city limits? Who were the musicians he met here with whom he developed close ties and who encouraged him at the outset of his "coffee-colored music" Fourth World personal quest? Finally, what were my specific contributions to Jon's music, when did they take place, and what resonance does it have in my subsequent music?

I'll try to address those questions in several manageable parts. Part 1 looks at the background of Jon's engagement with Canadian-based musicians, segueing to my personal involvement in Jon's work. Part 2 will examine his mentoring, live performance, recording in Toronto and Hamilton, plus views on his personality and career based on interviews I did during this past summer with his Toronto-based colleagues. This will aim to fill in any lacunae not covered by PSF articles already published in this excellent tribute series.




Part 1.
Setting the Stage

Buffalo Backstory: David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell and a Musical Minimalism Milestone

In tracing the York University connection between Hassell, Rosenboom and York U's founding Music Dept. Chair, R. Sterling Beckwith, we must first take a detour to Buffalo, NY. In the days before Homeland Security kicked in and then the recent COVID-19 era lockdown of the Canada-US border, Toronto was a pleasant 90-minute drive from Buffalo, NY. You drove across the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River, through the productive fruitlands of the Niagara peninsula, rounding Lake Ontario toward Toronto at Hamilton, ON.

That trip metaphor is relevant since all three men were for a time in the late 1960s Creative Associates of the University at Buffalo's Center of the Creative and Performing Arts,ii as was Margaret Krimsky-Hassell, Jon Hassell's pianist wife at the time.iii The following evocative photo appears to be a publicity shot taken at a fall 1967 gathering of the Creative Associates., used by Renée Levine Packer as the cover image for her 2016 book This Life of Sounds....iv


Creative Associates of the University at Buffalo's Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, fall 1967. David Rosenboom (far left), and Jon Hassell (behind the piano, third from right).

In it the 20-year old Rosenboom confidently stands on the far left while the 30-year old Hassell has chosen to lean behind the grand piano. He's by himself in what could be interpreted as an outsider move. New music trombone legend Stuart Dempster rests his left hand protectively on his upended instrument case. Clarinettist Jerry Kirkbride stands in front of the metal cabinet topped by two unplugged fans, his left hand casually resting on the piano lid. In fact eight of the twelve are also doing the same thing. The imposing instrument moonlighting as a piece of black lacquered furniture seems too powerful a musical and cultural magnet to avoid. The rest stand relaxed. Judging from their expressions, the photographer caught the group mildly amused by an unknowable 54-year old quip. Another mystery, at least to me, is why Margaret Krimsky-Hassell was not in this photo shoot.

It will interest some readers that four of the musicians in this photo, Rosenboom (viola), Hassell (trumpet), Dempster (trombone) and Kirkbride (clarinet) - plus the missing Margaret Krimsky-Hassell playing the essential pulse on piano - participated in the first commercial recording of Terry Riley's In C at New York City's 30th Street Studio in overdub-rich sessions on March 27 and 29, 1968. In short order after the LP release on the Columbia MS label, it achieved a quasi-cult-like status, something like musical minimalism's Le Sacre.

That In C album was a personal touchstone. I treasure the pressing I bought as a kid when it hit the record store shelves; it was in the air when I began music classes at York U. the following fall. Rosenboom's first year there was during the academic year 1970-71, when I took my first class with him. I recall being impressed that such a young prof. played on such a seminal album. Admittedly, it was long ago but I'm fairly certain I played In C on the bassoon, my main instrument at the time, with a York U. student ensemble. Minimalism remains a potent aesthetic influence in my music and in no small way that album is to blame.


Setting the Scene: Music Department, York University

York launched its Faculty of Fine Arts, of which Music was one Department, in 1969. Freshly minted as a grade 13 grad, I was among its first cohort. The founding Chair, American musicologist, choral director and occasional basso R. Sterling Beckwith, came to York with an all-encompassing inaugural vision setting the tone for decades to come. In addition to the typical music courses of the day, it also included jazz, early European and world music - plus offerings in electronic music taught in rooms which were eventually dubbed York Electronic Media Studios (YEMS). Rosenboom was recruited as the Studios' first director in 1970.v

While in 1969 York's Music Dept. was certainly an upstart outsider among Southern Ontario's university music programmes, the spirit of musical inclusivity, innovation and shear adventure that I felt there inspired me to take a chance and enrol in its inaugural year. York also attracted many other students who sought to explore what was on the musical cutting edge, including those who later in 1976 attended Jon Hassell's lectures and extended jams during his York residency.

Trying to imagine the general space where Vernal Equinox (VE) was recorded 45 years ago is not easy. Those spaces and the gear in it disappeared decades ago. this B&W photo of me in YEMS' Studio "C" however give us a visual impression of the place. I believe it was taken in the summer of 1976, a few months before the Vernal Equinox (VE) recording sessions took place.


It shows some of the equipment in situ, including in the background two professional Studer 1/4" tape recorders, one of which I believe was used in the VE sessions. I'm kneeling in front of the patch bay and we can see the back of the head of York music student Nicholas Kilbourn who is leaning over the electric piano in front of the mixing board. Nicholas, a close friend and colleague, a few short months later played in the VE sessions, if the date of this photo checks out.

Compare this photo with the 1972 photo of me at the beginning of this article, in which the business end of the mixer can be seen, along with a box of tape and two Studer tape recorder remote controllers.

I've connected the roots of David Rosenboom and Jon Hassell's working relationship to their tenure as Creative Associates in Buffalo in the late 1960s, reflected in the première recording of In C, set the scene at York's Music Dept. in the early 1970s where Rosenboom secured tenure and from that position of authority arranged the residency of Hassell there. I also introduced both to the York student and studio environments where the foundational tracks of Jon's first album were crafted in the fall of 1976.

In Part 2, in addition to shedding light on the York U. contributors to Vernal Equinox, I'll take a deep dive into my two Toronto concert performances with Jon's touring band and also into the musical background of my two Hassell album credits.




Endnotes:

i Hassell, Jon. "Possible Musics." Musicworks #13, Fall 1980. Toronto: Music Gallery. Reprinted in PSF: http://www.furious.com/perfect/hassell-possiblemusics.html

ii Two undated Creative Associates era head shots of Jon Hassell at c. the age of 30 have been published here https://digital.lib.buffalo.edu/items/show/17999 and here https://digital.lib.buffalo.edu/items/show/17900. Digital Collections - University at Buffalo Libraries, accessed October 30, 2021.

iii Nee Margaret Krimsky Siegmann (1938-), today Karina Krimsky, she has been referred to in print as Margaret Krimsky-Hassell and also Margaret Hassell. Photos of Margaret Krimsky-Hassell playing piano with the Creative Associates in 1967 have been published here: https://digital.lib.buffalo.edu/items/show/10712 Digital Collections - University at Buffalo Libraries, accessed October 30, 2021.

iv Levine Packer, Renée. 2016. This life of sounds: evenings for new music in Buffalo.

v Beckwith and Rosenboom met in the late '60s at the University of Buffalo where Beckwith also served as a Creative Associate.


See the rest of our 1st part of our Jon Hassell tribute


Also see the 2nd part of our Jon Hassell tribute, with additional interviews and more


And see more about Timar's work at Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan



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