Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Hassell tribute

The Very Idea of Fourth World Music
by Daniel Barbiero
(August 2021)

The Very Idea of Fourth World Music As philosopher Franco Rella pointed out in his essay "The Atopy of the Modern," the experience of the modern is the experience of the paradox of being rooted in the rootless--of inhabiting an atopia, or a place whose very sense of place is defined by its placelessness, and in which one is always out of place. It is virtually a commonplace that the placelessness of an atopia characterizes the physical and metaphysical geography of much of the post-industrial, technologically advanced Global North. One might even say that the kinds of places sociologist Marc Augé termed "non-places"--the interchangeable, transactional and impersonal way stations one transits through to get to someplace else--epitomize, admittedly by way of exaggeration, the economically motivated abstraction from the local that is the hyperideal of the Global North. It is as a kind of antidote to such an atopic, abstract mode of experiencing the world that Jon Hassell proposed the creation of a Fourth World music.

Technology as Solvent; Technology as Opportunity

One of the first places that Hassell set out his idea of a Fourth World music was in an essay-manifesto titled "Artificial Boundaries, Expanding Horizons, Possible Musics," which was published in Heavy Metal magazine in March 1982. It was a time when the Western liberal democracies were known as the First World, the now-defunct bloc of socialist countries was known as the Second World, and the non-aligned nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America were known as the Third World. There was no Fourth World. Hence, the availability of a name for a hypothetical place whose "geography" was necessarily metaphorical. And yet, although "The Fourth World" referred to no actually existing, specific place, it was by no means the name of an atopia. If anything, Hassell's Fourth World represents the very idea of an anti-atopia.

As Hassell described it in "Artificial Boundaries," Fourth World music would be a music drawing on the modern means of musical production and reproduction as afforded by the technoculture of the Global North, but at the same time would bring those means into dialogue with the musics of other times and places. Fourth World music would temper its use of contemporary technology--a use Hassell noted would be "selective" rather than wholesale or uncritical--with "respect for ancient ways," which in turn would be facilitated by selectively-used technology. This point is important for, if the hyper-technologized, atopic Global North threatens to disrupt the sense of the local, it also--paradoxically--provides the means for recovering and preserving the products of cultures specific to times and places other than its own. As Hassell recognized, technology is opportunity as well as solvent. As he put it in the liner notes to his 1983 album Aka/Darbari/Java: Magic Realism :

the ability to bring the actual sound of musics of various epochs and geographical origins all together in the same compositional frame marks a unique point in history.
In reaching across national, tribal and temporal boundaries, Fourth World music would embody cosmopolitanism in the best sense; as Hassell suggested in "Artificial Boundaries," it could overturn "too narrow an idea of what possible musics...there could be."

A Music of Difference

As is apparent from "Artificial Boundaries" and other of Hassell's writings, the idea of a Fourth World music seems to have been animated by a desire to recover an experience of music more primordial and grounded in the sensate, pre-theoretical immediacies of the lived than is available through the impersonal formulae of commercial music or from some of the more self-conscious and predominantly cerebral varieties of Western art music. Hassell in fact described Fourth World music as representing a "returning to and a stepping forward at the same time," a simultaneous reverse and advance in which the transcendent could be rediscovered within the concrete and the trace of the sensory recognized in the abstract; the improvised would find room within the structured and the structured would crystallize from the improvised; the Western and the non-Western would inform each other while at the same time resisting the absorption of the one into the other.

In the work of binding together non-national, non-geographically limited communities together through sound, Hassell suggests that the musical forms of both the Global North and the Global South will have a role to play, with neither one dominating or working to the exclusion of the other. To the extent that it can combine and yet at the same time preserve what we might think of as the particular 'thatnesses' peculiar to the musics of North and South, Fourth World music would be a music embodying an attitude of "both/and" rather than the "either/or" of an exclusionary logic--an attitude in which the musical forms of the Global North and the musical forms of the Global South would be accepted, with neither being granted the pretension of a universality by which it could subsume and submerge the other. Instead, each would function musically, and be understood conceptually, as a complementary and irreducible element through which the other could make itself felt, even if by way of contrast. Not that Hassell envisioned the threat of subsumption as being entirely symmetrical; even as early as the time he wrote "Artificial Boundaries," the growing ubiquity of Western technoculture clearly could be seen to be on the verge of overwhelming all else.

In its effort to preserve musical particularity, Fourth World music contains the idea of musical possibility as something polyglot. This is in obvious contrast to what much commercial music threatens to be: a homogenized, musical monoculture with roots nowhere in particular, which is to say the soundtrack to a globalized atopia. It's interesting to note that the idea of musical possibility as polyglot harmonizes with an important bias within late 20th century, mainly Western European, philosophy, a bias in which those traditional hierarchies of thought placing sameness and identity prior to difference, and the abstract universal over the concrete and accidental, would be inverted to foreground difference and contingency as primary. As a music of difference, Fourth World music would, rather than forge a uniform whole in which its constituents would dissolve, instead set its heterogeneous parts into a creative tension that would preserve particular identities in a composite of irreducible difference.

We can hear how this aesthetic of difference played out in concrete musical terms in a work like Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics, released in 1980. On that album, Hassell combined, on the one hand contemporary techniques such as looping and electronic treatments of instruments as well as modern instruments, with, on the other hand, traditional acoustic percussion instruments from India and Latin America. The music's surface has an electronic sheen that gives it an unmistakably modern sound, but its foundation lies in the rhythmic cycles and pulses that hint at a more basic connection with the rhythms of the body--no more so than in the passages that use that most primordial of percussion instruments, the clapping hand.

The Fourth World as Anti-Atopia

With its embrace of the polyglot, Fourth World music imagines musical space as a situation defined by actual, available musical possibilities which themselves are defined by their likenesses and contrasts, their affinities and oppositions, their contemporaneity and anachronism, their adjacency and distance, their having been premeditated or improvised. It is a space in the image of immediacy to the extent that, through the prominence of its rhythms and improvised passages- it strives to conserve something of the concrete or of the momentarily experienced here-and-now that escapes complete conceptual capture. At the same time, its leveraging of contemporary technologies and settled compositional frameworks gives it a cooly cerebral cast. In a sense, it reflects through the medium of sound the duality peculiar to human being-in-the-world, a duality that discloses itself through the apparent contradictions of body and intellect, of heart and head--apparent contradictions that nevertheless exist in a state of necessary interdependence and creative tension, much as the elements of Global North and Global South that inhabit the Fourth World musical space exist as a synthesis of unsynthesizable difference.

One of the goals Hassell set out for Fourth World music was, through its mixture of technological sophistication and primal rhythms, to bring together these halves of human experience while at the same time recovering for music its proper value and place within the collective life of human groups. Music would regain its function as an existential event rather than subsist in degraded form as a trivialized sonic background; it would once again provide the occasion for engaging with the meanings of the rhythms of one's existence not only as an individual, but as a participant within a group as well. In "Artificial Boundaries" Hassell speculated that what he called "corporate musical imperialism" would wear out its welcome and break down into a "multiplicity of musics arising from tribes of like-minded people" who might be dispersed physically, but tied together virtually. While "corporate musical imperialism" is still very much with us and shows no signs of going away anytime soon, the internet, with the possibilities it has opened up for creative communication and collaboration across borders, has provided one mechanism for realizing Hassell's notion of many different types of music being made by small groups coming together regardless of the accidents of physical residence. The underlying point is that music was, and could be again, the means by which something like what Wittgenstein may have meant by a "form of life"--roughly, that nexus of practices and significances that defines a human group and affords it a collective logos, or shared understanding of its world as a more-or-less cohesive and intelligible place--comes to consciousness of itself and its place within its world.

Hassell's tribes would inhabit not only a virtual geography, but a virtual culture as well. As he remarked in a 1997 interview that appeared in this magazine, Fourth World music is the music of an imaginary culture that "COULD HAVE existed," a counterfactual culture whose music would be "indeterminate" as to its origins. Superficially, this sounds like the making of an atopic culture, a culture of no place. But in fact, the idea of the Fourth World is profoundly anti-atopic--it is the idea of an essentially human place, a place where the contingent and the local ("local" being understood in a metaphorical, non-physical sense) always have a place. The idea of the Fourth World is the idea of a return from atopia and a recovery, through music, of the suppressed or forgotten half of a natural pair of elements, whether this pair consists of head and heart, consciousness and body, or abstract thought and vital rhythm. The Fourth World is a place in which the strange becomes familiar if only because its strangeness was always just a matter of the estrangement from oneself of something within oneself--for inhabitants of the Globan North in particular, an estrangement that arises from a forgetting of the sensate and the affective. The very idea of Hassell's Fourth World music is the idea of a quintessentially human unforgetting, an anamnesia expressed in sound.

See the rest of the Jon Hassell tribute

Also see more of Daniel Barbiero's work at his website

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