Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Hassell tribute

Possible Musics
by Jon Hassell
(August 2021)

(ED NOTE: this article originally appeared in Musicworks magazine in 1980, courtesy of Andrew Timar. Here, Hassell lays out his Fourth World idea early in its conception.)

I. Fourth World Music

Fourth World--beyond 'Third World,' New wave music which stems from a knowledge of world musics--from ethnic/tribal to complete utilization of electronic potential. In its highest form, the blend of influences createds an impression of a new, unified sound.

Some music is 'cosmetic' Fourth World. This dots the I's of conventional music statements with borrowed flavorings of exotic instruments etc.

Some music is 'covert' Fourth World. In some ways, this is the opposite of the cosmetic approach. Here, a structured framework of some ethnic music is borrowed and presented with Western orchestration. This games in prestige the more the audience is unfamiliar with its origins. Some music is 'unconscious' Fourth World, e.g. pop music of Asian or African countries which assimilate aspects of Western pop but maintain local color and spirit.

Some music could be called 'visionary' Fourth World. This would extrapolate from knowledge of world music into the future and/or past, attempting to present something--a mood, a vision, a special sense of time--in some coherent sound form.

II. Multi-Leveled Music

Mozart, speaking of tw of his piano concertos: 'There are particular passages from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but still the less learned cannot, I believe, fail to be pleased, even without knowing why.'

This says that things can communicate on different levels: one of the sensual delight in sheer sound, one of the memory-correspondence of nostalgia, one of the intellectual amusement, one of fantasy, the kinetic level of dance music, etc.

Some people think that the more levels a work has or provokes, the 'richer' it can be said to be. This is one criterion commonly held to separate 'high' and 'low' art (even though multi-levelled work can be boring and uni-levelled work stimulating). Consider also how 'low', uni-levelled art (advertising) can become part of a multi-levelled, 'high' art style (pop).

The mergence of significant numbers of art school graduates, (familiar with the multi-levelled messages of high art) as makers of the new music has changed the heretofore uni-levelled pop tradition into a forum for multi-levelled, hybrid sound images. This cross-fertilization by 'outsiders' who create, out of necessity, new approaches to instrumental techniques and formal thinking, challenges the predispositions of 'schooled' musicians toward more familiar solutions. The stage is set for acceptance of more esoteric experiments in cross-breeding.

III. Narrow-Band Culture

So far, most of these artpop hybrids are conceived in a limited framework of choices--a framework of cultural/racial biases whose rear-view goes no further than the emergence of the long-playing record and whose front-view is dictated entirely by the demands of a marketplace where media not only reflect but create attitudes.

A narrow-band culture results when the range of possible musics is reduced to a set of 'primary colors' with any in-between shade viewed as a failed attempt at being primary.

IV. 'High' (Classical) and 'Low' (Pop)

The classical avant-garde has created many possible musics over the years. The lack of audience for these efforts is understandable, seen in the light of certain shared assumptions about what distinguishes a classic approach from a pop approach.

Consider that in India, Africa and many other cultures (if any separation between classical and popular exists at all), classical music is sensuous, its built over high-inflected ('jungle') rhythms, improvisation plays a major role, creating a mood is a primary goal, and it communicates to the 'less learned' as well as the 'connisseur'. The popular music is also sensuous, with jungle drums, improvisation, etc., but less rigorously formed.

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 (jazz, pop, rock, mood music).

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.

V. Sincerity and Irony

Generations fed on hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and mock sincerity can't be blamed too much for an automatic smrik at the word 'sincere'. Current new wave form cultivates the ironic apporach (distanced, clever, solipsistic) as the only allowable response to so much jive. Irony can be a lot of fun to play in, but it's no substitute for the direct transmission and reception of heartfelt messages. The coyote's howl is heard with deep feeling (if not apporached ironically) because it's felt deeply by a creature who knows only how to be itself and say what it means. Music can be like this but it's rare.

Born in Memphis, Jon Hassell acquired several university degrees in music before leaving for Europe to study with the father of electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen. He came back to the U.S.A. in 1967, began playing with La Monte Young and Terry Riley and made recordings with both. In 1969, he created a work (presented in major museums since then) which combined minimalist trance music phenomenon with the notion of the sculptural presence of sound, Solid State. Since 1972 he has studied classical Indian music with master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and from this has created a new vocal style of trumpet playing which forms the basis for the 'Fourth World' musical setting.

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