It's a Fourth World After All
Tribute, Part 1
Interviews by Jason Gross
The first time I heard trumpeter/ethnomusicologist/theorist Jon Hassell's work was about a year after the Fourth World album (1980) came out and I was quite never the same after that. It was some of the strangest, yet most alluring music I'd ever heard- his breathy sounds modulating from whispers to screams could be comforting and frightening within seconds, creating an exhilarating aural ride. As composer David Beardsley notes even more vividly, listening to Hassell meant you were hearing several things at once. "One moment the voice of an infant or is this a synthesizer, then I am remembering I am listening to a horn. Intimate and alien and new. The horn over a swirling the mosaic of sound. I was fascinated by his pitch control and the raga influence."
I promptly took Forth World along to college and made it a listening experience for anyone who I thought might be receptive, even using it as a soundtrack for all sorts of weird, bacchanal experiences. Years later, when I got to chance to speak to Hassell about his work, he confirmed that I actually had the right idea and that he meant his music just for such purposes, among other things.
If you know anything about him, you've heard about his Memphis origins, studies with Stockhausen (and early run-in's with the Can members), working in ensembles with La Monte Young and Terry Riley, studies with Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, collaborations with Eno and later appearances on albums by Talking Heads, Ani DiFranco, Ry Cooder, Peter Gabriel and many others.
But above all, these was his visionary Fourth World concept, wedding Third World traditional music (African percussion, Indian vocalization techniques, field recordings), First World avant-garde music (electronics, studio techniques, samples), jazz influences from Miles and Duke, plus his version of minimalist modern classical music. All of these seemingly disparate elements were melded by jim into something new and exotic. His whole output was part of his lifelong exploration of this concept and idea.
After a long period of illness, his death on June 26th came right after a particularly fruitful period, with the recent release of Listening to Picture (2018) and Seeing Through Sound (2020), two of his most unique, accomplished records. He also was planning even more of this 'Pentimento' series as well as a long-planned book laying out his Fourth World concept in greater detail.
As a way to honor one of the most extraordinary musicians I've ever heard, we assembled interviews of a group of musicians/collaborators that Hassell worked with from the start to the end of his career, an essay about his Fourth World concept, an early essay from Hassell himself about Fourth World and some related links to interviews I did with him (including the PSF one that was quoted in The New York Times and the Guardian in their obituaries for Hassell).
This will be the first of two parts of our tribute to Hassell at PSF. However, we'd encourage others to honor his work as well- not just with writings but also perhaps musical tributes as well. His Fourth World concept can then live on in ways that he might not have imagined but would appreciate.
Daniel Barbiero: The Very Idea of Fourth World Music
Jon Hassell: Possible Musics
Hassell interview in Perfect Sound Forever, 1997
Hassell interview at Rock & Roll Globe, 2020
Deep dive into the Fourth World album, Popmatters, 2015
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