A Travelogue of Jon Hassell's 'Fourth World' Journey Into the Mystical
Fourth Word truly is a world unto itself, a vision of avant-garde experimentation that influenced numerous composers in its wake.
The exotic is central to me... 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.
-- Jon Hassell
Trumpeter, composer, and ethnomusicologist Jon Hassell's pivotal 1980 album and collaboration with Brian Eno, Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, has been in limbo for over a decade, caught in major/indie label tangles, all the while suffering from a weak digital mix. That's changed now, however, thanks to one of the most important reissues of 2014.
Time and Place
Hassell's early life found him hopscotching around locales, helping him to soak up, process, and ultimately reshape all of the knowledge and experience he had acquired into something unique. Starting out in Memphis, where he roasted in the tropics-like heat as a juke joint regular, he began learning his craft in school bands playing jazz. After this, he then made his way to upstate New York for his Masters degree; however, he didn't quite finish his PhD in musicology in Washington, D.C. His path then sent him off to Germany to study under Übermensch composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, where he took classes alongside future members of Can.
When he came back to upstate New York in the late '60s, he got connected with composer Terry Riley. As a result of that collaboration, Hassell and his wife were part of the ensemble that recorded the historic minimalist In C album. From there, he came to New York City and found other sources of inspiration in the form of Indian vocalist Prandit Pran Nath, who he studied under. Later, he said of Nath, "Just about everything I have, I owe to Pran Nath."
In the late '60s and early '70s, Hassell would also join Young's Theater of Eternal Music group (where Riley was once a member), coming close again to the source of what would become a strong thread throughout his career: the almighty drone, an extended, elongated note that finds its source in Indian music. The drone would also find its way into the music of the Velvet Underground via John Cale, another Young alumni.
Hooking up with New York City modern classical label Lovely Records (also home of composers Robert Ashley and Meredith Monk), Hassell's first album, 1977's Vernal Equinox, is a blueprint of what was to come, as he was obviously just starting to work out his own concepts. Along with his trumpet, Hassell put to use not only two types of synths but two other drone sources from electronic keyboards, enlisting cohorts like synth pioneer David Rosenbloom, percussionist William Winant (a John Cage collaborator), and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconçelos. The latter would become an important ongoing collaborator for Hassell.
Moving away from his early work that was solely minimalist, Vernal Equinox shows Hassell progressing towards a new model for his music, combining drone, Eastern percussion, and processed trumpet sounds together. The album is intriguing and ambitious, but also a somewhat tentative mixture of music styles. Nevertheless, it would attract the attention of an noted British musician and producer who would become a future collaborator.
Even in this early stage, it’s worth considering how unique Hassell’s musical fusion was at that time. There had been artists like Babatunde Olatunji, Manu Dibango, and Ravi Shankar who pierced Western consciousness among music fanatic, but fickle pop tastes sadly made them exotic flavors of the moment that didn’t sustain overall interest in their own time.
On the other end of the spectrum, jazz performers like Dizzy Gillespie, John McLaughlin, and Keith Jarrett incorporated elements of Indian and Middle Eastern music into their work, not to mention the sitar-plunking that in was in fashion in the mid-'60s from the Beatles and the Stones. While modern composers like Philip Glass or Steve Reich are influenced by African music (see Reich’s “Drumming” and Glass’ work with Foday Musa Suso) and Indian music (especially Glass’ “Passages”), most of their work still leans toward the European music tradition.
By contrast, Hassell's music is more balanced among these three cultures. His work is much more in line with the Young/Riley school of minimalism, which also has its own heavy Indian music influences. Circulated tapes of Young's Theater of Eternal Music from 1963 with Terry Jennings' sax wailing over Cale and Tony Conrad's violin drones sound like another precursor to Hassell's later music. This is also true of Riley's second major label album, A Rainbow In Curved Air, particularly "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band", a side-long composition with a wailing horn floating over an electronic keyboard loop.
Hassell's work with Riley and Young was also formative for certain thoughts of his about music, such as his concept of "feeling good via music -- not just some intellectual exercise." For him, music "[is] more holistic. It [speaks] to the whole body." He himself stood out as something of both a modernist and a traditionalist at the same time: the 20th century minimalist and tonalist music he played were melded with older, more traditional African music and Indian music. That meant that other modern hybrid music, like Bollywood soundtracks, which wed Indian music to Western styles, or the '60s and '70s Afropop music that was sweeping the continent, were off the table for Hassell’s music and concept. As one can see now, however, there was a good reason that he went for these kind of pairings of world music styles.
Before his next album came out, Hassell devised an idea for a 1977 live show at The Kitchen, a haven for experimental performance in New York. Not able to get his backing band together, he instead had someone play cued tape samples before him to provide the drone texture along with a sample from UK soft-rockers 10CC and his own harmonized trumpet. This drew a rave review from New York Times; finally, Hassell was starting to get some major notices for his art.
For his second album, 1978's Earthquake Island, Hassell turned to another NYC indie label, Tomato Records, which at the time put out everything from jazz to blues to folk to John Cage. Hassell also had a new musical direction in mind for the new LP: armed with an assortment of synths again and the returning Vasconçelos, he also hired Miles Davis sideman Babal Roy (on the percussive instrument called the tablas), in addition to former Weather Report members such as Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romao and founder/bassist Miroslav Vitouš.
Hassell himself ultimately became somewhat dismissive of Earthquake Island. He admitted that, in addition to hiring ex-members, he wanted his own record to sound like Weather Report itself. Although he has a point, Earthquake Island does have a fun, lively, and Latin-infected feel to it, creating a jazz-fusion session that sounds ready for the Carnival in Rio. Though it's much more straightforward than his other work, it still presents something of an exotic landscape. However, he'd be creating much more exotic landscapes not much later.
Nevertheless, there were some hints here of what would ultimately come from Hassell's career on Earthquake Island. For some signposts, see the clapping rhythms of "Sundown Dance", the ethereal synth, bubbling percussion, and trumpet hysterics of "Tribal Secrets", the magisterial electronics and somber drums of "Adios Saturn", and the bits of the end of the title track that are reprised on Hassell's following album.
Dreamworld: The G-Spot and Air Afrique
Meanwhile, a certain revered British artist was intrigued by Hassell's debut album, later calling it in a 2007 Guardian article "music I felt I'd been waiting for." A founding member of Roxy Music who got edged out by Bryan Ferry's ego, Brian Eno started his own solo career in glam mode but quickly moved into a mellower, more melodic, ambient music, which he helped to pioneer. If that wasn't enough, Eno was also making a name for himself as a producer, backing promising and pioneering new wave groups like Devo and Talking Heads as well as manning his well-named Obscure label to put out music by modern classical artists. Giving up his Brit home, he settled in Manhattan for a while, producing the pioneering, influential ultra-art-punk No New York compilation.
Hassell did a 1980 show at The Kitchen where he starting giving a name to the unique hybrid/fusion he was devising. This genre experimentation comprises multiple parts: (1) The music theory he had studied as a result of his university schooling and his time with Nath; (2) The traditional music he lapped up on Asian and African '70s compilations on the pre-"world music" label Ocora; (3) The serial composition style and minimalist music he studied under Young. Combining "Third World" rhythms with "First World" electronics and modern classical theory, Hassell dubbed it "Fourth World", a combination of "metaclassical and metapop", as he also called it.
Eno recognized and was intrigued by this new music that Hassell was creating, which led to him approaching Hassell after the Kitchen show in 1980. Eno wondered if he would like to work with him on a record. This meeting of the minds would be auspicious for both of them. Hassell found a kindred spirit and valuable partner. Though he would later have mixed feelings about the pairing, he saw in Eno a name that would help his career.
Eno set it up so that Hassell would record on the British label E.G., which doubled as a management company that worked with King Crimson and Robert Fripp's solo material. Along with bonding and finding common ground in their backgrounds in minimalism, the pair was soon meshing ideas. Eno was intrigued by Hassell's assimilation of seemingly disparate styles, learning about traditional African and Indian music from his new friend. For his part, Hassell picked up on Eno's art school background and his what-if experimental methods. Interestingly enough, both also recognized the "Fourth World" concept to be not just of the mind but also of the body -- put indelicately, it also works as "music you could screw to".
In what seemed like a whirlwind, these new pals were in a studio soon, ready to record music in the middle of NYC's urban jungle, appropriately enough at a studio named Celestial Sound. Hassell again roped in percussionist Vasconçelos, who in turn brought in Senegalese percussionist Ayibe Dieng for the proceedings. Again crossing international borders, a live recording from a Toronto gallery show was used with Canadian bassist Michael Brooks and a trio providing clapping rhythms similar to those heard on Hassell's previous album.
Hassell would also recycle other parts of his past in this collaboration with Eno. The evening serenade of animals from Altamira, Brazil make a re-appearance, following their debut on Vernal Equinox. The eerie synth loop on the side-long track "Charm", first heard in some of Hassell's concert music, crops back up. Just as he did on the final section of "Earthquake Island", he refined his music and retuned his concept,
Though Hassell would bristle about the mixed blessing of having both their names on the cover, Eno, who co-wrote three of the songs, earned his part in the collaboration. The resulting album, Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics, has a seriousness, austerity, and gravity to it that Hassell's earlier albums only hinted at. The music exudes an unparalleled aura of mystery, exoticism, eroticism, and spaciness that, at the time of its release, aided in transforming Hassell's music, concept and sensibility.
In particular, as Hassell later told me, he was looking to Eno for “big washes, big watercolor sweeps. I imagined that he would be filling in the tambura [Indian drone] part." The promise of Vernal Equinox was coming to fruition through Hassell and Eno's Possible Musics. Although some ideas were imported from Earthquake Island, the Carnival rhythms are gone, in favor of a heavy and monolithic beat that reflects the minimalist side of the music much more appropriately. In short, with Possible Musics, Eno did the finest thing he could do with his work: he helped to bring out the best in Hassell. Eno would later talk more about the collaboration in the 2007 Guardian article:
There was a deeper idea, that music was a place where you conducted and displayed new social experiments... all of us were interested in collage, in making musical particle colliders where you could crash different cultural forms with all their emotional baggage and see what came out of the collisions, what new worlds they created.
On his own website, Hassell speaks to how their collaboration benefited both of them aesthetically:
There was always mutual learning going on between us, a healthy creative tension and ultimately, a place of congruence between his art school, non-musician approach and my musicianly, composer-virtuoso view.
The <i>Fourth World</i> Journey and Its Aftermath
From this collision of cultures and sensibilities what stood out was not just how Hassell’s already revolutionary music had evolved in such a short period of time, but also how his playing has changed leading up to the Fourth World album. Compared to his earlier albums, his trumpet playing became much more processed. While such processing is often seen as a means by which weak singers make up for their lack of vocals (see: T-Pain), Hassell was able to use this electronic processing to his advantage, creating a much more frightening and authoritative voice for his instrument.
Part of this involves his usage of a digital reverberator, which added in pitch changes. What made his new style so distinct, however, was a digital control board called a harmonizer, which turns one voice or instrument into a chorus along. (He later called this device his "technofriend."). Furthermore, he also used effects like pitch changes and reverb for a "time-stretching" effect. (See the Tweakheadz site for extensive information on this.) He used the harmonizer on his work before, but never to such a startling effect. Another arsenal in his instrument stock was a new type of synth, the Prophet. Where he had been using Moog and ARP brands of synths before, the relatively new Prophet keyboard, starting out around 1978, was an important part of his sound as the polyphonic synth melded well with the multi-voice sounds he cultivated on his harmonizer, the same synth would be heard on dozens of ’80s new wave records in the coming years.
Hassell would dart in and out of the songs in what he thought of as a kind of improvising outside of jazz, becoming part of the atmosphere of a song sometimes. Furthermore, with his more powerful and distinct style, his entrances and disappearances on songs became much more jarring and disturbing. With his more pronounced playing, Hassell’s trumpet work also brought out other contrasts, as the breathier style that he occasionally went to in quieter, more reflective moments stood out more. This technique sounds like you’re hearing the air coming out of his mouth before it weaves its way into the belly of the trumpet.
All of this high-powered technique and gadgetry went into what was in many senses bold fusion music, as opposed to the watered down jazz/rock fusion of the ’70s. In this "true" fusion, electronics mix with hand drums, cultures collide where rock instruments like guitars and basses are heard in unfamiliar ways, and the organic sounds weave through the inorganic morass of synthetic sounds. This mixing of traditional acoustic music with electronics would soon be done by Sunny Ade with French producer Martin Meissonnier on Ade's early ’80s albums. The resulting music isn’t quite modern classical, Indian, or African, but rather a wonderfully strange new amalgam that mixes dream state, terror. and fantasy as effectively as David Lynch’s best work for cinema.
The Voyage Itself
Fourth World's journey begins with "Chemistry", a seven minute trance with an odd quartet of Hassell, Percy Jones of Brand X on bass, and two percussionists. Hassell's trumpet starts out calm and breathy before breaking out into wails. You also hear a low echo after his harmonized playing, as if it's a family of ghosts gathering. The percussion underneath him is made with ghatam drums, which are clay pots made from a special mud from South India; their sides are played by hand. The big open mouth at its top provides a resonance and bubbling-like sound. In the middle of it, Percy Jones' heavy bassline alternates between a repeated 5 and 6 notes that start quickly and then slow each time at the end, as if time itself is sped and slowed in a constant warp.
The next stop on the trip is a shorter one, a different pathway into this experiment. "Delta Rain Dream" has Eno's "cloud guitars" serenely creating the mood, with Hassell calmly floating above, not so much soloing as much as adding to the atmosphere -- there are no wailing sounds here. To break up the ambient mood, which Eno created with a "simple melody" that Hassell admired, the percussion comes in rumbling "low congas". Here, the menace is gone for the moment, turned into an airy three minute fantasy.
No sooner does it end than the mood and destination changes again. From New York studio space, we travel to a Canadian gallery for a show. "Groit (Over Contagious Music)", whose title comes from a poetic association of words, features a hand-clapping trio providing percussion alongside Hassell, in addition to Michael Brooks' bass and Paul Fitzgerald's electronics. This tune is an interesting experiment, but this travelogue feels a little of place here since it doesn't have the weight or stately, strange air of the studio tracks on the LP. Hassell wails quietly and then fiercely over the clapping rhythms, which make up a bizarre and exotic rhythm section that sound very much in the spirit of early '70s Miles Davis, a man who was an inspiration to Hassell. Still, the clappers don't quite have the percussive touch that Dieng and Vasconçelos do.
From there, we seem to travel to an imaginary African landscape with "Ba-Benzele". Starting with a dreamy, speckled synth sounds via Eno's Prophet providing "starlight", it's soon broken up by Hassell wailing, overlaid with a majestic chorus of trumpets (courtesy of the harmonizer), and Vasconçelos' congas, and Jerome Harris' subtle bass. (Here one must note that drummers stay the same throughout but different bassists come into play for different songs and different sounds). After a while, the music dies back down to Eno's "starlight" background before Hassell wails back in with his pair of four-note chorus notes followed by the congas and bass backing. The music starts and stops into similar breaks and sections. After the fourth break, we hear thunder sounds before Hassell wails in again. One more gentle thunderclap sounds near the end of the six minute song.
The title here refers to a Pygmy tribe in Central Africa, one that had been racked by the slave trade and Ebola but whose music has been especially attractive to ethno-musicologists like Hassell, who later called it "joyously polyphonic". (For anyone interested, seek out the Bakaya compilation on Ellipsis Arts, where you'll hear clapping rhythms along with chanting, crickets and percussion, which is played much faster and more festively than in Hassell's work.)
The first part of the journey ends where the cover of the album starts. "Rising Thermal 14° 16' N; 32° 28' E" points out the (Western notated) map co-ordinates of the Sudan's White Nile river. On the cover, this area appears with a pink background surrounding the slanted photo culled from satellite imagery of the area. The outer space view of Africa makes for a tidy metaphor for the record. On this particular song, which quietly creeps into view, we hear the South American animals/crickets reprised from Vernal Equinox, which makes for an interesting trio/ensemble alongside Eno's understated Prophet (this time in "high altitude" mode) and Hassell's trumpet. The latter is heard in a woozy loop, sounding like a blinking signal or animal call in a gentle, lulling rhythm. Hassell also brings in another trumpet voice, playing breathily in a sad and bluesy tone over the mysterious evening atmosphere, which dissipates after only a few minutes like a fevered dream.
Then we come to the second and final part of the journey and by far the longest and most epic part of it. "Charm (Over 'Burundi Cloud')" lasts over 21 minutes, taking up all of the second side of the original album. Listening to it, one has the sense that if it weren't for the limitations of vinyl technology, it could have gone on for at least twice as long or more, much like La Monte Young's vast pieces.
"Charm" begins with both congas and ghatam, though the latter are felt more pronouncedly in a repeating seven-beat line which follows along the fast/slow speed bass in the beginning of the album with a seven beat pattern here. Hassell's three-note ARP synth loop, also in a fast-then-slow pace, does the tambura/drone part, which forms the titular "Burundi Cloud". (This loop is appropriated from the coda of "Earthquake Island.") The ARP drone-loop starts quickly and then slows at the end, while we also hear a quieter shuttering synth that creeps up behind it, maintaining the spooky aura.
Soon, Hassell's trumpet enters with a crying, sad wail, sounding lost, despairing, and almost mourning, in a manner not unlike Eddie Hazel's acid guitar on Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain". With Eno providing a light, sublime touch with "Rare Minimoog and treatments" (which included backward echo here), Hassell weaves around the desolate landscape. Soon, you feel like you're watching or you're in the middle of an arty horror film. Again, the horn doesn't solo per se; it drifts in and out with a few seconds of sometimes-piercing squalls each time, disappearing and reappearing again and again, without warning. When Hassell cuts out, he lets the creepy background briefly take over, making us anxious and almost scared for his sudden entrances and disappearances.
At times, when the background takes over, or when Hassell goes into breathy mode, "Charm" actually becomes sort of calming, especially at about the halfway point. However, it then becomes disconcerting again when he goes back into screaming mode at certain times. At about the 13-minute mark, he lets out a pity-filled trumpet yell occasionally, backed by an echo wail and breathy sounds, leading up to a dizzying swirl a few minutes later before trailing off into sustained tones and then vanishing for a time. After a minute or so, his trumpet subtly weaves its way back in with sustained tones again and swirling figures before leaving again at the 18-minute mark. Letting the background briefly take over, he softly breathes into the foreground again, building up to a lengthy howl which echoes and then wanders off into a confused stroll through the music before righting itself and gaining composure near the end. Once the finale is reached, the song calmly blows off into the distance, as if it was a creature that has said its peace, accepting its place and fate. For the last few minutes, the trumpet is gone and the background synth, drums, and drone claims their place again before they also trail off and disappear.
Much like Eno's view on the Velvet Underground's first album, Fourth World wasn't a chart topper but it did turn heads in the pop world word in more ways than one. The music had deep resonance for many artists. Hassell received the greatest compliment of all for "Charm" when his mentor Prandit Pran Nath expressed admiration for it. But Hassell wasn't pleased to see that it was stocked in Eno's section at record stores or that some people thought that Eno himself created the ideas and the sound: "My sound was already in place before Eno... and the mood of pop critics of the time was to assume that he was the creator of all," Hassell explains on his website.
Still, the pairing gave Hassell a new label for his next two albums, and he could at least take solace in the glowing reviews that the album received from New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Village Voice. Eno wanted to extend their collaboration to also include David Byrne (who offered to do anything that was needed on Fourth World but didn't wind up participating), but Hassell didn't like the idea they had of putting radio-sourced voices over funk-rock, so he bowed out of the project that was to become My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. (If anything, Fourth World itself sounds more akin to the source material of Amos Tutuola's novel than the Eno/Byrne record).
In addition to also influencing Byrne and Eno's further cultivation of African music for the next Talking Heads album, 1980's Remain In Light, Hassell participated on the sessions for the album, doing a glorious chorus of horns and soloing on "Houses In Motion". Eno also revisited the dark ambient textures of Fourth World on his next solo album On Land, which features a wonderfully unsettling cameo by Hassell on "Shadow", accompanied by cricket sounds. Similarly, Eno would appear on Hassell's next few albums, albeit in the guest musician capacity. While Eno would go on to bigger paychecks producing U2, Coldplay, and others, Hassell would find greater visibility in his career working with Peter Gabriel as well as David Sylvian, Kevin Martin/Techno Animal, Ani DiFranco, Ry Cooder, k.d. lang, and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. In interviews, Bono, Pete Townshend and Bjork would sing his praises.
His unique style would also breed admirers who followed a similar path, such as Ben Neill and Nils Petter Molvaer. Fourth World was propitious for the other musicians too, as Michael Brooks went on to collaborate on other Eno records in addition to scoring numerous movie soundtracks. Percussionist Dieng, supposedly doing his first Western session for Fourth World, would go on to work with Bill Laswell on a number of studio projects, including Mick Jagger's first solo album.
The idea of a "First World/Third World" mash-up would also manifest itself with other musical adventurers like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, who soon started on the same path. In Gabriel’s case, his 1980 song “Biko” points to his interest in African politics, and his self-titled 1982 album delved into African music. Like Glass and Reich, he tilted more toward his roots, here in prog rock, though he later very admirably started the Real World label to record many worthy African artists, for example byhelping Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour break through to Western audiences.
Simon, meanwhile, picked up on South African mbaqanga music for his 1986 album Graceland in a somewhat more even-handed hybrid, where his bookish New York singer/songwriter chops ride on top of the tunes while still making it somehow sound like Western pop music. This is as evinced by how well the album sold, in the process opening the gates for a Western appetite for "world music".
It is not as if these were all isolated incidents either. Hassell would later collaborate with Gabriel on the 1985 Birdy soundtrack, and Simon would work with Hassell’s admirer and soon-to-be producer for Simon's 2006 album Surprise. Later, there would be other world music hybrids that were hugely successful, like The Lion King soundtrack and the controversial work of artists like Chris Ofili, namely his 1996 piece “The Holy Virgin Mary”. (That piece memorably features the sound of elephant dung splatter.) The beginning of the '80s marked a fruition of this interesting mash-up of cultures.
The Legacy of <i>Possible Musics</i>
Possible Musics in Performance
Hassell kept on updating and processing the "Fourth World" concept throughout the '80s. At a November 1981 show at New York's Public Theater (see an excerpt from the video above) with Eno, Brooks and Dieng, he performed an extended 20-minute version of "Groit", with wild harmonizer loops at the end and clapping rhythms. The performers then follow this up with an untitled 16 minute track that has breathy sounds akin to "Ba-Benzele", then ending with and a nine minute version of "Charm" where the atmospherics are less spooky but the percussion playing is much more abstract.
That same month, at a show in Toronto, a the group performed a 25-minute version of "Charm" that sounds more dreamy and airy, with the menace from the original version gone. That’s then followed by a lively 20 minute improvisatory piece that would have sounded out of place on the album, as well as an intriguing ambient/musique concrete piece after that. "Groit" follows this, sounding not as mysterious/strange. "Ba-Benzele" finishes things off, though in this version with a New Age-esque synth background and a slower rhythm.
At yet another 1981 show, this time in Washington DC, "Charm" had just the right mysterious sound to it but the percussion isn't felt and heard as strongly. "Fourth World" was obviously not a static place; Hassell will surely have more to say about it in his upcoming and long-promised book The North and South of It.
For his later albums, Hassell took the idea through all sorts of contortions, bringing it to strange, friendly and quieter places. 1981's Dream Theory in Malaya (aka Fourth World Volume 2) featured Hassell's own compositions and production, assisted musically by Eno and Brooks, along with flashes of ideas and continued themes from Volume 1 (trumpet choruses, clap rhythms, Prophet voicings, night creatures, and stern rhythms). Aka/Darbari/Java: Magic Realism (1983) was a personal favorite of Hassell, filled with micro-samples of Pygmy voices and gamelan ensembles, showing a less stringent, lighter side of ambient. The music lost some of the austere mood that gave Fourth World its power, but it was definitely more in command than the debut, and a good starting point for Hassell newcomers.
Power Spot (1986, co-produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois) has some of the stridency and authority of Fourth World. The exquisitely titled The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound (1987) takes his music to gentler and more cordial -- though still strange -- territory.
From the late '80s through the new millennium, Hassell collaborated with Burkina Faso group Farafina (Flash of the Spirit, 1988), dabbled in hip-hop grooves/samples (Dressing For Pleasure, 1994), did a lovely acoustic album toasting his jazz heroes (Fascinoma, 1999) and a subtle, lovely take on Third Stream Jazz (Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street, 2009).
Sex, Drugs, and Drone
My own experiences with Hassell's music started with the Fourth World album, which I bought in 1981, about a year after it came out. I'd never heard anything like it, but I fell for it right away. I was immediately turned into a Hassell fan.
I wasn’t the only one either, as I’d later find out. When I asked about other people’s experience with the album from a Facebook group devoted to Hassell, I heard from fellow fans. These include Matthew McKinnon, who observed, “It seemed like little ecosystems, so packed with colour and life and detail… gliding space from Eno's atmospherics, and dense filigree detail from Hassell's polyrhythms and digitally stacked scrawls of trumpet”. Another helpful comment came from author/producer/archivist Pat Thomas, who did the recent Fourth World reissue:
The album grabbed me from the first time I heard it; it was unique then, and still is. It's a mood piece that has the same effect on me that I get, from say, listening to Sandy Denny. It calms me. It was very much the blueprint for what Eno later did with the Talking Heads, and for Peter Gabriel's adventures into “World Music". It still sounds fresh to my ears. It's not just my favorite album in that ambient/world music "genre": it's one of my favorite records of all time!
A year after I first heard Fourth World, I was at the first of the Who's many "farewell tours" when it hit Shea Stadium in New York, in October 1982. There, I heard the heard the huge stage speakers blaring out the Remain In Light album and Hassell's "House in Motion" solo for thousands of people just after the Clash finished their set. That moment stayed with me more than any of the music I saw on stage that night.
A few years later in college, I found friends who indulged in Fourth World for bong sessions and strange erotic dalliances. I was pleasantly surprised when, upon interviewing Hassell about a dozen years later, he confirmed that these were actually the right impulses for his music. As he told me, “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.”
There's sex in the music, sure, but not smut. (For more along these lines, see Robert Graves' "The Naked and the Nude".) As for the connection between the music and a stoner vibe, he didn’t deny that either: "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?"
After college, I spent two years in Africa with Peace Corp in Botswana. The first show I saw when I returned back to New York happened to be Hassell, playing three free shows at the World Financial Center in September 1989 with a four piece band, a guitar/bass/keyboards configuration in addition to Eno doing a live mix. This same band, minus Eno, would record 1990’s City: Works of Fiction.
Hassell played seated; dozens of small black speakers spread out among the space for maximum aural effect, with Eno manipulating the sounds bouncing around. There was also a sound installation that Eno had created from the Amazon Rainforest playing before the band started and in the background throughout the week there. Hassell’s music sounded more sedate but definitely still surreal. You can hear an excerpt from the show in the clip below:
When I interviewed Hassell in 1997, I wondered where he wanted to take the ‘Fourth World’ concept. “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.”
Two years later, when I was compiling OHM- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music (Ellipsis Arts, 2000), I was determined to include some of Fourth World alongside Riley, Reich, Stockhausen, and Young, making sure our timeline went up to 1980 so that we could do that. Hassell agreed to have what was ostensibly an excerpted out-take/alternate version of “Charm”, as the rights to the album were still in flux. Luckily, that would change a little bit later.
Coming Full Circles: These Times...
I caught a 2009 show of Hassell's at Carnegie Hall -- his first American tour since the World Financial Center shows in 1989 -- where his "Maarifa Street" band included two sampler players who helped to create a dreamy, meditative mood. It wasn't until 2014, however, that I realized that I hadn’t thought of his work for a while -- that is, until I heard about the recent Fourth World reissue on Glitterbeat. This came about because the reissue's co-producer, Pat Thomas, was frustrated that it had laid dormant for years:
I noticed that the CD had been out of print for about 20 years and the vinyl for close to 30, so I felt strongly that it was way "overdue". I originally bought it years ago, because of Eno, but quickly become a Jon Hassell fan. As Hassell and I discussed, Eno's name really helped sell that record, with the benefit of folks then becoming Hassell fans and buying Jon's solo work."
Thomas also ran into all sorts of industry red tape too when he did his project:
It took over a year to sort out which record company actually owned the record, as all of these companies have been bought and sold to each other several times. The EG label who released it originally is long gone, then there may have been a JEM Records edition. At one point, Virgin owned the record, then EMI, and so on. My "day job" is doing research for reissues, so luckily, I knew where to start and who to talk to. But the process was painfully slow.
It was worth the trouble, though. Even without bonus tracks (there actually wasn't anything else to include from the sessions), the remastered album is a big improvement over the original CD reissue from way back, which is important because Fourth World is all about sonics and how they are used to create mood/environment.
Since I hadn’t listened to it for a while, I wondered how it would affect me years later. Sure enough, it still sounds strange, beautiful, and somehow still unique, even compared to Hassell’s other work or the decades of subsequent music. Musical progeny followed in that vein and carried the torch to some degree, but could never match it. It made me think about the way that 'Fourth World' and Fourth World seeped out of its African/Indian/minimalist origins into the pop and dance world.
On the subject of those influenced by the LP, the reissue promo material name-checks Ryuichi Sakamoto, Damon Albarn, DJ Spooky, Jah Wobble, Matmos, and Adrian Sherwood (On-U Sound), among others, but it's a much longer thread than that. You can also hear echoes of the music in the vast strains of the electronica world, in the music of dark ambient composers like Lustmord, Steve Roach, and Robert Rich; ethnic electronica groups like Transglobal Underground and Asian Dub Foundation; the spooky music of Bristol UK trip-hop acts Massive Attack and Tricky; early ambient albums from Aphex Twin, "psybient" (psychedelic ambient) performers like Shpongle and Entheogenic and... the list goes on and on.
Eno, Brian. "The Debt I Owe To Jon Hassell." Guardian, 9 November 2007. Web.
Hassell, Jon. Interview by Jason Gross. Perfect Sound Forever. July 1997. Web.
Hassell, Jon. Liner notes to Fourth World: Possible Musics, Volume 1 reissue. CD/LP. Glitterbeat, 2014.
Hassell, Jon. Personal e-mail interview by Jason Gross. November 2014.