Music

A Travelogue of Jon Hassell's 'Fourth World' Journey Into the Mystical

Jason Gross

Fourth Word truly is a world unto itself, a vision of avant-garde experimentation that influenced numerous composers in its wake.


Jon Hassell and Brian Eno

Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics

Label: Glitterbeat
US Release Date: 2014-11-25
UK Release Date: 2014-11-24
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Artist website
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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.

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