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Jon Hassell's Tense New Track Is an Ambient Piece Inspired by Spanish Goats

The influential composer's "Pastorale Vassant," from his first album in nine years, samples the "constantly changing 'gamelan'" of bells around the necks of goats on a hillside in Spain.

Colin Joyce

It's been nine years since the boundary pushing trumpeter, composer, and experimental electronic musician Jon Hassell has released a record, and in that time it sorta feels like the reach of his influence has expanded exponentially. It's not that the 81-year-old hasn't had his share of admirers over the four decades that he's been making music. He's famously collaborated with Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music. Brian Eno, another close compatriot, once wrote of the great debt he owed to Hassell's spacey playing.

But in the past decade or so, his philosophy of Fourth World music—essentially the idea that traditional folk instrumentation from around the world can be combined with electronic abstractions to create something that transcends the time and place of its creation—has been adopted by a whole universe of younger artists. From dance music mainstays to archivalist record diggers to DIY laptop experimenters, the world of experimental electronic music has been flooded with records that nod implicitly or explicitly to Hassell's music. If you've heard a thumb piano, or a particularly complex marimba passage, or a synthetic approximation of either of the two twirling around one another in the midst of an otherwise ambient piece, you likely have Hassell to thank for that inspiration.

This is the climate Hassell returns to as he prepares to release Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One). In a glut of records that draw on his innovations, he's back to prove that as much great music as this mini-movement has produced, there's nothing quite like the genuine article. Last month he released "Dreaming," a drumless song whose droning trumpets nod to cosmic jazz. Today, he's back with the record's second single "Pastorale Vassant" (streaming above) which pushes into even stranger territory. It's a jittery, delirious four minute tunnel of overlapping synth percussion and gaseous keyboard parts, all of which swirl together in this chaotic fog of melody and harmony. Its slippery energy and skittering rhythms almost even approach the chaos of breakbeats or IDM, but it recedes into more peaceful realms as chiming bells enter the piece about halfway through. It barrels foward, but somehow still feels still, a unique trick distinct to Hassell's original version of this sound—you'll be lucky not to get sucked under.

In a press release, Hassell says that the track started with the bells. In the hills around Deya, Spain, he encountered flocks of goats who roamed around with bells tied around their necks. He describes the effect as a "constantly changing 'gamelan.'" Around it he built that synthetic landscape, which, listening back, he describes as an unintended echo of Paul Klee's 1922 painting Twittering Machine.

"When I looked at the painting while listening I was amazed at how they reflected off one another in a kind of unintended "tone-painting" way (where the picture sounds like the music and vice-versa)," he writes.

The track is streaming in up above and you can listen to it there in advance of Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)'s release one June 8. The week before that album is released, Hassell will give a talk at Issue Project Room called "Riffs on Hyperopia and Music" during which he will "will dialogue with the audience and present “3x5 ideas” from his book-in-development." Tickets for that are also available now.