Legendary Experimental Composer Jon Hassell Is Still Dreaming Up New Worlds
On his new album, Hassell continues his lifelong exploration of the style he invented, Fourth World, which essentially means collaging folk music traditions with abstract electronics.
Photo by Roman Koval
In the mid-20th century, the term Anthropophagy—the custom of eating human flesh—was reclaimed as a worldview by Brazilian philosopher, Oswald de Andrade. It’s a symbolic devouring and digesting of external influences and information, and their subsequent transformation into something new and entirely Brazilian, where the flesh of one piece becomes the stem cells of another.
As individuals, we too cannibalize the information of others for the construction of ourselves. Plumbing through the deluge—songs, poems, philosophies, relationships, news, histories—we gradually hone in on our music, the stuff that strikes like lightning and catalyzes our own art. We devour the flesh of others to discover what exists in our own.
This idea is paramount in the career of composer/trumpeter, Jon Hassell, whose background is flush with music of all shapes and shades. The Memphis-born musician studied with both the hyper-intellectual composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Indian vocalist/teacher Pran Nath, best known for his ragas—arrays of melodic structures meant to affect audiences and color the mind. He's played in ensembles led by minimalist forefathers, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, collaborated with Brian Eno, Björk, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and the techno producer Carl Craig, and studied indigenous music all over the world. He has devoured multitudes. In turn his artistic identity is rich, variegated, and entirely his own.
His latest record, Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)—released June 8 via his own label, Ndeya—runs the gamut. It crosses space and time, careening through a lattice of electronics and doctored trumpet sounds, inflected by music from India, South America, and Africa. Listening is among Hassell’s finest work and emblematic of his approach to music, one that seeks to transcend distinction between genre and culture alike.
“It was a music I felt I'd been waiting for,” Eno wrote, remembering the first time he discovered his now longtime friend and collaborator in an article called, “The Debt I Owe to Jon Hassell.” Know it or not, we likely all owe similar debuts. For all that he has devoured, he has produced even more. The pictures heard in Listening are among his finest, and they’re more than mere reflections of an identity—they are demonstrations of a man who has touched the world.
Hassell, who pursued—but never finished—a Ph.D. in musicology at Catholic University, is perhaps best-known for an aesthetic called Fourth World—first demonstrated on the 1980 album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics. In his words, the genre is "a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.” It’s an approach that fuses the heady with the physical and the spiritual, a minimalist framework informed by music from all over the world.
Possible Musics, a collaborative project with Eno, featured a worldly cast: Welsh guitarist Percy Jones (Soft Machine), Senegalese drummer, Aïyb Dieng (Yoko Ono, Bob Marley, Mick Jagger), and the great Brazilian percussionist, Naná Vasconcelos (Brian Eno, Pat Metheny). To Hassell, all music deserves its place in the evolution of consciousness. His zeal for probing the vastness of human culture, and mixing approaches from the Western zeitgeist with musical elements outside of it—some largely absent from the digital world—has broadened our awareness of musical possibility. Throughout the development of the Fourth World, Hassell has manifested a singular encyclopedic style that’s fascinated an ever-growing list of fans and collaborators.
Since Possible Musics, Hassell has worked with iconic Burkina Faso group, Farafina, folk musician, Ani DiFranco, Ry Cooder (director of the Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Club and the eighth greatest guitarist of all-time, as ranked by Rolling Stone), and 11-time Grammy-winning producer Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2). More recently, his music has been sampled by seminal electronic musicians like Ricardo Villalobos, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Arca. He's also sparked a new generation of composers who explicitly invoke his Fourth World ideas, using malleted percussion and abstract electronics as a way of processing the strangeness of the world they live in.
These distinct musical traditions need links like Hassell to find their way to one another and demonstrate they can work together. His pieces are masterclasses on syncretic art, uniting various origins while subtly avoiding the sordid tinge of cultural appropriation—a subject worth broaching for anyone (especially a white man) who samples what he himself refers to as “primitive” and “world ethnic" music. Two weeks ago, over the phone, I asked Hassell how he navigates that field.
“Given the digital world,” he responded. “You have the ability to make a mosaic out of anything. And there are little dropperfuls in everything I do, because to be blind to the things that exist is foolish. And when developed in a certain way, it reveals a love [for that music].”
The 81-year-old composer then acknowledged the late painter Mati Klarwein, best known for his album cover artwork, most notably Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Santana’s Abraxas, and several of Hassell’s own records. “In his work, there are cosmic, spiritual, sexual figures—figures taken out of Playboy, for instance—painted in a different context. This is all part of the cosmology of being and it shouldn’t be left out because they happen to have appeared in another context,” he remarked of Klarwein’s collagist visuals. “That’s simply being aware of the world and aware of the things we really like, and being able to be subtle enough to represent them as new and different from the other. But if what you like isn’t apparent to you yet, you’re not going to do it justice, and you’re not going to present things with enough respect.”
Pentimento Volume One (there is to be a Volume 2) is dedicated to Klarwein. It’s named after a painting concept in which earlier images, forms, and strokes reappear as different elements in the final composition—not dissimilar to the assemblage of elements in Klarwein’s work. Both styles convey an awareness of the characters that converge to make the whole, and both artists work with the various palettes of the earth, from North to South—a loose distinction that Hassell commonly makes: the elements of art that make us think (North) versus the elements that make us move (South). On the surface, the “North/South attitude”—as he called it, which informs his long-in-the-works book, The North and South of You—may seem a suggestion of division, or at least a facile distinction, but Hassell has always made an effort to present the idea holistically. We have a body and a mind but they are one being. We have a North and a South but they are one world. And within, multitudes. Ultimately both Hassell and Klarwein explore the intersections of our Norths and Souths, suggesting art can be both sensual and cerebral.
The two artists spent time together at Klarwein’s home in Deià—the namesake of Hassell’s Warp-affiliated label—on the Spanish island of Majorca not long before his death in 2002. “I was so inspired by his paintings about the combination of the North and the South, the spiritual, the secular, the sexual… I’ve always said that if I could make my music sound like his paintings, I would be happy.”
Hassell’s dedication sits on the inside of the LP, and the cover itself mildly resembles one of Klarwein’s pieces.
The prominent woman was taken from a pulp magazine cover in India when Hassell was studying with Nath. She represents the adoration of nature, beauty, and sexuality, he says. Her hand is reaching for a vine, which has become the superimposed Landsat image of the Nile River that was used on the cover of Possible Musics. And covering the left of the collage are the venetian blinds in Hassell’s room, and the plants outside his bedroom window. “It says what I want to say,” Hassell told me. “You could call it collage, but I call it a demonstration, a psychological pentimento.”
Listening to Pictures is painted in broad swathes. Its opener, “Dreaming,” throbs to life with low-end thuds and a repeated piano melody. Portions are slightly askew, off-putting, like rewinding torn tape. Eventually they merge in distorted drone—a dream half remembered upon waking. In swift divergence, Hassell hits the next track, “Picnic,” full boar. It’s skittering and frenetic with a barrage of tones, like a coked-out night in Tokyo or Times Square, but it too recedes to breathy ambience. More clearly tapping into his global influences, “Slipstream” features complex rhythms barreling along beneath a glowing canopy of ambience. And in “Manga Scene,” industrial electronics sound below Hassell’s muted trumpet, like a modern adaptation of Miles’ In a Silent Way era.
In total, dozens of soundscapes dot the eight-track record. Rapid transitions abound between quickly evolving characters. There are always more pictures to be listened to, but the next is no more important than the now. Hassell suggests we listen to Pentimento vertically—a concept borrowed from La Monte Young—which can be done by “letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of ‘shapes’ you're seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through Time,” he wrote for his press release.
Listening in this way reveals a tapestry of Hassell’s vast cosmos. He clearly respects the modes in which he dabbles—the mark of a veteran musicologist—as each cultural hallmark is briefly suggested, never parroted, and then constructed as new and different from the other. Each picture reflects the thoughtful digestion of his influences. Love, even. And their aggregate is an arousal of provincial spirit that invites us to become curious about the world, and about the worlds—North and South—Hassell invokes in his music. Klarwein, assuredly, would be proud.
Hassell’s curiosity was on display in our 90-minute conversation, too. He showed genuine interest in the millennial generation, with a greater air of kinship than afforded by most non-millennials. We’re simply another important picture in the cosmos to listen to. He made specific inquiry about our interest in psychedelics—are they common, are they still used to better understand the self—probably wondering how we discover who we are in an internet-colored world of over-information and fake news. “What you’re attracted to is controlled by the word-stream and the abstraction of the headline, and your friends saying listen to this or listen to that,” he said. “You can become the you that’s made up of a patchwork of personalities and do’s and don’ts and propaganda, so it’s really hard to find your way to authenticity.”
Indeed, we are the layers of earlier forms, the cannibals of human ideas, a pentimento of ever-evolving pictures. But the bad makes us just as the good. How do we filter through the noise and find that stuff that strikes like lightning? Our authentic self?
Perhaps we should start by listening vertically. Too quickly we shed a snapshot after a glance through the narrow lens of the viewfinder. What if we allowed ourselves to explore a fuller spectrum, to become more curious about its shapes, to devour and digest, and to observe the evolutions in our own flesh. A pause in the infinite scroll. Ask: how do these pictures make me feel? Do I want this to color my own identity? And in the end, which pictures will be part of my psychological pentimento?
These are the questions of those greatest of challenges: discovering ourselves and how we fit in a world so diverse and so grand. Within it, and within us, multitudes. Infinite ways to live, and upon closer examination, there is always beauty to be found—if only we remember to listen.
Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. You can find him on Twitter.