Over the past couple of years, Boiler Room has been pushing ever further into that anything-but-grey area between classical, jazz, ambient and even less defined areas of experimental music. So we’re impossibly excited to be broadcasting a show by two of the absolute dons of this hazy zone, Jon Hassell and Christian Fennesz. And just in case you’re in any way unfamiliar with the former of the two, we asked Andy Thomas to remind us exactly why the trumpeter, producer, arranger and intrepid explorer of interzones has been so influential through the second half of the 20th century and into the current one. Grab discount tickets here.
“Jon Hassell invented the term ‘Fourth World’ both to describe his music and as a general term applicable to other global minded work. This evokes the optimistic notion of a trans cultural harmony beyond divisions and competiveness.” So said ambient legend Brian Eno when his collaboration with Jon Hassell, Fourth World Music Vol: Possible Musics was recently re-issued by Glitterbeat Records.
Originally released on Editions EG in 1980, it was the most influential ambient LP since Eno’s own Music for Airports. And like one of Eno’s other great collaborations, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne, the LP foresaw the cross-cultural ‘ocean of sound’ we can hear today in untold internet-enabled cross-fertilisations. “I wanted the mental and geographical landscapes to be more indeterminate – not Indonesia, not Africa, not this or that. Something that could have existed if things were in an imaginary culture,” says Hassell in the liner notes to the re-issue.
“Here was this kind of beautiful cloud like music that was coming out of Terry which of course related to eastern traditions,”
Born in Memphis in 1937, Jon Hassell studied at Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In the mid sixties, the trumpeter received a much greater musical education through Karlheinz Stockhausen – the godfather of European electronic music – at Cologne Courses for New Music. “I was really taken by Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Jünglinge  – one of his first electronic pieces,” Hassell told writer Jason Gross. “It had a lot of ‘sampling’ of boy’s voices, which was then used as a chordal and structural elements. I had to find out what was behind these clusters of notes and so I had a grant to study in Cologne for two years.” During that time, Stockhausen provided the building blocks for Hassell’s own futuristic ideas.
On his return to America in 1967, Hassell met one of the founders of minimalism, Terry Riley, at the Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo. “After studying in Cologne with Stockhausen he was a breath of fresh air (and) behind the wave of American minimalism with its re-discovery of trance, raga, and psychoactive drugs,” Hassell said recently.
For Riley’s 1968 masterpiece In C, featuring Hassell on trumpet, they looked beyond what they saw as the rigorous and intellectualised music of revered European composers like Stockhausen. “Here was this kind of beautiful cloud like music that was coming out of Terry which of course related to eastern traditions,” said Hassell in a Sony Masterworks Podcast. More than 40 years since the original recording, In C was reworked last year by Damon Albarn’s Africa Express with the help of Brian Eno.
After an introduction by Riley to another of the great American minimalists, Hassell performed with La Monte Young’s Theatre Of Eternal Music. Released in 1973 on the French label Shandar, Dream House 78’17” consisted of two epic drone pieces. The sini wave oscillations of La Monte Young were matched by the freaky distorted horn of Hassell and vocal of Marian Zazeela. The result was an LP of hypnotic, avant-garde music to meditate to while scaring the neighbours.
Despite Hassell being best known for his ambient fourth world LPs, he could in fact also get seriously funky
By the time the LP was released, Hassell, Riley and Young had become students of the Hindustani vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, who set up the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music in New York in 1972. It was the principles learned during this time that inspired Jon Hassell’s 1977 solo debut Vernal Equinox. On the LP he used his trumpet to imitate the vocal techniques learned off his mentor. “From 1973 up until then I was totally immersed in playing raga on the trumpet,” he said in an interview for Sound on Sound. If you can feel the funk in Miles Davis’ Agharta then you should reach for this one.
The thing is, that despite Hassell being best known for his ambient / fourth world LPs, he could in fact also get seriously funky. His 1979 LP Earthquake Island sits alongside the heavier end of Weather Report. The hard fusion of “Voodoo Wind” would definitely have surprised anyone coming to his work after Vernal Equinox.
With a stellar line up of musicians from the world of jazz fusion including Miroslav Vitous on bass, Nana Vasconcelas on percussion, Badal Roy on tabla, and Dom um Romao on percussion, it is the LP to go to if you want to hear the muted horn of Hassell in full force. The cover art was by Mati Klarwein; most famous for Miles Davis LPs like Bitches Brew and Live Evil, the German painter would later return for Possible Musics.
One of those to hear the future in Vernal Equinox was Brian Eno. “This record fascinated me. It was a dreamy, strange, meditative music that was inflected by Indian, African, and South American music, but also seemed located in the lineage of tonal minimalism. It was a music I felt I’d been waiting for,” he said in the sleeve notes to Possible Musics. After attending a concert at The Kitchen in New York, a personal friendship changed into a creative one when the pair entered Celestial Sound studio in New York.
Not since Alex Patterson laid the foundations for The Orb at Paul Oakenfold’s Land of Oz has ambient music sounded so relevant
With musicians including Brazilian Nana Vasconcelos and Senegalese drummer Aiyb Dieng they began work on what would become Possible Musics. Speaking to the LA Weekly in 1999 Hassell explained the roots of his fourth world sound and his use of electronics. “I saw how Indian music had structure and sensuality at the same time, so rather than literally using the tambura (stringed instrument), I translated the tambura into an electronic cluster of samples or an electronic drone, and then added whatever rhythmic elements one can infer. I didn’t want to reference; I wanted to get a new idea about what could be.”
The re-issue arrived at a time when boutique labels like Music From Memory and RVNG are feeding the appetite of a new generation digging deep for esoteric new age and ambient music. Not since Alex Patterson laid the foundations for The Orb at Paul Oakenfold’s acid house base Land of Oz in 1989, has ambient music sounded so relevant. Indeed what Hassell calls his “coffee coloured classical music of the future”, can be heard as a sonic link between K Leimer and Oneohtrix Point Never.
At the same time the cross pollinating, pan musical sound of tracks like “Griot (Over ‘Contagious Magic’)” will resonate with anyone who soothed a comedown with the untold ethno-dub explorations of the more hippie-ish corners of the 1990s, or is temped by the Megadog reunion later this year. But if crusty-ravers are distasteful to you, you can still revel in Hassell’s influence on everyone from Jah Wobble and African Headcharge in the ‘80s, through DJ Spooky’s nineties and 2000s work, to Romare and Goat today. And in the jazz world, Hassell’s post-Miles trumpet sound became a huge influence to European players like Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen.
“Eastern Eno, playing with Glass, the deconstruction of New Age and the reconstruction of a new world.”
Another artist inspired by Hassell’s ambient sound is Len Leise who records for the International Feel label, home to DJ Harvey’s Locussolus project. For his playlist for the Test Pressing blog (another great source for esoteric new age music) he chose a track from Hassell’s 1981 follow up album Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Vol. Two. Here are his words to accompany the chosen track “Gift of Fire”: “Muslimgauze’s American brother, coffee-coloured classical, eastern Eno, playing with Glass, the deconstruction of New Age and the reconstruction of a new world.”
Released in the same year, the hugely influential My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was recorded by Eno and Byrne as a direct tribute to the visionary fourth world music of Jon Hassell. He had originally been scheduled to appear on the LP but there were apparently disagreements about the musical direction. By this time Hassell was also setting his sights on his next exploratory work Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism.
“A trumpet, branched into a chorus of trumpets by computer, traces the motifs of the Indian raga Darbari over Senegalese drumming recorded in Paris and a background mosaic of frozen moments from an exotic Hollywood orchestration of the 1950’s,” begins Hassell in the liner notes of the 1983 LP. “While the ancient call of a pygmy voice in the Central African Rainforest rises and falls among gamelan-like cascades, multiplications of a single “digital snapshot” of a traditional instrument played on the Indonesian island of Java.” The most exotic of all Hassell’s fourth world albums, it was to be the last of his trio of LPs for the Editions EG label.
He was still looking to the future but this time his fourth world principles merged with heavy slabs of dub-wise, sci fi-funk
Released on ECM in 1986, his next LP Power Spot was produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois with musicians including guitarist Michael Brook, and Jean-Philippe Rykiel and Richard Horowitz on keyboards. Although Hassell’s heavily processed horn lines and hypnotic atmospherics remain, Power Spot was far more groove based. In fact the electronic, ethno funk of a track like ‘Wing Melodies’ has as much in common with My Life In The Bush of Ghosts as his own fourth world recordings. Just as essential was the brilliantly entitled follow up, The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound. Some of the detached rhythmic patterns of Power Spot can still be heard, but this was a more darkly ambient offering: mysterious voodoo music that matched the swampy cover painting.
Jon Hassell took one of his biggest turns with his 1990 LP City: Works Of Fiction. The LP was released on the All Saints label, also home to Eno and other ambient artists like Harold Budd and Laraaji. The trumpeter was still looking to the future but this time his fourth world principles merged with heavy slabs of dub-wise, sci fi-funk. On tracks like “Voiceprint” you can hear exactly why he credited Miles Davis as a more obvious influence than ever before. Indeed this might have been the sound of Davis had he continued on the path of the proto hip-hop of “Rated X” from the 1974 LP Get Up With It.
In a recent interview Hassell explained why he himself was drawn to hip-hop. “It was kind of a spontaneous combustion, the same way that Pygmies would wake up and imitate bird calls and do rhythm on rocks and stones, whatever was around them, or drums from neighbouring tribes or that kind of thing. Only here it was the turntable.” In 1993 “Voiceprint” was reworked by 808 State at a time when both the UK-centric trip hop and NYC-based illbient scenes were also becoming wise to the genius of Hassell. The LP continues to inspire electronic producers. Last year two of its biggest admirers Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald invited Hassell to Detroit to work on a forthcoming project.
After another beats oriented future jazz LP, Dressing for Pleasure, in 1995 he returned to a harder edged fourth world sound on the LP Sulla Strada. The LP would pick up where the trio of ambient LPs for Editions EG left off, while adding some of the more claustrophobic and agitated atmospherics of his early 90s work. “The aim is to create a dense, ritualized sound atmosphere…in the same way that the density of water can be said to form the movements of a swimmer,” he said in the liner notes.
Inspired in part by the ceremonial music of Cameroon, it furthered Hassell’s attempts to create a music that was “not entirely primitive, not entirely future but someplace impossible to locate either chronologically or geographically.” And Hassell would continue to explore that elusive place on LPs like Maarifa Street. With its voodoo jazz and sonic weaving, the LP evoked the spirit of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Hassell’s continued interest in Arabic music resulted in the addition of the devotional voice of Tunisian singer Dhafer Youseff on “Divine S.O.S.” and “Open Secret”.
As well as working with like-minded artists such as Brian Eno and Michael Brook on his own projects, Jon Hassell has also found common ground by collaborating on other musicians’ albums. One of those is David Sylvian who Hassell first worked with on the 1984 LP Brilliant Trees, writing the title track as well as the haunting “Weathered Wall”. A year later Hassell returned with Sylvian for Alchemy – An Index Of Possibilities. Those two LPs also featured Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose own collaborative ethics and exotic visions of a world without borders chime with those of Hassell.
Both Sakamoto and Sylvian have also worked with Christian Fennesz. And, to complete the circle, the Austrian guitarist and glitch pioneer will support Hassell at Church of St-John-at-Hackney for a special performance of Psychogeography, broadcast by Boiler Room. Hassell’s latest project has its roots in the 1990 LP City: Works of Fiction. With that LP remixed last year by the likes of 808 State (again) and No UFOs it’s clear that this most exploratory and connected of artists is still as keen as ever to weave his way through the fabric of our music culture.
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