In Pole Position: Jon Hassell Interviewed
Daniel Patrick Quinn
, September 17th, 2014 09:30
Daniel Patrick Quinn interviews Jon Hassell about his long overdue book The North And South Of You and recent reissues of his music
"The basic metaphor is that of the north and south of a person as a projection of the north and south of the globe. A mind formatted by language and located in the head compared with the area of wildness and sensuality below the waist where dance and music and procreation reigns. Mirrored in a global north of "developed" countries that control the world by superior technology. A global south where there's a "technology" of the samba. Which one would you rather have more of when life ends?"
This is Jon Hassell on the thinking behind his long-awaited book The North And South Of You, the writing of which is still in progress. It has been on the annual list of 'must buy' books written on the front page of my diary for countless years now and if it takes him another decade to complete then even then it will have been worth the wait.
For those who don't know, Jon Hassell is a 77-year-old visionary trumpet player and composer whose intoxicating output since the 1970s could initially be described as organic, wordly, futuristic and overwhelmingly sensual. Even before you hear the music, you get the idea from many of his album covers: alluring, often semi-abstract landscapes that you want to leap into. Select one of his albums at random and you will hear what appear to be recordings from an idealized version of Earth, in which beings similar to humans wear ornate grass skirts, sit pleasantly resting at the base of trees gazing off to the distant forest-clad hills.
This fantasy land is full of philosophers, insect noises, and avant-garde conga pageants framed by lush rice terraces. It's a environment in which the intellectual and the sensual have fused, in which cutting edge technology and primal urges have come together in balance. This place must be located somewhere on the equatorial beltline – the point at which Hassell's 'north' and 'south' meet. It is, perhaps, a highly optimistic painting or dream of what the Earth could be like, a century or two from now.
To trace the beginnings of Hassell's unique worldview one need look no further than the first album recording that he appeared on, the original 1968 version of Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece In C. Not far off half a century later, here are Hassell's recollections:
"I can't separate the session itself from the 2-3 months of getting to know Terry, playing an all-night concert at the University of New York at Buffalo student center, dragging some Moog equipment up from the studio to play (I think) the first synth bass line. He was a big influence to me (and everyone). After studying in Cologne with Stockhausen he was a breath of american fresh air, describing the European music as 'neurotic'. That clicked with me as an audaciously insightful and accurate description. Referring to above: very 'north' and behind the wave of american minimalism with its re-discovery of trance, raga, psychoactive drugs."
Whilst thousands of hitherto 'unlikely' musical hybridizations are commonplace now in the age of being able to research and download sounds from anywhere and anywhen, equal temperament tuning still very much dominates popular culture in the West. Hassell's early projects with Terry Riley and La Monte Young were both doors to vast realms of alternative tuning systems that one could argue remain relatively neglected by the majority of modern composers.
"Of course my playing with La Monte Young in New York was a real baptism in the harmonic series. The oscillator was tuned to 60 cycles (USA standard, he tuned to 50 in Europe!) in order to avoid any unwanted frequencies. There was also a hashish milk shake in the picture and in these performances there was a crystalline world of overtones (the voices and instruments attempting an ultimate tune-up of natural harmonics) that I had never experienced. I later (1969) did a piece - Solid State - that was a growth out of that experience with a stack of eight perfect (2:3) fifths creating a dense harmonic block which was time-sculpted with voltage-controlled filters. Maybe to be released on Warp. Flash forward to recent times. Not into purity, I often tune harmonizer pitches in natural intervals but on keyboard for example you get a hybrid. And - look at hip-hop with all those samples tuned weirdly to get rhythm synch. That's opened ears to a plethora of exotic tunings."
An expanded version of Hassell's 1990 album City: Works Of Fiction has recently been released on Warp as an expanded edition with two bonus discs. I got to know this new release whilst re-reading JG Ballard's The Drowned World and found it the perfect musical companion to the vivid imagery in the text. The lands that Hassell and Ballard detail are both from an imagined future however many weeks, months or years around the corner. On Hassell's collaborative album with Farafina (1988's Flash Of The Spirit) is a piece entitled 'Tales of the Near Future', an obvious nod to Ballard's 'Myths Of The Near Future'.
The original album is, for me, the least interesting because it is atypical of Hassell. City sounds resolutely urban (hence the title!) and over-reliant on then-contemporary technology that paradoxically allows the material – particularly the percussion - to sound a little dated. The sonic atmospheres here are also often too specific, the places they evoke too limited. When one hears the sound of a drum machine there's less room for the imagination of the listener to set to work constructing elaborate imagery. That's just my opinion – others are bound to disagree and prefer City to the wide open, mysterious, beautifully vague landscapes suggested by the majority of his work.
What for this reviewer are far more enjoyable are the many gems on the two bonus discs. The second disc is entitled /Living City and is a live set from New York in 1989, live-mixed by Brian Eno. The finale is 'Nightsky', 18 minutes of shimmering drones and tropical insect accompaniment. Things reach such an ecstatic climax that you could imagine the performers levitating metres above the stage. Like much of Hassell's work, it's music for a magic carpet ride.
"I carefully edited the three nights of performances in NYC into one show so it's a sort of idealized concert but still live. I'm irritated by reviewers who think that Brian had anything to do with all the natural sounds except for a cross-fade from the Rainforest environment in the beginning. These sounds were part of my sonic palette in those days."
Psychogeography is the title of the third disc, and it's a collection of remixes of Hassell's work plus unreleased recordings that simply didn't find their way onto an official release at the time. The remixes certainly demonstrate how Hassell's ideas have been hugely influential on DJs and experimental composers of all genres. However, they sit uneasily next to Hassell's own pieces which, on Psychogeography, are frequently dazzling.
'Favela' is atypical Hassell in that it is funk-blues-rock, but what an album could be made of this unusual coupling of empty American South bar-room groove with Hassell's otherworldly snakecharmer melodies superimposed on this backdrop. It's as if Hassell's regular group of collaborators caught the wrong bus and he simply enlisted the help of a few heavy drinking guitar-wielding audience members for an improvised jam session instead. Other, more familiar sonic territories are explored on pieces such as 'Aerial' as synths bubble and drone whilst Hassell's treated trumpet swoops and soars across the canvas, sculpting curves over the evening sky.
Hassell's work spans six decades. I wondered what his secret to longevity was, not just as a musician with a career but as a creative person in general. He replied in reference to The North And South Of You, that book I and many other fans are patiently waiting for. There's a line from the book that asks you to ask yourself:
"What is it that I really like? Following that is a long process of self-excavation from being buried by what you've been told you should like."