The Strange World Of… Jon Hassell

Before the release of Listening To Pictures: (Pentimento Volume One), his first new album in nine years and the launch of his own imprint label on Warp, experimental trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell talks Claire Sawers through ten important works in his back catalogue -- including one he wished he’d put his name to, and one still stuck in the pipeline

Portrait by JM Lubrano

Now in his seventh decade of making music, the electronic pioneer Jon Hassell joins us to look back on some of the albums he has made that have shaped the way he performs and thinks about music.

Always a visionary, with an interest in the esoteric and the sensual as well as the technical and the cerebral, Hassell is maybe best known for developing the otherworldly musical style known as "Fourth World". The term summed up his very unique way of blending the minimalist techniques he’d studied with African percussion, world music and his own electronically manipulated trumpet playing. Since the 1960s he’s also worked on film scores, immersive meditative installations, Indian ragas and collaborations with the likes of Talking Heads, Björk, Moritz Von Oswald and Carl Craig.

He speaks to us from his home in Los Angeles just after his breakfast bowl of popcorn to reflect on mistakes he’s made with money, regarding Brian Eno as his brother, his love of Miles Davis and finding Nirvana through bongs.

It’s very early Pacific Standard Time and when asked if he’s had a coffee yet he replies: "Yes, I have. It’s funny you bring that up. I’ve just started having popcorn for breakfast. I mean why does popcorn have to be only a fun food? After all, it’s corn. So I have these very unconventional breakfasts. Actually, that’s not true — it’s a combination. Sort of like a mixed breakfast with regular fruit and cereal and all that kind of thing then I go to coffee and I think, ‘Mmm, maybe a little salty taste would be good here?’ Why should popcorn be relegated to the ghetto of a fun food, right? [laughs] It’s time for popcorn liberation!"

Terry Riley – In C, 1968

Playing on this album was a real crossroads for me. There was this foundation at the State University of New York [SUNY], in Buffalo, this music thing for composer/ performers. I’d been studying in Cologne with Stockhausen. I was two years there and then I applied and I got a grant for the State University. I had a wife and dog then. So we came back to Buffalo. I was there to do these concerts, about five or six a year at Carnegie Hall, and Terry was brought in. I was doing these traditional things like Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat and things like that. I was very fond of stuff like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge [Song Of The Youths], where he used children’s voices. That was the pinnacle of my “standard” trumpet playing; the very demanding part. I had to figure out all these notes, these complex Stockhausen scores.

So Terry came up and I told him I’d just been studying in Europe and bathing in what was going on there. There was a big jump between Stockhausen and that way of working that Terry had.

Terry had his family there and so did I, and we became really close friends. We did In C with my wife doing the pulse on the piano. That was a really important time for me. Terry made an important comment in relation to contemporary European music; he called it “neurotic”. At that time I thought that was pretty drastic thing to say about that avant garde scene, but in fact, it rang so true. The twelve-tone system, the atonal thing was all the rage. But I listened and I thought, this is Freudian territory. It’s not exactly a melody you can hum. Ok, you can string these notes together, and make it very lyrical but it’s too angsty!

La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Jon Hassell And Garrett List: The Theatre Of Eternal Music, Dream House, 1974

Remember these were the first days of psychedelia. So drugs and being high and all that was definitely part of it. Everyone who went to India [Hassell, Young, his wife Marian Zazeela and Riley went to study with Pandit Pran Nath, a specialist in classical Kiranic singing] was used to seeing these bongs on the table — basically marijuana and almond paste, it was a deep part of the Indian tradition to have that kind of lift. And enlightenment.

In fact, there shouldn’t be such a stark line drawn between my time here and my time in India. It was everywhere! It was the thing.

The fact it enhances listening is not a secret. Of course it enhanced it. Nirvana appears! The wonderful world of overtones appeared! It’s not like I’d never heard of them, I mean, come on, I had a PhD by then. But the important thing that came out of that time with The Theatre Of Eternal Music was the ultimate tuning up; suddenly these overtones just lit up. And that was with or without the booster of any kind of drugs. The experience wasn’t dependent on that. So that really stuck with me.

Jon Hassell – Solid State, debut live performance 1969

That meditative, psychedelic stuff was common in the pop world then, you could hear it in guitar bands like The Grateful Dead. Those immersive experiences were very in vogue then. I did a set called Solid State, kind of like a deep electronic installation piece in museums. Solid State was my way of kind of building a picture you could see, something visual. People would lie about on soft pads on the floor, like I’d done in concerts with Terry before in Buffalo. My take was to treat it like a sound sculpture, to make the listener appreciate what sound was. This was a pulsing thing. Bob Moog was in the picture because it used sounds created by oscillators he’d made on an early Moog synthesiser. There was this big sonic spectrum and then you could carve holes out of it rhythmically over about 45 minutes. There’s an album of this coming out on the new label, Ndeya.

Listening To Pictures: (Pentimento Volume One) 2018

I have to congratulate myself on how nicely 
the notes I wrote for the new album are written. The definition of pentimento is, “Reappearance in a painting of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and used as elements in a final composition.”

I write, “So I started seeing (or was that hearing?) the music we were working on in the studio in terms of that definition. Seeing it in terms of a painting with layers and touch-ups and start-overs with new layers that get erased in places that let the underlying pattern come to the top and be seen (or heard).

"Most of the world is listening to music in terms of forward flow – based on where the music is ‘going’ and ‘what comes NEXT.’ But there’s another angle: vertical listening is about listening to ‘what’s happening NOW’ – 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.”

Music is the only one of the arts that comes exclusively through the ears. That was the point of that little essay I put in the press release, to talk about these invisible worlds. Feeling inside the sound.

I’d been releasing on ECM before this, but I knew the relationship wasn’t going to last so I made the jump. Matthew Jones at Warp offered me this chance to have my own label, and I thought, “Yeah, you know, I’m more at home here.” For Listening To Pictures, it was definitely intentional for it to sound futuristic. I like to think back to Miles Davis bringing in the Fender Rhodes piano. Oh my god! An electric instrument? In jazz? It was pretty eyebrow lifting. And then of course he started playing with a wah-wah pedal, trying to sound like Jimi Hendrix. I really relate to that. Miles Davis is my hero. If he was alive, he’d be getting his fingertips or feet wet in electronica. The idea is that you’re letting the real world come in, and other possibilities come in. Otherwise, it’d be really sleepy time! That’s why I’m going in the direction I’m going. I’m interested in staying alive, creatively speaking.

The label takes its name from Deya, on the island of Mallorca. Mati Klarwein was the artist who did the artwork for Bitches Brew and he became a great, really close friend of mine. Basically my music is trying to be his painting. He died about four years ago in Deya. I just loved him. The track ‘Pastorale Vassant’, which means hillside pastorale, was written when I was staying at his place. The tinkling sheep bells at the end are recorded up in the hills at Mati’s place. His way of doing things — from the spiritual to the sexual — was very influential to me. The record is dedicated to him.

Jon Hassell – Vernal Equinox 1978

That was the record Brian Eno discovered when he came to New York. He was over producing Talking Heads and that’s when we met. He came to a concert of mine at The Kitchen, came backstage and said, “We should do something together.” That was the beginning of all that. He’s written about it very generously, how what I was doing was something he’d never heard before, this new thing. The ethnic strains, the African connection, the electronics, the drones — the La Monte characteristic — and then I was playing raga lines along with very cool chords. So the jazz underlying, with world music and electronics, that was all in that record, and the reviews were saying finally this is something we can call new. That was sort of the kick off, a lot of people started paying attention after Vernal Equinox and that’s when Brian and I did Possible Musics.

Jon Hassell / Brian Eno – Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics 1980

That was where the term “fourth world” came in. It was more than a joint project. It was basically my project. The pieces on there, the musicians I brought onboard, the percussionists, a Brazilian composer. It was a new combination. That was basically my record. As I’ve told Brian many times, I made the mistake of putting his name at the top, the same as mine was. [laughs] I was having to play the name game at that time, to make sure I could make another record. Those are all things that are known between us, and Brian was always respectful about what it was that he was getting from our association.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts 1981

Then I was asked to work on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. It came out of me. [Brian Eno and David Byrne] came to me one day and said David is tired of what the Talking Heads are doing and we’d like for you to make a record with us. So I said “great,” and I started doing a few little sketches and things and then they went off and started recording in California, and I was still in New York. They sent me back a cassette — you know in those days that was what you did, now it’s “send me a file!” — then it was an actual physical cassette.

What I got from them didn’t sound like what I had in mind; I had in mind some kind of more futuristic extension of stuff that was in Possible Musics. The piece ‘Charm’ in that previous record is kind of an amazing confluence of raga lines, harmoniser touches, electronica and Afro-Brazilian drumming. I wasn’t happy. I wanted something that was going to take that genetic code.

Not only did I not play on the record, but my name is nowhere printed in any form whatsoever because the management said, “If you do this then you’re going to be letting yourself in for a lawsuit.” David and Brian — especially David, because he was in Talking Heads and that was like the big group — they had management teams. Basically I was ‘the downtown composer’, the guy invited in to the pop fold, so to speak. That entire record came from me. So that one hurt, bad. It would have meant a steady stream of income if I’d been involved on it at that level.

I did the sketches, I gave it to them. But it was my own innocence and pride, about being a downtown composer in the pop world, as opposed to a pop musician — for the same reason that Brian decided to do ambient and experimental things — that meant I probably made the mistake of my life in terms of income stream by not going ahead and cooperating. I was very indignant. I remember writing back and saying, “I don’t want anything to do with this.” So I rang the death knell for myself on that.

Brian and I continued on, he produced two or three more records in my own world. Look, I’m great friends with Brian. If I have a brother in this world, it’s him. So I’ve been through the stuff with him, less so with David. I could have handled it differently. They could have handled it differently. But I was the whole roots of the whole record, and got completely erased by their management, who didn’t want to put themselves into jeopardy with lawsuits about this and that. If I’d been Ry Cooder, or anybody else at that time on that stage, with management, there would have been a legal situation going on where I was named as co-producer or something like that and royalties would have come my way. Instead there’s not even the slightest mention on the record at all. They mention everybody else involved! Down to the gophers in the studio! That made it clear there was a kind of management blanket going on. They just wanted to protect their own money – Brian and David’s but also their own money. They were the big guys and I was just this downtown guy in a canoe without a paddle, legally speaking. Where there’s big piles of money to be made, there’s always shell games going on in terms of publishing and getting credits and all that. I didn’t have the smarts or the management to know how to harvest that, uh . . . planting!

Jon Hassell – Fascinoma 1999

Ry and I had made my record Fascinoma in 1999 and then Hollow Bamboo in 2000 was an offshoot of that session. For Fascinoma, Ry produced a session we did in a church in Santa Barbara with him on guitar, plus the jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson and Ronu Majumdar, a fantastic Indian flautist. He’s an incredible classical musician who plays the bansuri, but he needed to make money too, right, so he’s from the Bollywood tribe. What happens is they get swooped up by the big Bollywood phenomenon. It was a beautiful experience playing with them and operating in the same sphere as him.

Since I studied with Pandit Pran Nath, he’s probably been the biggest influence in my life. For Terry too. Terry is basically carrying on that tradition and adding something else. I think I’ve merged a certain strain of ethnic music and jazz and electronics, with those Indian rhythms.

Jon Hassell – Pentimento Volume 2 2018

The next record is in the same genre as Pentimento Volume 1. It’s definitely of the same family. It was always set up like that — we’re back in the age of vinyl now and no-one wants to listen to an album for 63 minutes so we decided to split it in two. I was recently listening to the tracks we’ve set aside for part two and I’m not quite satisfied with them yet so I’m going to be working on them more. Matthew [at Warp] is a fantastic partner, a fantastic interpreter. The worst thing you can do is have 100% control. I’m really blessed to have that kind of person around me, to bounce off, and have an opinion.

Jon Hassell – The North And South Of You unpublished book

I always have loads of projects I’d like to do. I’m buried by notes. The challenge is to find a way to prioritise things. I’m still looking for a publisher for my book, The North And South Of You, that I’ve been working on for years. It’s a collection of ideas that belong together. I’m interested in this north/south divide. This notion of north representing logic, and south being intuition. North is formatted, south is free. North being the developed world, and south being the “underdeveloped” world. Or I guess what goes on above and below the belt line! The brain up top, and down below, dancing, and also procreation. Female is south, wisdom, worship and adoration. North is fear, exclusion, otherness and rejection. That north/south binary or metaphor is just the lens through which I can examine these ideas. Brian Eno is a big fan of the book, and through his connections, I came close to signing a book deal with Jamie Byng at Canongate but it fell through. That was a real downer, so I’m still looking for a place for it. It’s my way of analysing a lot of things going on right now, in technology, the internet, the future, money, the planet, Mars, over-intellectualisation, sensuality, and the suppression of the female. It’s an extension of some talks I’ve done recently. Some of these ideas will immediately get booed. But for me these are all ideas that are really pertinent right now, and really necessary to think about.

Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume 1) is out now

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