Jon Hassell

Seeing Through Sound

In the second volume of his Pentimento series, trumpet player and composer Jon Hassell updates his 'Fourth World' idea for the new world of tomorrow, finds Danijela Bočev

In the year 2020, the global picture rarely seemed more disenchanted. With the pervasive clinical paradigm and recurring crisis discourse, a secondary condition has been induced, a certain drying up in the psychosphere. Yet the sense of uncertainty has made going forward a profoundly surreal experience. In a zeitgeist inviting both disaster cynicism and a new magical realism, none but Jon Hassell with his latest offering of luminescent sonic alchemy could better advocate for the latter, dreaming up possible paths through his ever-evolving ‘Fourth World’ synaesthetics. Now on his own Warp-affiliated label Ndeya, the composer-trumpeter continues exploring ways of creatively surviving on shifting terrains, his sound meandering stealthily forward in a state of perpetual re-imagining.

Combining old and new layers through a long-gestating creative process serves as the main artistic credo. Hassell once described the Fourth World music idea as "a returning to, and a stepping forward at the same time." Updating the concept in his latest Pentimento series, he revisits and reworks his old ideas and memories emerging on top of new ones, dehistoricized. Fragments of the past, present and future shapeshift in a fluid assemblage of superimposed sounds, where alternative histories reflect possible musics for utopian futures, but always remain rooted in the now.

With refined textural atmospherics he is sound-painting the multi-dimensional complexity of the ceaseless mutations of life atop an unchanging timeless consciousness. A seemingly serendipitous compositional nature of impressionistic samples and soundscapes overlapping is assembled together with an impeccable layering of craft and focus here.

Seeing Through Sound, the first sequel in the Pentimento series, borrows its paradigm from a painterly technique defined as the “reappearance in a painting of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over.” A pictorial haunt of sorts, as some defiant original presence is reintegrated in the composition anew. Painting, as the artform most explicitly exposing the surface-bound nature of art, obliquely poses a larger question: can any art ever hope to transcend its own facade or forever remain in awe of how deep that surface really is? Hassell’s answer is, of course, both at the same time.

The twentieth century’s divine discontent with the limitations of the medium has fueled countless avant-garde transgressive strategies of transcendence. Hassell is himself an emblem of the late twentie century, ever a silent figure at the forefront, cooking it up with the progenitors (Stockhausen, Pran Nath, Riley, Young, Eno). His signature calligraphic atmospherics, admittedly owing to his mentor, raga master Pandit Pran Nath, the immersive art of gradual change to Terry Riley, the vertical listening idea (immersive listening in the now, observing the sound shapes instead anticipating what comes next) unmistakenly inspired by La Monte Young’s eternal drone, to name a few meaningful influences, only ever emulated in principle, allowed his sound to shape up to something unique in the extreme. His incomparable, heavily-processed trumpet sound, halfway between alien tone and human speech, is like a steady stream of planetary consciousness, quietly eroding artificial boundaries.

Like a magnetic needle, his trumpet touched all cardinal points of a world on the cusp of the 21. Century, set out to dream up a music seen as the agent of greater unity, social experiment translated into art. The experiment that brought about the Fourth World idea, a globetrotting travelogue of Hassell’s unique West-East synthesis, psychogeographically located North-South, where in his perfect post-Freudian fourth world of super Id sensibility, embodied philosophies dance with disembodied senses.

His fascinating conceptual holism so defiantly transcends being the sum of its parts yet is beyond reverent to every element fused in; an agent of greatest possible unity within a culture-whole approaching total hybridization. He once remarked, "…perhaps the symbol bank is near capacity and the only alternative is exploration of ideas reflecting off the surfaces of other ideas. Or perhaps this is what the creative process has always been about…" Perhaps. Hassell has always been sound-painting the ever-transitional and mutable spirit of our times, now in an unduly prolonged millenial hauntological haze, with the twenty-first century still struggling to be born and the pentimenti of the twentieth century persistently emerging through. Hassell has always shown us how the future does not create itself from a vacuum but through re-actualizing untapped potentials of past forms. He blows his trumpet once again into the void of the twentieth century, but the echo continues on in a transfigured form.

The way noir atmospherics of alien jazz soundscapes exquisitely merge with mysteriously gestating, glitched up electronics feels decidedly less terrestrial on Seeing Through Sound, as if depicting homo digitalis merging with virtual habitats. Perhaps the Internet as a new tribal territory, with the info revolution still in its infancy, is like a developing country, socially integrating and slowly merging with our deeper selves.

But for all its conceptual maximalism, gen(r)e-splicing and densely irregular time layering, the compositions here are supremely considered pieces of continuously mutating gracefulness, spacious and expansive, stretched like a long fade-out into timelessness. Equally grounded and spaced out, on Seeing Through Sound Hassell has found an ideal balance of psychoacoustic and compositional values, the most sublime synthesis of tone magic and artistic craft. A sense of thrilling suspension masterfully crafts the atmosphere of nervous stasis as a meditative state of being. The enigmatic ‘Unknown Wish’ transports the listener into a kind of aural Tarkovskian Zone, setting the secretly ominous tone, whilst ‘Lunar’ features a processed trumpet in a hall of mirrors. ‘Moons of Titan’ is a gorgeous piece of tone magic, hypnotic rhythm with splashes of shimmering luminescence, capable of extracting oxygen out of moon dust via sonic alchemy.

The double-faceted power of the ‘Zonal’ sound is strikingly deceptive, appearing only superficially disorientating, as designed to drive a shallow ear mad, but profoundly cohesive once you internalise the record’s instruction, "listen as if you’re being told a secret", quoting Fellini. Hassell, seducing the listener into acute awareness of microsounds in a mercurial surreal landscape, recultivates the ear. A magnetic interiority pulls us through the inner ear’s rabbit hole and as if into the anechoic chamber of the Self, suddenly hearing all the noises your psyche makes.

True ambient of Hassell works like a “non-specific amplifier of the unconscious” to borrow Stanislav Grof’s description on the effect of the LSD, tuning you to your deepest dynamics and bringing to awareness what gets pushed in the background, while the foreground is distorted and liquified. But what emerges as the greatest pentimento is this core silence of total inner absorption, the epic of individual life as it emerges in its primal sound form from the vast ocean of sound to which it will inevitably return. Eternal pentimento, the subdued undertone made apparent without a hint towards some New Age cliché. Listen, for you are being told a secret.

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