For the better part of four decades, Jon Hassell has explored a multiplicity of musical states that have sought to unlock a previously unheard language of the trumpet. Born in Memphis, Hassell’ musical life has been a passage through diverse sound cultures in search of a personal language informed by his distinct collection of interests and united under his self-coined “Fourth World’ sound.
After studying under Stockhausen exploring European Serialist traditions, Hassell returned to the states in the late 1960s and found himself working closely with Terry Riley and Lamonte Young exploring Minimalism during a highly fertile period, which birthed works including Riley’ “In C’ (on which Hassell performed for the debut recording). As the 1970’s wore on, Hassell became increasingly focused on refining his performance language, which was increasingly shaped by his time spent studying under Pandit Pran Nath. Teaming up with Brain Eno in the early 1980s for Fourth World, Vol. One: Possible Musics he began to truly define his interests syncing traditions from Asian and African musics with electronics and his own brand of expanded trumpet playing that references equally Minimalism, Jazz, electro-acoustics and contemporary composition.
“When I started this brand if you like of Forth World Music,” Jon Hassell explains from his home in Los Angeles, “it was merely a matter of opening my ears up. If I hadn’t done it there’a a good chance someone else would have. In many ways when you start to listen to this other music around you, it means you need to ask “what is my culture?’, how is it that you’re going to use the possibilities that are at your disposal? The other musical cultures you’re listening to have grown in this Petri dish and are created with all manner of limitations within a locality. I wondered how can I, in this culture where I exist and where I know everything about everything, create something meaningful from this artificial state.”
There’s little question that the notion of “culture’ is an increasingly complicated phenomena – a result of increased access to information (and cultural artefacts) and reduced geographic boundaries. Globalisation and the instantaneous connections that come with modern technology are both a blessing and a curse.”
On one hand it means contact can be instant and direct, but it also results in the terms of engagement being altered. For example during most of the later half of the 20th Century access to music came from radio, tape trading and other less “instant’s sources – almost forcing the more curious of listeners to hunt harder and engage deeply when a musical trophy was captured – today almost every recorded musical event is a mere packet of data away. With some much choice comes an inevitable inability to find the time needed to absorb such vast oceans of sound, not to mention the countless other cultural morsels on offer.
For Jon Hassell, much of his early musical life was housed in movements and musical discovery periods that have become “legendary’ through the lens of time. It may be said though, in this day and age such significant localised explorations appear harder to realise.
“You’re right, it’s difficult for things like that to happen now. That comes down to the “all at onceness’ that we have – the “google’ effect. If you consider this idea of locality, any group of people making music who are located away from the modern world, the more local and the more unique something potentially is. You think of musical cultures like Gamelan or the music made by some of the Pygmy groups, they grew in their own space by their own means. Like with hip-hop, you can continue this idea into that as after all, these music’ are defined by their limitations. These guys make music with what they have at their means, with maybe a little contact with the next tribe, but that’s it. I think as everybody gets to know more and more about everything – the colours begin to get more grey or white, maybe it all becomes white noise.”
“So for me I really value the path I’ve taken – starting out in Memphis as a kid with Johnny Cash’ car on my block, going off to the conservatorium, to Stockhausen, then back to new York to hit the minimalist thing with Terry and LaMonte, then Kronos and it kept going. It was around that time I started to rethink the trumpet, to start from scratch and reach out to this thing I could hear. It came down to this question that Brian and I are talking about in The North And South Of You – Making The World Safe For Pleasure, that question is “What is it that I really like?’. Lock yourself in a room and keep asking yourself that question.”
“Now, with Itunes and all that, you still have corporations who have interests in you liking a particular music and there’ peer pressure for people to take into account as well, so with this chance to know every music ever made it’s interesting that it still occurs that people know all The Beatles songs for example, but have never heard any Gamelan music for instance. That’s what is happening now, so for me I feel blessed that I came along at a time when I could be part of these cultural pockets and move between them in this quest of “What is it that I really like?”
Another pressing concern with the growth of rapid musical distribution networks is the potential hybridisation and eventual loss of geographically isolated musical traditions. With younger generations distracted by the seductive shimmer of music from outside their “local’ area, the passing on of musical heritage that has occurred for many centuries is beginning to break down. Conservation of these traditions is in full swing throughout locations throughout Tibet, Mongolia and parts of Africa amongst others, as the last musicians pass away, taking the aural traditions that fuelled their cultures for centuries with them.
“It’s ironic,” Hassell laughs softly, “that in fact there’s a new kind of missionary that is saying “don’t just imitate what you hear on the radio and dream of going to New York to play there’ – it’s more about valuing that element that you have at hand. Not just with music, take a table – why trade in your beautiful wooden table for some piece of Formica. There’ a lot of that sentiment out there, what I call North think, meaning the developed verses under developed in some sense. Of course this will be interesting when we talk about it in Australia, as things are quite different there to many other nations in the Southern Hemisphere.”
“This idea I use of North and South, relates to a syndrome that came from primal experience of living in the cold or the warmth, not so much geography. For example, someone like Bjork can come from the north, but have a very southern attitude, so there’ lots of ways to mix it up. In any case, there’ this reverse missionary thing going on – let us people of the north, speaking broadly of that term of course, help you people of the south keep what you have. Don’ get a guitar and try to be Elvis, keep what you have. It’s a very complex world in that regard -the only thing I see is to find some Oasis, some place, geographically or mentally and try to exist in that without trying to be, and know everything.”
Hassell’ own musical oasis is still very much in a state of development and modification. His latest disc for ECM Last Night The Moon Came Dropping It’s Clothes To The Street (his first for ECM since the now iconic Power Spot) is an utterly stunning listen. Its deep, open spaces offer a listening environment that is rarely heard these days – lilting trumpet phrases, float amid sparse sound environments that are scantly littered with free flowing delay lines, gentle processing and unrelated yet sensitive pulsing elements.
“I am conscious of weening people from periodic sounds,” Hassell admits of his approach to composition, â€œgetting people to move away from drum machines and that kind of period definition. Like when you play with an African drum ensemble or something, they aren’t counting a sub-beat – they are taking cues from the movement of phrases and it creates an openness. Take a look out a window, the leaves are moving at one pace, the car goes past at another, a bird flies past – if you try to periodise that picture you find all these little rhythms happening and I think a lot of my music is like that.”
Hassell is also increasingly interested in answering his question of “What is it that I really like?“ something reflected in his continued drive to create music that he considers “post-orgasmic’.
“In November 2006 I came up with this idea that the more beautiful the music I make the more pleasure I am entitled to – that’s a little bit like self pleasure, but for me I divide music in pre-orgasmic and post orgasmic. I feel what I create falls into post-orgasmic music. I mean pre-orgasmic is like the build up, rhythms growing and pace, where as post-orgasmic music is like floating and that’s the kind of place where I reach out to and ask what is the most fantastic and exotic music I could create here! That’s been my motivation from the beginning and still keeps me going to this day, so it can’ be all bad.”
Jon Hassell plays live at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Luminous Festival on Saturday June 6.