Jon Hassell: The Rock & Roll Globe Interview

The electronic jazz icon seeks volunteers for his latest sensory experiment (a/k/a new album)

Jon Hassell (Art: Ron Hart)

Innovator/composer/ethnomusicologist Jon Hassell is a little flustered now.

After a recent brief health setback and a big move from his house to an apartment, he’s now going through his belongings, sorting out the artifacts from his life.  And what life it is.  In his early years, the trumpeter moved through a who’s who of modern composers- studying with Stockhausen, recording with Terry Riley, playing in La Monte Young’s ensemble.  Striking out on his own in the late 70’s, he made a name for himself with the concept of ‘fourth world’ where his exotic music combined ‘first world’ technology/electronics with ‘third world’ rhythms, years before anyone was talking about ‘world music.’ This cumulated in his 1980 masterpiece, appropriately titled Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, a collaboration with long-time admirer Brian Eno.  Throughout the years, he’s put together a stunning discography that’s transversed Western classical, Indian classical, African music, jazz, ambient and techno into a truly unique style.  His recorded output slowed in the early millennium but he came back strong in 2018 with the lovely, playful Listening to Pictures ((Pentimento Volume One) on his Ndeya label and a recent series of reissues, including his debut from 1977, Vernal Equinox.  Now, he’s following up with the aural kaleidoscope of Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two), which is full of evocative titles and references, again on his own label- the album starts with “Fearless” and ends with “Timeless’ and though he’d be too modest to say it, those aren’t bad adjectives to sum up his own work. In some ways, we the listeners became willing volunteers in his latest cross-sensory experiment. Restless soul that he is, he’s already thinking about his next release as he digs through his archives.

Thanks to David Beardsley for his help with research.

Jon Hassell

The new album has a beautiful calmness to it and yet it sounds like a  mysterious collage – what do you attribute that to?

I wish I had an answer. I think it’s just a matter of accumulated taste and just deciding, “OK, I’ll use the best things and throw out anything that ring a dissonant bell.” 


What did you have in mind with the title of the new album, “seeing through sound”?

That was a multi-faceted thought. That means seeing by way of sound, which means that you’re using the sound to do something tantamount to seeing. That’s really going around a circle. (laughs) 

So, what does ‘seeing through sound’ mean?  I was thinking that you’re using sound, arranged in a particular way to act as a lantern. And I started feeling like it was sort of in comparison with jazz and blues and things like that which had a certain kind of a social meaning. And I thought, in these turbulent days of the virus, “Well, here’s a funny angle… trying to find a way through the math.” Thinking about the things that had been coming at us now- these little bits of things that are making life change completely. And I thought there was a little connection there with the blues.  That was the way of singing your heart out in a way. And that was just one of the facets of the idea because it was equivocal- seeing by WAY of sound.  That’s what I was saying about using it as a kind of lantern. And seeing THROUGH sound.  That’s why I really like the equivocalness of it. 


You titled each selection on the new album as a ‘scene’- do you see the album in cinematic terms?

Absolutely. I don’t see it that clearly to make a plot but I was using that Fellini quote that’s on the record (“Music always seems to be about telling you a secret…”). I think it’s in tune with something like that. I’m always into that and the fact that I turn to Fellini for a touchstone, let’s say.  It’s very much done consciously because it’s all cinematic in a way.


How do you see that this relates to your previous release?  The title notes this as Part 2 of a series.  

I would just say that it’s an extension of the previous record. And I’m hoping that it does stir images and sensations of places and things like that. A primary aim is that you should be able to imagine this scenario in a do-it-yourself way.


Do you have plans for a Part 3 of this series and beyond?

Well, to a certain extent.  It was really just that the continuity here is mostly in the titling and some cross references. 


As someone who’s interested in astronomy, I’d like to hear your thoughts about how you incorporated that into your work, with recent titles like “Moons of Titan,” “Lunar.”

I’m happy to give those that kind of stimulation for ones’ own conception. I’m glad that it does have a profile that can be made be made concrete and stimulates imagination. So, whatever ambiguity is in the whole package, it’s based on knowing or hoping that kind of thing actually makes a difference in the mood of listening.


Related to another new song, what is the ‘unknown wish’ from one of the song titles?

That one has an interesting pedigree. The title and thing was inspired by some thoughts that Brian Eno had and that were presented to me about what it was. He’s become one for brevity- you know, instead of making an hour long piece.  This was made as an extremely short tune- it’s only about three minutes, and a whole kind of world was represented there. So I was happy with that.  Brain said something about just knowing when to stop. When something has been said, let it lie there and don’t try to spin it out into a sonata or symphony. So he was admiring in the conciseness of it and I was too. You can get a lot with brevity, where it’s evocative and meaningful. It just says “here this is.”


Regarding the people who played with you on the album- co-producer Rick Cox, composer Michel Redolfi, long-time collaborator Peter Freeman- since you’ve been working with them before, what do you think they add to your work and what do you like about working with them?

They’re my go-to team. And I know their own contribution to the ideas and things like that were all part of my association with them. You could say that everybody had a part in shaping it. But hey, I get to be the star! (laughs)

Jon Hassell Seeing Through Sound: Penimento Music Vokume Two, NYEA 2020

In the notes to the album, you say that the background music on “Lunar” was influenced by a Scriabin piece. What intrigues you about the composer’s work?

Scriabin is fantastic.  His music is an the inspiration for that.  It was a discovery for me. I’ve recently acquired a taste for Scriabin and that was only because I didn’t have a lot of contact with his music before. 


Do you think your concept of ‘fourth world music’ has evolved recently with your recent albums?

Well, hopefully it has evolved but as an idea. I don’t know how many years it’s been that I’ve been operating under that banner. Remember, politically back then (the 70’s), there was a third world and a first world, right? And the first world was the industrialized and the third world was poor countries, usually in Africa. So I’m eternally very proud of that. I wouldn’t walk around the supermarket boasting about that. But the idea of changing that third world to ‘fourth world’ seems to be an extremely powerful notion.  If I were an advertising guy, which I guess I am in a way (laughs), I would say “hey, that’s fantastic!” It has so many meanings and can be extended into more than just music, right? It’s about a whole world view in anything. So it just sort of erases that ‘third world’ idea or meaning of being the music that comes from poor places. 


You had been talking about putting out a book for a while.  Do you still have plans for that?

Oh yeah.  It’s really been done but it’s kind of ingestating now. I actually have a manuscript for it and it’s been published certainly amongst me and my friends.  It’s an extension of the concept of ‘fourth world’ as social dynamic and trying to sort of undermine clichés that exist about sexuality and things like that. And just sort of touching on every sort of bete noire that I’ve paid attention to.  It’s kind of a recipe of a new way of organizing things or naming things at least.  It’s about what ‘fourth world’ has become, and how it’s kind of erased boundaries that are not supposed to be there because it’s just been given a handle to think in that way. I’ve actually had a mock-up of the book for a long time and I have some interest in it but I haven’t been able to pursue that side of things.


Will it come out this year or next year?

I don’t see a direct avenue for it.  I have to go through a bit more polishing. I have been sending it around and getting opinions and things.  But I’m sure I will do that. It’s just a matter of time before I get around to that.


From all your work and travels, are there any cherished mementos you’ve collected over the years?

Oh sure, many. And I’m afraid that this move that I had to do may have filtered out some of those things. I’m just in the process of trying to take inventory. But sure, they are things that are kind of precious and indicative of the general idea of fourth world. I’ve got a tamboura here.  Thank God that didn’t get lost.  It’s from (singer) Pandit Pran Nath, who I studied with in India and elsewhere.  A great, great raga master, who Terry Riley and La Monte Young introduced me to.  So I’ve still got that, even in the chaos of the move that I’ve just made. 


AUDIO: Pandit Pran Nath NYC ’76

What happened with your move?

I had a big beautiful studio and an old house from the ‘30s and it had such character and everything.  And all of my god-daughters had moved me out of that place. I had a friend of the family go in and get that stuff out so I’m surrounded by boxes because I just keep everything.  I have cassettes here that are, to me, precious. So thank God some of those things remain with me. You gotta figure out how to deal with it and I’m figuring. I’m just pulling out cassettes, seeing if anybody remembers what they were.  And lots of DAT’s. 


Are these archival recordings that you’re going through of your own work?

Yes, because I’ve documented everything.  So, crawling through the rubble.  And I just got my keyboard here out of storage and things like that. This is my old keyboard, a Yamaha. It’s a piano more or less. So, little by little.


What are you finding in your music archives?  

(laughs) Oh, much too much to think about.  Much too much to say. I’m just opening up boxes and looking at things. Even just my laptop is filled with tracks that are concert tracks that I really like and I’m certainly going to be taking that for the next record.


What other artists are you listening to now?

Not much.  It’s been about just getting me regrouping.  


Do you hope to do shows again at some point?

Well, I would LOVE to do that. But remember, the other looming shadow hanging over everything is the virus, right? So, any show that you’re going to do is going to have to be designed in such a way that you do the ‘stay in place’ and ‘don’t go out’ mode that’s become our burden to handle.


Some artists are doing stay at home shows and broadcasting videos of it.  Maybe that’s an idea for you?

I wouldn’t kick it up out bed to tell you the truth.  But I’m praying for something else. Thinking of these solutions, ways that are concerts are sort of… depreciated. And it’s something where new records are going to be it for a while.


Any plans for to release your ‘Solid State’ installation DVD that’s been rumored for a while?

Oh my god, would I love to… And the answer is yes.  As far as plans, maybe.  But that’s an eternal plan and inside, it’s like ‘how do I do this now?’ And it’s also like the new way that concerts are going because the virus is so daunting.  I’d love to stumble upon something that that wouldn’t be so scattered in terms of audience and that kind of thing.


How are you managing with your own label?

It’s a sub label within Warp and I’ve really liked working with them.

Jon Hassell Seeing Through Sound: Penimento Music Vokume Two, NDYEA 2020

You have such stunning covers for your records and it seems like visual artist is important to you, especially the artwork you’ve featured of Mati Klarwein.

My happiest times were in Deia in Majorca (Spanish Island) with Mati and his family. It’s still a place that I see as a Valhalla.  Of course, everybody’s changed and moved now. As a painter and an artist, he’s a touchstone and no one has done has ever done anything like that.  He was kind of ‘fourth world’ because he was so omnivorous to touch on every music and for him, the more obscure the better in a way. His family and everyone that was there and I forget the exact date but it was a perfect place. He remains an inspiration, just something so beautiful and so powerful that you can kind of use a strand of it here and a strand of it there.  



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Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He has written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, and Blurt. Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfriend and 30 plush cats.

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