You Gotta Orient Myself: One of Jon Hassell’s Last Interviews

The groundbreaking soundscaper and reinventor of modern trumpet died on June 26th at age 84

Jon Hassell Remembered (Art: Ron Hart)

From Eminem to Elvis to Paul Simon to Madonna to Wu-Tang Clan, cultural appropriation is inextricable from popular and unpopular art.

And avant-ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell, who died on Saturday at the age of 84, threw a wrench in the works from the very start of his recording career that complicated the idea of appropriation even further. From the late 70s onward, he had plenty of masterstrokes in his catalogue from the proto-trip-hop of 1994’s Dressing for Pleasure with Bluescreen to his final, two-part Pentimento albums in 2018 and 2020 respectively, with shapely mood pieces that would sit comfortably between Burial and Flying Lotus on playlists of much, much younger acts.


AUDIO: Jon Hassell & Bluescreen Dressing For Pleasure (full album)

Hassell also propagated a musical philosophy of the “fourth world” to work around his cultural borrowing from non-Western sources that were scarcely heard on these shores at the time his 1980 magnum opus Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics was dreamed up with Brian Eno, owing a great lot to Arabic and Middle Eastern sounds in particular. After all, is it cultural appropriation if you’re trying to conjure the musical lineage of made-up worlds? It’s a dicey proposal 40 years later that nonetheless takes a backseat to the music itself, especially the man’s extraterrestrial trumpet playing that really does sound like no trumpet that ever existed before and few since.

Despite his fallout with Eno — first for murky accreditation issues and then for basically calling the inventor of ambient a sellout of sorts — they were kindred spirits in trying to simply bring sounds into the world that they believed were new. Eno is obviously the more well-known and celebrated of the two, but Hassell’s work sounds like no one else and maintained a steady, sturdy pulse that wouldn’t budge any closer to jazz, “world music,” or electronic boxes for an extraordinarily long time. Few musicians have made such lyrical meat of space without gravity; by contrast the patterns of ambient Aphex Twin sound like repetitive hooks.

Well into his final years, in his 80s, Hassell’s closest sonic peers were those (usually electronic producers) most associated with futurism and the forefront of unexplored, unearthly sonics. Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) was particularly twitchy, while last year’s sequel Seeing Through Sound maintained a paradoxical tense calm, redolent of Miles Davis’ spacier offerings between In a Silent Way and, oh, Get Up With It.

This never-before-printed discussion with Hassell took place around the 2020 album’s release after a period of illness that prompted a GoFundMe page to be created for assistance with the then-83-year-old’s health expenses. On the phone, his speech was riddled with stuttering and not-always-coherent trains of thought; this interview has been edited for clarity and interpreted to the best of my ability. Some of Hassell’s phrasing, whether due to his cognitive struggles or his artful manner of speaking, is, for lack of a more tasteful term, a trip, and hopefully his ideas come across the way he would have wanted.  


I wanted to ask how you’ve been feeling and I hope you’re in better health.

Because I moved my studio and everything I had here in Grand View — a much, much larger place, and I temporarily live in an apartment — my life is a bit topsy-turvy so I’m trying. You gotta orient myself. I had a bad night last night actually, so I’m a little bit off my balance, so help me.


I’m sorry to hear that. I wanted to ask about the two volumes of Pentimento albums. What connects these for you? Both titles, Listening to Pictures and Seeing Through Sound, they seem to imply a greater desire to visualize these pieces?

Well, I like to drop some bread crumbs in the forest and I’m not naive about what writers need to have to make something happen. 


Were these albums designed to be more visual in some way?

“Pentimento” refers to the repainting of music, [an idea] which comes from art. Just like an artist comes in and decides ‘that’s not right’ and then maybe does a little touch-up on it. So it’s the seeing through from present to, like, one of those montages where [there’s] a calendar [with] the days flying off. I think it’s a rich idea, how it relates to the way the music comes out. It’s not about the beginning of the process. The process is really me and my principal collaborators, Rick Cox and John von Seggern. It’s the idea of seeing through layers from what’s actually in the gallery, so to speak — and thinking of a montage of how the painting changes, almost a documentary of touching this and touching that and deciding you want that. It’s a rich, rich metaphor. 


AUDIO: Jon Hassell “Fearless”

I agree, it’s fascinating. I can hear a bit of mid-70s Miles Davis in the second volume, in a track like “Delicado.” And the first volume felt more like jittery and anxious to me. I’m not sure these distinctions were intentional between the two records

Well it’s not a surprise that, through and through, I’ve been there in terms of Miles, definitely a mainstay. There are things that one just loves; it’s part of where I am and will probably always be. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep up with all the new technology and the new possibilities for that. I’m thinking about a moving montage where the theme that gets shipped out as part of the film and see how it grows in a compressed time like a flashback. 


You’ve talked about these albums being “vertical listening.” By contrast, do you have works that you feel are more “horizontal?”

Not in my own output. I mean all of that exists, you can’t get away from the fact that you are who you are and that you like who you like. From years of listening to Miles — there’s a guy with a roomful of masters. But that’s one that sort of comes out as “the cool.” And the harmonic palettes that were the markers of “cool” extended the vocabulary of the time.

Vertical listening vs. horizontal listening, they’re ideas that have come to me from my wonderful masters. They’ve all grown up with a love of Miles so that naturally comes in. At the same time, there’s a thing called electronica, which can’t be ignored. So how you put those things together has a lot to do with what happens in a particular recording session. It’s really organic and kind of, ‘this guy loves what I love’. So how do you use those wonderful bright spots of that kind of harmony that I love?


The word “placeless” comes up a lot when your work is discussed and I wanted to know if you feel more interested in that idea over time, or less the idea of music not having an origin or just being completely alien to regions or anything like that?

It’s a self-cautionary rule that you don’t want anything to appear to be so easily…[identified]. Putting things together that haven’t been put together before or are put together in a way that hasn’t been done before. I’m always on the lookout for — and it’s not like I’m looking like a talent search or anything like that, it’s just what appeals to your interior taste — what is it I want to hear? What is it that I really like? To let that notion circulate so that you’re not thrown off into some territory that you find yourself in because of anything other than the final hurdle. It’s a way of sifting through all the things that have been given to you. That’s a kind of underlying Golden Rule and of course that disappears in as many years as I’m practicing that idea. 


AUDIO: Jon Hassell & Ensemble London 2015

We’ll go on what you said about how you feel like that gap is sort of closing over time. How do you feel when you hear textures on contemporary records by electronic musicians or other artists that sound similar to things that you’ve done before? Do you feel that that’s become a good thing to hear those textures in other contexts?

I’m not sure I would be on the outside looking in for those things. I’m just saying, ‘What’s important?’ Keep asking yourself that question. Is there anything in here that’s only there because of X, Y or Z, instead of something that’s kind of sacred.


It’s well-known that when you were initially slated to be part of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, that the music they had completed was too “poppy” for your taste at the time. I want to know pop music now, or rap or anything like that, has come to be something that you’ve developed more of an appreciation for?

Ask me that again? 


If popular music has become something that you’re more appreciative of these days? 

Well, on the hip-hop side it was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and all that. That’s vital stuff and everything; I’m not keeping that out of my bed really. Those are wonderful, powerful anthems for lack of a better term. It’s just approaching things from a different level. I enjoy what’s been done there on a visceral level. I never got so deeply into that as to [be] tricking myself into doing something that I don’t want to do. And that’s where that mantra comes up: Do you really want to do this or is it just something that you like from afar? And you can take the good and bad from it.


Have contemporary electronic musicians like Aphex Twin or Flying Lotus had any impact on your recent work?

No, I don’t think so. I know who they are and all that. Unless there’s something new that I hadn’t heard, it’s not the number-one thing that I keep up with. I didn’t really come through a love affair with those things [even though I’m] appreciative of the sentiment and the power of… looking at it in a social domain and how it stirs things up and causes disruptions in the current music. I’m not a hip-hop historian and I haven’t kept up with things, but the raw power and lyrics and all that, it’s an extremely important handle for a progressive musician to pay attention to it. You need to at least touch it and see what the story is and how it relates to the rest of the world. 



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Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.

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