Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell
Roman Koval

Jon Hassell at 81: Visionary Composer-Trumpeter Reflects on a Half Century of Music on His Own Terms

by Joe Lynch
June 28, 2018, 3:51pm EDT

A half century into an odyssey that's seen him work with musical prime movers such as Terry Riley and Brian Eno while pioneering his own distinct lane of so-called fourth world music, composer-trumpeter Jon Hassell is still active and vital at 81. His latest album, Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume 1), finds rhythms from around the globe (courtesy gamelan, udu drums and more) grounding meditative electronic soundscapes while his trumpet floats in and out of the ambient proceedings, with melodies emerging like images in shifting cloud patterns that disappear just as quickly as they become identifiable. (With that in mind, it's fitting the album is dedicated to late painter Mati Klarwein, the ingenious artist whose work appeared on the cover of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Santana's Abraxas.)

Talking to Billboard one afternoon over the phone, Hassell is voluble and reflective, readily waxing on everything from his early days to his deep love of Miles Davis' jazz-funk classic On the Corner – except when taking a break to make sure his equally vocal dog, Hendrix, isn't harassing the gardener too much.

Laughing about an acid trip with members of Can and opening up about some of the "scars" left from his association with Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, Hassell is candid in a way that comes naturally to those who've lived life on their own terms. He also speaks with the comfortable authority of a musical expert who's been in the trenches for decades; sure, some academics may be able to match his musical knowledge, but he's been a participant in, or front-row viewer to, numerous pieces that have propelled avant-garde music forward – not something those confined to campuses can usually say. On the other hand, while a professor has learned to edit their musings down to readily digestible soundbites or theses, Hassell isn't quite as used to tailoring his thoughts to a mass audience; he happily darts from postscript to postscript, flitting off on whatever biographical or musical detail catches his fancy at a moment's notice.

Below are highlights from our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

How to Listen to His New Album
Hassell explains the idea of "vertical listening" and how to be aware of your own "internal paintings" while listening to the spectrum of sound.

Music is the only one of the Arts in which it's entirely about the ears and hearing. Listening in the moment is vertical listening. You freeze the moment in a way temporarily and give it a quick scan and think, "What's the picture here, what am I seeing?" The atmospherics shouldn't be left out. In order to get a picture of what is happening, you pay attention to the spectrum. And not everyone knows how to listen.

I think it's only a matter of it being pointed out. Certainly given the myriad ways people are brought up and contact is made with myriad forms of music -- too many myriads there (laughs) -- but the idea is that you can try to turn people on to certain ways of doing things. And let's face it, drugs and enhanced listening is one of the big revolutions. And that's all the way back to the Grateful Dead and Timothy Leary and the psychedelic stuff on the walls while you're listening; that's an inflection point for that way of decorating the music experience. Which is not exactly a new thing – it's been going on for a couple thousand years in India…. But I don't think anyone [in music] escapes that who is producing something of interest. They have had gone through some version of that experience.

Working With Avant Giants, Dropping Acid With Can
In addition to teaching, Hassell studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most influential composers of the 21st century and a pioneer in electronic music. He also performed in La Monte Young's pioneering drone music group Dream House in New York City in the '60s and played on the first recording of Terry Riley's In C, which impacted the worlds of classical, rock, pop and beyond. Here, Hassell reflects on his many musical roads.

I'd been through conservatory in Eastman School of Music at University of Rochester and got a composition degree, and taught theory at American University in DC. At Eastern I was always in the band of radicals, five or six people, who were paying attention to what was happening in European music and atonal music and twelve-tone serialism.

The German side of things, they were all about the purity of things, and yet one of the main pieces I was most enchanted by was a deviation from that formula. Stockhausen did a piece called Gesang der Junglinge -- the idea was that he was using only the reverb from the voices of this boys choir and arranging things according to the serial canon of that. So I had a grant to go study in Cologne with Stockhausen at this thing called Cologne Courses for New Music in which he'd invite people like Severino Gazzelloni, the flutist du jour of the avant-garde scene, or Cathy Berberian, who was married to Luciano Berio.

And I was in the same group as Holger Czukay and the Can group, so it was a heady time. Speaking of psychedelic, Irmin Schmidt, one of the leaders of Can, I was at his house when someone had brought back acid from Amsterdam. I think that was actually my first experience with it; I remember being on the floor listening to Gagaku Japanese music and watching the fibers of the rug sway with the music.

And then to fast forward, after Cologne, that was straight into the association with Terry Riley. There was a thing at State University of New York in Buffalo that Lukas Foss was the director of -- grants were given to composer-performers, and that's where I met Terry. I remember one striking moment when we became brothers, and we still remain brothers. But I remember one of the first moments was when we were talking about things at a party and he called the European music scene "neurotic." And at first -- as in 10 seconds -- I was taken aback, and then 20 seconds later I was like, "wow, does that fit." The music was made in the ethos and atmosphere of Vienna and Freud, which was about the discovery of the inner workings of the mind. And you could link that up to the later perception of reality through the psychedelic revolution that happened.

Of course I knew [Riley's] music and I knew about building something on repetition and patterns and slowly evolving, which later became one of the legs of what became known as minimalism. Terry is really the fountainhead there -- Steve Reich is an offshoot, and often a flagrant copier in the early days. Terry was the lynchpin to all that.

And playing with La Monte, that was part of the Terry association. Terry left for California not too long after I came to New York. And here's where we get the vertical [listening] in a big way -- playing with La Monte in the Dream House and being made aware of the wonderful world of harmonics that's forming on top of the fundamentals.

The biggest thing ever out of La Monte and Terry came my association with Pran Nath. I just gave up everything and tried to play these curves of Indian music on the horn. I developed a technique relative to the classic form of a half and a tenth. I play by using the knob piece, and learn how to slide – when I'm blowing a C but I'm fingering a D, I'm sliding up into the D but starting in the pitch of the C. And the electronic background, I thought, "Well, it's pretty lonely doing this all by myself," so someone invents a thing called the harmonizer. So I started doing these things and expanding the palette with the harmonizer. Even in my classical training I loved Ravel a lot, and parallel movement by fifth and fourths was part of my sensual vocabulary -- or wanna be sensual vocabulary – in music.

Solid State & Advice from Terry Riley
Hassell recalls his brief foray into "motorik" (the beat used in krautrock) on one piece and shares that Terry Riley once unfavorably compared that particular piece to Steve Reich, which sent him back to the workroom. 

It was around that period of time I did a piece called Solid State which was an attempt to dive into that: "How could I relate to the pattern music thing, what could I do that could be something I could contribute?" After all, I was a trumpet player. That's putting myself down a bit, I was a composer-trumpeter certainly. But then I started trying to combine these things with my love of Miles and what was happening with him at the time going electric.

I remember playing the sketch I'd done for Terry and he said, "Ehhh, it sounds like Steve Reich," and I was like, "Oh God save me." And I ironed the whole thing out so that the only thing that was moving was the frequency -- a little box of frequency carved out of a large block, a circle of fifths, carved out rhythmically by the recently invented Moog voltage controlled filters. And the filters were set up in a sequence so in real time I could change frequency bends while the thing was sequencing. There would be gradual change in a gigantic spectrum, and that became Solid State, which I'm eager to get out on my new label. So Solid was in retrospect, not a mistake, but the motorik repetition is kind of a cliché. It's all evolution and that motorik thing was only one side -- I gave up on it except for Solid State.

Fourth World Concept
In a rapturous 1977 New York Times piece entitled "Jon Hassell, Trumpeter, Opens Vistas," writer Robert Palmer praised Hassell's pioneering work in what would become known as Fourth World Music (his 1980 album with Brian Eno is entitled Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics). According to Hassell, Palmer's review was the first to accurately describe what he was doing.

Robert Palmer was also a saxophonist and hanging around Pran Nath and La Monte and we'd often meet at these incredible raga concerts arranged by La Monte, and he came to a concert at the Kitchen [performance space] I did in the late '70s and did a review in The New York Times that pegged the combination of things. It wasn't that nobody was doing quote "minimalism," it wasn't there was nobody doing African music or nobody doing harmonic spectrum type stuff -- it wasn't that those things weren't being done, it was that I was doing them in one thing. He put his finger in the story of it being that particular combination. I'm doing the color mixing and all this in an instinctive way, because that's what I like. He often pointed to that one to being the birth of the fourth world, if I may indulge in that slightly hyperbolic thing of self-congratulation.

His Association With Musical 'Brother' Brian Eno and the 'Scars' Left After My Life In the Bush of Ghosts
Hassell and Eno collaborated over the years and remain friends, but Hassell has less warm feelings about his association with David Byrne. While Hassell performed on the sublime Remain In Light track "Houses In Motion" and contributed to parts of the seminal My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, he found the album "too poppy."

When Brian had just come to New York and was beginning to work on Remain In Light, he saw me at the Kitchen and we met backstage and he said we should do something. He'd written nice things about my first record Vernal Equinox, and here I am, a struggling downtown composer – and at that time it was definitely downtown, uptown in New York – and I said "great!" Why should I turn anything like that down? Even though I wasn't all that familiar with him. So he and David Byrne and I started hanging out quite a bit. They came to me one day, and Brian was talking to me about David and they wanted to do a project together, the three of us, and I said great. At that time that was lifting me out of the waiting-for-a-grant period. But I was disappointed with what I heard coming back with them. I'd already done a couple of sketches, they went off to the first studio they were working in and what was sent to me then via cassette, it just sounded way too poppy for me.

The Talking Heads were already in, according to some reviews, their African period -- which is kind of a slur on Africa – and that whole enchantment with African music was just beginning to blossom. I wrote back and said "this is not what I had in mind." I was thinking of an extension of the fourth world idea that would metastasize into something more thoughtfully integrated.

But anyway, my lingering scars of being left off any mention of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, that was the clearest evidence that the backroom boys – Brian's managers and David's managers of the time – [were like] "Hold on here, that guy could come after you with a big lawsuit." And I was still in the ivory tower frame of mind and didn't have a structure there. If I had been Ry Cooder and had a management structure, that would have been my harpoon to lance this appropriation. So I wrote a 50-page letter a couple years ago when I was way down on my luck, and I made a big reconnection with Brian, and I would say we're brothers now. And that was a rough patch for me. But that's ironed itself out. I've had zero contact with David, but he's not exactly in the same intellectual class with Brian, so that's not surprising.

What's Next
Hassell on his long-gestating book.

I'm writing a book called The North and South of You. It's the analysis of our current situation in terms of our overemphasis on the north of us, the rational and technological, instead of the south of us. North is logic, south is the samba -- and how much more of each would you rather have when the time comes to depart the planet? And it goes further into the areas where we're being trapped by the digitalization of everything and formatting and being at the mercy of the technology explosion. It's a book in waiting, and underdevelopment, because every day something else comes up I can fold into it.