The debt I owe to Jon Hassell
Friday November 9, 2007
I arrived in New York on a beautiful spring day in April 1978. I’d intended to stay for a week but the visit stretched on and on and I ended up staying for about five years.
Those first few months in the city were a formative time for me. I didn’t know many people, and I had time on my hands, so I was open to things in a way that I might not have been in a more familiar landscape. I listened to a lot of live music and bought a heap of records. One of the most important was by a musician I’d never heard of – a trumpeter called Jon Hassell. It was called Vernal Equinox.
This record fascinated me. It was a dreamy, strange, meditative music that was inflected by Indian, African and South American music, but also seemed located in the lineage of tonal minimalism. It was a music I felt I’d been waiting for.
I discovered later, after I met and became friends with Jon, that he referred to his invention as Fourth World Music (which became the subtitle of the first album we made together: Possible Musics). I learned subsequently that Jon had studied at Darmstadt with Stockhausen (as indeed had Holger Czukay from Can, another occasional colleague), that he’d played on the first recording of Terry Riley’s seminal In C, and that he’d studied with the great Indian singer Pran Nath.
We had a lot to talk about. We had both come through experimental music traditions – the European one, as exemplified by Stockhausen and Cornelius Cardew, and the American one of Cage and Terry Riley and LaMonte Young. At the same time, we were aware of the beauty and sophistication of all the music being made outside our culture – what is now called “world music”. And we were both intrigued by the possibilities of new musical technology.
But beyond these issues, there was a deeper idea: that music was a place where you conducted and displayed new social experiments. Jon’s experiment was to imagine a “coffee coloured” world – a globalised world constantly integrating and hybridising, where differences were celebrated and dignified – and to try to realise it in music.
His unusual articulacy – and the unexpected scope of his references – inspired me. In general, artists don’t talk much about how or why they make their work, especially “why”. Jon does. He is a theorist and a practitioner, and his theories are as elegant and as attractive as his music: because in fact his music is the embodiment of those theories.
We spent a lot of time together, time that changed my mind in many ways. We talked about music as embodied philosophy, for every music implies a philosophical position even when its creators aren’t conscious of it. And we talked about sex and sensuality, about trying to make a music that embraced the whole being and not just the bit above the neck (or just the bit below it).
It was in these conversations that, among other things, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which I made with David Byrne in 1981, was nurtured. All of us were interested in collage, in making musical particle colliders where we could crash different cultural forms with all their emotional baggage and see what came out of the collisions, what new worlds they suggested.
If I had to name one over-riding principle in Jon’s work it would be that of respect. He looks at the world in all its momentary and evanescent moods with respect, and this shows in his music. He sees dignity and beauty in all forms of the dance of life.
I owe a lot to Jon. Actually, a lot of people owe a lot to Jon. He has planted a strong and fertile seed whose fruits are still being gathered.