RIP Jon Hassell: Listen to the avant garde composer’s rare 1985 set and interview on KCRW

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The late avant garde composer Jon Hassell in 1981. Photo by Jimmy de Sana.

The iconoclastic composer and trumpet player Jon Hassell died on June 26 at the age of 84. An early student of musical serialism, Hassell went abroad after graduation to study at Stockhausen’s Cologne Course for New Music. He returned to the U.S. and met composer Terry Riley in 1967. Their kinship led to Hassell’s participation in the landmark CBS Masterworks recording of Riley’s “In C,” released in 1968. His circle soon expanded to include La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, whose interest in Indian music led to their joint study with Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath.

Electrified by the lessons he learned from the Kirana gharana vocal tradition, Hassell developed his “fourth world” concept: a powerfully abstract synthesis of modern electronics and traditional musical modes. He first explored the concept in his groundbreaking 1977 solo debut, “Vernal Equinox,” but his most indelible recording in that vein is “Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics,” a 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno.

Any number of Hassell’s albums are now considered compulsory listening for music fans looking to expand their awareness of music’s possibilities. (We recommend “Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two.”) He released his final album, “Seeing Through Sound,” in 2020.

An in-demand sideman, Hassell also lent his unmistakable style to records by Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Stina Nordenstam, Tears For Fears, k.d. Lang, and countless others.

From the archives, we present a long-unheard interview from KCRW’s “SNAP!” program. Hassell appeared live on the evening of September 18, 1985, in conversation with host and DJ Deirdre O’Donoghue. “SNAP!” was, in O’Donoghue’s words, the epicenter of “new and strange and bizarre stuff that you don’t tend to hear on most of the FM airwaves.” Her show ran on KCRW from December 1982 to June 1991. This is the first post in a series intended to bring more of O’Donoghue’s interviews and in-studio performances to light.

Deirdre O’Donoghue: There's a constant interest in your work here at “SNAP!,” as well as the manner in which you present the ideas that you've been developing over the last couple of decades and the number of different projects you've been involved with. Describe what it is that you're doing here in Los Angeles away from New York, here with all the light and bright and colors, not the dark canyons.

John Hassell: “True. I'm doing something different here. There's a string quartet called the Kronos Quartet, which does very inventive programming and commissions people like Frank Zappa, Terry Riley, etc, etc. And I did a piece for them which premiered in San Francisco [on] Friday, and they're doing it again here at UCLA in Schoenberg Hall, also on Friday.”

And the piece is entitled "Pano da Costa."

"’Pano da Costa’ means ‘Cloth from the Coast.’ There's a book by Robert Farris Thompson called ‘Flash of the Spirit,’ which is about the contribution that, I think, five African tribes have made to the Western world. And this particular one refers to a technique of a loom putting together the narrow strips of cloth that are characteristic of African weaving, maybe six inches across or eight inches across. And there's a particular aesthetic that goes with that when you want to make a larger piece of cloth. 

The pattern that's on the small pieces of cloth have to be put together in a very specific way, a very musical way. ‘Rhythmized textiles’ is his term for it. And so there's a kind of counterpoint of design and color and kinds of color that one should begin with, the kind of color that one should end with, things that could be applied to any kind of time art. So that's the inspiration for it.

And there's another Brazilian twist to it since I'm using the berimbau à la Nana Vasconcelos. The [performer] playing the berimbau holds these instruments called caixixi, or shakers, these little wicker baskets.  So I have some of the instruments doing that, the cello and the second violin. They're doing a slightly berimbau-type rhythmic feel. So that has a slightly Brazilian touch, and that's the inspiration for the title, etc, etc.”

So you've adapted the feeling of those instruments to standard European stringed instruments.

“As in all the things I try to do ... I guess the term [is] ‘creating a tradition,’ which, of course, is not an easy thing to do. I mean, ‘tradition’ in quotation marks, since it's my own tradition. I consider myself a culture, and this is my own idea inside of my head when I'm making these things. But yes, it has this Brazilian tinge to it, but it's not all there. It's other places, too.”

When you talk about the tradition of weaving the cloth and such, [is that] African or Brazilian?

“Well, it's Afro-Brazilian, it's transplanted. Yes, I didn't make that clear. The whole thesis of this book is how things were transformed via the slave trade, and how it was transformed in this hemisphere.”

So the theories of the weaving, the patterns of the color, [and] the development of the patterns is a gestation point for the development of the piece that Kronos Quartet will be performing on Friday evening.

“That's right. It's a pretty little idea. I mean, one could apply it to a lot of other things, but this happened to be the thing I was thinking about when I started doing this.”

You have also been doing with an ensemble some live performances in Europe.

“Yes, I'm very happy to have a group doing things which I like better than anything I've ever done before. And it's all happening live. Jean-Philippe Rykiel is playing synthesizers and J.A. Deane is playing percussion. These names may not mean much to an American audience, but Jean-Philippe has his own following in Europe. Do you know the designer Sonia Rykiel? It's her son.

The characteristic of this is that there's a lot of crossover. You may hear things which sound like percussion which are actually being played by synthesizer. You may hear trumpets which are actually being played by the percussionist via digital memories. And so it's a very nice mixture of traditional things, skin (as in drums), pottery, earth things, and high-tech things.”

So this will be a piece that we're going to listen to from one of those performances in Europe this spring.

“That's right. As I explained on the morning show, we did a little tag on the end of all the concerts that was a development of the last piece that we played and usually stretched out. And at each concert it became a different thing. This particular one happened in Hamburg.”

That particular piece, which has no specific title, but was an experiment? Would that be a way of describing it?

“No, not really an experiment. I mean, that's saying that one really doesn't know what's going to happen. But, as I said before, I consider that by now the group and the records and the vocabulary [are] there. So that, in fact, it functions as a kind of culture. There are motifs and things that are exchanged and come back in different forms throughout. So there are little elements that may be in the background which may be in a different position on another piece. 

I have to refer to my study of Indian raga — which I continue to point to as a very, very beautiful form — which is a perfect balance between the pre-thought and the improvisational. And so I've tried to model everything I do on that. So there's definitely structure. As in ice skating, right, there are school figures and free-skating. I think that's a necessary element for what I call ‘true’ classical music. I think that classical music as meant in other traditions — Indonesian tradition, African tradition — this is what “truly classical” means. I could say Miles Davis is truly classical, much more classical music to me than other things which are entirely notated and which happen the same time and the same way in every performance.”

That notion is very interesting to me about classical music and Western ‘civilization's’ attitude toward classical music, which is very formal, very stiff, very notated, [and] for the most part until this century, certainly very rigid. And the differentiation with Indonesian or Indian cultures, which you've been closely associated with, in which there's a much more fluid sense to the development. There's a structure which changes all the time. Was that what first drew you to Indian music? The fluidity of the structure?

“In a sense, it was an attempt to resolve things in my own life, which was to say: Why did I like to turn off the lights, make love, and listen to Brazilian music, and then when I got up the next morning, I go to work on some white-on-white type of abstraction, musically speaking. And asking myself why these things have to be separate. And then having the good fortune to run across Pandit Pran Nath, my Indian teacher via Terry Riley and La Monte Young. 

I began to see how classical Indian culture was, for example, quite central. You're not leaving things out. In the Western world, there's a strict dichotomy which happens not only in musical life, but also in one's physical life, too. There's a kind of separation between intellectual over here and sexy over here, and our sensual and erotic. And [in] a truly balanced outlook on what life is about, these things all have to come together. And therefore exotic beats and this kind of thing, why should they be left out of the most advanced expression that one can come up with? It's strictly a matter of Western confusion of the baby and the bathwater.”

You mentioned Terry Riley and La Monte Young. You grew up in the American South, and I know that you ended up going to New York to the Eastman School of Music and studying with a number of those people. And from Terry Riley, for example, meeting and becoming familiar with a lot of Indian music. But how does a young lad from Memphis, Tennessee, originally become aware of and familiar with the ideas of someone like a Stockhausen or a Webern, and decide to go to New York and study this sort of music?

“Well, actually, that came later. That was when I went to Europe to study with Stockhausen, and of course, those things come out of being in an academic environment. I thought you were going to ask me, how did I come around to this quasi-tribal way of thinking, coming from where I came? And I had a great answer for you …”

Oh, well, answer that then, by all means!

“... since this Robert Farris Thompson book is exactly about that kind of thing. Although I wasn't aware of it when I was there, Memphis is quite a melting pot, an Afro-American melting pot. And that whole area, I mean, it's a tri-state area. Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee and even Alabama. And in fact one of the continuations of this rhythmized textile tradition shows up in the South in quilt-making. Traditional Black quilt-making is a transformation or a continuation of that aesthetic. So that's the answer I have for you, if you were going to ask that question.”

That answers another question that I was going to ask you later. So, you see, you're prescient. You're reading my mind about the nature of the folk patterns and the folk music that exists here, the music of the Appalachians. Some of which I find quite compelling. When you get back into [what] people do with the tub basses and the Jew's harps, mouth harps, and very simple stringed instruments that are not attuned to the rigid structuralism of ... it's been taken out into the woods and treated. There's not even a structure as there would be with the raga. But I find some of it very interesting. And I was wondering if you had ever delved into any of that.

“No, I share your like of things like bluegrass and that kind of thing. It's rich in fourths and fifths and open intervals, which I obviously like. But I don't know about the real roots of that tradition.”

Let me go back two steps. I'll pretend I'm the reporter at the Presidential news conference. How was it in Memphis, Tennessee, that you become aware of electronic musics such that [it] instigated a move to New York to study there, and from there on to Europe? Because you've worked with some of the most innovative and imaginative musical minds of the 20th century. And [you] certainly are one yourself in developing new ideas and patterns, ways for us to hear and deal with sound.

“I didn't do any electronic things before I went there. Eastman School of Music is, by the way, in Rochester, as part of the University of Rochester. And that's where I did [my] undergraduate and master's degree. And it's a very traditional school in the sense of ... Do you know the composer Howard Hanson? A great open plains-type sound. An Aaron Copland-type sound, although Aaron Copland wasn't there at that time. 

There are always young turks in these situations, so there was a little coterie of young turks who were deeply into the twelve-tone tradition, studying Webern scores and following the tone rows through all the competitions and doing their own. So my master's thesis was twelve-tone orchestra variations, which was quite advanced for that time. But the European stuff and the Stockhausen and all the electronic things came after that.”

As the progression from that. Which has come up to this point in 1985. As I understand, it's been delayed by a couple of months, but you have a new studio recording coming out shortly.

“It was done in January, and that's already nine months ago, unfortunately. I don't like to leave these things around on a shelf that long. But it was produced by Brian Eno and Dan Lanois, who also ... I was overhearing your U2 comments before, and they also were the producers of that record. It's called ‘Power Spot,’ and this is a piece called ... I think my current title for it is ‘Wing Melodies.’ And it's going to be out first of the year, let's say.”

So January of 1986, the beginning of the year, should see a new Jon Hassell album. And a small ensemble? Four people again, five?

“This whole record — in fact, all the live things that I'm playing — are the result of taking ... After I make a record, we play extensions as if the record is the beginning of the composition, and the live performances which follow are the real development of those ideas. So this is one of those original ideas.”

"Wing Melodies." Your titles of both albums and musical pieces ... You do seem very much based in the physical world, an appreciation of the physical world and an acknowledgement that there's another level to it. I think "magical realism" is what's coming to mind, so that strikes me as quite appropriate.

“This quartet project … was quite a hurdle for me to get back into writing notes for people again. [That was] something I stopped doing after a certain period when I started studying Indian music. And I realized that [in] notated music, sometimes the notation began sounding through, as if instead of hearing thoughts being expressed by a speaker, one heard the commas and the periods. So I've generally tried to stay away from that, since the Indian tradition is an oral tradition anyway. And so when the Kronos asked me to do this, it was a big move.”

When you discuss an oral tradition of music, is that to say that it is not written down at all, but merely transmitted sonically? So that if you were to learn something from an Indian Master, you would do it only by process of imitation and personal acculturation?

“That's right, just by imitating him. He sings the phrase, you play the phrase. If you don't do it right, he sings it again. If you don't do it, right again, he'll usually back up and go to a phrase which is slightly less difficult. It's a very beautiful and systematic way of doing [things]. All of their art has that aspect to it. [In] tabla playing, the rhythmic structures are all presented in a step-by-step way, from adding a simple thing to a really interesting sort of complexity. In this day, when ideas enter the media tube and make a big circle around the world very fast and become very diluted, it's a battery charge for me to be in contact with that, always. When I'm in San Francisco, for example, with Pran Nath,, it's just the transmission of this phrase that was transmitted ... I mean, one can trace it back historically 500, 600 years, and there's nothing written at all of it. So it's awesome, is what it is.”

The manner in which it's traveled … would that be the manner in which you would communicate with the musicians in your ensemble?

“Well, in large part, yes. I mean, there are things that are notated. But this model of Indian raga that I told you about, where there's a structure, and then there's freedom within that structure, it's a bit of this idea of one's own personal culture. And it's also a bit of acting as a director in a movie, working with very good actors whom he's chosen to play in a particular scenario. 

That is to say, if Robert De Niro wants to do something on his own, you'll let him do it and see how it comes out. Because he has an instinct, and that instinct is worth noting. And sometimes, in fact, I'm a little taken aback. For instance, Jean-Philippe is a young virtuoso. And sometimes I hear him going places that I'm not really so happy that he's going with. And then, listening at another moment after the concert, I say, ‘It's not bad,’ you know. So it's a combination of all three things that are working.”

When you're there on the stage performing with the ensemble, to what degree would there be within the group improvisation, as in jazz? and to what degree? Is it pretty much preordained?

“Well, number one, everything I have is in the key of C. C equals 256 cycles. And it's a closely-related interval to that saw, as they say in Indian music. And in Indian music, one performer always has his own saw, and he relates to that, always. In other words, you don't say, ‘Well, we'll play this in the key of C tonight. And tomorrow, we'll do it in the key of F sharp.’ And Western musicians spend a lot of time practicing all the patterns in different keys, whereas Indian musicians, they have one saw, so they get grooves worn into their ear about intervals, and particularly in very subtle relationships to that saw. 

So that's one thing that gives what I do a certain sound. And then there's certain intervals that I always use, and there [are] certain chord progressions that I like. And naturally, when someone plays with me, they learn those things. So the part of improvisation is depending on someone's sensibility as to when they may feel that's the right place to do this. But it's as if the vocabulary is already there, and one just decides, using the same text, one creates a different kind of play. And if something happens [that's] really unusual and beautiful, then hopefully everyone has the same sensibility to move away from that. That is to say, to follow that and to go away from any sort of preordained spot. So that's always wonderful when that happens.”

This interview was originally broadcast on KCRW’s “SNAP!” on September 18, 1985. Audio courtesy the Deirdre O’Donoghue archives.

“Tag (Fabrik, Hamburg, DE, 5/15/1985)"

“Wing Melodies”

"Tag (Beursschouwburg, Brussels, BE, 5/17/1985)"





Written by Myke Dodge Weiskopf