Obituary: Jon Hassell, pioneering ‘Fourth World’ musician and composer

Died: June 26, 2021.

JON Hassell, who has died aged 84, was a trumpeter whose use of electronic textures alongside his primary instrument opened up sonic possibilities that expanded his musical palette alongside his notion of ‘Fourth World’ music.

This saw him take music beyond American and European traditions to something more exploratory, as he absorbed rhythms and beats from infinitely less well-known traditions, and married them to more contemporary fare.

The result could be heard on albums such as his solo debut, Vernal Equinox (1978), and collaborations with Brian Eno on Fourth World, Vol1: Possible Musics (1980), and its follow -up, Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two (1981).

The hypnotic future-primitive fusion, which Hassell described as “coffee-coloured classical music of the future”, seemed to emanate from some imaginary global village.

Hassell’s musical excursions had developed out of his studies with the German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, alongside Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, future members of Can, the experimental German rock group.

His early collaborations with the minimalist composers Terry Riley and LaMonte Young saw him play with the latter’s drone-based Theatre of Eternal Music as he developed an interest in Indian raga. His explorations subsequently applied the cool of Miles Davis and Chet Baker to a spacier sound that saw Hassell collaborate on record with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and David Sylvian.

The voguish forms of loft-friendly funk and what came to be known as World Music that Hassell arguably influenced were some way from his original intentions. He took particular umbrage with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the 1981 album by Eno and Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne. Hassell was originally meant to contribute to it after playing on Houses in Motion, a track on Talking Heads’ album, Remain in Light (1980), which Eno had produced.

Despite this, Hassell retained a purism about his notion of Fourth World music, to the extent of describing Byrne and Eno’s pick-and-mix collage-based use of samples from African and Middle Eastern countries on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts as “touristic” and “too poppy”.

He nevertheless went on to collaborate with Eno again on Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land (1982) album, while Eno played bass guitar on two tracks on Hassell’s Daniel Lanois-produced record, Power Spot (1986). In 2007, Eno wrote an essay, The Debt I Owe to Jon Hassell, while in 2018 Hassell told Billboard magazine that the two had reconnected after he wrote Eno a fifty-page letter.

By this time, Hassell’s influence had reverberated amongst a new generation of musical explorers, who mixed sounds from around the world with electronics and treated instruments. Artists as diverse as Auntie Flo, 808 State, Matmos, and Momus (the Scottish-born musician, Nick Currie) all paid tribute to Hassell’s boundless musical universe.

Jon M. Hassell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up listening to blues and soul on local AM radio. His father played cornet with the Georgia Tech marching band, with the cornet becoming Hassell’s first instrument before he moved to trumpet.

He played in big bands, and studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he explored modern classical composition. To avoid being drafted, he joined the US army band in Washington, and made tape collages that encouraged him to study under Stockhausen for two years at the Cologne Course for New Music. It was here that he met Czukay and Schmidt, with whom he experimented with LSD as well as music.

Back in New York, he won a scholarship at the Centre for creative and Performing Arts at the State University, and met synthesiser pioneer, Robert Moog. He also met Riley, and ended up playing on the recorded version of Riley’s seminal composition, In C (1968).

With Riley and Young, Hassell developed a more holistic approach, and he studied under Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. The experience had a huge influence on all three composers.

When Eno heard Vernal Equinox he recognised a fellow traveller, and saw Hassell play live prior to their collaborations.

Beyond his own work, Hassell appeared on David Sylvian’s debut album, Brilliant Trees (1984) as co-composer, and worked with Gabriel on the soundtracks for Birdy (1985) and Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ (1989).

Hassell collaborated several times with the guitarist Ry Cooder on soundtracks for Trespass (1993), The End of Violence (1997) and Primary Colours (1998). The pair worked with Indian musicians Ronu Majumdar, on bansuri (a wooden flute) and tabla player Abhijit Banerjee on Hollow Bamboo (2000). Hassell later appeared on Cooder’s records, Chavez Ravine (2005), My Name is Buddy (2007), and I, Flathead (2008).

Hassell’s albums as leader included Dressing for Pleasure (1994), and Maarifa Street: Magic Realism Volume Two (2005). The group was named after a street in Iran, and means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’. For ECM Records, he released Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (2009).

Latterly, he was given his own Ndeya imprint through Warp Records. The label released Listening to Pictures (2018), and Seeing Through Sound (2020). Both drew from Hassell’s theory of ‘pentimento’, a term borrowed from painting that refers to images and forms that have been painted over in a completed work. The term seemed to sum up Hassell’s own ever-fluid approach, as he moved constantly forward with an ever-evolving body of work.

He is survived by his companion, De Fracia Evans, and her daughters, Uti and Taska.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992