American trumpeter extraordinaire talks to John Diliberto about horns, electronics and Indian ragas; '60s experimentation meets '80s chic.
The current interest in wind synthesis makes trumpeter Jon Hassel something of a prophet - with Gabriel, Sylvian, Eno and Talking Heads already amongst his acolytes.
Technology and tradition: hypnotic loops and syncopated rhythms, the digital illusions of harmonisers and delays and the caress of human breath - these are the paradoxes that are drawn together in the music of composer and trumpeter Jon Hassell. And nowhere were the crosscurrents of Hassell's techno-primitivism more clearly defined than at a recent concert in the "Serious Fun" series at Alice Tully Hall in New York.
Eight African drummers, the percussion-dance troupe Farafina from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), adorned in traditional costumes and headdress, were on stage sending out coded syncopations and primal rhythms with drums, shakers and balaphons (an Indonesian percussion instrument). Flanking them on risers were Jon Hassell and J A Deane, wearing slimline headphones, surrounded by electronic gear and transmitting sampled punctuations and processed trumpet vapor trails.
"Pretty clear metaphor, huh?", laughs Hassell, recalling the concert a week later. "All the wires tangled in the background and then these guys up in front with costumes and everything. It was wonderful."
It was also typical of the unique form of ethnic music that Jon Hassell has been documenting since the mid-1960s. He's recorded half-a-dozen albums, performed on Terry Riley's epic In C, collaborated with Brian Eno, composed for the Kronos String Quartet, scored plays for Peter Sellars, and appeared on records by Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and David Sylvian. No matter where he appears, his unique style of synthesis can be identified. It's a spiral of African, Indian and Indonesian rhythms and minimalist permutations, blown through the sound of Hassell's sensuously muted trumpet and micro-technology.
He could've been a pedigreed academic composer with his Masters degree from the Eastman School of Music and studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen, but he met and performed with Terry Riley and entered LaMonte Young's Dreamhouse, playing in his Theatre of Eternal Music. And it was with LaMonte that Hassell's time perceptions were altered, playing single tones in all-night concerts against Young's sine wave generators.
"At that point people were discovering a lot about the nature of sound itself and, in effect, listening to themselves", recalls Hassell, his stuttering hesitant voice contrasting sharply with his fluid trumpet playing. "When you have something which is static, or apparently static, you have a chance to see your own rise and fall against it. I think that was in keeping with the '60s, apropos of experimentation with drugs, and learning about physical and sensory responses and that kind of thing. That was all part of op art and the whole 'How you can screw up your head, vision, ears and everything to come up with new things'. LaMonte was certainly at the forefront of that, and I had experiences listening to it and playing it that I'd never had before. That whole thing was new to me."
Hassell quickly learned and explored overtones with his own pieces including 'Solid State' and 'Elemental Warnings'. On 'Elemental Warnings', 20 oscillators were attached to helium balloons and set adrift.
It wasn't long before Hassell began developing his unique trumpet sound. It is instantly recognisable with its slurs, half-valve breathiness and harmonised and delayed glissandi. Like his music, the sound was conceived through paradox. First came the influence of Miles Davis' wah-wah electric trumpet. "I thought that was very, very exciting stuff and I practiced it", recalls Hassell, "but I wasn't really to the level of performing that. Plus, I didn't want to be a carbon copy and I didn't want to do just jazz."
The electric intensity of Miles was then focused through the whining tones of Indian vocal master Pandit Prannath. Prannath had already had a life-changing impact on Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, and his influence drew Hassell into intense studies of Indian music, altering his concept of both music and the trumpet.
"I think I earned my wings through my years of study with Pandit Prannath, and approaching other music with the lessons that I learned there." He speaks as if his experience were a religious conversion.
Through Prannath, Hassell learned a holistic approach to music, and a way of understanding different cultures' use of music. "It's part of their life", he exclaims, "it's not something they do in clubs and then go home and do something else. I learned how to respect tradition."
And it was with Prannath that Hassell developed the fluid lines that characterise his playing. He gave up electronics, studying one raga - the melodic and rhythmic figures around which Indian music is based - for a couple of years.
By the time of his first album, Vernal Equinox, electronics had returned to Hassell's music in the form of tamboura-like drones from a Serge synthesiser and trumpet alterations performed by David Rosenboom on a Buchla synthesiser. Despite his use of technology, Hassell doesn't like to discuss it. In fact, this interview was granted on the understanding that Hassell didn't talk about his equipment.
"I'm still using the Mirage, although I'd like to phase that out. It's not as clean as I would like to have it, but sometimes the lack of cleanness can be good."
"I don't mind talking about technology", contradicts Hassell, "but I'd rather talk about it in general terms than I would in terms of hardware. I think that's just part of development. One develops things, and while it's easy for anybody with a reasonable vocabulary of these things to look at the stage and see more or less what's going on, somehow I just resist it. I think it's kind of proprietary in a way. And boring."
THERE'S NO DENYING that the allure of Hassell's music - whether it be the studio imagery he affects with producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the digital mosaic of Aka/Darbari/Java, or his live performances, combining digital sampling, electronic percussion and his stereo processing - comes from that intersection of technology and primitive musics. And Hassell knows it.
"There's hardly a room I walk into that doesn't have a mains socket, so why should I penalise myself or not let this thing happen on some theoretical notion that when the power goes out there's no music? If I were on an island someplace in a small community of people, I would welcome developing a completely non-electronic manner of doing things. When I studied raga I played for years and years without doing any electronics, they were all added after the fact."
When he recorded Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics, Hassell's integration of electronics into his trumpet playing was complete. His setup has remained fairly stable since that 1980 recording, running his trumpet through a harmoniser, currently from Advance Music Systems, and two Electro Harmonix digital delays. ("I'm looking for something a little higher quality.")
He also employs a variety of reverb units. In the studio it's a Lexicon 224. "Dan (Lanois) loves the sound of the old 224", he says. "In concert I've been using the Yamaha REV7 and the Roland DRV2000, but neither of them seem to give the creamy sound on the trumpet that the Lexicon does, so I'm sort of shopping for an old Lexicon to take on the road with me."
Hassell bases his music on the Indian model of foreground and background: a lead instrument up front and percussion and tamboura behind it. In his case, the background consists of synthesiser drones and digital samples overlaid in shifting patterns, or a combination of electronic and acoustic percussion. When he works with Brian Eno, Eno orchestrates that background environment and ambience. Hassell compares Eno's role to that of Renaissance painters who would assign assistants to paint in background sections of large scale works.
"I'd been working with large textures that would be an extension of the tamboura idea for a long time", he recalls, "so when we record, it's a natural place for Brian to be."
Despite Eno's background work, his equal billing on Possible Musics made Hassell seem like another Eno disciple rather than someone who'd been developing his own ideas over the years. They parted company briefly after Dream Theory in Malaya but teamed up again for Hassell's Power Spot. Currently they're post-producing a live album and recordings with Farafina.
In fact, Eno is one of Hassell's biggest cheerleaders. "Part of his playing has to do with the understanding that all of the processing isn't additional. It's very much a part of what he does", says Eno. "I am always surprised that electronic music magazines don't pay more attention to him because he really is one of the electronic composers of the day. He's one of the most interesting people in that area. I'm sort of an evangelist for his music. I really think it's important and beautiful music too. And I wish that people would listen to it more."
Hassell now relies on Eno for his discerning ear. "I won't say his unfailing ear because I do see blind spots here and there", explains Hassell, "but I think he has an extremely good sense of when things are boring and when things are exciting and how long things might go on... perhaps because he's on the outside of things. We share a great many of the same concerns, as they say in the art world, and I value the feedback that goes on between us."
"There's something about the volume of air that drums pump, even if you sampled all that and tried to duplicate it, I don't think it could have the same real feel."
In a recent interview, Eno declared that Hassell is one of the most technologically inventive composers of this era, yet Hassell still asserts his technological naïveté. He claims that he defers to people like J A Deane and Daniel Lanois when it comes to the technology. Describing his studio interaction with Lanois, Hassell says: "I yield to him in all technical decisions and in many aesthetic ones. He has a wonderful ear on both a musical level and a technical level, and a very sympathetic manner." But Hassell's intrinsic understanding of technology and how to make it serve his music is not to be underestimated.
"I'm still using the Mirage, although I'd like to phase that out", he confesses. "It's not as clean as I would like to have it, but sometimes the lack of cleanness can be good. I've gotten fond of the strings, I use them quite often. Sometimes I hear strings on other samplers and they sound too bright, too sharp. But there are other drawbacks. I definitely would like to upgrade out of that."
Hassell recently completed a score for director Peter Sellars music theatre production of Zangezi by the Russian Futurian poet Velimir Khlebnikov. The score involves using an Akai S900 with an Oberheim MIDI controller and a Mirage, and is designed as a real-time performance piece to accompany the play. At one point during the scoring process, he sampled birds from a laboratory of ornithology at Cornell University. "One of the scenes called for a lot of Russian birds", says Hassell, "so the touchstone for a lot of the scoring was getting birdcalls and dealing with them - and I mixed it with a little pygmy voice fragment. Orioles down two octaves sound like pygmy voices, and this one little pygmy phrase up two octaves sounds very much like a bird, so there was a nice crossing there. That first section was like birds and gods, and the musical texture used to represent the gods and birds was this sort of intermingling of languages."
Despite his extensive work in the studio, Hassell's music is geared towards live performances, allowing extensive improvisation and spontaneity. His forthcoming live album, The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound, due out on Intuition/EMI this autumn, is largely a result of improvisations with Deane, synthesists Jean-Philippe Rykiel and Richard Horowitz, and others. "Right", agrees Hassell. "This is actually stuff that's followed on the heels of Power Spot. Each night we would go into an extended improv after the planned program, and those turned out to be the most interesting things."
Hassell's music is marked by an inherent tension. As a western-trained, classical musician, he's been accused of a sort of cultural imperialism for his use of ethnic forms. But it's that very conflict that makes it work - that provides its air of mystery and discovery. That tension was evident from the stage of his Alice Tully Hall concert with Farafina.
It was clear that some of the Africans were enthusiastically embracing this techno-primitivism, while others were reserved to the point of sullenness.
"The leader Mahama Konate, the guy that plays the balaphon, is somewhat inflexible in terms of new things", agrees Hassell. "They were suspicious at first, especially Mahama, about what could happen and why this whole thing was going on. And I have to say at certain times I asked myself the same question because if the balances weren't exactly right Dino (J A Deane) and I turned into accompanists to this African group which generally smokes no matter where it is. So at times, I found myself wondering why I was making this compromise, and because the best things that I do aren't normally so hot in terms of African or Indian or this or that, but someplace new and in between all those things. With this situation, obviously there's no escaping the fact that it's very hotly African."
The performance had many other ironies as well. When Farafina played by themselves, they went into a call and response piece, passing a percussion instrument around, that sent the crowd into a cheering frenzy. After the show, everyone commented on how exuberant and immediate that section was - I mention it because it was actually arranged by Hassell.
"The syllables and things like that were something that I arranged for them", he says with a clandestine glimmer. "I mean, I heard them playing around with each other and I said 'Why don't you do this?' It's really taking off on the Indian way tabla players like to do that and it's a big crowd pleaser so I thought it would do real well."
In the recording studio, the power of acoustic drums takes on a different significance.
"Daniel Lanois and I were sitting listening to these big speakers pumping out Farafina's drums and we just looked at each other and said, 'This could never happen with electronic percussion.' There's something about the volume of air that drums pump, there is a wonderful quality about it that's impossible to find any place else. Even if you sampled all that and tried to duplicate it, I don't think it could have the same real feel."
Balances are what Hassell's music embodies - raw power and sensuality, ancient and future history, electronics and acoustics - the future and the past.
"When I first began doing things, I always tried to have a representation of the acoustic percussion world mixed with electric things that could be considered part of the percussion spectrum. J A Deane is not a percussionist, per se; he plays trombone, so it was a function of developing a percussion station based on his abilities, and his abilities lie not only in hands on skin and inflections, but in creative programming and sampling. So it reflects that."
But even Hassell has trouble defining his sonic amalgamation. Fourth World Music, Technological-Primitive, and Glamorous-Spiritual are a few of the expressions he's derived to describe a sound that includes tablas, Senegalese drummers, birds, trumpets and synthesisers. The future-is-now romantics among us might call it the perfect music for the global village. Hassell thinks of it as "xerox art". "It's a xerox world", he says matter-of-factly. "You can take a print of this and put a print of that on top of it. It reminds me of the phrase, from Umberto Eco, that says we're living in an age of permanent transition."
Interview by John Diliberto