Hassell, Jon

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Jon Hassell

Composer, trumpeter

Expanded Musical Interests

Continued Fascination with Minimalism

Entered the “Fourth World” Stage

Selected compositions

Selected discography


Throughout the large part of his 40-year career, composer, and trumpeter Jon Hassell has been drawn to the union of Eastern and Western music, including advanced electronics, which he has appropriately dubbed “Fourth World.” His primitive yet futuristic sound—usually described as ethereal, dark, erotic, and mysterious—greatly influenced the variety of styles heard in music today. However, Hassell regards his processes as a composer as quite basic. “I keep asking the central question: What is it I really like? What is it that I really want to hear? And both in the personal realm, the sex fantasy realm, and the musical realm, it comes down to shockingly simple things,” he told David Thomson in a feature story for Wire magazine. “I love lush sensual atmospheres. I love beautiful chords. I’m in love with harmony.”

This vision of creating pleasure-inducing, harmonic, and expansive music, or what Hassell calls “sound monuments,” both borrows from and inspires numerous musical genres, ranging from minimalism and the avant-garde to jazz, pop, techno, trance, and trip-hop. Hassell tours and records with his own ensemble and often works with musicians from different cultural backgrounds. An example of one memorable cross-cultural collaboration was a 1987 concert called “Serious Fun” at the Lincoln Center in New York with the West African group Farafina, an eight-member ensemble comprised of percussionists, singers, and dancers. The group also participated on Hassell’s 1988 album Flash of the Spirit.

Besides his work as an individual composer, performer, and recording artist, Hassell has recorded with a long and diverse list of well-known musicians, among them Brian Eno (who produced or coproduced many of Hassell’s records), David Sylvian, the Kronos Quartet, the Talking Heads, k.d. lang, and Ani DiFranco. His appearances for film soundtracks include Mike NicholsPrimary Colors and Wim WendersThe End of Violence, both scores by Ry Cooder, as well as Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death in Long Island. Hassell has likewise worked in theater and television. In collaboration with Magazzini Criminali, he composed the score for the stage production Sulla Strada, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 1982 and went on to win an Ubu Award that season for Best Music for a Theatrical Work. He additionally joined forces with director of note Peter Sellers on a play by Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov entitled Zangezi. This work was produced in 1987 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave Festival” and in 1988 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. For television, Hassell cowrote the theme for the popular ABC drama series The Practice, winning an Emmy Award for the score in 1999.

Hassell was born on March 22, 1937, in Memphis, Tennessee, a city known for its rich musical environment. Coming of age in the 1950s, he was exposed to the blues, country, and especially big band, taking up the trumpet in grammar school. He also studied privately to learn music theory and later played in several local Glenn Miller-type bands. After high school, Hassell enrolled at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, to study trumpet and composition.

Expanded Musical Interests

At Eastman, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Hassell’s musical interests broadened. “That was the first time that I had contact with people who were in the realm of entertainment, in the upper strata of the musical world, if you will,” he recalled in an interview with Theresa Stern of the online publication Perfect Sound Forever. “I remember one of the first things that I saw there was a live TV broadcast of Lena Horne with Mitch Miller conducting the Rochester Symphony—that made my jaw drop. That didn’t happen in Memphis. I hung out with a radical group of student composers who were into Webern, Schoenberg, etc. We considered ourselves apart from the general conservative feel of the Eastman school, which was very ’Americana’ in feeling.”

Following studies in Rochester, Hassell, in order to avoid the draft, joined the Army band in Washington, D.C. During his tenure, he also worked towards his Ph.D. in musicology at Catholic University, though he never completed his thesis. In the meantime, Hassell became intrigued with the theoretic writings and music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and earned a two-year grant to study in Cologne, Germany, with the renowned post-Webern

For the Record…

Born on March 22, 1937, in Memphis, TN. Education: Studied trumpet and composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and at Catholic University in Washington, DC; studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Henri Pousseur in Cologne, Germany, 1965-67; began studies with Pandit Pran Nath, 1972-.

Began playing trumpet in grammar school; learned serial composition and electronics in Germany with Stock-hausen, mid-1960s; discovered minimalism with Terry Riley and La Monte Young, late 1960s; inspired by jazz improvisation and Indian classical music, early 1970s; released first of his “Fourth World” albums, Vernal Equinox,1977; recorded Flash of the Spirit with African ensemble Farafina, 1988; released the hip-hop inspired album City: Works of Fiction,1990; released acoustic set Fascinoma,1994.

Awards: Ubu Award, Best Music for a Theatrical Work for Sulla Strada,1982; Emmy Award, Best Musical Score for The Practice,1999.

composer. In his classes with Stockhausen, where he became acquainted with serial and electronic music, Hassell also met and befriended Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, who, incidentally, later founded the influential German rock band Can. While in Germany, he composed the piece Music for Vibraphones, for vibraphones and tapes, and Scan, for 10 stringed instruments and contact mikes.

In 1967 Hassell returned to the United States and accepted a fellowship at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo, an institution funded by the Rockefeller Foundation for musicians who also composed and performed. This period also marked Hassell’s first recordings with American composers Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, events that, as he explained to Stern, marked another turning point in his development. “This American experience being around Terry and later La-Monte Young was a great antidote to the European experience with Stockhausen … coming into contact with people who were concerned with feeling good via music—not just some intellectual exercise. It was more holistic. It spoke to the whole body. I’m talking about what they would later refer to as ‘minimalism.’”

Continued Fascination with Minimalism

Fascinated with the concepts of minimalism as well as electronics, in 1969 Hassell completed Solid State, a composition by which a mass of pitched sounds seemingly surrounds the audience. The piece would eventually, in 1977, earn Hassell a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Other compositions during this period included Blackboard Piece for Girls and Loops and Superball. Since then, however, Hassell’s musical focus has included a number of environments.

Through Riley, Hassell met world-renowned vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, with whom, beginning in 1972, he studied classical Indian music of the Kirana tradition. “This beautiful form of non-Western classical music, which requires you to think on your feet and improvise permutations and variations, is so much more interesting, compelling and alive than sitting and hearing something repeated verbatim,” he explained to David McCracken of the Chicago Tribune. “Certainly, in terms of horizontal or melodic movement, I don’t think there’s anything as refined and developed as Indian music.”

Entered the “Fourth World” Stage

These teachings—coupled with the composer’s deepening interest in incorporating Indian classical elements into his own writing—led Hassell to adapt Indian vocal techniques to the trumpet, in essence creating an entirely new way of playing the instrument. Hassell arrived at the sound by controlling the pitch with his lips and removing or loosening the mouthpiece. He furthermore devised a musical setting for his unique trumpet playing, a combination of world ethnic styles and modern electronic techniques. In 1977 he completed his first “Fourth World” album, Vernal Equinox, featuring the Kirana trumpet, shifting synthesizer drones, and sampled rhythmic tracks of natural occurrences such as the sounds of oceans and birds.

Hassell pursued his fascination with weaving together the art forms of East and West with the recordings Earthquake Island(1978), Possible Musics(1980), Dream Theory in Malaya(1981), Aka-Darbari-Java(1983—an effort now considered the best illustration of Hassell’s classic sound), and Power Spot(1986). In these, he subtly blends elements heard in such forms as raga, gamelan, and African and Indian vocal styles using Western classical composing techniques and technology. He next released a live album recorded between 1985 and 1987 entitled Surgeon of the Night-sky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound, followed by a collaboration called Flash of the Spirit and tour with the African ensemble Farafina.

In the 1990s Hassell took his concept of Fourth World music to another level. For the 1990 landmark album City: Works of Fiction, for instance, he borrowed from the innovations of hip-hop. Dressing for Pleasure, recorded in 1994, also drew from dance and club music. In 1999, following a period of various outside projects, Hassell returned with Fascinoma. Here, he surprisingly leaves out electronics in favor of a mostly acoustic set featuring Ry Cooder on guitar, Jacky Terrasson on piano, Ronu Majumdar on bansuri flute, Rick Cox on guitar, bass clarinet, and samples, Jamie Mu-hoberac on zendrum, Joachim Cooder on drums, and Rick Masterson and Rose Okada on tambura.

Within all his albums and compositions, however, Hassell displays an affinity examining his multitude of influences and desire to consider classical music on a global scale, a sort of layering of styles from around the world.

Selected compositions

Music for Vibraphones, 1965.

Scan(ten stringed instruments and contact mikes), c. 1967.

Blackboard Piece with Girls and Loops (two girls and two pitch-producing blackboards), 1968.

Goodbye Music (mixed media), 1969.

Map No.s 1-2 (hand-held magnetic playback heads), 1969.

Solid State (two synths), 1969.

Superball (four players with hand-held magnetic tape heads), 1969.

Landscape Series (mixed media), 1969-72.

(With Magazzini Criminali) Sulla Strada (music theater, after Jack Kerouac: On the Road),1982.

Selected discography

Principal works

Vernal Equinox, Lovely Music, 1977.

Earthquake Island, Tomato, 1978.

Fourth World Volume One: Possible Musics, Editions EG, 1980.

Fourth World Volume Two: Dream Theory in Malaya, Editions EG, 1981.

Aka-Darbari-Java (Magic Realism), Editions EG, 1983.

Power Spot, ECM, 1986.

The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things By the Power of Sound, Intuition, 1987.

Flash of the Sound, Intuition, 1987.

City: Works of Fiction, Opal/Warner Bros., 1990.

Dressing for pleasure, Warner Bros., 1994.

Sulla Strada, Materiali Sonori, 1995.

Fascinoma, Water Lily Acoustics, 1999.

Collaborations and sessions

(With Terry Riley) In C, CBS, 1968.

(With La Monte Young) Dream House 78’ 17”, Shandar, 1973.

(With Talking Heads) Remain in Light, Sire, 1980.

(With Brian Eno) Ambient #4: On Land, Editions EG, 1982.

(With David Sylvian) Brilliant Trees, Virgin, 1984.

(With David Sylvian with Jon Hassell, Steve Jansen, and Holger Czukay) Words with the Shaman, Virgin, 1985.

(With Lloyd Cole) Mainstream, Polydor, 1987.

(With The Kronos Quartet) White Man Sleeps, Nonesuch, 1987.

(With various artists) Myths 3: La Nouvelle Sérénité, Sub Rosa, 1987.

(With Tears for Fears) The Seeds of Love, Fontana, 1989.

(With Marc Beacco) The Crocodile Smile, Nova, 1991.

(With various artists) Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses, Philips, 1991.

(With Stina Nordenstam) And She Closed Her Eyes, East-West, 1993.

(With various artists) Ai Confini/lnterzone, New Tone, 1993.

(With Techno Animal) Re-Entry, Virgin, 1995.

(With David Toop) Pink Noir, Virgin, 1996.

(With Seal) Seal Unplugged, MTV, 1996.

(With k.d. lang) Drag, Warner, 1997.

(With Holly Cole) Dark Dear Heart, Blue Note, 1997.

(With Jackson Browne) The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne, Elektra, 1997.

(With Ani DiFranco) Little Plastic Castle, Righteous Babe, 1998.

(With Baaba Maal) Nomad Soul, Palm Pictures, 1998.

(With David Toop) Hot Pants Idol, Barooni, 1999.

(With k.d. lang) Invincible Summer, Warner, 2000.

(With Ronu Majumdar and Ry Cooder) Hollow Bamboo, Water Lily Acoustics, 2000.

(With Nick Wood) Sound Virus, Milan, 2001.

(With Rick Cox) Maria Falling Away, Cold Blue, 2001.


(With Peter Gabriel) Birdy, Virgin, 1985.

(With Peter Gabriel) Passion, RealWorld, 1989.

(With Ry Cooder) Trespass, Warner Bros., 1993.

(With Ry Cooder) The End of Violence, Outpost, 1997.

(With The Startled Insects) Love and Death on Long Island, 1997.

(With Ry Cooder) Primary Colors, MCA, 1998.

The Million Dollar Hotel, Island, 2000.

Angel Eyes, Warner Bros., 2001.



Billboard, May 29, 1999.

Boston Globe, February 29, 1988; November 27, 1992.

Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1989; July 20, 1989.

Down Beat, February 2000.

Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1999.

New York Times, February 2, 2001.

USA Today, May 6, 1987.

Washington Post, September 21, 1987.

Wire, August 1994.


“Jon Hassell,” Lovely Music, http://www.lovely.com (February 21,2003).

“Jon Hassell,” Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com/perfect/hassell.html (February 21, 2003).

Laura Hightower