Jon Hassell's new music is an exotic domain of ritualised sex, strange tonalities, erotic transgressions and invisible connections. David Toop enter the pleasure dome. This article originally appeared in The Wire 126 (August 1994).
"Peeling to the lethargic beat of tumescent music, she wore vivid makeup, glitter in her hair and crystalline clothes, all hooks, straps, sequins and secret snappers. The stripper's art needs special garments made to tear away like the husk of a pomegranate. So you do not notice the woman as she is, because you are looking for fulfilment of the mind's eye. You are examining an idea - depravity or pleasure, or their perilous symbiosis."
- David Thomson, Suspects (1985)
In 1985, in a creeping, convoluted trail suggestive of plant growth, the British film critic and author David Thomson constructed a novel, or a lattice of biographical sketches, from the imaginary web of lives as they might have been lived by cinematic characters outside the frame of the cinema screen. These characters - Walker from Point Blank, Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Evelyn Mulwray and Noah Cross from Chinatown, and so on - and their previously unknown pasts and futures snag and pull at each other in this web, implying an invisible world occupied by the ragged stories of every fictional identity ever invented.
A similar process of dragging icons and overlaying them, sliced translucently thin, onto fictional histories, has been one of the key devices of technological music. Feasibly, you could extrapolate a novel from the interweaving stories buried within John Cage's Variations IV, but richer possibilities unfolded in the early 80s when the Memphis born trumpet player Jon Hassell began to capture, loop and laminate fragments of sampled sound on albums such as Aka-Darbari-Java.
Hassell has now formalised that process by naming his current band Bluescreen after the cinematic technique of filming foreground shots against a blue background and then superimposing them onto new landscapes and backdrops. Hassell says he is "adopting this metaphor in musical ways, creating magical textures in sound, making something familiar sound fresh and exotic by separating it from its background and combining it with something new and startling." Finding a review of David Thomson's Suspects in the LA Weekly, he hit on this as another metaphor connecting to his own search for a music which is almost psychotropic in its capacity to activate alien worlds in the imagination through strange juxtapositions.
Previous Hassell albums, particularly Earthquake Island (Tomato,
1978), Vemal Equinox (Lovely Music, 1977), Possible Musics
(Editions EG, 1980) and Dream Theory In Malaya (Editions EG, 1981),
along with his collaborations with Gnawa musicians from Morocco and
the Farafina percussionists from Burkina Faso, were made in the
spirit of creative anthropology exemplified earlier in this century
by the Surrealist writer, traveller, critic and documenter of
dreams, Michel Leiris. Writing on ethnographic Surrealism in The
Predicament Of Culture, james Clifford offers an outline of the
territory: "I am using the term Surrealism in an obviously expanded
sense to circumscribe an aesthetic that values fragments, curious
collections, unexpected juxtapositions - that work to provoke the
manifestations of extraordinary realities drawn from the domains of
the erotic, the exotic and the unconscious."
That could be a precis of Jon Hassell's oeuvre. But with Aka-Darbari-Java (Editions EG, 1983) the perfume of ethnopoetics was supplemented by parallels with literature and the advanced technology of hyperreality, indicated through affinities with Latin American Magic Realist writing and the video technique of Keying In. As for the sound, sluggish shapes undulated in the depths of a liquid fog formed from particles of air passed through metal > electronic transformations > the pitches of an Indian raga played on a treated trumpet > slowly turning variations of a drum cycle from Senegal recorded in Paris > glittering spirals of noise lifted from gamelan music and an Yma Sumac record (already a repository of colonial myths) orchestrated in Hollywood Exotica style by Les Baxter.
This was a form of music, Hassell suggested, which would leave behind "the ascetic face which Eurocentric tradition has come to associate with serious expression." Taboos were transgressed, notably in the music's sensuality and its free use of source material, but this was not untutored montage. The raga - Darbari - can be heard in its traditional form as interpreted by one of Hassell's teachers, the great Kirana style vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, recorded by Alan douglas in New Delhi and released 18 years later on Ragas Of Morning And Night (Gramavision, 1986).
Though he is now hampered by age and Parkinson's Disease, Pran Nath's approach to teaching was once formidable. "It is necessary to remain one hundred years with the guru, then practice for one hundred years, and then you can sing for one hundred years," he has said. The last time Hassell and I talked in interview mode, back in 1989, Jon tugged and worried at the contradiction between lengthy (though not quite that lengthy) study and the instantaneity of Xerox culture.
"It's a quandary for me," he said, "because I did develop a physical dexterity when I studied Indian music with Pandit Pran Nath. I decided at that point I wanted to walk into a room and have something that was in my nervous system which I could activate and bring with me wherever I went. It's a problem to know what to do with that in the age of sampling and audio sleight of hand, because the audience is looking for the final result, basically. They don't care if it took you 20 years to arrive at it or whether somebody sampled it off a record and used it."
At the time we spoke, he had just released City: Works Of Fiction, an album produced with a lot of digital editing and a strong influence from Hank Shocklee's Bomb Squad productions for Public Enemy. Although this might have been seen as another straightforward case of stealing black music innovations, Shocklee had claimed in an interview that the Public Enemy sound was partially influenced by Eno and Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. And that album, Hassell now reveals, his hurt soothed by the passage of time, was an idea spirited away from conversations between himself, Eno and Byrne, only to resurface as a project which eliminated him and his vital influence. "I've though about sampling My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts," he says, "and re-releasing it as mine."
So where to go at the beginning of the 90s? There was some
speculation about Jon recording an album of untreated solo trumpet.
But after a long delay, during which time City has set an industry
standard for digitally sliced soundtracks of the delirious
metropolis, the new album, Dressing For Pleasure, is as far from
the naked intimacy of a solo acoustic trumpet as Tromsš is from
Which is virtually no distance at all, in fact, in the wired world. Across the record's 12 tracks there is naked intimacy, or should I say provocatively dressed nakedness, but this is absorbed into the associated imagery of the music rather than the instrumentation. As the title indicates, this is a further stage in the move away from ascetic aesthetics, into HipHop, jazz, ragga and the ritualised sex of the modern primitive movement. This time, the taboos transgressed could be spelt Taboo, which might have been (at some point from the late 50s to the mid-60s) the name formerly scripted in pink neon above the door of an establishment now known as "Club Zombie" (track five on Dressing For Pleasure).
Maybe, at this point, somebody is asking who this man Hassell is and what is the relevance of sex clubs to sampling and ancient Indian ragas? Almost all of the musicians I meet at the moment seem to regard Jon Hassell, particularly the harmonized, digitally delayed trumpeter of Power Spot (1986), The Surgeon Of The Nightsky Restores Dead Things By The Power Of Sound (1987, the EditionsEG releases (Possible Musics, Dream Theory In Malaya, Aka-Darbari-Java) and City (1990), as one of the godlike geniuses of contemporary music. As Japanese bass player and composer Motohiko Hamase wrote for the sleeve notes to his Technodrome album: "City... provides a thorough expression of city music in one of the most remarkable accomplishments of recent years." And suddenly, as if it had been dropped into the culture yesterday afternoon, a growing number of critics use Jon's Fourth World concept to underpin their explications of modern/primitive hybrids. "Jon," sighs Thrash of The Orb, whose Pomme Fritz album owes a certain debt to Hassell's back catalogue. "Geezer. What's he like then? How old is he?"
What's he like? What do you think a person is like when his life has interconnected with Stockhausen, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Pandit Pran Nath and Brian Eno? Broader than somebody who has sat in front of an Atari screen for two years and then made their first record. As for how old: according to Pran Nath's reckoning, about 250. Whatever the real age, by the lamentable standards of the pop media, he's in the great-grandfather bracket, which is ridiculous.
When you listen to Dressing For Pleasure, no matter how you judge the music (and opinions on this new album seem sharply divided so far) you can put it on the shelf next to Jeru The Damaaja, DJ Krush, Public Enemy's Muse Sick-N-Hour-Mess-Age, Scanner, Tricky, UNKLE/Howie B's "The Time Has Come" on the Mo' Wax label, Wu-Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, Gappa G & Hypa Hype's "Information Centre" from Jungle central, and hear a connecting thread sounds like the snapping of connections into a million pieces, but all these examples are mounting a sonic assault on musical fundamentalism.
Jon has some interesting observations on fundamentalism, pertinent to the tensions between nationalism and trans-globalism. Click yourself on to the Internet, for instance, and you can find electronic discussion sites devoted to heraldry and folk dancing. "Maybe it will become convenient to redraw a map of the world according to interests and who wants to live in which era," he says from his home in West Hollywood as we talk on the telephone. "We could have wars between the 15th century and the 21st century."
The subject of fundamentalism has arisen as we talk about the sexual themes of Dressing For Pleasure. I've already heard one person say they thought the album's packaging was sexist. It's certainly a lot less dangerous to package your music in cosmic circuit diagram fantasies than with blurred, barely recognisable erotic snapshots, but then Hassell's ideas have always courted danger. The kind of Fourth World sampling he has employed and its post-colonial implications raises issues that are by no means resolved yet; similarly, to exteriorise private sex fantasies for public consumption is to step into one of the most fiercely contested zones of the moment.
But these are giant steps - not always in predictable directions - away from that compartmentalised ascetic aesthetic in which the body, feeling and intellect are strangers. Piling on slightly too many helpful clues, on Dressing For Pleasure Jon is making links between HipHop and the Gil Evans orchestrations for Birth Of The Cool, perhaps tracing, in his own mind, a web of meaning from Robert Farris Thompson's explorations of West African culture and mystic coolness ("a sense of certainty"), or the alchemical black heat of Miles Davis melting in transfixing contact with the white harmonies of Gil Evans.
"In the past," he says, "having been coming from the abstract, instrumental side of things, music was metalanguage for performing. I always felt that music took off where words stopped. HipHop changed that, because it allowed a new relationship between words and music, one that I felt more comfortable with. At the same time, every record I've ever done has always been some sort of a fantasy, an erotic fantasy. They've always been in this same constellation of sensuality, where the Gil Evans sound equals this sense of feeling good at a certain place at a certain time - maybe post-orgasmic music as opposed to pre-orgasmic.
"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. I love lush sensual atmospheres. I love beautiful chords. I'm in love with harmony. Strangely enough, I've taken the path of disciplines which didn't have a lot to do with that - at least in the sense of traditional chord changes, like studying raga. Although there are vast harmonic implications. It is, in fact, very covertly harmonic, but I'm talking about the beauty of having one note and you've got these chords changing underneath. Within each chord, that note takes on a different kind of character. It's a different picture each time, but using the same foreground. Brazilian pop music seemed to pick up on that right away - "One Note Samba", etc.
"Why did Brazilians choose this, or why did Gil Evans choose
those harmonies out of the repertoire that existed at that point?
There is something going on there, some deep essential drive
towards the beautiful. The beautiful is defined here as being that
which drags you most profoundly without any abstract constructs.
Without talking yourself into what's beautiful."
At the heart of our emergent sense of beauty in the present is a new tonality, which Jon sees as a development of samples being detuned and overlaid, particularly in HipHop to create dense, strange harmonic dissonances. To people who don't insist that music must be Eurocentrically in tune, these are very pleasurable, but to those whose first and formative listening experiences are HipHop this new tonality is normal.
Could rejection in 'academic' circles of this gorgeous delirium of wrong notes and weird chords come from a similar source to denial of the buried unconscious material that generates fantasies? "Flowers are the sexual organs of plants," says Hassell, extrapolating outwards again. "There's a whole host of natural phenomena around that suggest that we're fools not to enjoy decorating our lives in a way that turns us on and makes us happy. Because this is the root of spiritual healing, of feeling good about yourself, and the ability to decorate and to be creative with one's life. I find all these things incredibly positive. In my own life I've been operating that way privately all along. I feel like it's time to start saying something about it now because I see it as one of the root causes of this terrible situation we're in here now; the situation of hypocrisy on the public level and the vast difference between public and private forms of behaviour."
In the UK, where Tory MPs are particularly skilled in seduction and arcane masturbation rites, this is a subject we know only too well. Jon sends me an essay from Skin Two (Issue 14), written by Pat Califia and entitled "Sex Magic: Modern Primitives, Latex Shamans And Ritual SM". "Modern primitives live, for the most part, in urban enclaves in the age of the machine," she writes. "We have to find a way to synthesise the rhythms of nature with our electronic lives. A fuzzy-headed, sentimental longing for a bucolic utopia will not save us from toxic waste or nuclear weapons. We need a world where we can have both computers and campfires." In condemning misguided appropriations of pre-industrial communal ritual for the post-industrial, private theatre of sex, this brilliant essay illuminates some of the murkier areas of Fourth World theory.
And in Dressing For Pleasure, there are musical developments of the Fourth World idea, also. "Destination: Bakiff", for example, samples and chops snatches of Duke Ellington's recording of "Bakiff". Composed by the Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol, the tune is a heady piece of exotica. "When Ellington and Strayhorn composed the Far East Suite in 1964," wrote Mark Tucker in his sleeve notes for Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band, the 1986 CD box set of Ellington recordings from the 1940s, "they may have been inspired by their recent visit to the Orient, but surely they drew upon memories of Juan Tizol's earlier studies in musical exotica, among them "Caravan", "Pyramid" and the atmospheric "Bakiff". Tizol's Puerto Rican origins seem to have little to do with a piece like "Bakiff", where musical impressionism is the product of its composer's imagination, not his first-hand experience with indigenous Caribbean idioms."
In the Fourth World, nothing is simple.