Jon Hassell, avant garde US composer, dies aged 84

Jon Hassell, the influential American avant garde composer who invented the global-minded “fourth world” musical aesthetic, has died aged 84. In a statement, his family said the “iconic trumpet player, author and composer” died in the early hours of 26 June, after just over a year of health complications.

In spring 2020, Hassell broke his leg in a fall at his recording studio and spent four months recuperating in hospital, in isolation owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hassell “cherished life and leaving this world was a struggle as there was much more he wished to share in music, philosophy, and writing”, said his family. “It was his great joy to be able to compose and produce music until the end.”

Hassell’s debut album, 1978’s Vernal Equinox, proposed his vision of the fourth world aesthetic, which he called “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques”.

“In those days, the cold war days, there was the first world and basically the unspoken second, which was the Soviet empire,” Hassell once said. “Anything outside of those two was called third world, and it usually meant less developed countries. And those less developed countries were places where tradition was still alive and spirituality was inherent in their musical output, for lack of a better term. [Fourth world] was like ‘3 +1.’”

A New York Times critic wrote of a 1977 performance by Hassell: “His synthesis opens up new vistas rather than simply rearranging the components of old ones.”

Jon Hassell: Fearless – video

In 1980, Hassell collaborated with Brian Eno on the album Fourth World, Vol 1: Possible Musics. In 2007, Eno wrote an essay titled The Debt I Owe to Jon Hassell, in which he said: “If I had to name one overriding principle in Jon’s work, it would be that of respect: he looks at the world in all its momentary and evanescent moods with respect, and this shows in his music.”

Speaking to the Guardian last year, Hassell said he was proud of his influence on a younger generation of musicians who did not perceive boundaries between global styles of music. “The fourth world is something that says: I’m aware of that, I’m aware of this and here’s what I’m coming up with.”

Musicians from music’s left field paid tribute to Hassell. Drew Daniel of Matmos thanked him for “the shimmering mazes” of his music. The London experimental pop group Kero Kero Bonito named him as a “major influence”. Zola Jesus said he had offered “a portal into so many other possible worlds”.

The Bug, AKA British producer Kevin Martin, said it had been an honour to work with Hassell on an album by Techno Animal, Martin’s group with Justin Broadrick of Godflesh. “A king of tone, space and fourth world explorations, this world already seems duller without you.”

Hassell was born in Memphis in 1937. “I’m proud that I came from the same place as the blues,” he said. He studied at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and moved to Cologne to study under Karlheinz Stockhausen, inspired by the German composer’s early electronic piece, Gesang der Jünglinge.

Among his classmates were Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, who would found the group Can. Hassell told Billboard of his first experience taking acid at Schmidt’s house: “I remember being on the floor listening to gagaku Japanese music and watching the fibres of the rug sway with the music.”

Hassell met the minimalist composer Terry Riley while a fellow at State University of New York Buffalo Center for Creative and Performing Arts. In 1968, Hassell performed on the first recording of Riley’s vastly influential piece, In C.

“This American experience being around Terry and later La Monte Young was a great antidote to the European experience with Stockhausen,” he told Perfect Sound Forever in 1997. “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.”

In Buffalo, Hassell befriended the synth pioneer Robert Moog, worked with Young and studied in India under the classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, learning the raga form on the trumpet. “Just above everything I have, I owe to Pran Nath,” Hassell told Perfect Sound Forever.

Jon Hassell: Live on KCRW – video

The traditional music style, which he once likened to “sonic calligraphy”, influenced his fourth world approach. “I wasn’t prepared to be the first raga trumpet player; I was too old to go that route,” he told the critic Geeta Dayal. “So I had to bring in the things that I loved: ‘Why can’t I put this together with this?’”

Hassell performed at the first Womad music festival in 1982. That decade, he would collaborate with the festival’s co-founder, Peter Gabriel, as well as Talking Heads, David Sylvian and Tears for Fears.

He intended to collaborate with Eno and David Byrne on the album that became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Hassell could not afford to fly to California for recording, and said he was “outraged” by the tapes Eno and Byrne sent back to him.

He told Perfect Sound Forever: “This was clearly a not-too-subtle appropriation of what I was doing over rock drum and bass I thought it was a very unethical thing to do and the fact that I was never credited, even for being an inspiration, is a testament to the testosterone in the room at that time … This made the struggle for my own musical identity in the marketplace all that more difficult and I still run into the consequences of this arrogance.”

In the 90s, Hassell collaborated with artists including kd lang, Ani DiFranco and often with Ry Cooder, and continued to release his own albums. He founded the record label Ndeya, an imprint of Warp Records.

His last album was 2020’s Seeing Through Sound, the second part of his 2018 album Listening to Pictures. Both releases explored Hassell’s musical theory of “pentimento”, a term he borrowed from painting that refers to images and forms that have been painted over in a finished work.

In interviews from last year, Hassell said he was writing a book called The North and South of You. He told Billboard it was an “analysis of our current situation in terms of our overemphasis on the north of us, the rational and technological, instead of the south of us. North is logic, south is the samba – and how much more of each would you rather have when the time comes to depart the planet?”

Hassell’s family said he had left behind “many gifts” that they would share with fans in time to “support his enduring legacy”. Donations to a GoFundMe set up by Brian Eno in 2020 to support him during his illness would “allow the tremendous personal archive of his music, much unreleased, to be preserved and shared with the world for years to come”, said the family, as well as supporting “philanthropic gifts of scholarship and contributions to issues close to Jon’s heart, like supporting the working rights of musicians”.

The family said: “As Jon is now free of a constricting body, he is liberated to be in his musical soul and will continue to play in the fourth world. We hope you find solace in his words and dreams for this earthly place he now leaves behind. We hold him, and you, in this loss and grief.”

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