Jon Hassell: There Was No Avant Garde

hassellThis was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I spoke to Jon Hassell by telephone last summer on a bright summer morning, while I was living in the Catskills, surrounded by huskies, cats, lumbering bears, Sufi gurus, and other types of beings. Hassell was very open and direct, curious and human, obviously still very moved by memories of time spent with Pandit Pran Nath. If you listen to his early records, like Vernal Equinox, Possible Musics, Aka-Darbari-Java and Dream Theory in Malaya, you can really hear the fruit of his study with Guruji – it’s all meend, all bending, curving glissandos, morphing shape and pattern. It’s a mistake to interpret Hassell’s work of this period as some kind of post-modern collage of styles. He’s trying to explore or create places where different methods of making music converge with each other, not through the sentiment of some kind of World Music, but experimentally, with the idea of Universal Sound always present to encourage exploration and affirm the possibility of communication. This remains a challenge and a goal worthy of aspiration to today. This interview in Perfect Sound Forever will give you a broader sense of Hassell’s history, while the Jon Hassell Power Spot has discographies, background on Fourth World and more. David Toop’s thoughtful piece on Fourth World from The Wire is also recommended.

JH: When I ran into Pran Nath, it was at a certain point in the development of my musical signature. I was not so well-formed as Terry and La Monte. I always felt I was slightly privileged in that my musical style was still in the process of being formed, and therefore I could weave it into my own particular blend of things whereas with Terry and La Monte, the influence came at a different angle.

MB: Can you trace out what the transition for you was when you studied with Pran Nath?

JH: To me it was an introduction to a microworld of connections. He didn’t normally allow people to record lessons but he did allow me to record one or two and I probably wore out the pause button on my cassette player, just going through and making sure I was picking up every note that was being sung. For me that was a complete revelation. Coming into it from an educated Western point of view listening to Indian music you hear the ornamentation and … from the outside, it’s like a child listening to Indian music trying to imitate it and going (imitates “snake charmer” music) without knowing what’s actually there. It was such a revelation to me, to see that there was this background grid on which these arabesques were being traced – and how it extended the range of possibilities that had been laid out for me in Western musical training.

MB: And you didn’t find that kind of nuaunce in jazz?

JH: What it revealed to me was that jazz was a subset, a “raga family” … because there were a fairly limited set of intervalic variations. But because raga is all about shape-making, it turned me on to seeing African and African-American music, every music through the lens of that shape-making ability. The “calligraphy in air” aspect was such an immense revelation for me. When you hear Pran Nath singing the beginning of a raga and after 15 minutes you realize that he’s only touched on the first three notes, then you see how much is lacking in the western system: you know, here’s the C lily pad, here’s the C sharp, the D lily pad … leaping from pad to pad in that mosaic way, ignoring the connective tissue, the shape making that’s possible between these pitches, which opens up an incredibly vast territory of thinking about music. But, coming in when I did, I didn’t leave anything out, it wasn’t like I had time to become the world’s greatest raga trumpet player and tour the world playing classical raga. I wasn’t 21 when I started studying with him. And that idea, “oh isn’t it quaint how the elephant can dance the ballet,” is somewhat limited … the “trick” of playing something on an instrument that’s never played it before. I mean it’s a cool thing to do but it was out of reach for me … and it just didn’t appeal to me so much. I couldn’t leave behind all the other stuff that I was interested in … Electric Miles Davis … “On The Corner” is the record I always cite …. I had to incorporate all these things I loved into what I did. I tried to open myself to all of it. Certainly the biggest single factor in my development was coming into contact with Pran Nath.

MB: So raga provided the grid for fusing whatever needed to be fused.

JH: It was a window through which I could see other things. The last record I did – Fascinoma – has two Guruji tamburas on it … it’s like a return to my first record Vernal Equinox, on which the raga influence was more prevalent. It’s all one microphone in one church space, no sleight of hand editing of the tape. I also allowed myself to play things I’d never allowed myself to, like Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. Having an appreciation for the shape making ability of raga, led me to finally see things like Johnny Hodges, the alto player with Duke Ellington, who was famous for all these swoops and curves … and a singer like Jimmy Scott, anyone who shaped a music that way … It was a lens through which I started to see things in my own culture from a different angle.

MB: What is lacking in the raga worldview, in terms of envisioning your own music and what you want to do with it? What did you most want to add or incorporate?

JH: A kind of earthiness, an urban quality that you find in the African American approach to things – that synthesis of high and low, that was brought to things by Miles, among others. That was the part that I had grown up on. The things you’re impressed by when you’re in your formative years are going to stay there forever. So it wasn’t likely that I was going to don a white cloth and go off into the mountains and deny whatever it was that made me thrilled when I heard a magic chord progression or some beautiful Brazilian song. Even though raga is definitely sensual. I always talk about the realization that all the other so called classical musics in the world are sensual as well as structural. In Western music it’s often been reduced to something simply structural and the sensual part is often underdeveloped. It’s that combination of structure with sexiness, to use the word that’s lurking behind this talk. Think of Indian classical art with it’s refined sensuality, in which there is no difference between spiritual and sensual. Speaking of it from a Western point of view we always say, well you take a little of this and you add a little of that, but the real story is that sensuality/spirituality is a completely organic thing, there is no separation. In fact, one of the ragas that Pran Nath told me about, the lyric, maybe Lalit, was about girls holding hands, dancing in fields of flowers, they’re like garlands of flowers themselves. This was of course related to the love of God. But that whole ecstasy, from high to low, and the beauty of the girls, the deep spirituality of it, is all clustered together in one concept. The language is not made for speaking about these things. You have to be very careful, otherwise you fall into a trap like wrapping up a sentence with “a concept” – that’s not where it is! It’s pre- and post- “concept” …

MB: Which is what allows it to fuse at many levels, right? Is it hard for you to think of Pran Nath’s singing as sensual?

JH: No, not at all. If you think about the curves, the motion of his hands in the air, he could be describing a Marilyn Monroe shape.

MB: Did he talk much about that?

JH: No. I just knew it was there. He certainly appreciated women and had a healthy libido. Everyone will agree. He had a twinkle in his eye. I always felt that was one of the sine qua nons of music …

MB: That it had that sensuous, incarnate quality …

JH: Yes. And without that it becomes dry and intellectual. In fact I’ve been collecting notes for a book, the title of which is The North and South of You, as in the Cole Porter song. It’s basically about this Western dysfunction between the North and the South, not only globally speaking, but bodily speaking. The equator is the belt line …

MB: It’s a fine idea. Although in the last 30 years, maybe there’s been a kind of global warming that has changed some of this?

JH: Not really. It’s on everybody’s mind of course. The tensions that arise from this imbalance are expressed every place. The public manifestations of the consciousness of it is much greater than before. But it’s still operative. The worldview of Northern people who don’t have a great relationship to the Southern parts of their body is still the one that prevails, and that’s the one that’s causing all the trouble. There’s not proper respect for the “gifts of the South”, shall we say.

MB: I started a book that would be a personal erotic history where I would go through every erotic moment of significance in my life, and use the word “erotic” in the broadest possible way, so that it could describe all kinds of forms of sensuality …

JH: That’s what’s included in this book. The subtitle is “An Erotic Worldview”.

MB: Most of the books that have been written on this subject are pretty disappointing. And very few are written by white men. The few books that are out there that are any good tend to be written by women.

JH: Sounds right.

MB: My feeling is that the “erotic” world dissolves the more you look into it, and enter it: it exists as this powerful heightened Southern world so long as you’re not in it. But once you’re in it, it’s intensity turns into something else, and that’s what interests me the most now.

JH: Maybe you’re speaking of this state of grace that I mentioned in the raga sensibility, in which everything is fused so that it’s impossible to separate. That’s probably an ideal.

MB: Yeah, you’re left with something that could become anything. The erotic is left as a connective tissue.

JH: Well, it’s pretty fundamental. Everything that happens comes from that connection. The erotic experience of sliding down the uterine canal … that’s a fairly good hint as to what we consider fundamental. I view it as a fact of animals who have become so abstract that they’ve lost contact with their animal origins and therefore separate everything into “us” and “them”. Some humans have stayed closer to that, and are … quite “amusing” to northern people who go on vacation to the South. But their world view is not respected enough to be seen with the same weight as the classical Northern view.

MB: I guess we should return to Pandit Pran Nath.

JH: Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever departed (laughter).


MB: When and where did you study with Pran Nath?

JH: I’d just come from studying with Stockhausen for 2 years in Germany and I was new to this whole minimal idea. I was in Buffalo with Terry and played on In C … It must have been ’73, ’74 that I actually moved to New York, and started playing with La Monte – that’s when I came into this sphere, being around him and playing in the Dream House, listening to those overtones and intervals magically connecting, often on some hashish cocktail.

MB: Just from seeing a video of Pran Nath, I got a strong smoker’s vibe …

JH: Not him. The Indian thing is … bhang grows alongside the road there. When you’re studying and living in the forest, and it’s music music music all day, the first thing you touch when you wake up in the morning is the chillum. Those things you see in those classical Indian paintings … ladu, little balls of bhang and almond paste … To write a history of music without that concept of ecstasy, of intoxication, is to write a history of the world without noting that it didn’t take place in the glare of electric light.

MB: And it’s a history of embodiment, of relationships with nature, connections with the divine through nature, through material processes.

JH: Right.

MB: But Pran Nath was not particularly a hashishin.

JH: Not really, that was more the Dream House. Doing those long sessions and tuning up those intervals. I’ll never forget that.

MB: One of the things that’s said about hashish is that it allows a micro-perception of intervals …

JH: I’d say microworlds rather than microintervals. La Monte talks about this … listening in the present tense. And also vertical listening. As opposed to listening to a line unfold in time, you’re presented with a timbre and you scan the timbre up and down vertically and listen to little areas. I did a piece called Solid State while I was in residence at the at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, at SUNY Buffalo, which can be seen as an attempt to bring into the audible range that overtone area – bring it into a more fundamental range, then carve away at it with sequential filtering. That was all coming out of my experience with the Dream House and Terry Riley – we did his In C there. I used to present it as a sound sculpture in museum spaces. It was working with this idea of a block of sound, but I added a kinetic energy to it through sequential filtering. The concept was like beginning with a piece of paper that was all black with pencil lead and then making shapes on it by erasing.

MB: So you were mixing this live?

JH: Yes. Although the fundamental piece was done on 2 track tape. We did it at the planetarium in Amsterdam a few years ago, which turned out to be the perfect place for it!

MB: So when did you actually formally study with Pran Nath?

JH: There was an intense period of study when we were both in New York in 1973, 4. I began studying just by singing, and shortly after I started playing trumpet. And I had to forget everything I knew about playing and really learn to play the mouthpiece instead of the trumpet. The trumpet is a glorified bugle. It’s made to touch wide intervals until you get to the upper partials … by the way, some people think that’s the theory behind those high Brandenberg Concerto trumpet parts… I had to find a way to make the meend – which I tried to do by trying to use the lips as a secondary voice, as if transferring the vibration point from the vocal fold to the lips and thinking of it as a conch sound, blowing primitively into it and making the pitches with just the lips and the resonating chamber. I had to blow across the normal overtone “notches” and, as a result, the sound became quite fuzzy and vocal. That was a pleasant side effect of attempting to make the meend happen.

MB: Were you involved in other musical projects while you were studying with Pran Nath?

JH: No. I left for California in 1975 … I went through a lot of personal stuff … which was all part of the birth of what I’ve called “Fourth World”. I was just practicing with my raga lessons and my pause button. I lived in a little place in Malibu near the ocean and I’d go up into the hills and practice and try to make those curves. I basically studied “Tilang” for two years or more … and just the alap … I never really got beyond it …

MB: Was “Tilang” a raga that Pran Nath particularly taught?

JH: It was certainly special between him and me. In India, that’s what I was working on. Whenever it would come on the radio and he started to sing a bit of it outside of a lesson, I knew he was still teaching me.

MB: How many times did you go to India?

JH: Just once.

MB: Any particular memories?

JH: Just the ecstasy of being there in the temple. I think La Monte and Marian were staying in the temple, my then girlfriend DeFracia and I were staying in a hotel down the road, and we’d come to the temple early in the morning, and Swamiji (Narayan), Guruji’s spiritual guru, he was there. I remember playing on the roof for him. He came up and sat and listened to me, with these brilliant eyes shining and smiling, seeing what I was doing on the trumpet. We would go to the market, buy two ladu … it made the day go like … water! I was often on ladu, and listening to the children sing, the arti bells clapping, the swallows overhead, the muezzin singing from the minaret nearby, I mean it was total ecstasy, it was so beautiful.

MB: Sounds like a fourth world foundational experience right there.

JH: Totally. Totally.

MB: What did people there think of you playing the trumpet?

JH: They just accepted it. There was even a fabled trumpet player spoken of there … I mean they use clarinet in those wedding bands. It wasn’t like oh my god you can’t do this …

MB: But most people studied singing with him …

JH: First I started vocal … but then I started transferring it to trumpet.

MB: Did he ask you to do that?

JH: No. There was a festival that we did in Rome in the early 1970s. La Monte was doing a Dream House, Guruji was singing too, and I was warming up in the space one day, playing some pattern, and Guruji picked it up and started singing it and running rings around it and I thought, why am I not studying with this man? I’d seen him perform for months or maybe a year before I decided to study.

MB: Did you formally become a disciple?

JH: Not formally. I was always on the outside a little bit. I profited from that in some way. I think he respected where I was and respected the slight distancing. Too close to the guru you burn up, too far away you’re too cold. I always felt there was a nice blend of master, pupil and friend.
MB: That’s the sense I have from almost everyone I’ve talked to …

JH: Yeah. Terry and I when we see each other, we think about how he would laugh. Oh ho ho. just to say that … He’d come across a beautiful thing or a beautiful girl or a beautiful vista. And he’d say “oh ho ho!” in a special way. It was more beautiful than I can … as you can tell I’m starting to mist up over here!


M: My feeling is that all the action is in that middle space where things are mixing and fusing. Hungry Ghost will be devoted to this issue of fusion, tradition and experiment in contemporary culture.

JH: Find another word for fusion! That rings a bell and Pavlov’s dog comes out, dripping.

MB: You start using words like matrices …

JH: (laughing) No, don’t do that either! I try to cultivate a very direct, extemporaneous manner … try to say things directly without going into art critic speak. Try to say the thing in the most direct way, avoiding words that push people’s buttons and cause them to slam the door shut as they read.

MB: Yeah, part of Hungry Ghost is about discussing spirituality and the sacred in modern culture, and those are two more words that you can’t really use or wouldn’t want to use. So the whole venture is about inventing a space or vocabulary for things that we’re unable to talk about without the associations being so heavy that people are turned off or think they already know what’s gonna be said.

JH: Wordism is what I call it. Here’s something I wrote about it: “the words are all on a transparent film. the experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. the words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. if you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.”

MB: That was part of what my book about drugs was about. I wanted to reconfigure the idea of both drugs and literature, since they’re both actually types of embodied experience. The particular ways in which modern people relate to the notion of embodiment and how they think culture relates to that idea, completely determined the fate of drugs and literature in our world. There’s no such thing as “drugs”, there’s just a set of attitudes and laws, in which these things appear which we call drugs because they set off a certain set of alarms, desires, fears …

JH: Exactly. “Intoxication” is a word I use to jump over “drugs”. And to say that intoxication is the fourth drive, along with sex, hunger and thirst. Intoxication is essential as any of those. It’s a primal need, which expresses itself in various ways, sanctioned or not.

MB: To what degree did your thinking about preverbal culture evolve through studying with Pran Nath?

JH: Well, as far as the fundamental root is concerned, it’s smack dab in the center. The collision of my western training with this raga culture, which is a complete embodiment of sensuality and structure … like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, where the game was a combination of all science, art all in one thing. If anything came close to that it was raga. And who knows that art? Who would have the knowledge to understand how many things converge in that, being able to summon up the memory of this particular calligraphic event or situation. See the language breaks down into scientific stuff. Raga is like this smoke in the air which presents the listener with the feeling of being in a dream which imparts knowledge all at once. It reminds me of Terence McKenna’s saying that drugs are chemical gifts of the gods … it’s almost like a printed circuit, or an operating system that you may as well consider sacred … the chemical result of a plant that allows your brain to receive a certain kind of knowledge all in one swoop.

MB: And that raga is another way of addressing that circuit … and that concern with mood in the raga is that preverbal experience of knowledge.

JH: Right, all imprinted in the person who has opened their receptors enough to have the whole picture come in.

MB: To what degree do you feel that Pran Nath knew what he was doing?

JH: Well, he wouldn’t be able to talk about it as I am now. Even though he could say it in his own way. But being of one world and being acquainted with others, it’s become quite important to me and I’ve focused a lot on trying to say things like this in a language that might be understood by other people.

MB: Did he comment on your music?

JH: Actually, yes. “Graduation Day” for what I was doing was when I played him a track off Possible Musics called “Charm” in which I’m doing a lot of meend, a lot of shape making. It’s over a kind of tambura. I felt that everything I did was a way of transforming the basic structure of the raga situation: there’s a solo in front, there’s a background grid, the tambura, and I just said OK, let’s smear this image up a bit, let’s not use the traditional way, let’s do it another way, try this one, try that one, that’s where it all began, and you extrapolate from there … just like a painter would, start with a set of assumptions, limitations etc and paint your way out of them, and back into them, and then out of them again …

MB: And you played “Charm” to Pran Nath?

JH: Right. He said “This is good”. So that was a big moment for me. That he could actually see how something could be taken and how his art could be absorbed and translated in another way. In the same way that raga itself has always depended on personalities – maybe the variations between singers in a tradition is much more subtle – but still it all had to do with personalities, saying “I like the way this sounds, this makes me cry” … that must have been a part of …

MB: But this was about more than personalities. He must have been aware that his closest American students were musicians who were involved in a very different kind of music. And yet he himself seems so traditional. Did he have aspirations for his music?

JH: No, I don’t think so. I think he just did what he did. And was certainly expansive enough to understand how things grow and don’t stay static. But as for his own work, in the same way that we’ve said that sensuality and structure, or spirituality and sexuality, can be bound together, that they’re not separable, you could also say that for him forward and backward were also the same. There was no avant-garde. Except that probably while we were lying around listening to his music, as all sensitive musicians would, he probably understood what things we were really getting off on. and “played to the crowd” I hope. And if you’re not “playing to the crowd”, what are you doing?

MB: Do you think he spelled an end to minimalism? Basically after meeting him everyone went off and did something else.

JH: It just opened a wider panorama of possibilities. To a certain extent it took some of the wind out of the sails of a particular way of thinking about things. In other words, there was something better to do than that. My definition of minimalism is keeping one thing constant while other things move, and that generalized notion could be applied in many ways, including raga.