Jon Hassell: The infinite past of Music
An interview with Jon Hassell
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
An Introduction to Jon Hassell - Scheda
Here is some correspondence exchanged with the greatest trumpet of all times, and one of this century's most influential composers, Jon Hassell.
"With this recording, I locate myself squarely within that aspect of music which is fundamental and irreducible: the beauty of the sound. This is what Dane Rudhyar calls 'tone-magic'--a concept derived from ancient practice wherein the quality of the tone itself communicates meaning quite apart from any further arrangement in an 'artifice' of music." (Liner notes for "Fascinoma")

So let's say that an epiphany is just a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of your eye or your soul which can either be buried under the second-by-second, sensory-input-avalanche or can wind up as one of the world's great religions. (The poet Ira Cohen defines this poetic moment as "temporary sanity")

I suppose we're somewhere between those two as I report here the sum of multiple epiphanies that usually arrive in the morning as I'm summoning up that little vibration which gets channeled into a trumpet sound. Without meaning to be too precious about it, I sometimes feel like I'm lighting a candle, around which protective hands must be held to avoid its being blown out by the wind of my (apparently, ceaselessly) mutating mind ("shouldn't I be doing this instead of that, how seriously should I take that breathless report of The Next Big Thing in Music, etc., etc.?")

So there I am, sitting down one day getting up my sound and thinking about this instrument so full of history (both mine and its: "the conch shell meets the piston meets the harmonizer meets the conch shell") ; trying to re-live even for a few seconds in the air of raga Past where the interval of a fifth could be felt as "the sun", and a fourth as "the moon"--and suddenly it occured to me that...

1. In some way which was vaguely felt but not understood--the recording process of "Fascinoma" resonated with something I remembered about Dane Rudhyar's evocation of the idea of the "magic of tone" (before Pythagoras and number and measurement created the conditions within which the "art of music" would flourish).

2. This daily contact with "tone" was a blessing and an experience vastly removed from the process of making a computer make "music".

But don't be misled. I'm not a Luddite. (Not yet, anyway.) Among the credentials I'll present on that morning in 2017 when the digerati gangs are sweeping the provinces clean of analog counter-revolutionaries, are the notes (played and written) on Aka-Darbari-Java, where I riffed lovingly on the poetic possibilities of digital transformations ("...a background mosaic of frozen momentsŠa sonic texture like a 'Mona Lisa' which, in close-up, reveals itself to be made up of tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal" ).

So the pleasure taken in finding myself in the middle of a church in Santa Barbara facing a single stereo microphone--where I could finally hear myself and other instruments in nothing but air, where I could hear myself being heard (especially through the spirit-catcher sensibility of Ry Cooder)--is born more of the delight in finding a pleasant country road which temporarily skirts the stylistic traffic jam than any off-with-their-heads pronouncements about the evils of technology.

I remember a diagram in Paul Klee's "Pedagogical Sketchbook" illustrating a kind of "assymetrical balance" where a large field of pale color is shown to balance a small field of strong color. This suggests relationships in the development of musical forms relative to the timbres in which they are expressed . How could the calligraphy-in-air quality of raga be expressed in a "fat" sound? A body in motion must continually re-shape itself in order to appear graceful. So perhaps the instrumental and vocal timbres characteristic of much Asian music have evolved as they have because they are busy curving and decorating. When I started to study raga with the vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, I didn't set out to develop a breathy, translucent sound; as I tried to play the shapes that his voice was making, the sound in which that was possible appeared by itself. (Note: this kind of organic relationship which yields eccentric, unpredictable, and very "local" results is an endangered species in a world of generic, one-box-does-all, "global" instruments.)

Somehow the experience of exciting the glorious resonance of that church space suggested a wider musical menu than the one I usually opened. Why? Maybe because I felt that just by playing a tone, a certain "quota" of beauty was already present. If the material at hand is a strand of rusty wire then weaving that wire into a delicate latticework is a strategy to create art(ifice); but a beautiful face or the sound of wind in the trees doesn't cry out so much for "arrangement".

So I followed my instincts, pulled off the expressway to one of those roadside parks where I felt free to sit and play the melody Eden Ahbez called "Nature Boy" and ignored the faces of hierarchical critical thinking (especially, my own) scowling at me in the rear view mirror.

-JON HASSELL-

"At the same time, I celebrate here my first contacts with musical exotica in the form of certain songs and melodies heard as a child on the radio or in movie scores. This music created a kind of permanent technicolor oasis in my spirit--a place where I always want to stop for a cool refreshing drink, whether from Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol's "Caravan", or Ravel or raga, or gamelan or Gil, or Joćo or Joujouka--and a place which became the underlying spring from which flowed my 'fourth world' musical paradigm."

June 1999

Dane Rudhyar/ The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music / Shambhala Press 1982


Brian Eno on "FASCINOMA"* (to Jon Hassell 18 May 1999)

" I've really gotten into your Fascinoma. There's real clarity and honesty about it which is extremely welcome, and very timely. The music is fantastic, and its undefendedness inspires instant confidence. This is very much the mood of the times..."

"Working with U2 now, we've been doing a similar thing - working the songs out with every trick in the book, but then learning them and just playing them live with very little overdubbery...The results have some of the same crispness and integrity as yours. Interesting process - to finally have to reduce everything to whatever can be played by a group of people, live."

"Anyway, I've been playing Fascinoma a lot at my studio, enjoying its spaciousness. The other night I wet to see the film 'FESTEN' ['The Celebration] which was made by one of those Dogme people ( Thomas Vinterberg; Dogme also includes Lars von Trier director of 'Breaking the Waves'). It has a similar doctrinaire quality - hand-held, no artificial light, no music other than that produced as part of the action (eg someone playing piano in a room where the action is happening). Very refreshing - and a deeply disturbing film."


To resonate with the concept of simplicity and dignity is nothing new within the film poetry of Wim Wenders. In his newest film, The Million Dollar Hotel --shot in 35 days entirely in a decaying hotel amidst the urban blight of downtown Los Angeles among the casualties of life who are it's residents--the "Wings of Desire" director creates a post-millenial, Edward Hopper-like visual and psychological atmosphere around the story (all told in flashback during a suicide leap) of two young misfits benumbed by all else around them but their improbable discovery of love.

The ghost of Chet Baker (who also ended his life in a hotel leap in Amsterdam) seems to hover over the scene in Wenders' casting of avant-garde trumpeter Jon Hassell as "Hollow", whose soulful horn drifts out of his candlelit window and into the windows and intertwined souls of the two lovers. The haunting score (by Hassell, Bono, and Daniel Lanois) contains a long section of a live concert by Hassell in Amsterdam and some new songs by Bono--who also originated the storyline and is one of the film's co-producers.


It was also during work on "The End of Violence" that Wim Wenders met the trumpeter-composer Jon Hassell and who Wenders later asked to play a role in his next film, "The Million Dollar Hotel". While working on "The Buena Vista Social Club" record, Ry Cooder was also producing Jon Hassell with jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson and classical Indian flutist, Ronu Majumdar, in a church in Santa Barbara using a single stereo microphone and analog tape recorder. This is the recording called "Fascinoma" (with cover photo by Donata Wenders) whose "clarity and honesty" Brian Eno has compared with the "Dogme" group of filmmakers.
(Translation by/ tradotto da Cinzia Russi)
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