"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Wire JUNE 2014 - by Ken Hollings
JON HASSELL - CITY: WORKS OF FICTION
An expanded edition of a transitional work by Jon Hassell underlines how technology has always underpinned the exotic.
"There is," as Biba Kopf observed in his 1990 profile of Jon Hassell published in The Wire 78 to coincide with the release of City: Works Of Fiction, "no one sound of the city." It has no permanent shape or structure either, since the city is constantly erasing and overwriting itself. What it never does is empty itself. The most you can expect from the urban environment is a tight crowding together of absences: imagine how much of a city is experienced only as a distorted reflection fleetingly glimpsed in sheet glass, polished steel or the lenses of surveillance cameras. Hence each city becomes a series of fictions; and fiction is an effective way of giving lasting form to something that can only exist from moment to moment.
One of the more uncomfortably revealing urban fictions that have emerged over the past three decades or so is the exotic. Exoticism helps to dissemble the cultural and political assumptions that maintain a city's existence at the expense of lives and experiences that are held to be different from or located outside of it. With the passage of time, however, such fictions are slowly forced to expose themselves - they cannot connect so readily with each successive new cityscape as it emerges. This key Hassell reissue therefore comes in three distinctive parts, the first of which is City: Works Of Fiction, remastered and with an additional subtitle, Original Fictions. Next comes The Living City, a performance recording mixed live by Brian Eno in 1989, followed by Psychogeography: Zones Of feeling, a collection of remixes new and old, one-offs, dubs and experiments by Hassell and others. Separate yet complementing each other, these offer three different maps to the same terrain. You might be surprised at where your wandering feet may take you - but all such journeys start right here.
Whether it is The Exotic Sounds Of Martin Denny, as a line on his early album releases always specified, or Hassell's concept of fourth world music, the exotic has always been rendered in technological terms. In Denny's case it was the deployment of stereophonic hi-fidelity playback in the home that made this form of exoticism possible; Hassell has, in his own fashion, built up the digital back-end of the process by blurring the distinction between live and studio recording processes. His term 'future primitive' is, however, applicable to the technological aspects of all exotic easy-listening in that such innovations are usually perceived in terms of something that runs against the smooth running of modern urban existence; rather than enhancing a city's culture, they disrupt it. The exotic is therefore perceived as everything the city is not and is paradoxically deemed to be somehow less civilised as a result. It is easy to forget, for example, that many of the more extraordinary sounds and effects in Hassell's work have been produced on that most classically conventional of instruments, the trumpet.
Recorded in 1989 but not released until the following year, City: Works Of Fiction is animated by the spirits of hip-hop and the digital transformation of house's original ecstasies into the steely reflective surfaces of techno. Opening cut Voiceprint: Blind From The Facts even contains a sample from Public Enemy, its bass-heavy percussive attack conjuring up sidewalk boomboxes and in-car speaker systems at full power. Pagan has the power of metal rings, chains and railings echoing through it. It is not until Rain, Ba Ya D and Warriors that the first signs of the plains and wildernesses lying outside the city begin to emerge as a sequence of sonic images.
Their distant simmer and quiet sense of threatening remoteness is much in evidence on The Living City. Recorded live at New York's Winter Garden on September 17, 1989 with the same line-up of musicians whom played on City that same summer, this is undoubtedly the outstanding feature on this particular collection. Eno had invited Hassell to perform inside an audio-visual installation he had created at the Winter Garden inspired by the sounds and rituals of the Ba-Ya-Ka pygmy tribe from the Cameroon. While Hassell played, Eno created a live mix incorporating some of the recordings into the set. The result is both intense and relaxed, with players and sounds given the range to prowl around each other. It also presents an opportunity for Hassell to stretch out the phrasing on his trumpet more, allowing some of his former influences and inspirations to show through - most notably the ragas of Prandit Pran Nath, with whom Hassell studied, his links with la Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, not to mention the two years spent under tutelage of Stockhausen. Ituri creeps in like a misty dawn, while Alchemistry and Adedara Rising slink and stalk around looped horn riffs and loosely focused bass patterns. You can hear the audience responding warmly as the performance unfolds, their applause filtering through the soundscape.
It all ends with the nocturnal glimmer of Nightsky, a sprawling, dream-like mediation alive with insect calls and tinkling metallic percussion. this seems entirely appropriate to Eno's use of the event and its space. Winter gardens were an urban innovation of the late nineteenth century: thanks to the introduction of glazed iron spans and heated piped water, tropical environments could be artificially recreated inside giant zoological greenhouses, allowing city dwellers for the first time to experience the exotic without ever leaving their familiar streets. trapped somewhere between the Winter Garden and The Living City is a memory of Martin Denny playing live at Don The Beachcomber's bar in Honolulu with echoing, prerecorded bird-calls, or even Arthur Lyman's vibraphone reverberating around the inside of the aluminium geodesic dome at Henry Kaiser's Hawaiian Village as he works his way through another easy-listening classic.
Such transitory impressions are dispelled with the restless experimentation to be found on Psychogeography, the third and final disc. Suddenly Hassell confronts the listener with another early inspiration: Miles Davis's bustling and tight-lipped On The Corner, whose title alone fixes us at the heart of a busy city, where drugs and alcohol offer both oases of horror and deserts of boredom. New artificial spaces are opened up: from Brigantes, 808 State's twitchy remix of Voiceprint, and No UFO's smoke-wreathed Ba Ya Dub through to Cityism Superdub, a bubbling wild mix of a Warriors take and the floating intoxicated skyline of Cloud-Shaped Time, which closes this particular set of fictions.
The artificial is always an act of innate criticism; it breaks with the way things are to show us how they might seem. As such, Hassell's City and its immediate environs may well represent the future primitive of the recent past, but they also provide the future sound of exotic easy-listening for today.