The Australian MAY 25, 2009 - by Lynden Barber


Jon Hassell doesn't own a portable MP3 player. He doesn't believe in them, feeling they merely add to the "white noise" that dominates so much of twenty-first-century life.

"I don't listen a lot. I believe very much in rationing the experience, so it's fresh for you," says the innovative US composer-musician ahead of his first visit to Australia next week.

"I starve myself, so that it (music) comes into my brain so I've got to hear that."

This may come as a surprise to those familiar with Hassell's hypnotic music, which during the past three decades has revealed an extraordinary breadth of influences, from many different ethnic forms from Asia and Africa, to jazz, electronica, ambient and minimalism.

Dig a little deeper though and it becomes obvious Hassell has helped to create at least some of these styles. He was practising sampling before the hip-hoppers cottoned on, and claims he was probably the first person to "live sample", during the sessions for his 1980 album Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics, recorded with Brian Eno.

More recently, his 1999 recording Fascinoma, a collaboration with guitarist-producer Ry Cooder and others, has been acknowledged as a strong influence on a new breed of experimental, ambient jazz by European trumpet players including Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer.

Eno, the guest curator of the inaugural Luminous music festival in Sydney, has invited his old friend and colleague to play an Opera House concert with his group Maarifa Street and conduct an evening of conversation with the Englishman based on ideas from a book they are writing.

Hassell's minimalistic, ambient sensibility may lead some to assume he picked up his approach from Eno's Ambient series of recordings of the late 1970s and early '80s (Hassell played trumpet on 1982's Ambient 4: On Land).

But while each has influenced the other, the influence of the American on Eno is almost certainly the stronger, as Eno has acknowledged. When the British producer of David Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads met Hassell in the late '70s in New York, the latter's musical conception was already fully formed.

"We spent a lot of time together," wrote Eno two years ago, "time that changed my mind in many ways." It was in these conversations that Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (the most influential of the early albums to use sampling) was nurtured, Eno wrote, adding, "I owe a lot to Jon. Actually, a lot of people owe a lot to Jon."

Hassell says he in turn has been affected by Eno's "art school approach to the mixing console" and general thinking. "He's quite a hybrid thinker. A lot of the books I've been influenced by have come from him pointing me to interesting authors, and me coming back and saying, 'this one, too'."

Hassell developed his unique approach after studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany, going on to playing trumpet with the two founding fathers of minimalism, Terry Riley (playing on his epochal 1968 recording, In C) and La Monte Young. In the early '70s he accompanied Riley on a visit to India to study with classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, where his ears were further opened to non-Western music. In India he began to develop his strikingly unique "vocal" trumpet style, which he would later take even further from the instrument's conventional sound with the aid of electronic treatments.

Back in the US he started to create a new type of music centred around what he calls a harmonic atmosphere.

"If you think of music as horizontal, being melody, and vertical, being harmony, I think of what I do as diagonal, because there's a harmonic loop repeating in the background. That's my take on the tamboura," he says, referring to the backing drone in Indian music. "With the loops, all the notes, the three chords, are in the air. That's the harmonic cloud to play within. The combined harmony is there, and yet I can play around it."

Lately Hassell has returned to a more traditional trumpet sound that nonetheless eschews conventional brassiness to remain intimate and whispering, starting with the sublime Fascinoma, and continuing on his new CD, the poetically titled Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street. The influence of Miles Davis has become pronounced in both trumpet sound and atmosphere, the latter sometimes recalling the electric jungle backdrop of Davis's 1969 In A Silent Way. "I think the key word there is atmosphere," Hassell says. "That's something that's essential to me. If you're not conjuring up a place, it (the music) is not doing the trick."

Hassell agrees that Fascinoma has successfully pointed a way forward for jazz musicians who had been stuck in the same old grooves such as bebop and cool. "The idea behind that was I've avoided jazz clichés," he says. "You'll never hear a ride cymbal or certain intervals. Clichés are rampant in jazz."

He also pays tribute to Cooder, the album's producer, for being a crucial part of the equation. Hassell believes his use of improvisation helps to explain why the classical world has been slow to accept him as a serious composer. Think of what's considered classical music in cultures around the world, whether it's Indonesian gamelan or pygmy music, he says. "Improvisation is always part of that. Only in the Western world is the cleavage (between written and improvised music) so strong. There's no talk between these two areas: there's the classical, and there's the jazz. 'If it's improvised, it's jazz', that's the T-shirt, right?"

His music's refusal of category, its blurring of high and popular art, has not made it easy to market, he admits. Still, looking at different art forms, the most interesting work these days is cross-generic, he says, citing Charlie Kaufman's film Synecdoche, New York for the way it "cuts between genres, as if he was doing a tape splice. Why shouldn't this be appreciated in music, too?"

You can do a lot flitting between different musical genres using a personal MP3 player, too, not that he's convinced. "In these days of ubiquitous music, with iPods and elevator muzak, intros and outros to cable news, it becomes a convention that everything has to have a musical cue, no matter how mundane it is," Hassell says. "We're living in an age of musical addiction." He blames the music industry's need to earn millions of dollars. "People think they have to have twenty thousand songs on their lipstick-shaped iPods. But you have to put on the filter or you'll perish."

Music has always come from a specific place, he says.

"With the pygmies it may be a birdcall they integrate into the music. Ragas are made to be performed at a certain hour in a certain season.

"Once you get into the glare of the electric light, and away from the flicker of the firelight, you get this white noise of the millions of pop songs with the same structure. A Martian would hear it and think it had no variation to it whatsoever: everything would sound as if it had the same structure, the same length." Well, not with Hassell's music, they wouldn't.

Jon Hassell And Maarifa Street, The Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 6; Brian Eno and Jon Hassell: Conversation Piece, at the Opera Theatre, June 7.