“Jon Hassell invented the term “Fourth World” both to describe his music and as a general term applicable to other global-minded work. This evokes the optimistic notion of a trans-cultural harmony beyond the divisions and competitiveness we are now part of, and preparing us how to deal with it joyfully rather than defensively. I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s statement: ‘Art is to the community as the dream is to the individual.’ Hopefully Jon Hassell’s dream will prove to be prophetic.” — Brian Eno
Originally released in 1980, Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s collaborative album “Fourth World Music Vol.I: Possible Musics” is a sound document whose ongoing influence seems beyond dispute. Not only is the album a defining moment in the development of what Eno coined as “Ambient Music” but it also facilitated the introduction of Hassell’s “Future Primitive” trumpet stylings and visionary “Fourth World” musical theories to the broader public. These vectors continue to enrich contemporary audio culture. Eno’s Ambient strategies are now fixed in the DNA of electronic music and the cross-cultural legacy of Hassell’s “Fourth World” concept is apparent not only in the marketplace genre “World Music” but also more persuasively in the accelerating number of digitally driven, borderless musical fusions we now experience.
Brian Eno has been an essential fixture of both experimental and popular music since the 1970’s: An art school education; early success as an androgynous synthesizer interventionist with Roxy Music; a run of influential vocal-oriented solo records; the embrace of the term “ambient music” and the application of it to increasingly discreet and oblique electronic instrumental albums; seminal collaborations with David Bowie, The Talking Heads, Robert Fripp and Krautrock pioneers Cluster; and by the mid-80’s chart-topping marquee productions for the Irish rock band U2.
Jon Hassell’s musical journey, while more obscured from the cultural mainstream, is every bit as storied and individual as Eno’s. A childhood in Memphis; a classical conservatory education studying the trumpet; composition and electronic music study with Stockhausen in Cologne; a passage through the New York minimalist sphere with Terry Riley, Lamonte Young and Phillip Glass; a singular and radicalized approach to the trumpet developed after a mentorship with the Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath; collaborative excursions with The Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Bjork and Ry Cooder; an ongoing questioning of the dichotomies between North and South, sacred and sensual, primitive and futurist.
In an exclusive interview for the reissue liner notes, Hassell sized up his lifetime of musical experiences: “Without overstating it too much I don’t know who else has had the kind of experience that I’ve had in various kinds of music.”
These cross-pollinating influences and pan-cultural musical educations led Hassell to seek sonic solutions outside of the didactics of western music. The result of this search was the gradual development of musical concepts and gestures that he grouped under the umbrella theory: “Fourth World.” In a 1997 interview he describes the genesis of these ideas:
“I wanted the mental and geographical landscapes to be more indeterminate- not Indonesia, not Africa, not this or that…something that COULD HAVE existed if things were in an imaginary culture, growing up in an imaginary place with this imaginary music…I called it ‘coffee-colored classical music of the future’…What would music be like if ‘classic’ had not been defined as what happened in Central Europe two hundred years ago. What if the world knew Javanese music and Pygmy music and Aborigine music? What would ‘classical music’ sound like then?”
By the time that Eno and Hassell met, Hassell’s experiments with a “Fourth World” musical vocabulary were well underway and in fact it was because of these experiments, particularly Hassell’s debut album “Vernal Equinox” that Brian Eno purposefully sought him out. Eno remembers:
“This record (Vernal Equinox) fascinated me. It was a dreamy, strange, meditative music that was inflected by Indian, African and South American music, but also seemed located in the lineage of tonal minimalism. It was a music I felt I’d been waiting for.”
Hassell picks up the story of their actual first meeting: “Brian came to a concert that I was doing at The Kitchen, an avant-garde performance space in New York at that time (1980), and I called it “Fourth World” something or the other…he came up after the concert and introduced himself and said, “you know we should do something together.” So that’s how we met and we had a period of socializing and my introducing him to the things I was into, the musical things that I was into like the Ocora label and a lot of great ethnic music and recordings…”
Within a couple of months of Hassell’s performance at The Kitchen the duo entered Celestial Sound in New York City and began work on what would become “Fourth World Music Vol.I: Possible Musics.” Hassell invited previous collaborators like the Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and the Senegalese drummer Ayibe Dieng to join the sessions. Most of the tracks carry a Hassell/Eno writing credit, though the 20-minute “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’)” was a carry over from Hassell’s concert repertoire. Hassell has made it clear in several interviews over the years that the album’s shared billing was at least partly inaccurate and that Eno’s contribution was mainly as a producer. In August of 2014 he offered these thoughts:
“He (Eno) had assumed that it was going to be a producer credit, you know on the cover, and I was thinking “gee I would really like to make some money off of this” and he was very, very popular at the time and his name meant a lot, so I said I’ll be first, it’ll be “Jon Hassell” slash “Brian Eno.” And that would help the sales… his contributions were in bringing the art school mind to the studio as in like “what would happen if we did this” right? For instance turning the tape over and getting the backwards echo…”
While Brian Eno has never commented publicly on the issue, a 2007 article he wrote for The Guardian, entitled “The debt I owe to Jon Hassell” makes it clear that he considered Hassell an influential mentor.
More spiky, angular and steeped in rhythm and exoticism than most of Eno’s records and more drone based, reflective and sonorous than most of Hassell’s outings, “Possible Musics”– whatever the actual division of labor in sound and concept – is a seminal highlight in both of their discographies. A meeting of two of the late 20th centuries most restless and prescient musicians, the album sounds as beguiling, indeterminate and other worldly today as it did 34 years ago when it was originally released.
The impact of “Possible Musics” on the contemporary music conversation was almost immediate. Just ten days after it was mastered Brian Eno and David Byrne convened in Los Angeles to continue experiments inspired in part by Hassell’s musical theories. The resultant album would be called “My Life in the Bush Of Ghosts.” All parties involved agree that “Ghosts” was originally conceived as a trio project that included Hassell but the idea fell apart over disagreements about logistics and musical direction. Hassell still remains bitter about what he considers the projects un-credited appropriation of his musical signatures. From there it was a short jump forward to the chart-topping, afro-futurism of The Talking Heads “Remain In Light,” an album that Eno co-produced and Hassell guested on.
“Fourth World” strategies have echoed, and can still be heard echoing in the music of Peter Gabriel (WOMAD & Real World), Nils Petter Molvaer, Bjork, David Sylvian, David Byrne (Luaka Bop), Ryuichi Sakamoto, Damon Albarn (“Mali Music”& Africa Express), DJ Spooky, Jah Wobble, Matmos, 23 Skidoo, Goat, Bill Laswell, Mark Ernestus, Adrian Sherwood (African Headcharge) and of course the ongoing projects of Eno and Hassell themselves.
Brian Eno offers this: “I owe a lot to Jon. Actually, a lot of people owe a lot to Jon. He has planted a strong and fertile seed whose fruits are still being gathered.”