On 26 June, the world of music was rocked by news of the death of Jon Hassell.
The internet was awash with tributes dedicated to the late composer and musician, who was famous for coining the term “Fourth World” in music. His family, at the time, wrote: “After a little more than a year of fighting through health complications, Jon died peacefully in the early morning hours of natural causes. He cherished life and leaving this world was a struggle as there was much more he wished to share in music, philosophy and writing.”
With the “Fourth World”, Hassell envisioned a globally-minded musical landscape whereby traditions are paired with electronic techniques. The composer once said, “In those days, the cold war days, there was the first world and basically the unspoken second, which was the Soviet empire.”
“Anything outside of those two was called third world, and it usually meant less developed countries. And those less developed countries were places where tradition was still alive and spirituality was inherent in their musical output, for lack of a better term. [Fourth World] was like ‘3 + 1.’”
Hassell’s far-reaching influence has shaped the works of countless artists. We spoke to 13 artists who, in their own words, wrote about the composer’s influence – from his sound to his “Fourth World” concept.
I came in contact with Jon’s music when I was about 19 or 20 years old through my friend John Berndt. Instantly, I became obsessed. The nuance of colour and form, and the striking originality, anchored its way directly into my heart. Years later, my friend Jacob Gorchov from Palto Flats and I were discussing the idea of reissuing Vernal Equinox and we had gotten Jon’s lawyer’s contact who in turn let us know that Warp Records had beaten us to the punch. From there Jon and I started exchanging emails and he brought me into the fold after a meeting with Matthew, his label rep at Warp in London.
I don’t think I really understood the term perfectionist until I started working with Jon. When you think of the term perfectionist in music, you might think of a person who sweats every melodic or rhythmic detail and is relentless about creating an idealised form of a sound. And while yes, Jon fits both of those categories, his concept of perfection was so much broader than that.
We would talk for hours about takes on a song or tracks on a record or artwork we were working on, and Jon always leaned into the idea that what made them perfect was a sense of magic that had graced them, however intangible and obtuse that magic might be. Jon’s imagination and exacting intellect made for a dangerous combination of the ability to broadly dream and execute a detailed idea simultaneously. The sensuous and unexplainable nature of the sound had to be as perfect as the anthropological and philosophical questions that the sound brought to the table. The crossroads of the inexplicable and the intelligible had to be perfect on every sound of every record. As you can imagine, this was exhausting and unbelievably inspiring. Outside of working on his albums, Jon was joyous, curious about the current culture in NYC – he asked me about Bossa Nova Civic Club!?. [He was] a sensitive soul who valued every moment he shared with you.
I remember the first time I talked to Jon on the phone, which he absolutely loved doing for hours at a time. In fact, he had published this funny diary entry from the 70s or 80s when he was living in NYC where he tabulated his rent bill around $200, utilities around $20, and his phone bill was closer to $900. Jon had the gift of gab. As we spoke I was walking through Madison Square Park, which he then told me was where he first met David Byrne and Brian Eno to discuss their plans to collaborate. I walked all the way home to Brooklyn that afternoon, chatting away with Jon the whole time. Communication for him was as much an art as his music was. Long form, explorative, serious, playful and everything in between – he pointed towards the imaginative nature of exchange through thoughts and words, and danced in their beauty.
I think Jon’s biggest contribution and lasting legacy will be the door that he kicked down in starting a globally-minded future-forward musical dialogue that left no stone unturned. Jon often talked about a “coffee coloured” future where all music cultures, north or south of the equator, would be blended and celebrated in the great canon of history. He was a pioneer through and through. His unwavering focus on developing a dialogue of all music cultures and the bubbling technological advances in the world will definitely reverberate for generations to come.
I recall him living in the Tribeca area of NYC. We never engaged in person. My memory of Jon though is one of a quiet, smiling approachable being who was very much in touch with individual horn performance direction. Hearing Jon’s music encouraged my own exploration into sonic electronica with zither and currently with voice. To me, Jon’s lasting legacy is his distinctive electronic horn presence.
I first heard Jon Hassell’s music in 2016, after I started listening to electronic dance music and slowly learnt about Brian Eno, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley. I did not know about the term “Fourth World” until a year later when I decided to take making music seriously. At the same time I was studying ethnography and Daoism in school, so the two worlds merged and got me interested in thinking about the musical interrelations between the contemporary Western complex and the “others”, how I feel and want to respond; and participate by deconstructing their work, and therefore coming up with my own sonic approach.
I had no clue what “Eastern” music was supposed to sound like in any context, but was struck by the soundscapes in Vernal Equinox, like someone had taken me back home in my sleep. I told myself that one day I’ll be able to create my own, but what would it sound like? I would listen to Toucan Ocean again and again, and think about why I felt so fundamentally connected to every single piece. Roll With the Punches is the first time I felt comfortable as a composer to have an exchange with someone like Jon Hassell through my work. The main, ongoing goal of my compositions is to critically respond to the Fourth World concept.
I was off grid camping by a river in Squamish, British Columbia when [he died], and found out days after I got back. I felt like the world was melting, I felt small. There was nothing I could do as a tiny dust in space. I’m glad I can at least exist as an artist who gets to carry on exploring the sonic world. I feel grateful for his music, and what I’ve dug out of it.
I went to a Jon Hassell concert in my hometown in the early 1980s, dragged by a friend. After a few minutes we were all lost in a caravanserais just around the Amu Darya river, and you could see in the distance the ruins of a Mogul castle. [We were] lost among the scents and colours. It was immersive, fantastic, dreamy.
Many of us tried to play the trumpet and recreate the colours, his sound; but Jon’s magic was in the overall vision. [His work is a] milestone in music, and of fundamental importance. He taught us to open our eyes and get out of the shell of our little reality, mix with others, absorb their sounds and colours. Leave behind any structure and open up to the world. Open your mind and heart to the unknown beauty of the planet.
Music like his – and that of his cohort, including LaMonte Young, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and Brian Eno – influenced my music and empowered me to create authentic work by paving the way for the sound of South Asia in Western music and validating that mixture of sound. In a way, his career is one that I model my own after: it seems that he created exactly the music he was interested in making while also bringing his unique style into collaborations with many others – regardless of genre or function. While his work often falls into the “ambient jazz” category, he also collaborated with pop and rock artists and created works for theatre, like his entrancing album Sulla Strada.
Hassell’s legacy is both one of pioneering the ambient genre and one, like so many of his peers, of cultural appropriation. On one hand, he pioneered a contemporary, electronic blending of genres gaining popularity in the West in the late 70s – jazz, electroacoustic, ambient and new age – with sounds from various cultures that weren’t mainstream. This inclusion of instruments and players from around the world provided a platform for many of these artists and their work to receive recognition, such as Hassell’s early collaborators Abdou Mboup and Naná Vasconcelos.
On the flipside, the terms he used to describe his work like “Fourth World” and “primitive/futurist” are problematic. Saying that one’s music is “Fourth World” perpetuates the notion that a third world exists. The notion of the “third world” itself is a Western, capitalist construct rooted in colonialism, extraction and a white supremacist legacy. The idea of a “primitive/futurist” music is worse because, in Hassell’s work, the sounds outside of the West are “primitive” and the electronic music – that he studied in Cologne, Germany – is clearly the “futurist” part. Why did he choose the term “primitive” and not something like multicultural, universal or even global? So much of music composition is mixed with both pushing boundaries and extracting the musical legacies and voices of non-Western countries, often without permission, acknowledgment or compensation.
I am looking forward to creating music in a society where there is some evolution of how we describe music influenced by various cultures and a refusal to use words that belittle and exotify the people from those regions. Language aside, Hassell’s work is groundbreaking and has paved a path for so many artists, like myself, to produce music that is authentic to them. Many artists record sounds, specifically voices and non-Western instruments, in places that are foreign to them and use these recordings without permission, acknowledgement or compensation.
However, Hassell actually went to India and studied with Pandit Pran Nath. Let’s take this aspect of a fundamental influence on his music and make that his legacy. I have a not-so-small request to artists working in collaboration with musicians from cultures different from their own: pay, acknowledge and seek approval from your sources. If you are using field recordings featuring voices from a place that is not your home, please ask permission from individuals if you can use their sounds and compensate them accordingly. Publish their names when you release your work. And if you study music in a place that is not your home country, acknowledge your teacher publicly and pay them a market rate that is comparable to that of your home country.
And finally, I want to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go with regards to recognising music as a global construct. I admire the fact that Hassell elevated the musical ideas from various cultures in his work. Ultimately, his work demonstrates admiration and excitement for the sounds from outside the West that he enfolded into his work. Right now, I’m teaching electronic music at a conservatory in which the majority of the required curriculum overlooks music outside of Europe and the US, effectively erasing non-Western practices and achievements. In remembering Hassell’s legacy of bringing unique, global sounds to Western audiences, it’s important to also acknowledge the colonial musical legacies he participated in.
Gus Lobban of Kero Kero Bonito
I first came across Jon Hassell via the remixes of his track Voiceprint by my favourite band, 808 State. It turns out that Jon Hassell was one of the first artists to seek out a remix from 808 State, which is testament to his progressive open-mindedness. Of course, Hassell’s Fourth World philosophy was a blatant influence on 808 State’s Graham Massey, who envisioned his group’s music as a kind of utopic future exotica. Such is the chain of influence that the Voiceprint remixes, while keeping Hassell’s original parts fairly intact, feel close to 808 State originals like State Ritual or Qmart.
Hassell’s Fourth World music was arguably the biggest conceptual inspiration for our recent mini-album Civilisation. We were very consciously trying to conjure a fantastical and original sound by combining techniques from across musical traditions, be they non-pop scales, chanting or acoustic timbres imitated by synthesisers. The power of this approach lies in its reconfiguration of fundamental human culture; the result is more vivid and moving for its distant familiarity.
Although Hassell’s globetrotting might smack of another era, the boundaries he crashed through are traversed by musicians today as casually as ever. The attitude he pioneered has been internalised by everyone from the soundtrack composers building The Legend of Zelda’s fictional universe to exploratory club savants Four Tet, Daphni and Floating Points. Furthermore, it has found a response in the modernist reconciliation of traditional forms proposed by artists like Fatima Al Qadiri and Chinabot’s signees. Experimental music outside of the Euromerican bubble has gained wider recognition over the last few years. I suspect that this broadened intercultural engagement is informed by the examples we already have, with Hassell’s looming large. His legacy is sealed; we are all influenced by what he inspired, and that influence will inevitably be passed onto future generations – which, by the way, is about as Fourth World as it gets. It’s a legacy that, in his words, implores us to “just be more aware of the rest of the world”.
I listened to Miracle Steps on the Optimo compilation and was like, what is this?! And then played it on repeat for a week, just getting totally lost inside it like a labyrinth. For me, his work is its own world that belongs to itself. You can’t pin it to a time or a place, and that makes it feel welcoming. There is space for you to be yourself inside it. It’s a really beautiful thing to hold that space.
I discovered Jon Hassell’s music quite late. He seemed to live a bit in the shadow of Eno and the rest of his cohorts. However, when I did discover him it was a lightbulb moment for me – he’d been the missing link!
I’m continually trying to figure out what the key drivers are behind my music taste, my own production work and my endless passion for music. I’ve always taken a very ‘global’ approach but I’m not a traditionalist per se. The way Jon fuses different influences, cultures and instruments in the framework of the Fourth World has been the closest to my figuring out what I’m trying to achieve.
In a world increasingly defined by often misplaced proclamations of identity, ownership and appropriation, Jon’s music and creative output stands apart. It presents us with an alternative, a different pathway: a gateway to different cultures, a route into our dreams and an escape pod into our subconscious that will stand the test of time.
I remember buying a record of his with my husband in a thrift store in Redondo Beach that had just one box of records, the day before leaving Los Angeles to France, eight years ago. His work shows, for me, how music can be seen and heard like a painting or a landscape, full of layers, differences of lights and polyphony. The experience is of listening as a rainbow.
Spencer Doran of Visible Cloaks
My parents had a compilation called Music and Rhythm when I was growing up, which had a track from Possible Musics. My mum had a cassette dub of it with some Sundanese music on the B side that she would play in her car a lot. I didn’t piece this together until I was in college and started picking up Jon Hassell’s records – which were once ubiquitous in the dollar bins of the west coast – but I had a distant, half-formed memory of the feeling of it.
The way he managed to make music that felt as if it emanated directly from within the everywhere/nowhere state of digital hyper-connectivity has been long been inspirational to me. You could call it a meta-commentary on the complexity of globalisation. This intangible non-space is now omnipresent with the global proliferation of the internet – I feel it in the DAW-space of music software too – and a big part of my musical practice is attempting to traverse the contours of it through technology’s edge which is something you can feel strongly in Hassell’s music.
There’s a beautifully utopian notion that runs through his body of work that looks towards a potential future for humanity itself: that within all of the false promises and mirages of techno-modernity there still somewhere exists an overlapping area of communication and exchange that can be abstracted from one’s own place in culture and history – a vector towards something radical and new. There is a clearly identifiable sound to his music (ethnographic bricolage, a harmonised fifth superimposed atop a melody) which tends to be what is associated with the aesthetic legacy of his music. But to me the glimmer you get of this possible future is what I hope will continue to extend through time.
Betamax and Danalogue of The Comet Is Coming and Soccer96
Jon Hassell will always evoke a state of dreaming and flying for me. This is because after first hearing his music on tour, I would quite literally play his music on headphones whilst sleeping on planes. I would be drifting in and out of consciousness, floating in and out of clouds, recharging my languid body, blending up images, memories and emotions with my rapid eye movements. The hypnotic tones of Hassell’s work have surely guided my deepest brain waves.
I have always admired musicians that have a talent for creating sonic architecture. Jon Hassell uses sound to create whole worlds. His music is akin to virtual reality in some respect. For our band, artists like Jon Hassell push us to dream big and awaken a visual awareness of the sonic environment.
By creating what he describes as “Fourth World” music, Hassell reminds us that music can be more than personal self expression, and a portal to the reimagining of human experience; a means of transcending the cultural and societal norms. By collaborating with musicians from around the world to create a seamless sonic confluence, he demonstrates an implicit unity, using art as the great weapon, reiterating to the listener what we already know. We are greater than the sum of our parts, and the things that divide us are nothing compared to the things that bring us together.