Jon Hassell :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“This record 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,” says Brian Eno in an essay included in the liner notes of the newly reissued Vernal Equinox.

Vernal Equinox introduced a new form of music, which Hassell and others who followed him called “fourth world,” a mix of classical Indian music, electronics, jazz, field recordings and ambient music. In 2016, Pitchfork named it one of the 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time, attesting to its continuing relevance. Mark Richardson wrote, “Sources stretch in all directions, from the “Shhh/Peaceful” jazz of Miles Davis to Indian classical music to twinkling New Age, but the music’s refusal to be any one thing makes each listen feel like the first one.”

More than 40 years later, the record still feels timeless and fresh, floating in a liminal space between the age-old traditions of raga and the innovations just beginning in electronics and tape manipulation. Aquarium Drunkard talked to Hassell recently about the web of influences that led him to Vernal Equinox, the people he worked with and the impact it had on Eno and many other musicians that followed. words / j kelly

AD: This is a wonderful record, Vernal Equinox, and it is sort of hard to believe it was made in 1977. So, I was wondering if you can tell me what was the state of play in terms of drawing on Eastern and Western influences? Were you out front and alone on that or were there other people you admired working in a similar context?

Jon Hassell: Well, if by artists you mean people in the pop world, yes it was something new to be going there and combining things in that collage-like way. Naturally if you walk into a store and you see a shelf, you’re going to pick something that catches your eye or your ear. These were all things that led me there. I was studying with Pandit Pran Nath at the time. So, I was already into the raga thing, thanks to Terry Riley, I guess, either him or La Monte Young. I forget who was first at the time. But the Indian way of vocalizing and all that kind of thing was at the fore of whatever I was talking about. And so that accounts for one component.

The other would be the electronics involved both in the atmospherics part of it. It was just everything that was going on in my little circle. We were all guys that were either studying, they were all university teachers or advanced students as I remember. We were all university guys and so that was the idea of trying to blend Indian raga and electronics and the acoustic trumpet and what else would be in there?

AD: Lot of percussion.

Jon Hassell: Kind of a bastardized version of like in raga, the drumming, tabla and all that. So that’s a few of the components.

AD: I do want to talk about that. I also wanted to talk to you about your background because it’s all these bodies of knowledge that seem maybe even mutually contradictory. Like you started out in conservatory and then you were exposed to this early electronic music in Berlin with Stockhausen and then you got into this very old, mostly ear-trained traditions in India with Pran Nath, and I was wondering if we could talk about these experiences one by one and then maybe look at how you synthesized them. Is that possible?

 Jon Hassell: That sounds like a tall order.

AD: Well, let’s start with your time at the Eastman School because that’s the one that seems the least fitting with this record. What did you find of value there and what did you have to learn and forget about in order to do this kind of music?

Jon Hassell: That sounds like a very distant thing. Eastman, what would that be? That would just be basic music school type of things. If I can remember? Maybe I’m stumbling over some things that I’ve forgotten in the last 50 years. All the guys that were on that record were all either — they might have been faculty people already at some other school, not Eastman. Everybody either had a university job as a teacher …they were already matriculated. So it was a mature bunch of eggheads who were interested in Indian music and we had a straight line there from Terry Riley, although Terry’s not on this record, he would have been there spiritually because he would have been our number one inspiration on the Indian side of things, the raga things.

AD: Tell me about Berlin, though. How did you end up going to study with Stockhausen and what were you looking for? What was it about what he was doing that intrigued you?

Jon Hassell: That was straight up electronic music, right, so it was getting, finding out what that was about, via Stockhausen and learning about the kinds of techniques and things he was doing, that he was involved in at that time. I would try to do something that was maybe coming off of that, that would have been related to it without copying it. As a good student and a good teacher would do, I did some things that were like etudes, we’ll say, that were part of the very earliest sort of electronic music. For example, Stockhausen would record a voice chorus and he would put it through echo and then subtract voices. I’m sure I’m giving a distorted image of it, but basically it would be a way you could get a resonance out of a particular chord. This particular thing was all kind of a boys choir, I think, that was manipulated, and so I did my first actual electronic music was an imitation of that, and by using the echo or the resonance of something and clipping off the head, and that kind of thing.

AD: So, it was mostly learning how to do it, how to use the electronic instruments and programming and such?

Jon Hassell: Yeah, then it was just about tape and editing. Tape and cutting. There wasn’t a lot of manipulation to be done electronically. There was a good deal of creativity going on in just the things that existed then. Before these things became consolidated into something you’d push a button for.

AD: I especially wanted to ask you about Pran Nath, because I think it was in a Perfect Sound Forever interview, you said, “Just above everything I have, I owe to Pran Nath.” Can you tell me about how you first came in contact with his music and what it was about his music that spoke to you?

Jon Hassell: With Pran Nath? That was Terry Riley’s influence, of course. Terry discovered Pran Nath and became a student and became quite good at it. He’s still quite good at it. He was the one that led in that particular direction.

AD: What was it about that kind of music that made you gravitate towards it?

Jon Hassell: The idea of drawing curves in sound, I think, and shapes. That’s what raga is all about. It’s about how a master musician judging another would say, “The picture was not drawn properly.” Raga is a very, very ancient art. When I was in India, studying with Pran Nath, he was a master of a particular school of raga, and he would say, oh no, he didn’t get the right shape here. It’s an incredibly sophisticated and ancient thing.

I can remember sitting by the Ganges with Pran Nath one day and he just launched into this incredible composition just by himself with no tambura and I thought, wow, and then he told me it was a composition from maybe 200 years ago.

My connection with that kind of thing was not to be able to duplicate or emulate it but to learn from it. I combined it with the electronics and the harmonizer and things like that. But I would have a line that was being drawn. You’re thinking about it like a shape that’s being drawn on a canvas. It’s a line that’s being drawn and another. You’re holding three pencils at once while you’re drawing on the wall. So, you’re able to get the shapes. This was my thing with it, because I was into the harmony that it would make. So, it was an easy and natural thing to do, was to go and move into the electronics. Then we had equipment that was doing transposition and all that kind of thing. So that’s one little part of it.  

AD: There’s no trumpet, though, in Indian classical music, is there?

Jon Hassell: No, but to make it global…yes, you’re right, that was completely…. trumpet is usually thought of as rooty-toot-toot. Like a bugle. And so, I developed a technique to slur. I would let’s say, I’d be playing a C and I’d be slurring up to or slurring down to a B natural or something like that and so that I could at least simulate the fluidity of the voice.

AD: I was thinking that the trumpet sounds very human to me. And it doesn’t have that sharpness and clarity that you often hear in Western brass. Almost like a Chet Baker tone with a lot of air in it.

Jon Hassell: Yeah. He was certainly someone to admire.

 AD: Besides you on the trumpet and the electronics, the other instruments are almost all percussion and fairly exotic percussion. Were the people that you worked with, were those their instruments? You said they were academics. Did they learn those instruments for the record?

Jon Hassell: Well, they, for instance, Larry Polansky was a teacher in another university. He had a standard keyboard, a jazz keyboard, a Fender Rhodes. It was a normal keyboard but he re-tuned the tines, so that they made those kind of strange beating sounds you hear. Where if you put two of those sounds together, you’re going to get a third one. There were also little delays and things happening. We had all the accoutrements of normal electronic manipulation at that point. So that was one of the …. this piece on there called “Hex” that’s kind of my favorite one in a way. It has this strange tuning that’s going on and then of course within the instrument itself, the keyboard itself, there’s a beat frequency going on. That’s what made it an exotic instrument as opposed to a standard instrument that was just doing something in normal tuning.

AD: Was there a lot of conceptualizing before you started playing? How much talk and prep was there?

Jon Hassell: We weren’t starting from scratch. Everyone on the record was already involved in this type of music. Like David Rosenboom, who was playing tabla, he’s on a version of a tabla with its own tuning, along with Larry Polansky who was also tuning his keyboard so that there would be two notes beating together. And so that was appealing to me in creating a strange atmosphere.

AD: Can you can tell me about recording it? Where you did it and how long it took and all that?

Jon Hassell: Actually, have you seen the…you have the cover, I haven’t seen it, but I think there’s a very extensive narrative printed on the record that was coming from, actually.

That’s very much a part of the story of the record was this…the things you’re touching on, if you were trying to analyze a painting, you would be very much at a loss to just describe what’s going on on the basis of a cheat sheet of some kind. It’s really about the story of the record, is on that. I suggest that you get a copy of that before you write anything. It’s basically a narrative that begins with Brian Eno who’s saying that he had never heard anything like that before and it touched him off into a new thing. 

If you’re not coming at it from the point of view that Brian Eno is a god, for lack of a better term, you’re missing the story. It was this new thing that he had never heard before. That’s really the crux, aside from the music, that’s the crux of any type of insight into why this record is important. Because Brian was doing what Brian did in 1976 or 1977 and so the fact that he had written this about it, that this was the first time that he had come into contact with anything like it. That’s a very significant thing.  

AD: I think we’ve got it in there now. I think we’re fine. I really like “Blues Nile,” and the way it works with multiple layers of sound. There’s no drumming in that one. The title suggests that you’re looking for a connection between the blues and Arabic music, was that what you were doing?

Jon Hassell: Certainly, but it was mostly due to the fact that I was feeling incredibly overwrought emotionally because a dog of mine had died. It’s a tribute to him.

 AD: Oh.

Jon Hassell: And that’s because he looked like an Egyptian dog, so the blues and the Nile were there because of that.

 AD: How does this record sound to you now? Do you feel like making it changed the course of what you were doing?

Jon Hassell: I just continued on. That was one stage along the way of an electronic transformation of an acoustic situation basically. It was enough electronic manipulation to put it into a new category.  

AD: Back in that time in 1977, it was hard to even hear music from other countries. And now you can download pretty much anything and so much of the other aspects of our lives have been globalized. How do you think that changes the concept for this record and others like it, now that we’re all so connected.

Jon Hassell: This is very unique. It’s not using electronic techniques that every high school grad has in his computer now. It’s using things that were not available then and because of that there was a unique quality to the whole thing. It wasn’t a one color. And so that you could point at it, or so that a college kid could point at it and say, this is this or this is that. The fact that it had this integrity of being really new at that time. That’s why I think that it’s really important that the other stuff that I was mentioning before should be part of the story. What Brian was doing at that time, I think at least some of your readers will be aware of Brian Eno and that he would have some things to say bout it, that he does have to say about it. If you leave that out, you shouldn’t even publish it. I don’t want the important things to get lost here.

 AD: What are you working on now? You said you had a new album coming out?

Jon Hassell: The last one, I have a label now, a new label on warp called Ndeya, and so that’s the label on which the one called Listening to Pictures, was the first one of that string of things, so that’s the first one on my label right now. There’s another one that has been completed and ready to go called Seeing Through Sound and that one is also going to be similar to…it’s coming from the same place as Listening to Pictures. Visualizing sound, that idea, right, visualizations?

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which allows readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2020 and beyond.