The Secret Hemisphere: New Age, Fusion and Fourth World, 1970-2002

Fourth world music belongs to an occult geography. This is by design. When the late trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell coined the term, he conceived of it as “an attempt to create a kind of musical scenery which is not entirely ‘primitive,’ not entirely ‘future’ but someplace impossible to locate either chronologically or geographically.” Like its unacknowledged predecessor, exotica, fourth world conjures with other continents, but they are largely hypothetical. The music sounds transoceanic, but not from any place in particular. After all, the fourth world was always a sonic conjecture. Possible musics, as Hassell and Brian Eno subtitled their initial collaboration. The legendary punk producer Craig Leon was perhaps even closer to the mark when he whimsically referred to it as interplanetary folk music. It is the world music of a surrogate earth. And as such, it is utopian in the literal sense of the word: from nowhere. Or, at least, from nowhere exactly.

The idea of a music impossible to place has, in large measure, prevented fourth world music from ever being fully swallowed up by any of the more recognizable genres upon which it tends to draw. It is too ostentatiously synthetic for world music, too aggressively weird for new age, too repetitious for jazz, and altogether too spiritually dippy for serious minimalism. But one could find their way into it from any of these musical territories. Or from the ethnic fringes of krautrock; from Berlin school synthesizer fantasias or even from the (objectionably named) tribal ambient of some archaic 1990s chillout room. Like all truly hidden places, you don’t go looking for it. You find yourself there.

But wherever it is, it is teeming with life. Perhaps more than the marriage of synthesizers to traditional and non-Western musical forms that usually denotes fourth world, the sound often possesses a burbling, mutating vitality. It bubbles and swarms. The ambient composer Robert Rich coined the unprepossessing term glurp to indicate “the organic manifestations of liquid, squelching lifeforms” inhabiting his music. This strange, squirming abundance distinguishes fourth world music from the vast drones and abstractions that otherwise characterize new age and space music.

I’ve been thinking about a kid whose mind got switched on by New Blue Sun. Where would she go from there? Where would the alien wheeze of Andre 3000’s improbable wind synthesizer first lead them? There is no atlas to the fourth world. The best that we can offer is something like a star chart. You may have to draw the constellations yourselves, out of lines connecting ECM jazz to phase music, woolly hippie cult rock to a thousand forgotten new age cassettes. Navigate by those for now. You’ll get somewhere eventually. | b sirota

Download: The Secret Hemisphere: New Age, Fusion and Fourth World, 1970-2002 (zipped folder)

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Popol Vuh, “Der Winter Ist Vorbei” (1975) 

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