Jon Hassell, Trumpeter and ‘Fourth World’ Composer, Dies at 84

Jon Hassell, Trumpeter and ‘Fourth World’ Composer, Dies at 84

06/27/2021

Jon Hassell, a composer and trumpeter who blended modern technology with ancient instruments and traditions to create what he called Fourth World music, died on Saturday. He was 84.

His death was announced in a statement from his family released by his record label, Ndeya. It did not specify where he died or the immediate cause.

Mr. Hassell’s music floated outside the genre boundaries of classical music, electronica, ambient music or jazz. He described Fourth World as “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques” and, elsewhere, as “coffee-colored classical music of the future.”

His music could be contemplative and atmospheric, darkly suspenseful or abstractly funky. On the 20 albums Mr. Hassell made as a leader, his trumpet usually had an eerily disembodied sound, one that was processed through electronics and enfolded in shadowy reverberations, sometimes using harmonizers to multiply each note in parallel lines.

He played vocalistic phrases that invoked the bluesy intimacy of Miles Davis along with the Indian classical music that Mr. Hassell studied with the raga singer Pandit Pran Nath. Around his trumpet, as foreground and background coalesced, there might be drone tones, global percussion, wind or string ensembles, washes of synthesizer, samples, distorted guitar, voices and more.

He delved into calm and aggression, reflection and propulsion, serenity and suspense. His polymorphous, layered, ambiguous yet sensual music helped shape decades of electronic experimentation from acts like Oneohtrix Point Never, Arca and Matmos.

In a tribute in The Guardian in 2007, the musician and producer Brian Eno wrote, “He looks at the world in all its momentary and evanescent moods with respect, and this shows in his music. He sees dignity and beauty in all forms of the dance of life.”

Through the years, Mr. Hassell collaborated repeatedly with Mr. Eno and the American musician Ry Cooder. He also recorded with musicians from Africa, Brazil, India and Europe; composed a piece (“Pano da Costa”) for the Kronos Quartet; and played recording sessions with Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, k.d. lang, Baaba Maal, David Sylvian, Tears for Fears, Bono and others.

In a 1997 interview with the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever, Mr. Hassell said he wanted to create “music for above and below the waist simultaneously.” He added that Fourth World music was “about heart and head as the same thing. It’s about being transported to some place which is made up of both real and virtual geography.”

Mr. Hassell was born on March 22, 1937, in Memphis. He picked up the instrument his father had played in college, a cornet, and studied music and played in big bands as a teenager. He attended the Eastman School of Music, exploring modern classical composition and earning a master's degree. To avoid being drafted, he joined the Army band in Washington, D.C.

Fascinated by the emerging field of electronic music, he made tape collages and won a grant to study with the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen for two years in Cologne, Germany. His classmates included musicians who would go on to start the German band Can; he took LSD with them.

He received a fellowship at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo. There, he composed music on one of the early Moog synthesizers. He also met the composer Terry Riley, who first recorded his Minimalist landmark “In C” in 1968 with musicians at SUNY Buffalo, including Mr. Hassell.

Mr. Hassell performed in concerts with Mr. Riley and in the drone group Theatre of Eternal Music, which was led by another pioneering Minimalist, La Monte Young. Like them, Mr. Hassell became a student of Mr. Nath, the Indian singer whose subtleties of pitch and inflection would profoundly influence Mr. Hassell’s music; he applied raga singing to his trumpet playing.

“It’s about making a beautiful shape in air. I call it calligraphy in sound,” he said in a 2009 interview with All About Jazz.

Mr. Hassell’s musical direction was already clear on his 1977 debut album, “Vernal Equinox.” His electronically altered trumpet is joined by African mbira (thumb piano), Indian tabla drums, maracas, tropical bird calls, electronic drones, ocean waves and crickets.

“This record fascinated me,” Mr. Eno wrote in 2007. “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.”

In New York City, where in the late 1970s art-rock, punk, pop and jazz shared a creative flux, Mr. Eno sought out Mr. Hassell, and they collaborated on “Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics” (1980). As the marketing category “world music” arose, its sounds and ideas strongly influenced musicians like Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel. Mr. Eno was also producing Talking Heads, and Mr. Hassell’s ghostly trumpet is prominent in “Houses in Motion” on Talking Heads’ 1980 album, “Remain in Light.”

Mr. Hassell helped conceptualize the 1981 Byrne-Eno album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” which merged found recordings with studio rhythm tracks and introduced a broad audience to ideas of sonic and cultural collage. But Mr. Hassell later said that he could not afford the airfare to join the recording sessions, and he told Billboard magazine that he considered the results “too poppy.”

Writing in 1982 for the science-fiction magazine Heavy Metal, Mr. Hassell championed both preserving and extending local traditions, in order “to understand which music made sorrows bearable and expressed the mystery of creation before the entry date of the first transistor radio into the village.”

Through the decades, Mr. Hassell continued to record, experiment and recombine far-flung musical elements.

He collaborated with the African percussionists and singers of Farafina, from Burkina Faso, for “Flash of the Spirit” in 1988. He wrote theater music for “Sulla Strada,” an Italian stage adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” He recorded with Mr. Cooder and Indian musicians — Ronu Majumdar on bansuri, a wooden flute, and Abhijit Banerjee on tabla drums — on the 2000 album “Hollow Bamboo.” In 2005 he began touring internationally with a group called Maarifa Street, which he named after a street in Iran; “maarifa” means knowledge or wisdom.

Mr. Hassell learned evolving technology and made it speak for him, incorporating samples and complex signal processing. He also held on to the physicality of breath and lips on the trumpet.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Hassell conceived his two final albums, “Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)” (2018) and “Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)” (2020), as “pentimento,” a visual-arts term for the reappearance of images an artist had painted over.

He described his approach to the music as “seeing it in terms of a painting with layers and touch-ups and start-overs with new layers that get erased in places that let the underlying pattern come to the top and be seen (or heard).”

He had also been working on a book titled “The North and South of You,” he said in a 2018 interview with Billboard.

“It’s the analysis of our current situation in terms of our overemphasis on the north of us, the rational and technological, instead of the south of us,” he said. “North is logic, south is the samba — and how much more of each would you rather have when the time comes to depart the planet?”

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