Jon Hassell's Utopia
Movement in Focus
by Ellie Fernyhough
Some of the most revered electronic music of 2020 delved into a world of experimentation that brought together global sounds, ambient pads, and field recordings. Disparate traditions were drawn into sound collages or built into imagined landscapes, a sense of escapism that gave listeners a break from dystopian reality.
Much of this music carries, in a variety of tangible or subtle ways, an ethos born in the 1970s with the music of Jon Hassell. Hassell is an elusive trumpet player and avant-gardist, not a household name but a pivotal influence on the last 40 years of music – experimental and pop alike. His most significant concept, fourth world music, has seen renewed interest in the past year. What could be more appealing than creating and listening to the music of “unknown and imaginary regions” during a pandemic that grips all of the known world in total paralysis?
Born in Memphis in 1937, Hassell seems to have been linked to many of the musicians most central to the development of modern electronic music across the 20th Century – Stockhausen, Eno, Talking Heads, CAN... the list goes on. In the 1970s, he met Pran Nath, an Indian classical singer who brought traditional raga styles to the American jazz scene. The impact Pran Nath had on Hassell was monumental – he attests “everything I have, I owe to Pran Nath” – and studying in India whet Hassell’s appetite for traditional music from across the globe. Recognising the ability of non-Western musical styles to manipulate sound in ways that he had never been trained to – raga has no direct cousin in Western classical traditions, its singular aim is to “colour the mind” – his subsequent albums experimented with pairing the worldwide traditional to the modern avant-garde.
Taking sounds he had heard during his travels, contemporary music, and concepts drawn from ethnography, he attempted to create “the possibility of music in global terms”.
From this experimentation, fourth world music was born. Taking sounds he had heard during his travels, contemporary music, and concepts drawn from ethnography, he attempted to create “the possibility of music in global terms”. The intention of fourth world was to blend traditionalism and novelty, real and virtual geography, to musically postulate on the unknown and the imaginary.
Although “fourth world” remained nameless until 1980’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics, it could easily be used to describe his debut, Vernal Equinox. A melting-pot of minimalism, traditional non-Western folk and low fidelity nature samples (along with his own trumpet, distorted beyond recognition) it formed the first building blocks of the speculative universe Hassell created. Describing the creation of the album, Hassell talks in vignettes – a haze of psychedelic drugs, romantic affairs, and exotic travel. His debut was a seed of a concept, which blossomed through his career. Collaborating with Brian Eno, Possible Musics came into being. Using the plural “musics” to envisage the scattering of different musical languages across the globe, it is an unearthly minimalism-cum-improvisation masterpiece containing more of Hassell’s influence than Eno’s. Eno went on to a more star-studded career, while Hassell, dedicated to his utopian globalism, chose another path, refusing to be a part of Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts because he felt the “ethnic influence” too heavy-handed.
Since then, Hassell has become such an influence that his innovation has become part of modern musical vernacular unquestioningly – fourth world is an anonymous concept, ubiquitous but lacking much analysis. Relatively soon after its conception, the idea made the crossover into the realm of dance music. British acid house pioneers 808 State remixed one of Hassell’s tracks in the early nineties – the practice of sampling itself mirroring Hassell and Eno’s own records – and the chillout scene that developed in clubs through that era was driven by Eno’s ambient and Hassell’s otherworldly sounds.
Threads of the fourth world can be pulled from today’s experimental scenes; artists have taken on Hassell’s philosophy or reflect his attraction to the exotic in their music, creating their own speculative environments through intention or experimentation. In 2017, Optimo’s JD Twitch and Scottish DJ Fergus Clark released a compilation inspired by fourth world music. Miracle Steps (Music From the Fourth World 1983-2017) was compiled to illuminate “shades of fourth world influence over the years”, according to Clark. Looking back, he notes, it feels the compilation came out at a timely moment – “noticing contemporary releases that seemed indebted” to Hassell, it was reflective of a growing interest in these ideas that has since only continued.
Clark has long been an appreciator of fourth world music, an interest which led to his collaboration with JD Twitch in the first place. The label he and friends run in Glasgow, 12th Isle, came to be through a shared interest in sounds related to Hassell’s term, some more so than others. “There was never a clear plan to draw influence from Hassell’s concept”, he writes in an email” – but common appreciation for his music, and the disparate musical passions each of the founders had, lead them to “linking different kinds of music together and never sticking to one genre”. The label reflects this in its releases that span genres, appreciating a diaspora of styles and building them into a sound collage of global inspiration.
The visual identity of the label became incorporated with this through artworks created by Al, a friend of the label, reflecting the geographical nature of the 12th Isle. “When [the Isle] is not anywhere in the real world…it loses any kind of grounding and allows for this fantasy projection”, Clark notes, “so [Al] was able to construct a world through his sleeve and poster designs that tied in with this concept”. The Isle itself was “a nod to Scottish mythology and an awareness of where we are actually grounded”.
12th Isle’s roster spans the globe, and hints of Hassell are present in much of their music. It includes RAMZi (Phoebe Guillermot), a key proponent of Fourth World in modern dance music. Guillermot’s sound is recognisable in its weirdness. Human voices feature heavily but clamour against each other in gibberish, the listener left to grasp onto interspersed French and English words for some familiarity. She has, like Hassell, been entranced by the exotic since childhood and her rhythms are eclectically influenced by the drumming styles of Africa and Latin America. Intertwined with these are humid nature sounds, tropical birds and marshy field recordings. Each release – from her obscure cassettes to 2020’s cocon – feels like a travel diary from an absurd rainforest realm. Though she jokingly describes her adventures as “Fifth World” influence from Hassell, as well as so much other music, is clear in her sound.
Beyond artists like RAMZi, the escapist element of Fourth World features in many of the electronic albums most lauded recently; DJ Python’s deep reggaeton dream world Mas Amable, Yu Su’s blending of traditional Chinese timbres with dub and breakbeat in Yellow River Blue, Brighton-based K-Lone’s astronomically successful Cape Cira from early 2020. Cape Cira occupies a space where the natural and the electronic meet, a hazy and sun-soaked landscape unimaginable to us in the middle of a bleak British winter.
There are a multitude of reasons why young DJs may be turning to explorative music like this; not least among them the steady democratisation of access to music since Hassell’s day. It is difficult, now, to restrict your tastes to Western styles. Bleeding into dance music culture from the chillout rooms and sets of early ambient DJs, music like Hassell, or Eno and David Byrne, became more influential and the strange exotic sounds it sampled came with it. While DJs have experimented with eclectic mixes for decades, there has been a visible increase in this in the UK post-dubstep years, when the country’s scene was less and less defined by one sound. This rise in DJs crate digging for global rarities and pairing bizarre styles in live sets has coincided with the internet era. People no longer need the money or time to travel the world and comb through record stores; they can hear the niche styles popping up in Durban, Rio de Janeiro or Lisbon without leaving their room or spending a penny.
Internet radio and the rise of bedroom producing has further relaxed barriers to making and sharing experimental music. Internet-based platforms are simple enough to set up, leading to a wide variety of them across the country. DJs are more inclined to appear on such stations while live shows are impossible, and most stations are accommodating to any kind of music – in some cases the weirder the better. Some shows are directly related to Hassell’s legacy – such as Ian Kim Judd’s Fifth World on NTS: “Where Hassell focused on…music of potential societies that didn't exist; Ian Kim Judd seeks…potential utopian societies that could exist. In these times of global instability and uncertainty, Fifth World seeks to posit an alternative”. Stations like NTS are littered with shows tagged as “fourth world”, approaching the ineffable genre as a philosophy of strangeness, exploration, and fantasy.
The sentiment of Ian Kim Judd’s programme comes down to a reason I believe is central to the popularity of Fourth World right now. Stuck indoors, listeners seek anything that resembles an escape. The arts – in any form – provides this. Countless artists have spoken of their releases as an attempt to get out of the current dystopia; music that breaks down the limitations of the present has flourished.
Notably, the music highlighted in this article does not form an overtly political response to the present crisis, but one of attempting to lift collective spirits and imagine some better world rather than decry the current one. The romanticised escapism of Fourth World is appropriate for this – in Hassell’s words it evokes “a week of Saturdays” – but it is worth commenting that there is always a need to remain politically aware. Despite the frustrating and disheartening events of the past year, to hide away entirely would be foolish.
Hassell’s ideology is also one envisioning peaceful worldwide collaboration. His experiment was to imagine a globalized world where cultures integrated with one another, where differences were respected and celebrated. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen inequality rise, governments fail to cooperate and corporations sell vaccines to poorer countries at extortionate rates. Compared to the reality of neoliberal globalization efforts in the past few decades, we are faced with the grim reality that Hassell’s utopia is hardly comparable to the world today. When our dysfunction as a planet is so apparent, there is a place for music that – beyond pure escapism – can celebrate the sounds and styles of the world’s community with respect and imagine a different world where those sounds and cultures coexist.
Listen to Ellie's Fourth World mix here:
John Hockenberry interviews Jon Hassell on the radio, 1990
Jon Hassell - Empire III
Pauline Anna Strom - Temple Gardens At Night
X.Y.R - Into The Wild
RAMZi, Asael - Bibwel
Laurine Frost - A Playful Piece Of String
Roberto Musci - Water Music
Nikolaienko - April Echo
RAMZi - For Vanda
Meitei - Sankai
Vague Imaginaires - La Plage Sous les Arbres
Facta - Sistine (Plucks)
David Toop - Decoys & Scarers
Jon Hassell - Moons Of Titan
Graphics by Stone Burleston @mistareez