The landmark 1978 album from the Fourth World pioneer.
"I owe a lot to Jon. Actually, a lot of people owe a lot to Jon. He has planted a strong and fertile seed whose fruits are still being gathered." - Brian Eno
Listening to Jon Hassell's music for the first time is a disorienting experience. The American composer plays his trumpet like a conch shell, gliding between notes over prepared, microtonal Rhodes and raga-indebted synthesizer drone. The percussive elements alternate between Afro-Caribbean hand drums and Indonesian gamelan. It is the electroacoustic music of a dense, fantastical jungle. First world technology combines with third world traditions designed to take you to an imagained fourth world.
"I hardly even know where I am most of the time," Hassell said to me on the phone when I ask him where he's sheltering from COVID-19. (He lives on the west side of Los Angeles near the ocean.) We're speaking about Vernal Equinox, his debut album from 1978, just remastered and reissued on Ndeya, a Warp Records imprint he runs. He was recently taken aback by an elaborate display from Tower Records in Japan advertising the reissue. He's scratching his head on the surge of interest in his debut LP, which he recorded in a basement studio at York University in Toronto in the late '70s. "Where does it fit? Why then? Why now? Why did those things happen then? It's a real whodunit. It's a mystery in a way."
It's tempting to think of Hassell as a unique outlier, some lone genius who managed to invent his own genre, going on to play an indelible role in the formation of left-field electronic music, trip-hop and countless other genres. Hassell is, in fact, a genius; he hasn't put out a bad record in his 40-year-career. But he's also the clear product of his environment—living proof of "scenius," a concept shaped by his close collaborator Brian Eno. Hassell's biography forms an obscure link between 20th and 21st century music. He studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath. His list of collaborators includes Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Moritz von Oswald. He was crucial participant in a late '70s, early '80s downtown New York City art and music scene, which saw the avant-garde seep into pop music. "Like most things," he remarked, "there's a cluster of musicians that all happened to be in the same place at the same time."
Hassell was in his late 30s by the time he released Vernal Equinox. As a child in Memphis, he took cornet lessons while listening to soul music in juke joints. He went on to study composition at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, part of a radical wing of young composers influenced by Schoenberg and Webern. He joined an army band to avoid the draft, married a concert pianist and eventually received a grant to study in Cologne with Stockhausen alongside Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of Can.
After he returned to the US, Hassell met Terry Riley while completing a fellowship at SUNY Buffalo. The minimalist legend referred to contemporary European music—Hassell's life's study up until that point—as "neurotic," sending his music assumptions into a tailspin. After playing on Riley's seminal In C, Hassell met La Monte Young and joined his Theatre Of Eternal Music troupe, sipping hash milkshakes and joining in on the group's long, ecstatic drones. He began studying with Pandit Pran Nath and spent years attempting to translate the Kirana raga singing style to the trumpet.
On his website, Hassell describes the circumstances leading up to the recording of Vernal Equinox, his account more Hunter S. Thompson than John Cage. He describes a "lingering coca-haze following a wild trip to Venezuela and Colombia (island-hopping in Morocco, full moon, LSD, and in Bogota, falling in love with the great-great-grand-daughter of Ponce de Leon to the unforgettable melodies of a Haitian voodoo ceremony at the 'Primer Congreso Mundial De Brujeria')." The preamble to his solo recording career also included a brief stay in a mental institution and a period of healing study in Malibu where he'd practice "raga moves on the trumpet" above the ocean in Tuna Canyon, "wild deer foraging nearby and hang gliders launching over my head, wearing out the pause button while listening phrase-by-phrase to the one lesson that Pran Nath had allowed me to record."
Hassell returned to New York and recorded Vernal Equinox soon after on a visit to Toronto. The record combines his high-minded compositional knowledge, his gonzo adventures in South America and his Downtown New York life brushing shoulders with the likes of Mati Klarwein, the artist responsible for the iconic cover of Bitches Brew by Miles Davis—another Hassell hero.
Hassell channeled these experiences with a remarkable technical nous, aided by an esteemed supporting cast. Larry Polansky, currently a Professor Of Music at UC Santa Cruz, keyed-in a non-western tuning for the Rhodes piano and programmed the Motorola Scalatron to 265 Hz to emulate the drone of the Indian tambura, the skeleton key to the Indian raga sound. The legendary Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, who Hassell met through Don Cherry, contributed hand drums after the initial recording, his loose and buoyant playing weaving in another non-western tradition.
But it's Hassell's emotion, his ability to get out of his head, that makes Vernal Equinox a hair-raising listen 38 years later. "Hex" sounds like Miles Davis's On The Corner if it had been recorded deep in the Amazon. "Viva Shona'"s electronically-effected trumpet could have been recorded last week. (For proof, listen to a track like Aquarian Foundation's "Dream Of The Red Chamber.") "Blues Nile" is a raga elegy to his recently deceased dog, his solo improvised while on mushrooms. "I was crying and I just managed to get this out," he told me on the phone. "It was all kind of a dirge. It's almost too sincere... I can barely listen to it."
Released on Mimi Johnson's Lovely Music Ltd., Vernal Equinox caught the ear of Brian Eno, who was in the midst of an extended stay in New York. He approached Hassell backstage after a live performance, suggesting a collaboration. The resulting LP, Jon Hassell / Brian Eno's Fourth World Vol. 1 - Possible Musics, is a more realized vision of the ideas on Vernal Equinox that formalized Hassell's Fourth World philosophy. (The album is often mistakenly attributed to Eno, though he only produced the record and was included in the credits to boost sales.)
Ten days after wrapping the Fourth World sessions, Eno and David Byrne decamped to California to begin work on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Hassell had been invited, too, but when he heard Byrne and Eno's demos, he felt the ethnic influences were too apparent—a "layer cake"-style intellectual exercise as opposed to his dark, slow-cooked stew. Regardless, that record, released in 1981 and regarded as a classic today, bears the clear influence of Hassell's philosophy. "That hurt a lot because I purposefully stayed out of it," Hassell said. "I resisted joining in on that project, which of course would have made me extraordinarily wealthy."
I asked Hassell if he was broke while recording Vernal Equinox, a period of time when he was living at the Westbeth Artists Community in lower Manhattan, subsisting on a hodgepodge of grants and art world patronage. "I must have been," he laughed. "I'm broke now." For him, Fourth World wasn't a passing fad. Vernal Equinox kicked off a stunning exploration of imaginary, sonic worlds—vast landscapes where we can still get lost.