Ambient Music-Maker John Hassell On Embracing The Sounds Of The World

The 83-year-old ambient musician has been praised over the years from other artists such as Bono, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Björk, and countless others.

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John Hassell was both in Memphis, Tennessee, famously known in the music community as the birthplace of blues. As he grew older and began exploring his artistry, he moved around quite a bit. He began his journey in New York, where he would stay for a short period of time before moving to Cologne to study under Karlheinz Stockhausen.; he also was studying alongside Holder Czukay and Irmin Schmidt. While in Cologne, Hassell would apply his new knowledge of musical experimentation by cutting up certain jazz tracks and looping them with vocal performances from the Hi-Lo’s, an American jazz vocal group. 

This style is one that Hassell continues to emulate in his newer works. He refers to the style as “pentimento” which is typically a term used in painting that refers to multiple images and other mediums that have been painted over in a finished piece of work. Hassell applied this same concept to his music by layering and chopping up different vocals, instrumentals, and production elements within his tracks. 

His music is often referred to as “experimental, but enveloping and frequently very beautiful.” Hasell himself would often refer to his ambient tracks as “fourth world music,” as it embraces the musical stylings present in many other cultures that often get overlooked by the music that’s in the mainstream.

“The music is a signal to the rest of the world: quit ignoring the incredible beauty of African and Brazilian and Indian music. Just be more aware.”

Hassell is specifically referring to his 1977 album “Vernal Equinox and Fourth World Volume 1,” an ambient jazz record, however, the same message is amplified in most of his music as well. Hasell’s album’s have modernly been praised for capturing the ideas of modern pop music ahead of its time based on his ability to emphasize these other cultural stylings. This is why crediting the countries that he found these styles from was always so important to him, as they continuously work as inspiration for elements in mainstream music today.

“I’m very proud of the fact that it has sort of caught on with young musicians: the degree of awareness these days, because of all the technological possibilities.” 

Hassell himself describes the fourth world music of today as any body of work that takes multiple elements from various genres of sound and is able to convey the message of: “I’m aware of that, I’m aware of this, and here’s what I’m coming up with.” He says that this concept began to form more clearly for him when he returned to the US after studying with Stockhausen in Cologne. Once he made his return, he befriended Robert Moog who, at the time, had recently developed the Moog synthesizer that the two would then begin using to create even more experimental music pieces. The two also created music with composer Terry Riley. 

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“We’d do these all-night performances where everyone would end up lying on the floor, listening: very engrossing and immersing; things changing so gradually [in the music] you didn’t really know they had changed.”

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Hassell and Moog both are credited on Riley’s first minimalist album titled “In C” before moving to India to study under classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. Hasell refers to Nath to this day as his greatest musical influence. With Nath he studied the musical styling known as Raga, which is defined in Indian classical music as “a melodic framework for improvisation and composition,” and literally translates to “color” or “passion.”

“You want to use the possibilities and potentialities of the western instrument while not ignoring the shape-making of what raga means. It’s like calligraphy – sonic calligraphy.” Hassell has been described by reviewers as one of the “three or four players of wind instruments in the world who can command your attention with one note,” and that’s thanks to his deep studying of raga. 

The Vernal Equinox album that was previously mentioned was Hassell’s first “experimental” album that had a sound completely separated from traditional western music. Hassell is mainly known for his trumpet playing, which is heavily described in the 1977 album as floating through “landscapes of electronics, drones, and Indian and South American percussion.” 

His ability to embrace other cultures within his music while also giving them their proper credits is something that’s still rare in the modern music community. Many modern musicians get called out for cultural appropriation when they bring in elements from other cultures into their artistry however this term has never been attached to Hassell due to his intensive study of the cultures themselves, and his very public appreciation of these specific musical stylings origins. 

Hassell now has his own music label which is known for its electronic music production. While he has plans to continue making music, Hassell recently suffered a fall that caused his leg to break, so for now, he’s just enjoying his time in isolation and working on the inspiration for whatever comes next in his career.

Eric Mastrota

Contributing Editor

Eric Mastrota graduated with a degree in English, Creative Writing, and Journalism. His goal is to create content that readers find entertaining, informative and most importantly, beneficial.