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Jon Hassell: Fourth World and Balancing the North and South of You

John Kelman By

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At Punkt 08, Hassell was commissioned for an installation that utilized the church bells of a church in downtown Kristiansand. Every hour a new stacked chord would be played, the cumulative effect of which would gradually evoke more secular emotions than normally heard coming from a cathedral. "This Eventide H8000, that I use as a harmonizer and for some other things onstage, has this patch in which you can play a couple of notes and then a few second later—or actually 15 or 20 seconds later—out comes this chord," says Hassell. "It's made for accompanying yourself, so you make this sequence of chords that you can repeat and play over. I turn the dial a little bit and use a couple of notes that aren't supposed to be used, or combine things in a certain way. And so it's this big, beautiful, rich kind of gong sound.

"I started using it in a choral piece and on "Courtrais" [from Last night the moon came], which comes from a performance we did there," Hassell continues. "These gong chords, although I still call them gongs, are happening all over the place on that one. Jan [Bang] and I were traveling, and I think it was in a car outside of Brussels someplace and he was talking about the next edition of Punkt and so I said, 'Why don't I harmonize the church bells there.' And so he said yes and we did it. The last night before we left there, before the installation went down, actually Brian [Eno] was there and took a recording. He had this little pocket digital recorder he'd just bought and recorded the whole thing—so Arne [Bang, Jan's brother] went up in the belfry and played the whole sequence.

Jon Hassell

That was the last night of the festival, I think," he continues. "I love it, I love the sounds, I love the idea. I just haven't had time, because of the managerial problems we were talking about before and my having to be my own everything. I thought that would be a great thing to try and hawk to other European festivals, where there are always churches and there are always church bells. I thought it was a beautiful thing to hear; Jan still says it's one of his favorite things from the whole Punkt 08 experience."

One of the advantages of attending Punkt is hearing things that may never be heard again—whether it's installations, combinations of musicians or specific musical projects created solely for the festival. Still, there's always the possibility that some of these things will see the light of day for broader exposure. "Well, it could very well surface someplace," says Hassell. "I have all of them here. In fact there were some that I liked—it's not just one chord, you know, it's this little sequence, sort of like the usual chiming of the hour, they have [sings] 'bong-ding-bong-bong-ding,' and then usually they play a little tune. So we had to go up and reprogram all of that and bring the H8000 up near the bells, which were beautiful, gigantic things, with overloading problems. But eventually, the experience of being outside and seeing people walking across the square and hearing these sexy chords was wonderful—I tried to make them a little sexier towards nighttime—the one that started at 8 [PM], it's kind of up in the higher range, and then I tried a lot more groovier for the 10 o'clock chime.

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Choral Work

While Hassell continues to hone his Fourth World music through recordings and performances as a leader, he's also a commissioned composer who has written, amongst other things, a string quartet for the renowned Kronos Quartet that was released on White Man Sleeps (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987), "Pano Da Costa." Another commissioned work that will hopefully find its way to mass availability is Hassell's choral work for the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. "Norwich Cathedral is a beautiful 15th century cathedral in the north of England," says Hassell. "And the Norwich group was a combination amateur and professional chorus, with 120 voices. We were supposed to do a concert and the choral piece. So I used this Native American text, a Hopi text.

Jon Hassell

"Since my goddaughter is a Native American, I brought her over and this was the first time she actually heard me play live," continues Hassell. "It was really a great experience. The choral master, John Baker actually did a souped-up or 'fill-in-the-blanks' version that was taken from the performance and other pre-material that I had done before. I have not had time to even listen to what that was and what it sounds like. But I had hopes of that going other places and, again, I just haven't had time to cultivate it.

"A lot of people to whom I gave access to the model that I made in Pro Tools said it was amazing and they loved it," Hassell concludes. "So that was before the actual voices were there. And the text, I just used this London choir, samples of voices and choral things, so it's a kind of idealized version of it but without the actual text. It's all like [sings] 'ahhhs' and that kind of thing. But certainly at some point I would like to groom that as it deserves to be heard somewhere again as a recording or as a performance.

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