When reflecting upon the most pivotal experiences in life, those that stand out as being most positively influential to who we are, what would you choose? If we consider art to be less an object and more a cognitive space to inhabit, than among the top of my list are sonic experiences. Often we reflect upon an album when an anniversary is recognized, but I would like to restore a little life to an under recognized work that definitely changed my life for the better.
As a teenager in the late 1980’s, one spring day I walked into a record store on the shores of Lake Erie with a specific and quite voracious sonic appetite. That hunger had been ignited after hearing the sonic wizardry of Jimi Hendrix. A track like “Third Stone from the Sun” seemed to reorganize my ears and left the popular music of that spring day as appealing as a wilted salad. I had little money and it was best you knew what you wanted when you walked in the store, for unlike today, you could not listen to any samples. But I didn’t know what I wanted, only that a sonic itch needed the right balm and I was ready to take a chance. Following intuition, I picked out an album called The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things with the Power of Sound by Jon Hassell. The painting on the cover is what pulled me in and the title is what kept it in my hand.
The moment arrived: sitting on the floor equally spaced between the left and right speakers, I put the disc in and pressed play. What I heard was simultaneously recognizable and yet as if from another galaxy. A loping bass line pulsed across the sound field, joined by a palette of aural vegetation, lush and nuanced. Then rose an arcing soft blade of sound tracing ornate sonic glyphs in the air, as if dancing to a yet undiscovered mathematics, or perhaps a long forgotten one. The speakers didn’t seem to produce this music as much as it seemed to permeate and fall out of the very air like an undulating sonic incense wafting through humid jungle air. What in the world was this? Had I wasted my money? I had been, in fact, extremely lucky.
If some music is good for cleaning the house or dancing, then this music is a mirror for the creative mind, reflecting and influencing in just the right balance, satiating close listening but also hanging back, constructing a sonic architecture, most comfortable for a reflective mind to inhabit. And inhabit it, I have. Thirty some years later, this album is probably the most listened to album I own. Mr. Hassell, with his Fourth World music has maintained a vibrant innovative edge to his work for decades. His recent Listening To Pictures (2018) is brimming with luscious new sonic textures, odd but satisfying rhythmic structures- nothing short of an opulent full vertical listening opportunity creating cognitive space for the listener to think, create, to be in time. After all, what is music but a curation of the experience of time, a temporal aesthetic in which the flow of time in all directions is manipulated toward a specific goal.
While Jon Hassell is known to many (although not enough), I find the Nightsky album often overlooked. Whereas it is impossible for me to pick a favorite Hassell album, this one occupies a special place. Whether you know him or not, perhaps crack open the door and allow the Surgeon of the Nightsky to weave a place in your mind to cultivate the metaphors that fuel a creative, meaningful life.
Hassell’s 1977 debut album “Vernal Equinox” has been remastered and released Spring 2020.
Jon Hassell is one of the most influential composers of the last 50 years. His invention of what he called ‘4th World Music’ opened the way for a fresh look at, and deeper respect for, the music of other cultures around the world. His recordings have had a big impact on other musicians, and, through them, have changed musical tastes dramatically. His unique intellectual contribution is also noteworthy: he is a tireless and articulate theorist as well as a great musician.
Jon is going through hard times now. I feel that many of us owe him a debt of gratitude, so perhaps making a contribution to this fund is a way we can thank him.
London, April 28, 2020
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