Jon Hassell / Psychogeography / Ndeya – By Adam Turner

Wonderful words by the ever erudite Adam Turner.

In 1955 philosopher Guy Debord coined the term “psychogeography”, building on Charles Baudelaire’s concept of “le flaneur”, the urban wanderer. For Debord, cities and urban environments could be navigated in various inventive ways, in order to better map their architecture and spaces. Debord also espoused the idea of wandering round, taking arbitrary routes through cities, to see them in different ways. He wanted to break down barriers between culture and daily life, and believed cities and buildings should be less functional and designed more to be explored. Psychogeography has become a shorthand for the effect that geographical locations have on the individual, their attitudes, values and behaviour. For artists, writers and musicians, psychogeography becomes one of the key influences on their work, and the impact of the urban environment on art, writing and music crops up all over the place- Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, and Alan Moore, are just three writers whose work investigates the urban landscape. Musicians and bands are often defined by their city. I’m sure you don’t need me to give you examples. Start with Joy Division say, or The Clash, and work from there.

‘The sectors of a city’, Debord wrote, ‘are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable’. He later on admitted that ‘none of this is very clear. It is a completely typical drunken monologue. Nevertheless, psychogeography continues to hold a wide appeal as a way to interpret and understand modern urban environments- and if nothing else, it gives the sheer joy of aimlessly wandering round cities a cultural and philosophical credibility.

‘What have you done today?’

‘Not much. Went for a walk. Explored the psychogeography of [insert hometown name here]’

Jon Hassell came up with his Fourth World music, a concept and style pioneered by the trumpeter / composer from the late `70s until his death in 2021. Fourth World was a ground-breaking fusion of primitive and futurist, a marriage of modern synths and electronics with what used to be called “World Music” (non-Western and traditional ethnic styles). Hassell had a classical training, a background with the New York minimalists Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and served an apprenticeship with Hindustani singer Prandit Pran Nath. Hassell’s music has some of the feel of modern jazz, of Miles Davis’ experimentalism, but without jazz’s rhythms or solos. He found a natural ally in Brian Eno and from there collaborated with countless, important, artists through the 1980s and `90s, including Talking Heads (Hassell plays on Remain In Light), David Sylvian, Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder, and Carl Craig. Hassell’s horn, filtered and treated electronically, imitated the vocal melodies of traditional music that Pran Nath had taught him, in an attempt to make music that was beyond categorisation, beyond genre and style. The trumpet, often sounding little like a trumpet, is a lead instrument in a musical style that rejects lead instruments – everything serves the song / track.

Psychogeography is the title of a compilation of late `80s recordings from Hassell’s archives – alternate takes, demos and studio sessions put together by Hassell himself in 2014, but only released this year. The album – subtitled Zones Of Feeling – is built on the dual influences of the Situationist theories of Debord mentioned above, and the sample / collage attack of The Bomb Squad, the men who made Public Enemy sound the way they do. These are dropped into the pot to stew- the psychogeography of New York, the sounds of other, non-Western cultures, anti- consumerist thought and art, and the ambient jazz specific to Jon Hassell’s trumpet, keyboards, synths and samples.

Aerial View is a startling opener, with drones, whines, a distant hand drum, and a wailing trumpet descending from on top. Disorientating tones and textures, sound for its own sake. Neon Night (Rain) has a more recognisable rhythm and a discordant melody line, the treated horn like a sine wave, rising and falling, weaving, winding through the streets of the modern metropolis.

Cityism Superdub is built on a broken slapped, funk bass-line, squalls of synths, with Hassell`s increasingly distorted trumpet sounding like a thousand cars honking their horns at once, all slightly out of time with each other. Occasional bursts of what could be Lalo Schifrin string parts shoot in. Frank Bullitt a very long way from home.

On Harambe the percussion pummels away, and the trumpet jumps to the foreground and then disappears again. As well as being jazz-but-not-jazz this is dub-but-not-dub, the production and arrangements throwing instruments around abruptly in the way Lee Scratch Perry or King Tubby would. Harambe is a futuristic African city sculpted from sound. Cuba Libre follows, not so much fading in as sounding like an old analogue radio station suddenly being discovered by twisting the dial left to right, static switching to sound and then back to static again.

On Waterfront District, amidst distant pattering rhythms the trumpet, wandering, parping, interjecting, leading, does anything and everything except sound like a trumpet and do what a trumpet would usually do. Favela goes further, six minutes of abstraction, horns and hand drums. Emerald City starts off in a similar vein but develops into a very lovely piece of music, Hassell blowing a hushed / muted melody, fed through FX, padded drums and percussion, plus a hint of electric bass. The occasional brass blasts like sunshine breaking through clouds. The album then ends with Cloud Shaped Time, six minutes that slow to a crawl, perfectly concluding all that urban exploring.

You can purchase Jon Hassell’s Psychogeography directly from Ndeya. 

You can find more proper, on point, prose from Adam Turner over at his own brilliant blog, The Bagging Area. Adam is also part of the admin at the mighty Flightpath Estate.

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