Jon Hassell

Resident archivist Jack Dangers looks at Jon Hassell’s little-known tape music piece from 1968 along with a more recent album which is fetching big money on the secondhand market

Jon Hassell worked with David Sylvian, he’s on the ‘Brilliant Trees’ record. When I first heard that album I didn’t read the sleeve notes, and I thought it was Ryuichi Sakamoto playing some weird instrument, or samples of it being played on a Synclavier or something, but it was actually Jon Hassell’s trumpet. Since his first album, he’s had this process of putting his trumpet through an Eventide harmoniser, creating a four or five-part chord with his trumpet. 

In 2009 he released a double album, ‘Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street’, with three sides of music, the fourth side is blank. It’s so good. A lot of live sampling is going on. The cut is amazing, I’ve never heard bass sound so good coming off vinyl. There’s videos of them performing this material live and it’s as good as the album, so you know they were recording it live. I can’t recommend this album highly enough. You’ll love it. You can get it on CD, but the vinyl edition is very rare now and goes for £150 on Discogs. That tells you people know how good it is and are seeking it out.

The first Jon Hassell recording to appear in his discography is 1978’s ‘Vernal Equinox’ on Lovely Records, but there’s a much earlier Jon Hassell artefact that isn’t very well known. It came in a magazine called Source: Music Of The Avant-Garde. It was published by teachers and students at the University of California, Davis between 1967 and 1973, and they published 11 issues. Most came with two records, usually 10-inches, except issue five, which was published in January 1969. 

This issue had a piece by Jon Hassell in it, called ‘Map₂’. He worked with the 3M company to produce a six-inch square of magnetic audio tape. It was made from Hassell’s original, which he made from three layers of tape with sound on them. One layer was made up of horizontal strips which had sounds of crowds, laughter, African drums, whispering, motorcycles, water “etc” recorded onto them. The second layer added vertical strips with fewer tracks, and finally the third layer was made up of diagonal strips of “widely spaced sine tone blips”.

3M produced a couple of thousand pieces and they were pasted into the magazine. The idea was that you take the playback head out of a tape recorder, but keep it connected, and then run it over the piece of tape. I actually did it once. It sounds like musique concrète. It’s amazing, really ingenious, and incredibly obscure. 

I showed it to DJ Shadow when he came over one time, and he was amazed, because he’s from Davis, California, where the magazine was published, and he had no idea something like this had come from his hometown.

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