The title Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics has a brainy and academic ring to it, but according to Jon Hassell, the record is at least 50% body music. "The basic metaphor is that of the north and south of a person is a projection of the north and south of the globe," the composer, improviser, and trumpet player, now 77, explained in an interview earlier this year. "A mind formatted by language and located in the head, compared with the area of wildness and sensuality below the waist where dance and music and procreation reigns."
However, the first time through, Possible Musics—which Hassell created in 1980 in collaboration with producer Brian Eno—you might find that "wildness" and "sensuality" are not the first adjectives that come to mind. It is eerie, dreamlike, and otherworldly music.
Throughout the record, Hassell’s trumpet is processed using a harmonizer effect, producing alien tonalities that seem to slide between the notes of a traditional Western scale. Often, his melody lines sound more like a human voice than a brass instrument. The rhythm tracks—made up of hand percussion and electric bass—are highly repetitive, but also wobbly and destabilized. The result is a sound that melds minimalism, jazz, and ambient sounds, but doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those genres.
Though his name is not invoked as frequently as Eno’s, the last few decades have proven Hassell—who was born in Memphis, Tennessee—to be an influential presence in electronic music and modern composition. Active since the mid-'60s, his background is hard to duplicate. He studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, played on the first recording of Terry Riley’s "In C", and has performed session work for Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel. His solo work has provided the sonic blueprint for a number of contemporary musicians, as well, including Aphex Twin (See Selected Ambient Works Vol. II) and Oneohtrix Point Never (Returnal) to name a few.
Possible Musics was, in a lot of ways, the first full realization of Hassell's Fourth World concept. Many of the sounds—the freaky trumpet tones, the drifting ambient structures—were already in place on his 1977 debut LP, Vernal Equinox, but while that album is as meditative and mesmerizing as anything he has released, it is clearly identifiable as a jazz fusion record.
On Possible Musics, synthesizers and electronic treatments help to nudge things into less recognizable territory. The music is informed by minimalism, but Hassell's take is very different than the works of Philip Glass or Steve Reich that are linked to that style. For those composers, minimalism often involved rigorous structure and clockwork execution, whereas Possible Musics is conceptually dialed in, but loose and improvisational in its execution. Harmonic motion is limited and all attention is centered around the embellishment of a single melodic line. Hassell is playing lead on these songs, but his performances often blur seamlessly into the backing tracks.
Like Eno’s ambient records, Possible Music is all about mood. However, where Music For Airports sought to reflect a highly impersonal environment, Hassell’s work is intentionally exotic. No specific nation or people is being quoted here, though. Hassell's landscape is an invented one—an imagined culture, where high technology and mysticism are blended together. "John’s experiment was to imagine a 'coffee coloured' world," explains Eno in an essay first published in the Guardian and excerpted for the reissue's liner notes. "A globalized world constantly integrating and hybridizing, where differences were celebrated and dignified—and realize it into music."
In this sense, Possible Musics is an exercise in science fiction. Like the William Gibson book Neuromancer, the record offered an imperfect, but prescient glimpse toward the near future. The subsequent decades have not produced much music like Hassell’s, but the concepts that informed Possible Musics have proven predictive of the way that technology would come to mesh with music-making in other cultures—whether that’s Konono N°1's amplified thumb pianos, Group Doueh’s electric guitars, or any number of global electronic and pop sounds that have been produced using a laptop computer.
And once you acclimate to the weird and warbly tones, there is a certain sensuality to Possible Musics. In Hassell’s desire to crossbreed cultures there’s an implicit act of intercourse going on—a desire for personal renewal and transformation via an "other", be it a nation, culture, or another human being.