New Sounds from the Fourth World

A glimpse at new music, and a new label, from 81-year-old ambient godfather Jon Hassell

Jon Hassell was the original ambassador to the Fourth World, an aesthetic zone of his own imagination, a placeless place where new technology is put to old uses. It is music that recognizes a tribal instinct that is neither solely ancient nor solely contemporary, but simply inherently human. In pursuit of that commonality, Fourth World music cuts across cultures — north and south, east and west — by combining techniques and instrumentation, tunings and idioms. However, unlike much fusion, Hassell’s music always displays evidence of the effort required. His Fourth World is perpetually glitchy, frayed, bearing the watermarks — digital and otherwise — of the tools that made it possible.

The term gained prominence in the title to Hassell’s 1980 album on the E.G. label, Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, co-produced with Brian Eno, and has been his genre home ever since. Hassell just last week, shortly after turning 81 years of age the month prior, announced a new album, due out on June 8. Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) is to be his first album on his new label, Ndeya, which he describes as being a place for “new work as well as … selected archival releases, including re-presses of classic sides and some astonishing unreleased music.”

The astonishment begins early, with a pre-release glimpse of Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) in the form of its first track, “Dreaming.” This is Hassell in fine form, playing Offworld bossa nova, post-Singularity jazz. It surges against itself in slow motion. You can hear his horn buried amid piano and cymbals and vinyl surface noise, rising out of the mass, and then settling back in. The uneasy beat — less a beat, really, than a pulse — has a rough-hewn quality to it, pushing at the other elements like it’s trying to find its place at the table. Perhaps the standout element is what sounds like a vocal ensemble, who halfway through the piece emerge in a deep hush out of nowhere. Such a rupture is key to Hassell’s approach, an art of grafts that purposefully never fully take.

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