New York Times NOVEMBER 20, 1981 - by Robert Palmer


Categories are useful only so long as they mean something, and at the moment the categorical separation of pop music from the avantgarde is in need of some revision. Consider Jon Hassell, who is giving concerts tonight and tomorrow night at 10 o'clock at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.

Mr. Hassell studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and has been a member of ensembles led by the avant-garde composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley. But he played the trumpet on a recent rock album by the Talking Heads, and on his own albums he has collaborated with the rock producer, composer and electronics expert Brian Eno. In addition, Mr. Hassell's distinctive trumpet style has been influenced primarily by the classical vocal music of India, and he stirs African and Asian instruments and rhythms into the music on his albums.

Mr. Hassell is not the only example of spillover from the avant-garde into pop. Laurie Anderson, the performance artist whose music-and-theater pieces have been entrancing SoHo audiences for several years, recently signed a recording contract with Warner Brothers Records, following the surprising Top-10 success in Britain of O Superman, an independently released single. Her songs sounded refreshingly melodic in the context of her performances. On records, they sound unmistakably like pop.


Glenn Branca has been attracting critical acclaim and a loyal audience with his compositions for four or five heavily amplified guitars, bass, and drums. His new album, The Ascension (on 99 Records), combines rigorous structuralism (avant-garde) with thunderous guitar textures and a rock beat (pop).

When one recalls how many innovative rock performers have backgrounds in avant-garde performance art (Yoko Ono and John Cale of The Velvet Underground) or have attended art schools (several Rolling Stones, members of The Kinks and of new-wave bands like Talking Heads and The Dance), links between the avant-garde and popular music are not surprising. But Mr. Hassell and Miss Anderson are addressing a pop audience without making radical changes in their art. So, too, is the composer Philip Glass, whose avant-garde associations have not prevented him from composing ambitious operas and other music that is uncompromising but genuinely popular. Steve Reich, a composer with a similar background, has accomplished something similar with albums for the Warner-distributed E.C.M. label.

Now that a significant portion of music's avant-garde is abandoning atonality and academicism in favor of tuneful melody and, in some cases, of old-fashioned harmony, popular acceptance is not so farfetched as it might once have seemed. And when Jon Hassell uses rhythms and percussion instruments from Asia and Africa, he no longer has to assume that his listeners will find them utterly unfamiliar. African, Asian and other third-world music is readily available on records and has been influencing Western classical music, jazz and pop for some time. As Steve Reich once pointed out, a young American composer asked to name his influences is as likely to say "West African drumming" or "Japanese Gagaku" as he is to name another composer.


But there is much more to Jon Hassell's music than selective ethnic borrowings. He calls it "fourth world" music. Fourth world is a term he coined to suggest a fusion of what the third world has to offer with the West's latest advances in electronics and other communications technology.

Mr. Hassell's eerie trumpet playing qualifies as a very good example of fourth-world music. He developed the original techniques he uses, which include playing with the trumpet's mouthpiece removed or only loosely attached, in order to execute the slurs and quavering and other effects the Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath was teaching him. He can mimic the human voice with remarkable accuracy, but he didn't stop there. He began processing the sounds he was getting from his trumpet electronically, using the most sophisticated synthesizers and other equipment.

On Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics (EG Records), a 1980 album, his electronically modified trumpet sounds like a distant angelic choir. That album, a collaboration with Mr. Eno, turned up on a number of ten-best-albums-of-the-year lists, including this critic's list. But the future-primitive juxtapositions are even more startling, as well as more varied, on Mr. Hassell's new album, Dream Theory In Malaya, on the E.G. label.


What kind of title is Dream Theory In Malaya? Actually, Mr. Hassell explained this week, he nicked the title from an anthropological paper. It seems an anthropologist traveling in Malaya stumbled on a tribe that had developed an elaborate theory of dream analysis, a theory that ran parallel to some of Freud's ideas.

In his music, tribal cultures and Western technology coexist, with shimmering, electronically altered trumpet improvisations floating over the booming of a pot drum and the echoing of a gong. Mr. Hassell sees his music as a model for cultural fusion and cooperation on a broader front.

Tickets for the concerts are $7.50 and are available at the Public Theater's box office; for reservations and information, call 598-7100.

Blue Gene Tyranny, a composer and keyboard player from the San Francisco Bay area, who combines avant-garde and pop in a more rock-oriented manner, will open both concerts.