REVIEW
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA
PHOTO CREDIT: JIMMY DE SANA



Jon Hassell   ‘Dream Theory In Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two’
tak:til/Glitterbeat Records,  29th September 2017

Proving a fruitful enterprise in the exploratory music department and a welcome extension of the ambient and minimalist genres, the, what should seem on the surface, harmonious partnership between Brian Eno and Jon Hassell proved anything but; leading eventually towards acrimony. These now iconic Fourth World Music albums, the first volume being Possible Musics, were borne entirely from Hassell’s solo traverses in global music experimentation, though Eno’s minor but significant, if not entirely obvious, involvement grabs the attention and headlines: The second volume, Dream Theory In Malaya made no such distinctions, and would be credited wholly to Hassell.

Already artistically riding high on a crust of acclaimed production projects and numerous semi-successful collaborations and solo albums, when the famous Eno touched down in New York City in 1978, the ambient pioneer would nonetheless unintentionally help direct another important development in the fields of ambient and world music. Absorbed in what the city had to offer him musically, Eno would fatefully during his investigations come across the stripped and atmospherically rich experiments of the gifted trumpeter/composer Hassell, whose own pathway from adroit pupil of Stockhausen to seminal work on Terry Riley’s harangued piano guided In C, encompassed a polygenesis of influences: a lineage that draws inspiration from avant-garde progenitors like La Monte Young, and travels far and wide, absorbing sounds from Java to Burundi.

So impressive is Hassell’s CV and study credentials – studying with an array of diverse bastions of indigenous music styles, including Hindustani classical singer and mystic, Pran Nath – that many other such luminaries, both before and since, attempted to court his attention for possible collaborations (Peter Gabriel, David Sylvain included). Though a minor figure in the sense of worldwide recognition, and never one to brush with any sort of commercial popular success, Hassell irked out his own personal philosophy. With a handy masters degree in composition, he attempted a reification of what he would term the “fourth world”; a style that reimagined an amorphous hybrid of cultures; a merger between the traditions and spiritualism of the third world (conceived during the “cold war” to denote any country that fell outside the industrious wealthier west, and not under the control of the Soviet Empire) and the technology of the first. The record that initially charmed and impressed Eno, Hassell’s eclectic Vernal Equinox, blended a mystical suffused atmosphere of the Middle East with vaporous trials of South America and the Orient to the West to create minimalistic transmissions from a timeless geography. A meeting at the performance artist space The Kitchen cemented the deal that would see Eno produce Hassell’s, now iconic, visionary Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Musics peregrination – also, though a while ago now, reissued by Glitterbeat Records.

Annoyed and aggrieved, Hassell had seen as a result of Eno’s contributions his work categorized under the English ambient progenitors own name in record stores; demoted to support or a bit-part player role on his own compositions. He’d also been more than a bit frustrated and peeved that Eno was heavily borrowing and appropriating Hassell’s Fourth World concepts for his subsequent famous collaborations with David Byrne on the My Life in The Bush Of Ghosts and Remain In Light albums.

Eno was however forgiven long enough to be welcomed back into the fold on Dream Theory; even going as a far as to grant him a trumpet solo on the out-of-body projected traverse of a wet Malaysian jungle peregrination These Times. And because he was always generous with the introductions, and more importantly, they offered ‘exceptional rates’, Eno put Hassell in touch with the ‘enterprising and talented’ Lanois brothers (Daniel and Bob) who at that time, on the cusp of the 80s, were building a steady reputation for themselves out of their ‘chez’ home studio in Hamilton, close by to Toronto.

Adding to this musical exploration dream team was sessions coordinator Michael Brooks (known for his work with the celebrated Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), who’s home in Toronto Hassell commuted from to the studio each day, and in the most removed way, former Velvet Underground drummer (the first in fact to sit in for the band) and renowned conceptual artist/land art sculptor Walter De Maria, who popped in just for ‘fun’ and may or may not have left a presence of distant drums on the misty fuzz veiled Polynesian fantasy, Courage.




In the borderless compositions of Hassell, evocative traces, hazy semblances and the reification of dreams manifest through transformed instrumentation to create an amorphous reimagined soundscape. As the leading quote from Hassell’s linear notes make clear, this is a new form of classicism – a re-classification if you like -; eroding the dominance of central Europe’s great composers for that of cultures from Southeast Asia, Africa and Australasia.

The concept of Dream Theory In Malaysia is no different, the central theme and interest piqued both by the anthologist study of the same name by Kilton Stewart, and the ‘water splash rhythm with giggling children and birds from a [the Semelai] tribe’ sound recording that accompanied the Queen’s tour of the Commonwealth sanctioned book, Primitive Peoples. Adventurer Stewart famously chronicled the ‘dream tribe’ Senoi people of the central Malaysian peninsular, whose ancestors had made the voyage across from Southern Thailand 4,500 years ago. The Senoi are practitioners of ‘lucid dreaming’ of course, a phenomenon that Hassell lapped up in a romantic affair with the region and its people (as an aside, Hassell’s notes throw in a love tryst with an ‘exotically-tuned’ woman from Kuala Lumpur for good measure).

Leaving his mind to wander, Hassell’s transmogrified nuzzling trumpet was set loose on the dreamy visages of Malaya. Invented scales transcribed over mysterious celluloid picturesque panoramas and more humid, almost stifling and abundant muffled fauna and vegetation wild spaces permeate this ambient escapism, as subtle echoes of the indigenous instrumentation ring out in a ghostly fashion; especially the Malay tambourine known as a ‘rebana’, and the local variant of a gong, as used by the Semelai people – like the Senoi dreamers, another branch of the Orang Asli collective of ethnic peoples that inhabit Malaysia’s peninsular, brought into the sphere of this semi-fictional, semi-factual suite.

Paddle beaten percussion, wooden fluty drones, a languid bass guitar, and what sounds like the kind of car horn you’d find on a Model T Ford, merge in this vaporous swirl of a soundscape. But it’s Hassell’s serialism and transduced tones and layers that guide the listener; from sucked-in heralded fanfares to snuffling and zigzagging ripples of descriptive scene setting and landscaping.

Re-released, for the first time since its original release in 1981, Dream Theory In Malaya is the fourth album in Glitterbeat Records new tak:til series. It fits congruously of course within this imprints framework and vision of a borderless reimagined musical landscape unbeholden to convention and structure. And once again celebrates the mavericks and pioneers striving to reinvent what ‘global music’ can be: in this case an undiscovered expanse of imagination and possibilities.





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