From his spot in the middle of the McGuire theater, surrounded by various digital accoutrements and the Maarifa Street band, Jon Hassell treated a nearly-full house to 90 minutes of his slow-moving, subtle, and eclectic music that attempts to encompass many of the musical traditions of the world, both past and present. Unfortunately, to my ears, all of the adjectives generally used to describe this music—atmospheric, celestial, ethereal, etc—didn’t quite fit this performance as well as a less generous one would: boring.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some exquisite sounds throughout the evening, which was divided between an hour-long “set” of a number of segued pieces and a final 10-minute piece after Hassell introduced the group. At one point, swells of Hassell’s laconic trumpet, digitally processed into a multi-voiced ensemble, rode upon a wave of synthesizer and bass created by the rest of the band. There were snatches of music that dotted the sonic landscape from across earthly time and space, whether it be Bitches Brew organ, didgeridoo, pan pipes, or digital glitches, just to name a few. These were all blended together with extreme subtlety and precise attention to tone and timbre.
While these came in fits and starts, there was one consistently fascinating element to the night: the live sampling of the Norwegian Jan Bang. While Bang was integral throughout, many of the pieces in the first part of the evening were linked together through a swirling recombinant soundscape comprised of sampled and manipulated snippets produced just minutes before by the rest of the band. Problem was, these re-imagined imaginings, as it were, were more stimulating than the music they drew upon!
Frankly, though, these elements didn’t go past this surface level of interest, disparate sonic bits not adding up to a coherent whole. And it certainly didn’t support the cultural baggage of being “Fourth World,” a hybrid music “both ancient and digital, composed and improvised, Eastern and Western.” While the vaguely “ethnic” sounding elements throughout the night gave the music this “global” character, the music seems to strive for a conception of placelessness, perhaps even a utopian sonic landscape that we aren’t quite ready to achieve in this mundane world.
While there was definitely more substance here than most “new age” music—give me this over Yanni, George Winston, or John Tesh any day—I left the theater feeling that despite the heights of possibility and potential in the concept of his music, what was actually put forth could’ve been so much more.