Jon Hassell: Solid State May 9, 1974

Jon Hassell presented an electronic work called ‘Solid State’ at the Kitchen last Wednesday. The title is appropriate not only because of the solid-state electronics used to make the piece, but also because the work alludes to sculpture. The rather loud sounds change quite slowly, and one has the sense that a massive, almost tangible piece of sound sculpture is hanging in the air.

After the piece had been going on for a while, I felt the need to explore the work from different perspectives. As I moved to different places in the room, the music changed a great deal. Balances shifted. New elements became audible. New associations became clear, just as they do when one walks around a Henry Moore.

The 50-minute composition was presented on tape, though it can be performed live on two Moog synthesizers. The rather dense sound consists largely of sustained tones, which are carefully tuned, usually following the natural harmonic series rather than the system of equal temperament. There is little rhythmic activity at first, but by the end of the piece everything is pulsating, and rhythm becomes the chief concern.

Since the sounds were produced by machines, all of this pulsating had a mechanical regularity, which at first seemed to detract from the sensual quality of the music. But later I began to appreciate the regularity, because I realized that this same kind of logic is involved in the tuning of the pitches themselves. It is as if all the vibrations in the piece were in proportion with all the others. Yet the sounds are dense enough and rich enough that the piece never quite sounds like a mathematical formula.

‘Solid State’ is only one segment of Hassell’s ‘Landmusic Series.’ A little booklet describing the ‘Landmusic Series’ as a whole explains that ‘Solid State’ is ideally intended to be performed ‘outdoors with very powerful speakers hidden from view.’ Another part of the series, ‘Elemental Warnings,’ involved 20 miniature oscillators, which beeped their way into the atmosphere on helium-filled balloons one day in 1970.

Oldenburg style, the series also includes plans for monumental projects which have never been realized. One suggests live transmission of the sound of the Pacific Ocean so that it can be heard at a desert site near Las Vegas. Another suggests wiring trees so as to amplify the sounds of birds, squirrels, and wind. Another proposes burying loudspeakers in an open field and having them produce underground thunder.

Hassell’s background is strictly musical, but it is clear that his sculptural and environmental approaches to sound have more to do with recent developments in the art world than with the mainstream of music. Consequently many of his major outlets have been places like the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, the Albright-Knox Gallery, and the Brooklyn Museum.

The curious thing, of course, is that most art lovers will have little appreciation for his highly developed musical sensitivity, while most music lovers will have trouble understanding why a composer would want to work outside of the concert halls. There may be a problem about what category Hassell belongs in, but there can be little question as to the freshness of his approach or the musical competence of his work.


But Hassell soon reverted to his basic career as a jazz composer/trumpet player, and Ashley also went back to music, often in combination with video. Like many of the composers in this book, they made their most radical statements in New York in the early ’70s, which also says something about the openness of the SoHo atmosphere at this time.