It was in 1980 that the term ‘Fourth World’ entered the musical lexicon. A collaboration between Jon Hassell and Brian Eno resulted in the production of Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, an album which pioneered the subsequent syncretic approach to ‘World Music’. This year has already seen renewed interest in the genre, following the release of compilation album Miracle Steps (Music from the Fourth World 1983-2017) which takes its name from one of Hassell’s earlier tracks.
Taking its name from a paper written by the visionary anthropologist Kilton Stewart, Hassel’s Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two draws inspiration from the Senoi people of Malaya (present-day Malaysia). The so-called ‘dream tribe’, the Senoi, as Stewart notes, believed that ‘any human being, with the aid of his fellows, can outface, master, and actually utilize all beings and forces in the dream universe’. The title then perhaps speaks for Hassel’s ambition with his second foray into the ‘fourth world’ – a world of ‘unknown and imaginary regions’ which is still being charted.
‘Chor Moiré’ places the listener squarely in the swelter and stir of tropical Malaysia; Hassel’s trumpet is almost unrecognisable, its sound is chopped and changed to the point of near-irritation, calling to mind the intensity of a newly-descended swarm of insects. It is in ‘Courage’ where the human inhabitants of the ‘fourth world’ are introduced as the ‘quasi-Polynesian drumming’ of Eno brings rhythm to the dense jungle atmosphere. ‘Dream Theory’ again showcases Hassell’s deftness in making a trumpet sound as far removed from its typical timbre as possible, this time by creating layer upon layer of dizzying bird songs.
As well as his re-purposed trumpet, Hassell calls upon samples recorded from the Semelai tribe during a BBC tour of the commonwealth - a tribe which, as he perhaps consciously noted “on my map, doesn't look too far away from the Senoi”. If ever one needed a reminder of the potential for orientalism to creep into a genre that promised to bridge the gap between futuristic and primitive and avoid the ‘vaguely ethnic music’ of its predecessors, then here it is. Of course, Hassell probably knew this was to some extent inevitable – the tropical heat of Malaya was after all envisioned entirely through the quivering mirages of a New York City summer. ‘Malaya’ brings together giggling children, a tribal tradition of “watersplash” rhythms and recorded birdsongs to create an atmosphere that is at times no more authentic than that of Exotica but still makes for a uniquely invigorating experience.
Looking beyond the album’s obvious pseudo-ethnographic hitches however, Dream Theory in Malaya remains a canonical piece which continues to inspire 36 years on. Artists such as Glasgow based Iona Fortune who earlier this summer released her first album Tao of I, a work which loosely fits the ‘Fourth World’ description, suggest we should be optimistic for the future of the genre. The ‘Fourth World’ will, I believe, continue to grow and be populated because of this seminal work.