Interview with William by Ty Cumbie

Inteview with William Hooker by Ty Cumbie

Each day, William Hooker rises early and takes the train from his home in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan to Brooklyn, where he has taught social studies at the Walt Whitman Middle School for the past 2 years. After work he catches up with the news or heads into the studio to work on whatever musical ideas are on the front burner. On weekends he occasionally works out at a nearby Bally’s Fitness Center.

Not exactly what you’d expect in a daily routine of one of downtown New York city’s culture heroes, but Hooker is rarely predictable. Hooker arrived for our interview in nicely creased slacks with cuffs and polished shoes. Only the army fatigue jacket hanging limply over his compact, powerful frame betrayed any connection to youth culture. Yet Hooker has earned a large share of his reputation playing intense music with downtown rock guitarists for a growing audience of afficionados on average about half his age.

Since the 1970s, when he moved East after a mind expanding sojourn in California, Hooker has chiselled away at making his music and name in a field with precious little room for superstars. He put in his time on the 70s loft scene, and gradually earned the respect of its brightest lights, including Ornette Coleman. But, like David Ware, Daniel Carter and Matthew Shipp, he has achieved renown outside the claustrophobic confines of the lower Manhattan improvised music scene by teaming up with some of the more adventurous and experienced principals from the independant rock/pop world – Sonic Youth’s Lee enaldo and Thurston Moore, Alan Licht, and DJ Olive, to name a few. This music, thanks to the younger guitar players and effects gurus, tends toward the outer fringes of the noise/rock/electronica genre, with a generous dose of free jazz upplied by Hooker.

Hooker and his younger counterparts get along famously. It doesn’t hurt matters that the better known rock players generate far larger, and far younger audiences than typically turn up for free jazz performances, but there’s no mistaking who’s in charge. Hooker drives the music like a demonic charioteer, delivering potent, ferocious percussive tirades that, if nything, challenge the musicians to keep up. In building his music, he plays the roles of architect, engineer, and construction crew member. Hooker makes a habit of never playing anyone else’s music – a principal that has probably been costly in terms of commercial success, but which has firmly established him as one of creative music’s true originals, along with Cecil Taylor and a handful of others who have remained steadfast in the face of a dismissive public and hostile ritics.

Perhaps one reason Hooker’s music isn’t yet more widely appreciated is its highly personal nature, which Hooker, ncidentally, claims not to consciously seek. He gets an idea – usually a simple theme like the color orange (Black Mask) or a portrait of a person or feeling or property – and begins to sing the parts into a recorder. These “parts” are then transcribed and “interpreted” by the players. Hooker adds a generous dose of his poetry – both in performance and in the album liner – and is prone to vocal episodes that range from primal yelps to hymn-like song. The sum of all this is a kind of music that few can grasp, let alone enjoy, but which is like no other. While it shares much with other examples of experimental instrumental and electronic music, Hooker’s dominating presence has few precedents. In terms of his role and methods, he can be compared closely with Cecil Taylor, though their sounds are quite different.

Having performed and recorded with a rambling list of players, Hooker has of late settled down to a trio with violinist Jason Hwang and DJ Olive. This trio has a trio of records, out or coming out soon, related to a project they call “Texts of Light,” based on the work of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. I sat down with Hooker at a Hell’s Kitchen coffee shop.

A writer in Downbeat suggested you need a good A&R person to take you in hand and make your career. What’s your response to that?
A&R people listen to an album for two minutes then throw it away. Do I need someone to tell me what to play? No! I don’t think they have a clue. They’re just trying to keep their jobs. They get into these positions because people like them and think they know what they’re talking about. I don’t believe they know anything. It’s better for people to sit down and discover where they’re going, what their vision is. Every label has a vision, even Blue Note. If they could find a way to combine my vision and theirs...

In another article you speak of “shedding things.” What exactly does this mean?
It means devotion to where my music is going and how I can market it to get it played. If you start thinking about success, then the work has that as its goal. You forget about the music, you forget about the players because you’re thinkng about trying to please somnebdy and not evolving out of it, meditiating out of it. Many times I see players getting ready to play and talking about the next gig and who’s in audience, right up to the time they have the sticks in their hand and are about to hit the dums!”

To me, your music seems very personal, as opposed to universal.
I don’t strive for either. That’s one of the things I’ve always tried to do: to combine the universal and the specific. That’s one of the reasons I use these titles. Because I think conceptually. I try to find out what particular projects speak to me on a higher level and how the musicians can be motivated also to strive for that particular concept. And in many cases you can’t do it. When you’re using certain kinds of statements, some people aren’t coming from those places, but that’s OK. As long as they know where I’m at. I’m not really thinking about myself, because I’m written into the music. That’s why, if you see the music, there’s no time signature. That leaves me free to do anything I want to do with the time. That means I’m not tied to any improviser’s licks, previous experiences, etc. I composed the piece, so I know what it is, and I’m free. And if I feel free, then Ican think about what the piece means. The other musicians have to know what it is, and that’s the task.

So you think about the concept of the piece as you play it?
That’s the idea. And the idea can be gotten across in many different ways, not just music. It can be visual, or with dance, etc. Bhutto was a good example. of me trying to do that with a lot of different kinds of things. Because, as you know, there silence, their grayness or ashiness, that’s a certain way to approach it.

What’s your method of composing?
I work at prince studuio once or twice a week, then I take muicians in to transcribe the music on tape, then write it down. All the stuff is written down. Most of my records are based on written music. It comes from voice. Many times I go somewhere to use a piano and either write it down or sing it, then the horn players do their own parts. The pianist fits chords. It takes a little while.

So, the concept is the basis? Or is it clearly written out?
It has to be interpeted. After its interpreted it has to be really worked on to see who can do what. Voice is different from tenor sax. I may sing something that’s out of the tenor’s range. You’ve got to deal with the instrument. DJ Olive is a free agent. You can’t really tell him what to do. You can tell the horn player what to do and have Olive listen and interpret according to which records he has with him.

Is there a strong element of vocalisation?
Yes, totally.

It takes a while of sitting down and actually being quiet and trying to figure out a melody. Just basically being quiet and seeing what works for me, what I like.

Isn’t it hard to find quiet?
No. You wake up early, do your thing, come back home from a gig, maybe you heard something, you put it on tape hold onto it. Maybe this is your first draft then you go into the studio and get it done. I’m not always asking for total absolute, ‘let me go into some church.’ I sometimes go to the high desert to get away. My last four albums weredone that way, in Arizona. I was artist-in-residence in Arizona for two-and-a-half weeks. I’d wake up at 6am with the piano and start working.

Tell me about the latest project.
I have three records coming out, all based on “Text of Light.” Five improvisers doing Stan Brakhage, the great experimental fillmmaker who just died last year. “Text of Light” is a group name taken from one of the movies, “Dog Star Man.” It all comes out of the fact that Brakhage wanted silence, no sound. But we wrote him and got permission to do it. His widow condones it as well.

Brakhage did things like paint on film, scratch film. Parts of “Dog Star Man” used an ashtray as a lens. A lot of techniques. All three upcoming CDs are from this. We just play with the films going on. That’s the connection, it’s that simple. One is coming out on Table of Elements out of Atlanta, GA. A good label. The players are Lee Reinaldo, Alan Licht, Christian Marclay or DJ Olive, Ober (sp?) Krieger and myself. One is coming out of Germany with 100 special copies, another will be out on CD plus vinyl (which is coming back). One is on Revolver Records. They all should be out soon. One’s out now, I think. TOL is a good premise for me to work with. It gives me a long time to develop the improvisation. Plus the audience has something to look at which is very timely because right now that’s happeninfg.

So, the films play and you watch films and respond musically?
“Yeah! We watched them many times. My experience was, the bigger the screen the more I got into it. At Victoraville last year (Vicotriaville is a festival in Canada where basically the whole city is turned into a festival) and performed this in a hockey rink. The screen was the entire back of the rink. We set up in front of screen. The recording is the live performance edited. It was the first time I was able to feel the film, because it was that big. It was huge. That was first time I understood what this guy was doing.

Do you have a favorite recording?
I like the one with me and Olive and Glen Spearman, Mindfulness. You know Spearman, right? He was probably one of the best tenor players out of the west coast. He died a few years ago. We were using a lot of different players on the West Coast and he was there and it just turned out, you know? One of those. He knew what he was doing. I thought it was gonna be about ego but, no, this guy knew what was going on. He was capable – more than capable. And also the way Olive has with turntables. I don’t think anybody has what he has in terms of palette. After we played together for about a week we knew what was going on.

Do you listen to much other music?
No! I don’t have time! Before when I used to listen to all these people night and day... This is hard music, you can’t just put it on like background music.

Modern music seems to have become disconnected from any societal fuinction. Your music is demanding. What’s its function?
It’s deep listening. That’s why it’s hard to get a mass audience. People have an attention span of, what, 4 seconds? My pieces are 41 minutes long! What are you gonna do? You gotta tell someone “You better sit down!” A person has to do a certain amount of work.

Who buys your records?
Now it’s college people. It’s interesting, it’s changing. For a while it was avant garde heads, then jazz heads, then it was college kids because of the whole Sonic Youth connection. Then it was the overseas connection, the Japanese, English, German.

So, is it all coming together?
I’ll tell you how it is: I’ll take one thing and throw it on that table, then another and throw it on another table, and another. Whoever they are, it’ll be on the table! I don’t even think like that anymore. I can’t. You can be surprised by the strangest things. Like this group (the trio), we played at tonic on a Wednesday night. There were lines around the corner. Tonic! On a Wednesday! Who would think that? They were all kinds of people. It wasn’t advertised. Who knows?

Do you ever get tired of your compositions?
I have a whole book. Sometimes I do a sort of mismatched, cut-and-paste sort of thing.

Where did you learn to notate?
I studied 20th Century composers. I was drawing analogies between those people and, say Andrew Hill, which nobody else wanted to do. I felt all these things were related.

We’re done.

©2004 --Ty Cumbie

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