Interview for Norwegian arts magazine to come out this season...with Rasmus,Ellen and Donna who came to my Stone residency..

Drumsticks and stones


Excerpts from an exchange about improvisation betwixt William Hooker,
Donna Hooker, Ellen Ringstad and Rasmus Hungnes.


By Rasmus Hungnes


Early in his career the New York based avant garde jazz drummer William
Hooker (b. 1946) decided not to fall into the regular bandsman trap: becoming
an eternal sideman playing other people's music.


was playing with these conga drummers,” tells William Hooker, “and I thought I
heard the sound of my Earth Mother – that’s the best way I can describe it. I
felt completely liberated and free – free to play inside, outside, over, under
the beat. I had enough knowledge of other people’s music, so that I could
really start doing my own thing. I didn’t even have to say it out loud – it was
inside of me. I just knew it.”


Going solo did not imply a lack of willingness to cooperate – on the
contrary, Hooker has played alongside a plethora of musicians, from the obscure
corners of the NY avant garde jazz scene to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth fame
– as well as the silent films of Oscar Micheaux (one of the pioneers of Afro-American
and Stan Brakhage. (“It’s not a soundtrack,
you’re improvising or interacting with the film,” as Mrs. Donna Hooker puts

Recently, the retrospective box set Light –
The Early Years 1975–1985
was released on the label NoBusiness, revealing a
back catalogue of avant garde jazz and improvisational music which still sounds
hip today, making for a perfect point of entry for the uninitiated, curious
about Hooker and his collaborator’s expressive, innovative and energetic music.

Our initial encounter took place in a highly collaborative setting, as
we – Ellen Ringstad and yours truly – found our way to a small music venue on
the lower east side of Manhattan: John Zorn's The Stone, a bare-bones space, no
bar in sight: The music is in focus in here – encouraging the hair on our back
to rise in standing ovation. Here, Zorn curates a series of residencies, giving
one musician the opportunity to dominate the stage for six consecutive days.
Hooker played a series of twelve concerts, two sets each night, each one with a
different constellation of musicians – established and emerging, acoustic and
electronic alike.

We had a chat with William and his career-long wife Donna Hooker in their
Hell's Kitchen apartment over coffee, tea, cookies and fruit a few days later.
“A conversation is a collaboration,” says Ringstad, and what follows is a
collection of brief excerpts from our five hour – let's call it


Coordination of a collaboration

Being a drummer requires careful coordination of the limbs, and for one
such as William Hooker, also of one’s musical collaborators:


do you word your vision and plan to the musicians? What kind of preparations go
into putting together a group of people? It’s about inspiring them, in a way,
right?” asks Ringstad.


only that,” says William Hooker. “First of all, it’s very practical. You have
to make sure a person knows when, where, who, all of that has to be out of the
way. You have to make sure somebody else’s book also has you in it. Basic
stuff. It’s a job. I can’t just use thelepathy for those things. Once I’ve got
it all lined up, I have to figure out who’s going to be able to work with whom.
Then, I have to figure out the musical pieces that I’m going to work with. The
residency at The Stone was a retrospective, so I figured I could use many of
the same pieces and have different people play them, and they would still
denote a certain signature. I know I’ve got 60 minutes, and I know that I’m
trying to highlight a certain person, a certain ensemble, make sure that it all
weaves in. I divide it into a series of events. Each event is going to
highlight a certain aspect of the music, and it’s going to segue all into each
other. What I’m going for is not a series of different pieces – I’m going for
an hour that encompasses six things that are all one. They all start at the
beginning, and end an hour later. There’s no in between clapping.”


say to myself, OK, if the first event is going to be voice and bass, and the
next is going to be horn and piano, what best can I do so that the voice and
the bass can be heard properly? During that course of time I’m going to play
mallets. So they know that I’ll be there for them, but not to overpower them.
That’s their foundation. They realize that if they jump into the deep water,
I’ll be there to catch them. They won’t just be there by themselves, I want to
integrate the entire composition into one flowing thing. Once they’ve written
this outline down, I’ll ask if the musicians have any questions about the plan,
then we go through the plan together.”


you’re having trouble reading the music, I say read it the way you see it. No
tempo restriction, play it fast, slow, doesn’t matter. As long as you play it
majestically. Play it to establish the fact that you’re here. Then I’m good.”


you go through this head [main theme of a piece of music], you can play it
every kind of way,” adds Donna, “and when you make it your own, you play it in
a much more interesting way.”

you have to realize that the head I give you, is different than the head I give
her. So don’t rely on her, because you have different music. But you could play
it together. That can be really effective. I’m often surprised.”


Color theory and generations

William Hooker’s residency at The Stone bore the title Radiance,
and was based on Goethe’s color theory. Hooker sometimes took a break from
hitting drum heads and cymbals, instead reciting some ad hoc poetry, chanting
lines from the drum throne, such as “what is the occult meaning of the color
purple?” What do concepts like this do for the performance as a whole, I


really simple, and I think that the simpler we look at it, the purer it is. I
usually try to make a narrative for a performance, because I think in many
cases it becomes something more than just who is playing. That’s the way I
approach it – I don’t just approach it from the name of a person. I like to have
some sort of way of looking at the evening, of looking at the performance. I
figure if I give it a title, we’re looking at the same candle, the same flame –
albeit from different angles.”


A pair of candles poised side by side becomes a recurrent metaphor in
our conversation, as I ask about the difference between playing with an older,
experienced improvisation musician and a younger one:


the realm of the spirit, and in the realm of music and sound, there really are
very few ways to distinguish between generations. I distinguish a certain
maturity – there was a fellow that performed who was an excellent performer,
but I could tell that the musical maturity was a little bit lacking. There was
some of this “I have to establish myself” kind of thing: “I have to let you
guys know that I know what I'm doing”. But that's welcome too. To me, the
process is pretty simple. It really gets into how I'm attracted to either the
sound, or I'm attracted to how I think those two candles can work together,
without one being so used up and the other being on such a level. I like to see
if there are, that they're both on the same level. If that works, then the
maturity or the immaturity doesn't matter to me – if I think that I can work
with whatever is there, and get what I need by honing and shaping what is


Reusing the metaphor of these two candles, I ask: “As the band leader,
are you trying to have the players shine equally bright during the course of
the performance as a whole?”


I am. So because of that I'm trying to use, as much as possible, both ensemble
music and solo playing. And also setting up a situation so that the person can
really fly. That situation has to be set up – obviously some people can just
walk in and just go head on, but if you're doing an ensemble situation, there
are different ways to approach it. Different kinds of instrumentation.”


Audience vs art vs audience

that even if you play with the same people each time will be different,” says
Ellen, “I can just assume that you're relating to what's happening around – at
one point there was a police car that came by, and I felt like the musicians
were relating to that sound...”


heard that too!” says William.


day,” say I, “suddenly a bunch of cars started honking outside. But to what
extent does the audience have a say as to what will happen musically?”


my case, the audience provides both a positive and a negative. They provide a
positive in the sense that they bring their own energy, their anticipation and
their joy in many cases, of just being in the same space as something that is
going to occur. That’s a very joyful feeling. Everybody’s there, and
everybody’s waiting for something to happen. They bring their vibe, they bring
all their energy. On the other side of the coin, in many cases, they bring
their ignorance. And that’s the basis for the judgement as to if you do a good
job or not.”


they accept your work.”


they like it, you get a good review, but it it’s something they don’t wanna see
[or hear], it sucks, even though it’s your work and the given person doesn’t
know anything about it. It’s ridiculous, kind of stupid, really. Sometimes the
audience comes in, bringing their joy, but not an open minded and open hearted
joy. It’s tinted. They bring old experiences, genre comparisons: “Oh, is that
supposed to be jazz? I don’t think so.” Or, in some cases, they make me
fearful. And I have to play through that fear. Because oftentimes I play with
people who want to be liked by the audience. They want the audience to give
them another job, even though they haven’t done the job they’re at at the


they cater to what they think the audience wants to hear,” I say.


social animals, we want people to accept or like us,” says Ellen.


So the bottom line,” concludes Donna, “is you
have to have a lot of courage” 

Upcoming Gigs
Tuesday, 18 June 2024 7:00 PM

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