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William Hooker: The Symbol of the Unconquered

Ivana Ng By

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William Hooker
The Symbol of the Unconquered
Media Sanctuary
2009



It must be challenging to play the drums solo, but it must be even more so to improvise an hour-long soundtrack to a silent movie. Percussionist William Hooker took on this daunting task with the 1920 silent film, The Symbol of the Unconquered. Presented by the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, this film screening and live performance was one of a 13-part series called "Free Jazz from the Sanctuary."

The Symbol of the Unconquered is one of two films that Oscar Micheaux, the first African- American filmmaker, wrote in response to DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. Micheaux' film tells the story of a black community that successfully repels the attacks of the "Knights of the Black Cross."

Hooker's intensely spiritual playing style is well-suited to this radical film. He plays with such aplomb that he rarely looks up at the screen to find his bearings, as if he had previously internalized the map of events and emotions in the film.

But as much as Hooker experiments with drum fills and African rhythms, a soundtrack narrated completely by a single drum kit still lacks the variation in volume, range and instrumentation that a film requires. The audio did not always match up with the visual—but it's unclear whether this is due to the limitations of the drum kit or because Hooker was not aware of the scene at hand. The menacing feel of a crescendoing drum fill, for example, doesn't really properly represent a scene of casual dialogue. This reviewer felt that some scenes required minimal sound, but instead, her ears were met with raucous, crash cymbal-infused drum rolls.

On the other hand, Hooker's cacophonous approach to the film does work well in scenes of tension, like the one in which the KKK plots the demise of a black landowner. When the film is taken as an examination of not only inter- but also intra-racial tensions, Hooker's insistent and dramatic improv is the perfect medium for investigating these issues.


Tracks:

Personnel: William Hooker: drums.

Production Notes: Recorded in 2009 at The Sanctuary for Indepent Media in Troy, NY.


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