I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts combines music, storytelling, and political activism. On the occasion of the release of Chapter Three in her ongoing Coin Coin series, Christopher Stackhouse prompts her to talk about her background and vision.
I first encountered Matana Roberts with saxophone in hand when she was leading a trio circa 1998 at Chicago’s Empty Bottle as part of their long-running improvised music series. Matana’s was among the most memorable of these gigs; she was one of the youngest players, one of very few women, and she had decided to forsake the too-high stage of the Empty Bottle and to set up on the ground, eye-level with all of us fortunate witnesses.
The lyrical, inward-directed focus and quiet intensity of that trio set was only obliquely, distantly predictive of the forces Matana would assemble with her ongoing Coin Coin series, from Chapter One’s full-group explosions to the collaged voices, synths, and horns of the enveloping, resolutely DIY new Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee (Constellation).
When all hell was breaking loose in Ferguson this past August and I found myself on the other side of the globe, Matana was one of the few artists whom I relied upon for day-by-day, moment-by-moment accountings and recountings. I thought of BOMB as an ideal venue for her to amplify the conversation.
— David Grubbs
Merging a creative practice as a musician with social consciousness, Matana Roberts offers an almost anthropological examination of music, storytelling, and the long, diverse trajectories of African Diasporic people. Her music in the world emanates a peaceful rebellion against the power and apathy that seek to undermine if not destroy that Diaspora. Revolutionary tendencies expressed in Roberts’s art reveal the continuity of aesthetic resistance that has been an essential component of Black American cultural production for as long as there has been an America. Roberts’s work also derives its stance from the universal provenance of artists, the flexible exercise of expression within the medium of choice, in this case sound.
Though Roberts is often classified as a jazz musician, she prefers independence from categories. She has referred to herself as a “sound adventurer.” For months she has been living on a houseboat in the water off the shores of south Brooklyn, finding much inspiration from harbor sounds, water fowl, and the clamor of weather. This perhaps temporary style of living provides an analogue for her musical approach, for the constant coordination between chaos and collectivity that inspires improvisation as a philosophical attitude and spiritual practice.
— Christopher Stackhouse
Christopher Stackhouse Let’s talk about your new album first. Tell me about the record, or the three records, the Coin Coin series.
Matana Roberts I began working on the Coin Coin series in 2005. I’ve been trying to place and explore some information on my own ancestry, alongside time periods in American history that I’m fascinated with. One is the history of slavery; the other, the nature of political and financial growth through different historical periods in America. I come from a family that spends a lot of time talking about history and context. As an artist, musician, and composer, I am interested in experimenting with alternative modes of composition and different ways of ritual and spectacle. I wanted to challenge myself in exploring the tradition of improvisation in American music. The project basically represents all the things I felt I couldn’t do in the other musics I was exploring, or in the other collaborative work I was doing. I have a particular fascination with history as narrative and how narrative constantly gets cut up and changed and completely taken out of context, or put in context and taken out again. There’s this sort of cyclical, rhythmic thing that seems to happen through history.
My work has twelve segments—two solo and ten ensemble segments, each of which presents a different configuration of instruments and sound textures. The solo segments deal with my interest in one-woman technology, using saxophone as my base and experimenting with alternative modes of notation using graphics and video. And each record is a document of the score and the ideas, but none is the finished product of any of the work. There are so many musicians in and outside of New York City who I want to work with. I’m trying to create a language with many different artists. That’s always been a base of the whole series.
CS How does chronological narrative manifest itself when you’re not speaking, when only music and sound are available? Do you think pure sound can articulate and embody an ancestral, historic experience and bring it to the present? I don’t mean just in your performances but in music, generally speaking.
MR I’m not certain that pure sound can reflect that but I am certain that abstraction can. I find history so nonsensical in many ways. To me history is not linear; it’s on this constant, cyclical repeat. And that is one of the things that fascinates me about working with sound and the traditions that I’m trying to deal with. The project is set up as going in a linear direction, but it’s not. If it was, the solo record you just heard would have had to come first, Chapter Onenext, and then Chapter Two. The pureness of emotion that can come through sound is clearly what is guiding the listener and myself as a performer. Sound can mimic emotion in such a way that it can cross so many lines of difference and struggles; it can weave things together in what I call “a womb of experience.” I’m trying to create a live rendering of the work, or better, a live workshopping of the work. It is just never complete. Bringing everyone—the musicians, the artists participating, and the witness participants—together in this sort of one-time womb of experience and finding that sound—for me that relates back to pureness. The emotion that sits with the pureness of those sounds really draws people to the core of what I’m trying to do.
CS The city of Chicago is influential to your music, to your personality; it informs your ethos. You were raised in a racially segregated city, and, even more interestingly, a city that was founded as a commercial depot by a black, probably Haitian man, Jean Baptiste DuSable. Chicago has produced an enormous amount of music and art with a deep sense of Afrocentrism. The city is a nest for Afrocentric culture, a town with tons of political engagement around labor, and a center of revolutionary thought. It’s the place where Fred Hampton came into political maturity and was murdered. It’s the place where house music found its way and where the blues found a home. How has that city informed you spiritually and intellectually? How does Chicago stay with you?
MR My Chicago experience was very multifaceted and mixed. A lot of my family came to Chicago in the ‘30s and ’40s. Both of my parents were born there, but my father is a scholar and we moved to places like Ithaca, New York, and Durham, North Carolina, before returning to Chicago when I was a teen. I have a great amount of pride as a Chicago artist coming out of the particular political climate I was born into. My name is Matana because my parents were Hebrew Israelites for a short time in the beginning of that movement in Chicago. Matana is the Hebrew word for gift, and my siblings got Hebrew names too, except my brother, who got an Arabic name because my parents then cycled into the Nation of Islam for half a second. I love the stories from that period. Then, for another minute, my parents were organizing with Black Panthers in the area. They were very young. My mother was eighteen when she had me. I just got to watch them move through these important African American political narratives in Chicago. My grandparents and great-grandparents were also into supporting grassroots community work and voting rights. Being first-generation Southerners in the Midwest, there’s a certain swagger, a certain energy that African American folks in Chicago just have. I took a trip last year going through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee, and I finally understood the signifiers and codes that I experienced growing up but which never fit with the Midwestern terrain.
I was first exposed to experimental music from my parents’ record collection. I started playing music when I was eight years old thanks to free lessons I got in the public schools in the various places we lived. I was able to bring that back to Chicago and just really dig in at a performing arts high school. There, I got more serious about music and art and started studying the history, and noticing things around me. I decided I was going to be an orchestral clarinet player. At seventeen, eighteen, I had a hard time volunteering to study a history in which I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. I was having all sorts of identity crises about Beethoven, beautiful composers, beautiful music, even though my grandmother used to say that Beethoven was a secret Black man, or a dark Spaniard. But that still wasn’t good enough. The women I would hear about were Hildegard of Bingen or Clara Schumann. I felt like I couldn’t connect, so I started digging into more improvised art forms, thanks in part to running into young white musicians who seemed to be reveling in a certain era of historical blackness.
CS Were your parents involved in the arts?
MR My father grew up poor on the West Side of Chicago and my mother grew up working class on the South Side of Chicago. Most of the people my father went to school with ended up in prison or dead before they even got out of school. My father was told not to go to college, but to get a job at the Campbell’s soup factory, which was pretty big in Chicago at the time. But there was a teacher who corralled some of the young men in the school and got them interested in reading, and chess, and music. That, combined with the rising politics at the time, created the household I grew up in: we paid attention to the political landscape, and, from my mother’s family, were very clear about African American working-class pride. These were my environments while I was trying to develop musically. Eventually, I started going to clubs with improvised music sessions and met all sorts of people, like Nicole Mitchell or the great Fred Anderson, who had a club on the South Side called the Velvet Lounge. There I ran into Riot Grrrl, George Lewis, and members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It’s where I first met Joshua Abrams and Chad Taylor, people I ended up collaborating with. At the same time, I started dabbling in the Chicago blues scene, I would go to jazz and avant-garde sessions and I had friends at Thrill Jockey Records, one of the first independent rock labels. I met punk Canadians, and got involved with that. There are so many people from across genres who have helped me get an understanding of what music can be. They all had a very original approach to what they were doing and I have always felt that I have a responsibility to do the same.
CS You were able to build up a remarkably diverse musical background for yourself. What you share about being born to working-class parents who are invested in education and self-empowerment is a common story. I know many contemporary black artists, writers, musicians, and academics from “up South” and the Midwest who have similar foundations.
MR At one time in Chicago there were more African American folks than in the entire state of Mississippi. The city became this radar for culture and many things got their first try there before fanning out to other places. I feel very privileged to have grown up around that. It’s like that silly moment here in New York when it’s raining and you come out of the subway and there’s the guy on the corner selling the six-dollar umbrellas he bought in Chinatown for one dollar each. That’s an example of simple ingenuity. I saw a lot of that growing up in Chicago, lots of black folks being very conscious of the history that brought them there and figuring out ways to hustle in a respectful fashion, bringing more opportunities their way. This informed my practice very much.
CS That’s a very interesting point; it’s crucial to the moment now where African American people are experiencing the greatest disparity in wealth, access to educational attainment, and home ownership. We’ve yet to see full participatory activity and action in general society. Black folks are more on the margins now, it seems, more than they have been in nearly a century. The self-preservation impulse that you bring up, which is not wholly about material gain, but about the maintenance of a cultural attitude by and within the family, for survival—that historical sense of genuine kinship in the struggle seems to be missing today. With your music and by sharing and spreading your personal facilities, do you think you can contribute to bringing that sense of unity and agency back to the community?
MR Growing up in Chicago, I remember my grandparents and relatives going out of their way to drive two hours to purchase something from a black-owned business. As a kid I was like, “Why are we doing this?” Or being in my grandparent’s neighborhood where everyone had figured out a way to buy their plot and build their home. There was a communal feeling where any adult could discipline me if I was caught doing something bad. You don’t really see this anymore in urban communities. I always had a particular interest in education, I’ve worked with kids in pre-kindergarten all the way through college, and I always thought of creating a school for inner-city children somewhere deep in the boonies where I could teach them the ideas of community that I was around when growing up. That is missing in poor communities across racial lines. I’m not quite certain, yet, what my music can do other than create awareness. Our present society has forgotten some things—like the importance of compassion when dealing with difference. We’ve got so much information coming at us, there is a kind of numbness—which many artists now struggle with. I feel my music could possibly cut through the numbness.
CS Would you consider your music to be part of the black radical tradition, as Amiri Baraka described it in his definition of the Black Arts Movement?
MR Yes and no. Again, the work that I’m making is a testament to the American radical experience that crosses so many lines, but I also understand why people feel I should be placed in the Black Arts Movement. My work wouldn’t have been possible without someone like Mr. Baraka and many of the artists who participated in that first wave. I want to be linked to them until my last day, but I also hope for people to see my work as it sits in a certain sense of American-ness, and not just as something for Black History Month. To see my work put in this construct where it’s not considered any other month or day of the year—it is something I struggle with. I don’t like the way African American artists get pushed into a corner where the multifaceted character and the complexity of their work goes unnoticed. To me, it puts us back on the auction block. I can’t exist in a way where I only feel connected to that early part of American history. It’s gotten to a point now that is mentally grueling for me.
CS I find it impossible to think about America as a polity separate from the African American experience. I believe it’s culturally, politically, and socially what makes this country a cohesive place and, as far as I’m concerned, a radically modernist society. Our society is on the leading edge of something that is even beyond possible definition in the framework of so-called modernity—because of blackness or African Americanness. That is where the aesthetic portion comes in: Is there such a thing as pure sound, without cultural bias, completely objective, with no association outside itself?
MR Well, okay. I mean, sure in some ways. I spend most of my free time on small, one-woman rafts. I live on a boat right now on the local waterways. When I’m out there, I can experience sound in its pureness. Whereas with my work, the only pure sound relates back to the African American experience. To me, that pureness is a certain sound of historical pain. The rawness there goes beyond filters of culture and into filters of humanness. These are the contradictions for me. Looking through the lens of modernist aesthetics, to me, pushes aside the place of American history—I find that disrespectful. Modernity attempted to look past faith and religion and things of that nature. But the American experience, and the African American one in particular, is also built on this foundation of a religious history that is very troubling. The slave trade was completely based on religion—a white, male, patriarchical faith. I’m coming from an instinctual mode of operation based on my feeling of what it’s like to be black and female in America.
CS To ask what it means to have pure sound, I think is generative, but it is perhaps impossible to answer.
MR It’s an unfortunate thing, but the idea of pure puts on a colonialist filter for me. Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both of whom I admire, also dealt with this question in their works. The only way I can place it is by looking at my participation in nature, and pointing to why I like being in these natural environments more than I like being in the city, where I’m constantly reminded of these cultural filters that I have to have. When I’m out on the water, or just exploring the environment, I can still experience being drawn back to something ancient and, I hate to use this word, almost tribal. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. As soon as I get off the water and the boat and go back to the city as a New Yorker, I’m reminded of its constant codes.
CS It’s very positive to hear you question notions of purity this way, because they play into various kinds of social hierarchies that diminish the individuality of human beings. You named it right away. One of the reasons I asked you that was because of how problematic concepts of purity are. I thought about pure sound the other day as I was walking down the street and heard this bird screeching, Yaa yaa yaa! It was a blue jay and its voice cut right through all manner of urban noise generated by man—trucks, hydraulic hissing, and so on. I thought to myself, Is that pure sound? Is that the essence?
Your vocalizations, when you’re not using words, those are pure sounds coming out of the instrument of your body. That is the unique, kind of pure sound I’m thinking of.
MR It’s fascinating what you’re saying. My records are text heavy and I wish that they were not. I need text and narrative, so I can place my experimental sounds for people who may not be as versed in dealing with them. The texts are really important for drawing people in. But the non-textual sounds go back to this pureness that is so great about improvised music. There’s a certain kind of communication that happens through the horn that I can share in many different languages in one instant, and without the use of text and words. But then I’m really fascinated with spoken language. I bounce back and forth between the two.
The purity of sound for me goes back to the Chicago traditions and to the musicians and artists I so admired. My favorite Chicago saxophonists, I know within a millisecond, because there’s this individual purity that they are able to plug into which is different from this Westernized idea of purity that I’ve been taught. It’s about freedom from contamination, or adulteration of otherness.
CS Tell me about “panoramic sound quilting.” Was it developed as a philosophical approach or was it specifically tailored for your project?
MR Sometimes I regret that I created that term when I first started the project in 2005. I needed words to root myself, when I wanted a sense of centering. And one of the things that I really enjoyed about playing live improvised music were the different sound panoramas that I could create. Dealing with history, there was so much data to manage that I needed a way to remind myself that what I’m doing is turning data into sound. I consider myself more of a crafts person than an artist with this work. There are a lot of different American traditions that I’ve always admired—and quilting was one of them. On my Mississippi side, my great-grandfather was a sharecropper and traveling preacher, and he used to quilt together with my great-grandmother. I would love to learn how to quilt using fabric but, then, I wanted to figure out a way to do that using sound and images of graphic notation as my fabric. As rebellious as I am by nature, I like having a system. Each physical score in the Coin Coin series is following this particular system I’ve set up. Once the scores stood as their own objects, away from the music, I wanted to bring in different musicians who had played other chapters before. They would still be comfortable with the wildness of the notation, because they actually knew the underlying system. So I’ve been trying to weave all these things together under that terminology. Also, visually, the notion of panoramic quilting excites me.
CS It’s like a metaphor for action. Here is one of my more pedestrian questions: it’s rare to see and hear women in progressive jazz, or improvisatory, compositional music. Do you have peers, mentors, or idols who are women?
MR Yeah. They’re have been many. One of the reasons I moved to New York City was because I thought there were more women playing music here. Within experimental music I’d have to point out Amina Claudine Myers and Nicole Mitchell. Nicole has mentored me in different ways over the years. Ms. Myers is someone I’ve always admired, noting that she’s also from Chicago. Being around the rise of women in rock and punk rock also did a lot for me, as did African American females in hip-hop music. That’s a whole other aesthetic that I plugged into but not completely. I’m not a jazz musician, I understand why I get put there, but I can’t identify all the other parts of myself within that genre. I’m doing so many things with sculpting sound and I’ve always looked in other art forms for research, purpose, and for centering myself. New York City is full of some of the most amazing women of my generation who are playing jazz; you don’t hear about them because the music industry in set up that way. Luckily, the rise of the Internet has changed that a bit.
CS It’s poignant to say that you are not a jazz musician.
MR The reason I say that is not because of disrespect for the tradition, but because of my respect for tradition. I am a hybrid of so many different American sound traditions. People want to call this mixed record a jazz record. It’s fine with me if that makes them listen to more fringe music.
CS Over email, we corresponded a lot about Ferguson, and how police brutality is out of hand in our country, how the legal system habitually fails African Americans. Allowing McCulloch to put together the Grand Jury and set up this indictment of Darren Wilson was cynical. A self-proclaimed white supremacist Neo-Nazi ended up on the jury. But everyone wants to pretend these things aren’t happening. Is activism part of your creative life?
MR A couple of summers ago I was stopped and almost frisked on the Williamsburg Bridge by a white police officer. Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, even Sean Bell, all this collective annihilation of black male bodies just continuing—it plunged me back into how I grew up, watching my own father being stopped by the police, hearing my young male cousins, having these conversations with their mothers, all snowballing into a setup-ness. I see my work now intertwined with that, as the tool to weave through that setup-ness and to use the resources that have been given to me through music to bring more awareness to these very troubling issues. I have a responsibility to speak and possibly to be even more cutting than I have been. I cannot separate my creative purpose from what is happening—I’ve seen a lifetime of this demonization of black maleness.
We could have a whole conversation about the privileges of African American women versus African American men in this country and the chasm that has been created. It’s a chasm that people are unaware of unless they’re in the belly of the beast. You see these millennials leading the protests and it’s a front row line of young African American POC women. This is a different black feminist aesthetic from the one I grew up around, with the support of my mother, my grandmothers, and aunts. There’s something new developing with all of this; my work is a cane to get me through the blindness of the time period that we’re in right now. I don’t know what is going to happen but one thing I love about history in the making is that it has shown time and time again that there is resolution. It won’t be a permanent resolution, because this country still hasn’t fully acknowledged that it is built on denial. I sense that this is not going to change soon; therefore it’s important for American artists to make work that reminds us of our responsibility for progression. The choices that I make as an artist have a lot to do with that. It’s the only way I know how to be right now.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee