MU­SIC— MATANA ROBERTS

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Christo­pher Stack­house

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 full­group 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’mnot 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 One next, 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 black­owned 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

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