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.
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’mmaking 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 seemy work as it sits in a certain sense of American- ness, and not just as something for Black History Month. To seemy 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