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.

BOMB Magazine - - MUSIC— MATANA ROBERTS -

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

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