Matana Roberts is an experimental composer, alto saxophonist and poet.
‘Memphis’, the fourth volume of her critically acclaimed project “Coin Coin” is out October 18th on Constellation records.
She held a residency at the Whitney Museum and has collaborated with Deerhoof, TV On The Radio & Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
The Demented Goddess (DG): Your new album, Chapter Four of the COIN COIN project, traverses time vividly. The project overall is named after Creole entrepreneur Marie-Therese “Coincoin ” Metoyer. She gained freedom from slavery for herself and her children, accumulating a wealthy estate. As a four-volume project so far, this is yet another uniquely skillful navigation of ancestral trauma and personal memory, a process which involves your journeying to the location of historical. In this volume: Memphis. How do you spend your time in the South connecting to a history so brutal that your relatives have said “We’re never going back there again in this life”?
It’s complicated, for sure. Trauma is a part of the human experience. Marie-Therese “Coin Coin” Metoyer is not related to me by blood as far as I know but by marriage through my grandfather. However, the woman who inspired the story I tell on the new record (‘Memphis’) is 100% my blood kin, who lived in the south a for good portion of her life and who I believed would have remained there if her children had not gotten the great migration itch. I see trauma as an extension of human perseverance and triumph. We know of the traumas committed in the South because people managed to survive them, escape them, transcend them, condone and document them for national memory, in hopes that we will protect the future.
I find a lot of joy, and point of creative inspiration in that transcendence and hope. The places that I have been in the south for the most part have been experiences where I have been treated with kindness. Particularly in Memphis. It is an American city, with struggling infrastructure, but where people are aware of its history and are trying to actively erase some of the scourges from the past, while still having to deal with scourges of the present, on an inspiring grass roots level, especially in the arts. The music alone is stuff of legend, and still thrives in that city. It also has a history of a certain civil rights ethos that is still bubbling there from what I have seen. The record is named Memphis, as a shout-out to Tennessee as a whole, but also just as a light reminder to the universe. I feel we are in need of being reminded of that historical community ethos right now. Some of us, it seems have forgotten what we have already been through as a nation. It’s depressing.
DG: In ‘Trail of The Smiling Sphinx’, experimental fiddle music sounds as though piped in from another time. In this chapter, you follow the steps of a young girl, Liddie, running in the Tennessee woods, while tapping into your own childhood experience and inner world. Her run, which begins in ‘As Far As The Sea’, as a tale of bonding and closeness, unfurls as a heart-racing horror haunted by white hoods. I would love to know more about your approach to the spiritual explorations which inform this work?
You know this one has been a bit tough. I never wanted to showcase a story where I would have to even breathe any direct mention of the Klan, even though in American history their presence looms large, sadly. But this story was in the original framework for the series that I mapped out so long ago and I had to get to it finally. What I tried to do was stay true to how the story was told to me. What gave me comfort were the wonderful memories that it gave me of story telling with my grandmother and also my mother who was often present for this sharing time. Both of these women have walked on. My grandmother in 2005 and my mother right before the recording of chapter 1. Both of these amazing women encouraged my creative mind, and so sharing the story as sort of an exercise in childhood reenactment helped me spit it out, you know? And using artistic license to expand the story— mainly how I talk about the woods. And some of the people I name specifically as being in the Klan are fictional names. I pulled that from many other stories I’ve read on how they operated during that time period and combined it within the story my grandmother shared. But the feeling of knowing what it was like to be a child whose parents loved them at the age she would have been (about 8), I do have an understanding of that. I had a somewhat magical childhood steeped firmly in American black radical traditions. That period around my 8th year, is a period I felt incredibly loved and safe as a kid. So the way I have Liddie speak about her own father’s words: ‘He said “run, baby, run like the wind, that’s it the wind…”’. These are also words I heard from my own father and even the way I speak it reminds me of my father’s tone.
My father and I, for record, had quite a fraught relationship much later in life. He was not particularly supportive of some of my art life choices. He was very complicated. We are both quite stubborn/determined folks, looking back now in retrospect, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. He passed away while I was working on this chapter. So, I also used this chapter to work through some of that grief, using the story to plant some reminders of memorable times. I have done that throughout the series. Chapter 1 allowed me to process my grandmother’s death, as my original archive for the project came from things she left behind. Chapter 2 helped me process my mother’s death a bit more, as the record release for that one happened the actual week she died.The last hymn on that chapter is a hymn she requested of me on her deathbed, to be sung at her home going. I tacked it on that chapter at the last minute, it was not in the original score. Chapter 3, I finally felt a bit more rooted, all the expression there is about a collective growth. This chapter is freeing in that I feel it’s a really important story to remember as we move through present times.
I feel quite hopeful about my possibility and those around me. As a country America has a lot more work to do. We need constant reminders, right now, of what we overcame, before. This is a long way to say the spiritual exploration comes from a lot of loving memories from people who loved me unconditionally. And because of that I am able access my imagination in a way that makes telling certain stories a bit less traumatic than it would be otherwise.
DG: In its finished forms, your compositions have been crafted aurally, poetically, and visually using collage with documents and ephemera. What might be the entry point for producing a volume of Coin Coin? Do you make the first mark in writing, in research, visually, in choosing a sound to improvise to, or is it the core intentions of a piece that drives it?
It’s all a collage really, my process. The entry point usually begins with the alto saxophone and my strengths in improvised music. The next entry point becomes further expanded by my historical and travel research where I lay foundation from archival material: that is a mix of field recordings, photographs, film, historical documents , journaling, which I place in many different ways until I get something I like to look at. From there , I circle back into music composition through improvisation, using my own visual cues from my draft collage possibilities as inspiration for melodies and rhythms that are a bit more Western in language. I reconsider various techniques of improvisation, and then I spend a lot of time editing, rearranging everything to come up with something I would enjoy playing if it were put in front of me by another composer. However, these entry points sometimes don’t show up in the same order. Sometimes the Western notated segments come barreling through my consciousness first.
DG: You’ve called the method ‘panoramic sound quilting’. Do other musicians in your ensemble also work with your graphic scores? How intuitive a process is it seeking collaborators? How intuitive a process is it seeking collaborators?
It’s a mix. Pages from the graphic scores sit as art pieces for visual consideration, so they are seen a bit more often. I choose the musicians for these works based on a familiarity I have with their humanity first.
Musicianship is important, but for me I am trying to get a certain sense of expression from them that comes from somewhere other than the creative head. It comes from the creative heart. I also sometimes utilise players who have familiarity with some of my earlier works and so it makes it easier to communicate with them. But I also pull into these works people who have been present in different parts of my life up until this point. One day I hope to have all the chapters played back to back in a special performance series and then do a huge ensemble of all the mini ensembles that made up each recording on a final work to say goodbye to the process, and hello to whatever is next.
I also wanted to create a language that I could experiment with a lot of different types of musicians. This particular recording represents a very different group of folks who are coming from different areas of sound sensibility. There is also a lot going in the studio that is not seen. I utilise snippets of Butch Morris’s conduction system sometimes in the work, and in general there’s a lot of stop and starting to get at what I’m after sonically.
DG: We might be tempted to think of an interdisciplinary audio-visual approach as associated with modernity and technology, but sequential art is one of the most essential and ancient forms of folk storytelling, along with voice and sound. What does your method allow and offer that standard notation and digital techniques alone cannot?
It offers a personal imprint of presence in the moment, that reflects the possibility and hope of bodies in a room. It reframes what the possibility of embodiment could be. It is primal, this gathering of bodies in a space for the purpose of listening, viewing, participating. It propels forward by creating instantaneous community, witness, and immersive experience. Standard notation is great, I still love it. I am not a trained composer but I am conservatory trained as a performer and I enjoy reading music. But western notation demands a certain kind conformity that is just not flexible in my inner sonic world, and spirit. Digital techniques also have a lot of possibility (of which I explore some on chapter III). In the end, as a music comrade once told me: “It’s not about the tools, it’s about the vision.” My vision is too wide for just one form of notation or standard technique.
DG: The voice of your alto sax speaks soulful language, and every vibration in arrangement is equally expressive. What particular power does taking on multiple ‘voices’ have and why is it important to bring these spirits and their stories forth?
The alto is at the root my creative being. It is as rooted to me as is my voice. It gives me courage. The saxophone tethers me to a sense of risk and possibility that feels really freeing.
I take on multiple roles in this work not because I want to, but because that is what the work asked. So I’m just trying to honour that.
Matana Roberts was in conversation with Caoimhe Lavelle. Matana’s new album, ‘Memphis’ comes out 18th October.
Follow Caoimhe on Twitter @kwoovo.
Main photo of Matana by Evan Hunter McKnight.