Matana Roberts: Interview
“There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey.”
October 1 marked the release of Matana Robert’s second chapter in her magnificent COIN COIN series. Through guiding an experimental, jazz-infused sextet across a creative spree of improvisation, graphic scores, and historical depiction, the Chicago-born artist once again demonstrated her gift as a composer while crafting a most remarkable addition to her discovery.
The dimensions of the project are so multifaceted it’s almost impossible to fathom the depth and scope of each album as a singular work in the context of 12 full chapters. In an attempt to unpack the principal ideas behind this fascinating production, Tiny Mix Tapes spoke to Matana about the historical narratives that run throughout her work, the use of religious text as a tool for improvisation, and the joys of busking in New York City.
From what I hear you have been exceptionally busy with the album release. COIN COIN Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile came out at the beginning of this month, right?
Yes! So I have been prepping things, and it has taken so long for me to get this music out that there are other things within that project that I need to be working on — I need to get so much else in order. And just to be a New Yorker is to be busy all of the time, so it’s been crazy.
That was one of the first things I wanted to ask you actually. I would like to know how you, as an artist, find the city as an inspirational place and how you draw on that creatively.
That’s a great question. There is just so much going on here in any single moment that it just reminds you of creativity. Even if it’s something really horrible that has happened or is going on. The way I see New Yorkers come together during times of tragedy and intensity has also been inspiration. So there is that, and also just art, just constant art, like if you chose not to go to a museum or gallery or show, just walking on the streets of New York there is art everywhere if you look for it. I’m really inspired by outsider art, like graffiti, public artwork, things of that nature. They inspire me a great deal.
But New York is also a city where you see different forms of hustling. A great example for me is, when it rains here, when you come out of the subway on a rainy day, there is always a guy who went to China Town and bought some umbrellas for like a dollar a piece and how is standing outside and selling them. Or the people who you see right now during Halloween, who will buy all the old Halloween stuff from last year’s Halloween so that this year they can make a buck. You are always seeing that in New York. I mean, I’m not so much into the selling point of those ideas, but I do like the way these people think: “How can I do this, how can I do that?” etc. And New Yorkers don’t tend to ask permission before they do a lot of things that they do, I mean, there are so many illegal things going on here; while I was out on my bicycle earlier, I’m sure I saw an NYPD car break a traffic law — and for me, for the type of work that I do, that kind of stuff is really important because I love American history. What I love about American history the most are those people who call themselves “patriots,” and those people are often lawbreakers! So from a historical point of view that’s also important to see constantly — it’s really inspirational. But the city also drives me completely mad, too.
That’s interesting, how the inventive, entrepreneurial scene acts as an inspiration as well… What drives you mad about the city?
Like, the sound for one. I’ve been doing this for a month already — I keep meaning to write about this but I haven’t had a chance: I decided that I would not walk around with my headphones on while in the city, because headphones are coping mechanisms for a lot of New Yorkers, or people in any urban space. You put them on when you are in the subway so that you don’t have to engage with people, and I decided that I don’t want to do that anymore because I noticed it was affecting that way I engage with people elsewhere, so I have been doing this thing and the sound is just constant — people want to talk to you all the time, someone always has something to say to you. That, combined with all the noise that is constant — it is such a sound-oriented city.
That’s fascinating though, isn’t it? When you suddenly take the headphones off for a while and actually listen to what’s going on, especially if you are moving around different cities, and you can experience the different sounds, like public announcements and how people approach you about things…
Yeah, it’s absolutely fascinating. I was in Lebanon six or seven years ago during Ramadan in Beirut, and I remember how different the sounds were. I remember standing in the city center and I could hear all of these calls to prayer, you know, combined with all of the city sounds. In New York you don’t get to hear quite that but you get to hear it from time to time… like in London… London has that too but your city drives me mad in a different way. I don’t know how you live there. It’s more fast-paced than New York on the streets.
You think so?
One time I was somewhere downtown and I remember I was walking in one direction and there were all of these people — it just didn’t seem like there was any room on the sidewalk, and I remember looking at them and thinking ‘how am I going to get to the other end?’ and I remember thinking, “Somehow this is going to happen — this is the land of Harry Potter, I’ll get to the other side.” And I did. But the pace is just so fast.
Improv is what moves the world and what moves creativity.
That’s why a lot of people use headphones to isolate themselves — it’s like an instinctual mechanism. You see it everywhere. Although I think I noticed it a bit more in New York, while I was in your city, but that’s probably because I wasn’t using them myself… I only tend to use them in familiar settings.
It’s a wonderful coping thing, as a sound head — as you are too — having this constant soundtrack that for a while makes you think that you are enjoying the city in a different way, but it is also cutting you off from so many things. I’ve had these moments where I can look ahead and I can see someone who is going to cause me a problem, I just have that sixth sense, I know they are just gonna stop me and say, “Hello!,” you know? So I said that I wasn’t gonna where headphones, not only for the month of September but also I would speak to every person who spoke to me no matter what they said. And that has been really crazy — you will hear all sorts of sexist things as a lady bike rider. You hear this stuff anyway, but its like this constant…
… And the level of poverty on the streets of New York is also intense, so it gives you a moment to come more in contact with people who you probably really should talk to. This is something that I miss from when I used to busk regularly, I used to talk to folks that were living in the subways and on the streets a lot more back then, and I kind of miss that. But sometimes that makes for a level of engagement that can make you feel uncomfortable, because someone is asking for something and you don’t have anything to give them, and if you don’t give something then some people get really mean — but what I noticed for the last 30 days I have not been using headphones is that I’m more comfortable in the city than I have been in a while.
How long has it been since you last busked then?
Well, I still busk, just not as regularly. I used to do six days a week, almost 365 days a year.
That’s pretty hardcore.
Yeah, when I first moved to New York that’s how I was paying my rent, I had like dream rent — I had a $300 room in an apartment so it wasn’t hard to make that kind of money, but I would play four to six hours a day and treat it like a job. I would take the weekends off because they were tougher to get good spots and I would take the holidays off because it gets rough between December 1 and December 26 down there, let me tell you.
Did the hours you were putting in change your attitude to your music?
Well, yeah, I had a very particular plan with it. I could have easily sat down and improvised if I wanted to but I’m really easily distracted and needed to do something that would help me to focus, so I would play more classical things, because I used to play a lot of that music and I don’t really anymore. I found it stopped people asking me for requests. But I like what that music did to the listeners, because certain people would see a saxophone player and they would expect specific kinds of sound. When they heard something else and they would say, “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s different.”
In addition to that, I guess you have all of the environmental sounds happening around you while you play.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that fed into it. It did a lot for my sound. There is nothing like playing outside and playing in man-made spaces like subway tunnels. Do you play saxophone by the way?
I’m afraid not — sorry to disappoint…
That’s okay. We need you, though. Well, busking helps to get your sound bigger and stronger. The subway is so ugly and I just really love bringing the beauty of sound to those spaces, and now when I play, I go to the really far-out stations, where I don’t see people I know. It used to be that I would busk certain places and run into too many friends, and it’s just too much — like I can’t get enough practice in. So I’ll go to the Bronx, or I’ll go to deeper parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and there is really nothing like it. If I remain in New York I don’t think that I will ever stop, but I don’t busk every week anymore — that was hard work.
What about other cities you have worked in, then? You mentioned Montreal before and you have also worked in Chicago of course, and London as well — so how important do you think location is generally as a creative inspiration, as well as a historical one?
Well, I love the history of gypsies and how art, music, and tradition will spread in those communities. I also love visiting new places and infusing my ideas there, and so I love the idea of shifting locales but I never really thought that it was important to my aesthetic. However, now I think that it’s really important because there is something that gives you this extra energy. The way that musicians improvise in London for instance is different from the way that people improvise in Montreal, versus the way that people improvise in Chicago and New York — it’s all so different. That allows me to consider new things and to be a bit more flexible, which is hard as a New Yorker. The one thing about deciding to remain in New York is that you have to constantly think about your flexibility. Sometimes things get so hard for me hear that the idea of flexibility goes out of the window.
Do you enjoy touring and playing in new cities?
Yeah, I enjoy it a lot. Not only travel but being able to have friendships with musicians and artists who are not purely local to my area. There is something very special about that to me — it kind of reminds me of the traditions of the nomadic musician or the nomadic artist. There is a whole tradition behind that and I would love to be a part of it. It’s really interesting how people pass things on and the different modes of language that are used, as well as the different kind of nuances, which are not always readily apparent. You really have to pay attention — I’m an easily distracted person, but I like how being in these different spaces reminds me to pay attention to smaller details that you would sometimes forget about if you stay in one place all of the time.
I wanted to ask about musical inspirations from an early age. From what I’ve read, you grew up with experimental music, listening to Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, I was just wondering if you ever wanted to reject that sort of sound because it was around you so much while you were growing up?
Oh yes, I did!
But it ended up being something that you embraced because obviously it became influential later on…
For sure, I had a strong dislike for a lot of that music for a long time because I was around it so much. I always thought Sun Ra was a huge part of my childhood, yeah, God, a huge part of my childhood, and just the mention of his name, I just; there was a certain time in my adolescence where I could not stand to hear it, and the same thing with Albert Ayler. My parents were also huge David Murray fans and then then there was music of the Art Ensemble going on in the house and then weird folk singers, and avant-classical experimentalists like Harry Partch, my mum really liked Steve Reich too. So I just shut down and decided there was something else I was supposed to explore because I heard that music all the time. It’s certainly interesting how that came full circle because I was exposed to the ideas of freedom that came with that music.
Does that mean you didn’t enjoy it while you were growing up, purely because you were around it so much?
It’s probably that whole thing of you never want to be into what your parents are into. So I really got into classical music for quite some time. But then I wanted to form my own identify, and I couldn’t find any women or very many African American diasporic people working within those traditions. I really needed some sort of, not validation, but maybe comfort around identity — and those forms of identity were already within these different types of music that my parents liked. My parents talked so much about music, and art and all of these things, and then my grandmother would take us to the opera a lot of the time — we would see a lot of theater, and a lot of film, a lot of foreign film and silent film. My parents were just trying to expose me to as much “avant-garde” because that is what they were into.
I also wanted to go a bit more into the experimental side of things to see if my parents actually knew what they were talking about when we had these discussions, you know? We would get to a certain point, I mean, my parents are very proud, intellectual folk, and they spoke about these things in certain ways, and it kind of got to a point for me where it was like: “Does he really know that?” “Do they understand this?” “Really!?” “Come on!” But my father was one of those really annoying music fans who would go up to musicians after a show and he would tell them that they didn’t play free enough. So those are the types of people that I was around. My mother was a bit more open than that though, which is how I got into the music of the AACM. I don’t know if that answers your question though…
The type of music that means the most to me was orally passed along, it’s about the primacy of the ear, not the primacy of the eye, so I also like being able to include that, and I find that sound quilting allows for these possibilities.
It does! I think it sounds amazing actually, from the perspective of someone raised by people who had a huge vinyl collection — but I’m really interested to know where that turning point came around for you, when you said, “Actually, yeah, I want to explore this a little bit more…”
Probably in college, because most of my training came from free arts courses in the public schools I went to. But for college I went to these private institutions that were kind of conservatory-like, and it was really intense. I had to take all of these history courses and music theory courses — many of which I failed. I have had so many teachers telling me to quit. It was really intense. I got tired, especially in the history classes because I love history. I have always loved history and I actually have my parents to thank for that as well. And sitting in these history classes and hearing about all of these composers and looking at all these guys, I was like, “The music is beautiful! I’m not going to discount the creativity, but I’m really tired of looking at all of these mostly older white men.” I’m an African American-identified woman, my lineage is very mixed but to most people I look African American and that is how I identify, and I just couldn’t, you know there was Clara Schumann who we talked about from time to time, but as far as history of music, there were really no women that were talked about until the 20th Century, people like Pauline Oliveros, Tania León?
That’s really interesting as well because that doesn’t seem to be purely in the U.S., it’s also something we encounter in the UK education system — it’s very regimented and concrete, and there is little that goes beyond what you just mentioned, which is why I’m interested in your graphical notation. I think one of the reasons I never really excelled in music at school was because it was so theoretical in the way that it was taught. I feel that if something like graphical notation was brought into the curriculum it could be incredibly beneficial. But I wonder how you came to that realization, especially after what you said about the theory courses… How did you find your feet?
Well, that’s a great question. First of all, I grew up in a very traditional African American community that is very visual — it’s all a very particular aesthetic where you are constantly exposed to different ideas of ritual, whether it is just how somebody gets dressed for the day or ideas about presentation, and that’s a huge part of African American history because at one point, in this country it was about presenting yourself in a certain way so that white people would accept you. The only way that you could be accepted was through a certain way of presentation that would not remind people of the slave negros, so there is that. But also, I was exposed to so many different types of art, that I figured I needed a way to synthesize it, and just by playing music as music is usually presented was not enough for me. In New York City I was just really lucky to be exposed to mixed media genres, my art community in New York is very mixed — it crosses many mediums — partly because of some academic communities that I’m involved with, like painters and film makers and writers, sculptors and musicians, so I have always been conscious of this particular kind of cross. Going to the opera, for instance, was the ultimate mixed medium in live performance for me as a child, like seeing that and thinking, “Wow — look at all these different things!”
I’m glad actually that the idea of graphical notation, I did not learn in school, I’m really glad — I think my teachers who told me to quit music and find something else to do, they really helped me find my way. But that’s only because they made me think about other ways of doing things, and creativity is all about imagination and play. I also have a learning disorder, and that has followed me for my entire life and I’m somehow being reminded of the fact that you can have a certain kind of visual aesthetic in music, the more I explored, the more I realized that I could do it too. I mean there are all sorts of people who have done that way before I have. So there is that tradition as well, which I got to see and hear and be like, “Oh, there are other ways!” There is always another way to do something, it’s like that saying — there are many different ways to skin a cat. That saying is said for a reason. I think I remember once about seeing a theater piece that was very successful, where the director had no musical training, she didn’t know anything about theater, she just found a way to create.
Some of the first musical compositions that I wrote as a kid, I did not know how to make compositions or how to write, and so I remember I tried to create my own system — and then I came up with a system but the time that it was complete, I couldn’t remember how everything worked. So I really don’t know where that came from for me.
Could you tell me about some of the graphical notation you worked on for the new album?
Well I’m trying to codify my own system, and I’m calling it, for lack of better words, panoramic sound quilting. For some reason those three words really speak to me in terms of what I’m trying to do — it’s like a have a way of weaving ideas together buy using graphic notation as a bridge.
What does it look like?
Well, what I’m trying to do with each score within the COIN COIN series is to make sure that they are connected, not so much for the sound, but for the different musicians that have to play because I want to get a certain pool of musicians comfortable with the language that I’m trying to put together so that I can bring them to new chapters of the work. Therefore there are things that I won’t have to explain. So the system from Chapter One to Chapter Two, for instance, is the same, but they look different. They look slightly different in presentation, but the conduction ideas and the visual cues are pretty much the same. So it looks like a visual weave, there is some notation that most Western musicians are used to seeing, then there is some alternative notation, whether that be imagery or words or instructions and sometimes there are also some real visual things — like I collect photographs from the turn of the century, and I use a lot of that imagery in my work.
Like a collage?
Yeah, like a collage of sorts, and now some of the scores are going into a more collage-based aesthetic, whereas before I would use ink, charcoal, photos, and old things. I really like these old things that people leave behind like letters and postcards. They really inspire me to piece it all together and come up with one image. I then look back at that image and to wonder to myself, well, how would I play that? What would that sound like? It’s really interesting to put that conundrum in front of other musicians because it’s always going to be very unique to each individual, no matter how much instruction you give there is a uniqueness that comes through, and I think that’s probably why I like it so much.
That must be an interesting moment, when you put something together with so many materials and then stand back from it… I have just got that in my mind now, when you stand back from something and you just ask, “How do I interpret this musically?”
It’s so much fun. It is so much fun for me — I mean there is nothing at all wrong with sitting down and writing an entire symphony all in regular Western notation, but the collages are so much fun to create. And within those ideas, I’m still able to infuse oral traditions, which I sometimes feel is forgotten in music. The type of music that means the most to me was orally passed along, it’s about the primacy of the ear, not the primacy of the eye, so I also like being able to include that, and I find that sound quilting allows for these possibilities.
What kind of reactions have you got from collaborating performers when you show them a piece? Do you have any apprehension about how they might interpret the images?
Always! I always wonder how people are going to see it differently. But, I realize it doesn’t really matter if the musician is like prodigy-style, or, as we say in New York, “Able to read fly paper” or whatever. It doesn’t really matter about what the technical aesthetic is, it’s more about a certain kind of compassion and openness to new ideas. So I have tried to do the music with people who have had a very strong visceral reaction, and I’m kind about it but it’s like “Oh… okay, this sort of thing is not comfortable for them and maybe I should try and explain it this way instead of that way…” It’s like this in education, like the idea of standardized testing in education, you know, why it is so wrong because every child is so different with regards to how they approach learning. So, the one thing I like about the panoramic sound quilting is that it gives each individual musician a way to infuse their own individuality, but I have noticed that there are certain constructs that I have to be a bit more flexible about how I explain them and be open to someone telling me that it doesn’t make any sense…
From what I have read it sounds like you are very open to that.
How do you chose to work with certain people when the collaboration brings their heart and their spirit into the recording as well as their musical talent?
I try to look for, and to listen to, people who you can automatically tell, have that. Maybe it’s like a sixth sense that only improvisors have — I don’t know. But, a lot of people who are on the Montreal record, those are friends of mine, there are some people on that record that I have known for 10 or 12 years. Yeah, everyone in that record I had seen in other ensembles too, or I had just hung out with them and just gotten to know them as a person. Same thing with the second record — most of these people I have known for most of the time I have been in New York and so I have gotten to see them do different things and I have talked to them about new ideas. And again, it has not always worked out so well… I have had some moments where I have chosen the wrong people. But you learn by experience, and New York is hard because everybody wants to work so, sometimes people are not so honest about what they are into with your work. So you have to look out for that… But I try, I always try to stay away from people who are very dogmatic about what music should sound like.