Matana Roberts: Interview
“There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey.”
I wanted to ask you about the content of the Second Chapter. A great deal of the lyrics come from an interview you conducted with your grandmother, right?
How did she find that experience when you approach her about doing that?
Well, I should say, I don’t think she knows yet that she is on my record!
At the time I did that interview, I don’t think I was even thinking about using her imagery and her own words in that way. I was looking for inspiration for the music and then it occurred to me that I should… Actually, she may know…. she may know because I did perform this music in Chicago once with Chicago players. She is not able to travel out of her house any longer, but her daughter was there — my aunt was there and my cousins were there, so, she may know. But I look forward to getting the record to her so that she can actually hear and see how I thanked her in the liner notes. And there are some things in that interview that I didn’t put on the record. It did take a heavy editing hand in terms of the things she said that I thought were too personal to ever share publicly… You have to be really careful when you are talking to elders about their experience, and I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t using anything she said that could be seen as exploitative to me.
My grandmother is a really joyful person. She has had a really tough life and she has somehow managed to have a certain underbelly of joy in terms of how she speaks and the things that she says. There are certain things that she says on the record that give the music a certain sense of joy — it’s very tough subject matter, but I think I’m getting off topic here…
No, not at all, I wanted to talk to you about the subject matter as well, but you raised a really important point with regards to talking to elderly people in particular about their experiences — I’m just wondering how you managed to take those conversations and include them in your composition. I know you said you edited it all down, but I’m keen to know how that happened — were they snippets from one conversation, or were there lots of conversations you had about a certain subject?
They were snippets from one really long conversation, and I also used the audio from that conversation in a sound piece that I did for Studio Sounds at the Studio Museum in Harlem. My grandmother has a very particular accent, a very particular Mississippi, Chicago, Southern migration thing. My other grandmother had a very Southern accent too but it was a Memphis to Chicago thing that was very different. And my two grandmothers, in some sense, represented this class difference in the Chicago African American community based on language, which for a while, as I kid, I kind of found horrifying because I felt like I couldn’t understand them. When I would go back and forth between them, I sometimes could not understand either of them.
So I chose things that I think I felt had the highest historical vibration, that really kind of spoke the history that I felt people across from many different places could relate to — her girlhood, growing up on the farm, you know? It’s really something to hear someone in their 80s and 90s speak very loving[ly] about their parents. The death of a parent is so hard, and hearing them being able to set that in a story of remembrance, and memory and positivity — I chose to include things like that, with the exception of where she talks about her parents passing away on the same day — that is so heavy to me, the idea of that, but she spoke about it with this joy, and so I tried to pick those things that I felt still kind of had that layer of joy. I purposefully would not press her on the things that she wouldn’t talk about — you know, she refused to talk to me about anything having to do with racism in Mississippi pretty much, which was really tough — those were hard moments for me because those were some of the things I really wanted to hear about. Those are things I heard about from my own parents. But the fact is that she refused to talk about those things. And she wouldn’t get angry, it wasn’t like… It was just this line she kept saying, ”There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey,” and when she said that, the one thing that I should probably do in the performance of that, is, when she would say that line, she would laugh. It was really shocking, we would be talking about something and then she would say, “There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey,” and then she would just laugh! You know, you can’t get through life — I don’t care who you are or what has happened to you — you can’t get through life without having some idea of humor. And the fact that she could do that is astonishing to me because there is no way, from all of the history that I know about what African American people went through in the American South — there is no way I could laugh about that stuff. I don’t think I have the strength. Talking to her was so powerful — and my Mississippi side is the side that I know the least about. I’ve got my maternal side traced back to the mid 1700s, but my Mississippi side has always been a bit more mysterious.
That power really does come through on the record. Especially the two lines that you mentioned there. The first one I think is, “Daddy died in the morning and mama died at night.”
It is extremely powerful but I guess it has two sides… and it’s the same with the second line you mentioned, “There are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey” — there is this sadness, in the case of the first one, of the parents passing away, but there is also a kind of beauty that, as a couple, one was not left to suffer without the other and that strikes a particular chord.
Yeah, that is very poetic to me. I mean, history is so poetic, but when she said that to me while recounting it with a certain kind of acceptance… I don’t think I’m old enough to understand that yet — it was just amazing — they couldn’t live without each other and that’s lovely. They met when they were 16. You know, that doesn’t really happen that much anymore and it’s really lovely to know that I come from people that bonded in that way and built a family ideal together and it spread. I’m able to capture that in art, and that makes me very happy.
That second line also plays into a lot of the repetition you use on the album in a warm and harrowing way because of the context that you are indicating “there are some things I just can’t tell you about, honey.”
Yeah, absolutely. The one thing that bothers me about this project and the way that it’s being received by people is that they say I’m trying to make a damning statement about American history, when in fact I’m deeply patriotic and this music is a love letter to my country in so many ways. That history, the harrowing parts of history, can also be remembered and communicated with a certain amount of joy and direction. You know, my grandmother did that with me in our interview and she may not have even been aware of it. She just kept it on the positive, and I say that line so many times on the record, but she said it SO many times in that interview.
Yeah, it was a repeated line. That’s why I repeat it so much, and I could have sat there and tried to press her on it, but my parents raised me not to do that. The fact that she even talked to me, the fact that she would even let me in and talk about her family was so good — even in her 80s. You miss your mother in your 80s just as much as you missed you mother when you were 10, like it just never goes away.
I have to ask you as well about another line. There is a story about a beating in a cell.
And just as that ends, you say, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,” which also plays into the contrast we talked about before. Was that difficult to achieve?
That wasn’t difficult to achieve as such, but that moment is not in the score, when I’m saying that, what’s that game you play like, um, you hear this word so you think that?
Like word association?
Yeah, word association, there was something about reading that speech of Fannie Lou Hamer and it immediately made me think of freedom in that moment. I’m like. “Oh, yeah, the only way that you can really be free is in spirit and what you put in your mind, even when you are in captivity in that way.” It’s like that book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about survival in concentration camps during WWII. Viktor Frankl talked a lot about what the prisoners would do, how they would remain free of spirit and how they would think about themselves even though they were being horribly treated. A lot of what history keeps teaching me is that it’s all about what you think inside, and that’s why the church was so important in a community like my grandmother grew up in. The church was so important for both of my grandmothers and to their perseverance, and that is so hard for me to think about because I actually hate the church. But it was so important to preserve this idea of spirit — but I’m glad that moment on the recording happened the way it did.
Yeah, it’s extremely moving. But by interviewing a relative you bring about a certain closeness or recentness to these stories. It’s often quite shocking for people to discover how recent certain historical events really were, particularly in a place like Poland, where you have played before — was it your intention to bring out such a realization?
Yeah, I guess it was. My intention also came from working so that people who may not listen to avant-garde music can find a way to infuse themselves. I found that by using stories and narratives that really help people to consider alternative ideas about sound, so there is that, but I have done some of those solo COIN COIN chapters in Poland. I love Poland. The last place I played there was in Warsaw. I have been to the capital a couple of times and I had one Polish show that got cancelled because of snow — I was trying to get from Berlin to Krakow. I played some of the ensemble music but as solo chapters all over Germany and it is just so interesting, in Poland for instance, to do this music with those people who have a certain sense of history where it was not so long ago that they lost their entire family. And I can walk into these places and talk about this family that I can trace back to the mid 1700s, talking to people who just can’t do that because all of the records disappeared in the 1940s. So they can only go back so far, and because of that there is a certain depth of understanding. I had people at that Warsaw show coming up to me and crying and telling me stories of what they know about their own history, and that is so fascinating to me that I can talk about this history, which is, in some sense, very different. But people are able to relate and infuse. I think it’s because of the mixture of textures and sounds that gives people a break to consider the narrative that is being shared, and then allows them to contrast and compare those narratives. It’s one of the things about the work that makes me very happy.
Well, when people tell you their family histories at a show, it means that your work has had a certain impact for them. These things were only happening 60 to 100 years ago — and that is often very difficult to fathom for a lot of people.
Oh yeah, especially now. You know, the president in the White House, my president, he looks like my uncle. It’s a really difficult time in America to understand that there are certain fragments of history that still need to be paid attention to, they are not to be forgotten just because we have progressed in a certain way. Because history just shifts. People who are the downtrodden in one place change their circumstances, and that suffering shifts to another group of people. That’s why we have to pay attention to history, to understand the mistakes that were repeated, and that this just can’t be repeated again. It’s like there is a constant cycle, a constant rhythm — I think about that a lot but I grew up in an environment where I was constantly reminded of it.
It’s fascinating how that works its way into the music as well. It’s worth remembering of course that you are playing with a number of other people though, and I wanted to talk to you about one of them in particular; Jeramiyah Abiah. I love the way how his operatic vocals interact with your music. How did you come to work with him and what was it like recording those songs together?
Well I wanted that kind of sound within the work, and I have worked with different opera singers since the project’s inception. There are some women I have worked with as well, in addition to some other opera singers. Jeremiah is an old friend, who also actually has become my vocal coach. He is a great teacher, a really great teacher — I’m able to do things with my voice now that I wasn’t able to do before. But I knew I wanted that sound and so I went back and forth with it. You know, I do the music with different groups of musicians in different places and at some point I might do it again with a female voice, but here I went back and forth with the sound of the male operatic voice and I just really wanted that interchange and to me, that’s very autobiographical. That is the only autobiographical element in that chapter — the idea of the cross between spirituals in church, which I was exposed to heavily, but also the opera, which I was also exposed to heavily, and these class differences that I was exposed to within my own family. That really troubled me for a little while, I just couldn’t understand this difference of nuance because I wasn’t sure of what I was witnessing, and I wanted to present that in the work.
It isn’t a sound that you might have imagined working so well together, but like you say, through knowing Jeremiah’s before, you must have had an idea as to how he would be able to contribute.
Yeah, I instinctively knew how I could achieve that sound. That is also part of being an improviser. There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as a wrong note. You know, there is always a resolution for any sort of sound, so I wanted to explore how I could use that as a composer. I also grew up during the rise of hip-hop and the rise of sampling, and I think that is actually a big part of a lot of this music, subconsciously speaking. I grew up listening to all of these tracks that were just a mix of sampling all these different sounds, which were synthesized as one sound — I’m pretty sure that effected me heavily.
In terms of lyrical improvisation then, I read that you were using a bible, and that you were improvising from that.
Was that as straight forward as it sounds, or did you find it to be a little more complicated with improvising from a religious text?
Yeah, I was wondering if anybody was going to ask me about that!
I couldn’t resist, I’m sorry!
No, it’s fine! I mean, for the record, I have a lot of problems with the bible, I always have. I also felt like it was a book I should read from cover to cover. I need to get down with that to understand the history of my country a little bit better, to understand the history of “my people” a little bit better. But out of the traditions that I come from and the art that I’ve been around, and the way that I live, anything can be improvised. Anything can be used as a basis for improvisation — we are all doing it all the time, as with this conversation, you know, you learn language and then language happens automatically, so I’m really interested in all of these different ways that language can be used. The interesting thing about the bible is how those words, read by so many different people, have been interpreted in way too many different ways — and so, I can use that as an improvisor. I can open up a passage and it can be something as reading a paragraph and crossing out words, and then re-reading the paragraph over, or reading the paragraph backwards, which I actually did in the first chapter, I read some prayers backwards, and I remember a family member was very upset about that because they said that was “devil stuff.” I said “no, no, no! It’s called improvisation!” and improv is what moves the world and what moves creativity. And as a Catholic reader of the bible, which is very specific, to where the Mississippi people were not Catholic, I’m linking in some ideas from the first chapter, but it’s all pretty spontaneous, like the passages that I read were not picked on purpose, they were picked in the moment…
…So if they are picked in the moment you are literally just talking about opening the book up, sticking your finger on a paragraph and reading what’s there?
Yeah. And that can get you in a lot of trouble!
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.
Sure it can.
There are moments where I have stumbled across passages where I’m like, “I really don’t want to say that out loud!” But I’m already there, so it’s tough, I think, “I just have to get past this and hope that nobody asks me about it!” Because there are some incredibly offensive things in the bible, where you are like “really!?”
So I’ll have the text of my grandmother’s interview taped in this particular bible and I try to intersperse. The reason I’m able to jump between the text so much, I mean, I have the text memorized now, but I can’t jump from like, “This is really offensive!” to something else and I’ll do it in a way that is really quick, because some of that stuff you realize — like “I so don’t believe this stuff — and I don’t even want to say that out loud!”
When you say it’s taped in, you mean you have stuck pages in different parts?
Yeah, I made my own collage inside the bible. I cut out the words and glued them in. I also really like the presentation of book reading, there is something about that — a certain ritual that I really enjoy.
You mentioned the quilting already, the panoramic quilting that forms this seamless flow throughout the record where you don’t have tracks — it’s just a singular continuous flow. I was wondering how you went about breaking that up into 18 titles.
So the panoramic quilt, is a collage of segments and the score is also a collage of segments. When I wanted to break down the score, through the way that I put the piece together, there are larger segments that had names of their own. But then, when I broke down all of the segments, there were 18 of them, and so I decided that I wanted 18 titles. I decided that instead of separate titles, I would rather have a poem that spoke to different elements within each of those sections. Each of those titles are very particular to the segment of the score in terms of the original name, because there were other names that I had for some of those songs originally that I decided not to use. But it’s so funny — a lot of people thought that I broke it up like that just for the sake of it. But no, I broke it up like that to stay true to the score. But we also had to get the whole record onto vinyl, and so I had to cut about 20 minutes of music out, not in the studio but in the live performance — so some of those segments that are really short, are not that short in performance.
I just read your interview with The Wire, where you talked about working with electronic music. This sounds very exciting. I would love to know what you are doing with that and what you are aiming towards.
So I’m working with processing my saxophone sounds through different samplers and playing synthesizers and merging that with video that I’m building — so I want the video to become like a version of the paper scores. I do everything from analogue first, I build all of the scores by hand and then insert them into video imagery and piece that all together. And then from that, I’m trying to use the imagery from soundscapes using electronic sounds that I can create from my saxophone — a combination of my saxophone and my voice, but I’m trying to be very tasteful about how I go about doing that and trying to find a way that I can turn the saxophone into ideas of noise — that really peaks my interest, and I find that a very musical exercise in ways that some people might not. And then, what’s fun for me is to say, the base of that sound is a saxophone — I’m not using any prerecorded sounds… I have also used some field recordings in some of those pieces and the thing that I did for studio museum in Harlem is kind of a mix of some of those things. I’m just trying to find a way of creating these large scale sound collages as a solo live performer that I can break back down and put that to ensemble and do the same thing without all of he electronics, going back and forth between those things I find really interesting.
Do you think that will play into COIN COIN?
Yeah, so there are two solo chapters of COIN COIN and the electronics — these collages I’m working on are the solo chapters. I have toured that a little bit in Europe but I have never been able to do it in London, I hope to do it in the UK sometime next year. But it’s interesting, I started going into that direction partly because I was involved in a community where there were more “sound artists” like Alvin Luciay, Pauline Oliveros, Marina Rosenfeld, I started running into a lot of these people in New York City and spending time with them.
Did you record with Marina Rosenfeld?
I didn’t record with Marina but I worked with her. Marina and I worked side by side at Bard college, on the MFA program, where there is a department called Music/Sound and the musicians in that department are mostly exploring electronic music and I think that was the final impetus for me to think about all these other sounds — I thought it was really interesting and I wondered why I hadn’t explored them before. Partly because I don’t like having a lot of gear, but as a solo performer, there are so many things that I’m able to do with that .
In terms of what you have coming up, then, there are 12 chapters for the COIN COIN project, right?
That is a huge undertaking — are you apprehensive about the scope in any way?
Not anymore — I’m so in it that I’m not able to quit. I have to finish it, but I set it up in these chapters because I wanted to challenge myself as a composer, I thought it would be an interesting way to experiment with different configurations of samples that I’m interested in working with but that I can’t do under one idea, I need to have an umbrella to put it all under. But I also had nine or ten historical narrative stories that I was just really interested in digging deeper into to see if I could do something with it. The only thing I’m apprehensive about is that — these two chapters, have taken almost nine years to get them both out. I started working on that music in 2005! So the only thing I’m apprehensive about now is just the pace and getting things out in the way that I would like to get them out.
What can we expect next in the COIN COIN series?
Well, that’s a good question, because Chapters 3, 4, and 5 have already been performed in New York at least once. I’ve mounted them up for performers and so I need to work on them some more, but all of the chapters, all of the framework for every single one is written and clear, so I might bounce around and move to a chapter later in the series, what I can’t decide now is that if I want to release things in a linear fashion, because the narrative I’m using is not so linear… so what can I say… just stay tuned!
I’m having so much fun! You know, Constellation jumping in the way that they did, that was something I was not expecting at all, and that still kind of shocks me. And the way that they have taken so much care into putting these records out, it’s very possible I could release two chapters at once, they have really embraced the project in a way that I could just not find someone to embrace it. And I feel the music is in the right place in the right home, and that really took a while, and so it may be that I release more chapters, and that I release more than one at a time, who knows? Who knows how much life i have left, you know I’m kind of at that point in my life where I have seen friends not make it so far as you might expect — life is such a gamble — so I really kind of am in a zone where I want to get this out as fast as I can, but at the same time I don’t want to push it out for the sake of it, I want to push it out because the inspiration is still there to keep it moving in a certain direction.