Matana Roberts The multi-talented craftswoman talks chaos, labor, and new album “COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis”

Photo: M. Tarantelli

Released in October on Constellation, COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis chronicles Matana Roberts’s continued exploration of histories of violence and dispossession, kinship, and avant composition techniques. With the first installment COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres released in 2011, the project has spanned most of this decade, shifting collaborators and approaches along the way while maintaining an eye toward entanglements between the personal and the historical.

Responding to prompts grouped under the themes Time, Kinship, and Labor, Roberts reflects on the multifaceted realities of making art about the past in the complicated present.


How has the conversation between the various chapters of COIN COIN shifted with each release?

With each release, I’m not sure if the conversation has shifted, but the project has become its own community of people. I really feel I set the pace at placing the project, but now the project has become its own thing where it is setting the pace with me. I’m just trying to follow through and push through and do what it is asking me to do. Sometimes doing things that I don’t really want to do, but that has been the nature of this project. I feel like the root of the project is still really there for me, in that my alto saxophone is at the root of the sound of the project and the composition, even in the text and in the vocalizing. As a saxophone, the alto saxophone was created to match the human voice, so I really feel that in how I like to use the instrument. The root of the project being around my love of the complexities of American histories, but it is shifting back and forth between my own curiosities. The multi-chapter idea was really only placed to challenge myself as a composer and use each segment to explore different sound worlds.

What strikes you about the previous chapters on the eve of the release of the fourth?

The previous chapters — you know, I don’t know, they are very different, but they contain this sameness I feel in terms of my process. I wish I could get this out faster — that this is my only thing. I’m moving with the flow of the project, but I am also moving with the flow of my own life. I’m getting asked to do all sorts of interesting things and I feel a lot of gratitude that I’m getting to do these other things, but I’m also having to pace in a way for this project that I really wasn’t counting on when I started it.

How do you conceptualize the listener’s relationship to time within both performances and recorded material?

I don’t really think about the listener’s relationship to time. I’m not really concerned with the listener or the witness in that way. I’m most concerned with my curiosity and placing it in the most honest way I can. And then hoping that the listener or the witness might get something from it. For the witness, I want them to have an immersive experience. I want them to have the immersive experience that I wish to have, which doesn’t always happen. I know it doesn’t always happen, but every listener has their own filter of life that they are dealing with as they listen to the sound. My only hope is that people who witness this music or experience this music walk away challenged or their own ideas around critical thinking are enhanced. I like critical thinkers not in terms of critique or trashing things, but in the sense of expansion and generative critique that moves the world and makes change happen. I’m really interested in that.

What opportunities and challenges are posed by playing with time?

Well, in terms of playing with time, I wish that recorded documents didn’t have to have a time limit. I’m really immersed in this idea of how the body has a time limit; the physical human body has a time limit, but the soul is absolutely timeless. That is something that brings me a lot of joy when I think about it. And it is something that helps me move through my own life in a way that gives me a certain kind of feeling of affirmation, and I try to put that into the work. I guess the recorded, physical document is the only challenge… and maybe the live performances. I hope that the performances stay with people. I hope they sit in memory in a way that is accessible at later times. I hope to add to that for people, even if it is something they didn’t like. I still like having been a catalyst to that.

How has your process adapted to changing time demands from your art and life?

I don’t know. I think the changing time demands for me have come from digital life more than anything else at this point. That is something I’m trying to negotiate at this point in new ways. I grew up in a family that was really technology savvy, even early on. So, technology savvy, in that the computer or online life could be a place of revolution for people, and we’ve seen that happen, which is really exciting. But we’ve also seen how online life and digital life can add to a certain gross anxiety for a lot of people, especially for art makers like you and me, people who make something out of nothing. It can really get in the way. I’m getting better at trying to place boundaries on those things while also trying not to become a digital luddite. I have shut myself off from certain things recently just to have a moment for my headspace, because I feel like digital and online life was starting to get in the way of my creative thinking. So, I’m trying to find different ways to engage with it that don’t necessarily mean this end-all, be-all scenario.

In what ways do you organize and disorganize time within your process?

I’ve come into, in the past couple years or so, becoming one of those productivity nerd kind of folks. I’ve read a lot of books on systems and how to create different systems for yourself to get things done that you need to get done. I’ve gotten better at trying to place boundaries and ask myself real questions about whether something I’m working on is actually worth my time or not. I’ve also gotten better at saying no to things and yes to things that I really want to be doing. But it is still a mess, in the sense that I’m starting to get offered things that I would really like to do, but I’m not able to do because I can’t carve out the necessary time needed for it while paying attention to these other things that I’m already working on. I’m just trying to mess around with different ways of that. I mean, I am quite fond of chaos. A chaos in a historical sense is kind of fascinating, because it is from chaos that so much culture has risen from. It is from so much chaos that so much beauty in the natural world has risen. So much supposed chaos — based on who you ask — in which the liberation of other people and beings has been made possible. So that is something I think about a lot and try to battle with.

What limits in time have you found productive?

There is a great energy in inputting limits on yourself sometimes. I’m sure you understand that as a creative person that sometimes when you do have a deadline you have to meet, you have to put your intention squarely there. There’s something that shifts there and you push yourself in a different way. I like the energy that comes from that. I like the energy, that confidence from saying, “I have this amount of time to do this thing, and I’m going to do the best job I can, and I can’t do what I can’t do.” I’ve gotten better at being a bit more accepting about that and not panicking. I used to put myself in a full-on panic, and that panic would completely paralyze me, then I couldn’t really get anything done. So, I’ve gotten better at doing that, but that has come from exploring a lot of other people’s ideas — artists and other creative people’s ideas around how to organize creative time. At some point, if I get a chance, if I go back to writing some more and putting those things online, I might try to talk about that.

How has your thinking on kinship evolved throughout the project?

Kinship is an interesting word. It evokes so much. But, for me, another one of the reasons the project is many chaptered is, one, I’m trying to challenge myself as a composer. The entire project has given me an opportunity to place people on it who mean a lot to me. On each record, there are people who have supported me in a lot of different ways. On this particular record, there are people who I have known for a very long time who have been in other projects musically that I adore. It was a joy to get them all in the studio on this music. I kind of feed into this idea of punk rock kin that you can choose your family. As you can choose your blood family, you can also choose your community. I feel a real privilege that I keep getting opportunities to do that over and over again.

What forms of connection and disconnection interest you?

The online world is fascinating, in that I am able to connect with people who I may never see live. I have supporters all over the place that I’m grateful to each and every one of them. For some of them, I can’t travel to where they are, but, in some sense, I’m still interested in that connection of reach. To be able to embody sound in a live experience or embody sound on this recorded document that allows people to have some sort of embodied experience is most interesting to me. My interest in alternative modes of composition and challenging myself as a composer, but also my interest in the spirit world in trying to use music and sound as a way to connect to those other realms that are beyond language — that is something that continues to interest me — and, lately, going back into my internal life as rich as possible. My internal system as wide and limitless as possible — I’m really interested in that connection. It is interesting how that can grow or not, depending on what you are doing for yourself. I’ve really dug into — there are these buzz words around “self-care” — but I’ve really dug into making sure that part of life is really rooted. And that has made a big difference in how I can connect with my music kin or with a witness in live performance or with my inner creative peace in making. Disconnection… I don’t know. I don’t want to be connected to anyone or anything that isn’t digging deeper into possibility. So, I guess that’s the area of disconnection that interests me.

How does an expanded view of time shift your thinking on kinship?

I think about the soul being timeless a lot. I think a lot about epigenetics, if we’re going to talk about a sort of blood kinship. I do think a lot about some of the concerns I have in the work are part of a legacy that I’m connected to that I didn’t ask to be connected to, but it is what it is. This work is to process that and to speak for others who may not have gotten a chance to speak for themselves. I really do feel that I’m a channel of sorts. I know that sounds a bit wishy-washy, but it is fine. I have accepted that that is part of the work.

Inclusive of and beyond art, what practices enable a longer view of kinship between the past and future?

Again, this thing around building a really rich internal life. You know, the body is just a bag, a skin bag, that’s all it is. It has a time limit on it, a very specific time limit. It is moving along and doing its thing, and then this bag returns to the earth. I hope to return to the earth; I really hope that I don’t get put in a box. I want to be cremated and spread far and wide, probably near the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s a whole other question… Digging into my internal life has enabled me to have a longer view on kinship between past and future, but it has also allowed me to dig into the present time.

What familial and kin connections sustain your art?

The entire premise of this project, dealing with some parts of my own blood lineage, has helped me — many of the stories I tell are stories that were told to me and passed down to me as a kid. They inspired me then and continue to inspire me. They have allowed me to walk into certain areas of history that I’m not sure I would be so interested in otherwise. And then, I have a pretty strong community of friends and supporters who consistently keep me lifted, especially during times that are dark. As you know as a creative person, things can get weird. I feel really grateful that people continue to lift me and care for me in this work that I am making.

How do different modes of intimacy inform your process and content?

I don’t think I really think about that, to be honest. Do I think about that? I’m really just interested in creating the most honest document I can of what I am feeling inside, creatively of what is being sent through me, but also honoring a history, questioning a history, documenting a history, looking at alternatives for those histories, thinking about parallel histories. And I think that if you are really digging into what you are most curious about, the intimacy that might be present is very natural — at least I hope it to be so.

Photo: M. Tarantelli

How does artistic community kinship shape your work?

In a lot of different ways. I don’t know how to answer that question clearly… My interest in graphic notation came from my interest to play music with friends who don’t necessarily read Western notated music, but who are incredible interpreters of signs, symbols, colors — these kind of things. The reason I even have a career is that many of the people who supported me early on in my Chicago days, who were consistently there for me when academic institutions or music institutions necessarily weren’t, I have a lot of people who have father’d, uncle’d, brother’d, cousin’d, sister’d, grandmother’d, grandfather’d me, auntie’d, uncle’d me through this work. And, you know, along the way, I’ve met a lot of horrible people too, but those people have been outweighed by the kindness of so many people that, at this point, the list would be too long to thank all of them. In fact, in the liner notes, I was so panicked because there were so many people I wanted to thank. I got nervous I was going to leave someone out, so I decided to keep it vague.

What aspect do you find lacking within artists’ conception of community?

I feel like a lot of artists are being descended on by people who want to use us for marketing and buzz words. It is creating an environment where there is a lot of empty art out there. But I feel like that is small in comparison to the many art-making people out there who are really putting the meat in their work. I think the online world is creating a little bit of that emptiness while also strengthening that, making things better. It is a 50-50 split. I don’t like that word “lack.” I try not to use that word — “lack” or “lacking.” I try to think about limitless possibility; I just want to think about idea of abundance. If I’m going to think about ideas of “lack” or “lacking,” it has to do with things that folks like me or you need to do to help other people who are not able to help themselves, to speak up for others who may not be able to speak up for themselves.

What elements would you like to preserve?

Meeting elder artists that have really lived through a time and you see the way they move through the world. At this point, I’ve had great access to many interesting artists, musicians. I get a chance to collaborate with elder artists, as I’m doing right now on another project. The faith they have in being creative, the love that they have for things working out, the vision that they have for self-preservation, but, most importantly, the ways in which they try to help each other — that is an element I would like to contribute to more. I don’t feel like I am contributing enough to that yet, but my hope for myself is that I would be contributing to that in a bigger way.

To what extent do you think of your artistic process as a labor process?

I go back and forth with the idea of calling myself an artist. I don’t really like that term as much as I like maker or craftswoman, craftsman. I’m really interested in art practices that have a very particular utilitarian value, that could have this double use, which a lot of my research travels last year had a lot to do with that. I went to Africa to see the slave ports along the Ivory Coast, but also to meet with local artisians and learn about different local art practices that once had a different sort of value in the history of the places I visited. I’m thinking about bead making — glass beads used to be a form of currency; I’m thinking about weaving and all these things, in the way that I do use quilting as this idea of panoramic sound-quilting, because quilts were also used as a place of message, especially in the underground railroad. I want my work — though it is experimental — to be able to talk to people across any sort of division. That is something I am really interested in, and I can relate that more to a labor process than I can to an artist process. I like doing the work. I like the labor of doing work and presenting it as, “Here is this thing, and if it is to be seen as artistic, so be it. If it is to be seen as a process of labor, then so be it.”

What role should organizing artistic labor play within experimental music scenes?

To be quite honest, I’m not sure what you mean by that. I mean, it is rough out here for all of us. I feel like I can’t really complain about that in the way that other people might be able to, because I have been fairly fortunate and lucky. I continue to have opportunities that allow me to build a language that I hope will leave a link in the fence of creativity that many creative people continue to add to, that other creative people who will show up beyond me can lean into for support and envision for themselves. But, I’m not — it is just rough out here. So many in my community I see suffering and going through all sorts of problems that they don’t deserve just because they choose to be an arts person. And within the experimental music scenes, I’ve seen that most with elders, and that has been a bit scary watching that go down. There are a lot of us out here trying to do something to change that, but I’m not sure we’re doing enough.

What limits and barriers exist for stronger solidarity between artists?

I sometimes think this idea of genre is just getting in the way sometimes. And the marketing of music has gotten super strange. Maybe it has always been strange, but I never really… I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to pay too much attention to that, but it still gets pushed into my foray, my field of vision. I feel that gets in the way and creates a weird kind of barrier for some of us. At the same time, a lot of us out here are just music and art nerds. We just love to make things because we know the possibility of making; we know the things that can be shifted, that can be moved, the things that can be said. So, again, this idea of limits and barriers. I’ve tried really hard not to think about those things in relation to myself, and it has not been easy, but there has been a lot of art makers before me who have done the same. I look to them and folks within my community who are out here battling some of the same thing and doing their own thing.

As the cost of housing and performance space continues to increase, how do you conceive of the relationship between artistic labor and access to space? From living in New York, I am particularly interested in this question as more and more DIY spaces find themselves priced out of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

That has become deeply problematic. You ask about New York — and I’ve lived in a bunch of major cities by now. I’ve experienced a lot of places at this point. The thing I keep seeing is once the artists move in, then the people who own the properties see the possibility of reframing their neighborhoods and marketing it to people who can pay a lot more, then the artists get pushed out. I’m seeing major cities as no longer places where artist can survive, for the most part. There are still some corners of the world that are left with that, and I keep hearing about that. But I see artists returning to placing themselves in natural spaces rather than urban spaces. I think that is really fascinating. And I personally think that is healthier. New York City, in particular; I know a lot about that city, I could walk around that city in my sleep and know where I am. I have seen the gentrification move, and I have also been a part of that gentrification without realizing I was a part of that gentrification.

I think arts folks just have to do the best that we can do. The thing about us is that we know how to look for possibility. We know how to have a third eye in terms of seeing space where others aren’t seeing space, and I think that is part of a tradition of being a creative person. I think there will always be places for being a creative person, even if they can’t live in these huge, major cities anymore. That is the one great thing about the digital world, in that you no longer need to be in these major places — you can be anywhere. You no longer need to be in these major places to be a creative person. You just need to have a community that inspires you and a community that supports you, and it is possible to place that support as a partial, analog to digital sort of thing. But it does take away from this idea of embodiment and the importance of just being in other people’s energy fields and space and feel things together and move in space together. I guess performance in a sense is one of last bastions for that.

What role should artists play in creating new spaces? To what degree should artists pursue the creation of new spaces for art-making?

My dream is to one day have a space. I was reading something I had said some time ago about the great saxophonist Fred Anderson, who had a club on the Southside of Chicago called the Velvet Lounge. And, pretty much everyone who came through that club, we’re all still out here making music. He had a jam session on Sundays, and he would hit up any of us who would come through for gigs at his club. He would tell us we could do anything we wanted to do. Having a space like that did so much for so many of us. I think a lot about John Zorn and the Stone. I’ve seen him navigate how to make that space exist and that there are no restrictions on the musicians that he asks to make things. I see that with the gallery that represents some of my graphic score work and that they’re creating space for artists to make sound with no restriction. I think artists and creative folk just have to continue to pursue connection and creating, sometimes forcing networks to happen so that they can make space for themselves and each other.

Given your 2015 i call america exhibition at the Whitney, what thoughts do you have on the success of recent protests to oust Warren Kanders from the Museum’s board? How do you think about the relationship between art and activism?

I support this protest. I thought it was amazing seeing artists come together for that. We shouldn’t be standing for that sort of thing. At the same time, with any museum, with any arts organization, bedfellows are a real problem. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of different sorts of organizations and institutions over the years, and if I dug into some of those institutions, I’m pretty sure I’d find some things that I do not like. And this whole protest was amazing, to watch people come together for it… People who I really care about, and people who have supported me, and to watch the staff at the Whitney also not put up with this. I think it says a lot about the power of people coming together and again, this idea of embodiment that can happen in an online space, even though it is technically not an in-person sort of “embodiment” embodiment… The protests were, but I’m talking about the movement of how it built online was really, really helpful. I think it’s important for — I hope that this set an example to show arts folks that they can use their voices in a collective fashion to create change like this.

How do you think about the relationship between art and activism?

That’s gotten a little weird also, because you can sort of be an activist but not really be doing anything as an artist, except making your “activist art” sort of thing. I just go back and forth with that. At the same time, I go back and forth with that because I was taught that you can’t just make stuff, you have to be there. But, for me, for instance, I’m bouncing all over the world at this point, so I can’t be at the border right now, or I can’t be at some of the protests, but I can make work about some of these things. I recently did a piece in honor of Sandra Bland for a festival in New York, and that’s an example of placing art that I hope continues to shift the conversation. But I’m not certain I can call it activism. I think the connection between art and activism, the way those words have been aligned, has gotten a bit strange, and I think we have to be careful about how we use it. I’ve had arguments with other arts friends about this, and some say the art of making is political in itself and that’s activism in itself. I think that’s kinda weak — I don’t agree with that. I think real activism is about a certain sort of embodiment, is about bringing people together for a singular focus, and I think art making can sometimes be something else. But I also don’t really concern myself too much with thinking about that. I was raised in an environment where I was taught that I had to speak up, so I speak up. That is just in my DNA, and I’m doubtful that will ever change.

What role does problem-posing play within your work?

That’s a really interesting question. I’m still trying to codify a specific type of language, and I still haven’t gotten it to where I would like it to be. And I have purposely chosen sometimes a problematic route in terms of being a maker or an arts person, where sometimes I think about it and go, “Man, I could have just done this like this, and had a career that way,” but I choose to revel in abstraction and try to make sense of abstraction, and try to make sense of the mundane maybe, and trying to make sense of history, which is so problematic. So many problems that just don’t align side by side, and trying to place that in work that has meaning for me.

How should audiences approach answers?

One, I don’t think about audience ever. I don’t like that word. I prefer the word witness, so I think about witness — how should witness approach answers. And maybe that’s just a case of semantics, but there’s something about audience; thinking about audience makes me feel like I’m on a platform somewhere. I’m on display when I think about audience. When I think about witness, I’m reminded that I’m immersed in something. We’re immersed in something together, and we’re all participants in the immersion. I hope that witnesses approach the answers that I’m after in the same way that I am, and they’re just keeping their interest curious and trying to stay open to possibility.

What role, if any, does messiness have within your process?

I love chaos. So much joy can come from chaos. So much strength can come from chaos. So much understanding can come from trying to organize chaos and to try and figure things out. I guess it’s along the idea of problem-solving again.

How does improvisation and collaborative work inform your understanding of your own work?

It’s the root of where I come from. To improvise is to live. Life is an improvisation. To collaborate is to cooperate, and cooperation is what builds community. So I think about those things, but my strength in music comes from an improvisatory art. My love of history comes from being inspired by stories of people improvising. Chapter Four of COIN COIN is about an improvisation, is about a person improvising through a quite traumatic situation, and persevering and moving onwards. So I see that in a lot of different ways. I guess I feel that to be human is to be an improviser, and to be human is to be a collaborator, walking through life with so many other types of people and trying to get from point A to point Z. I guess that’s how it informs my own work.

Which indeterminate encounters have been particularly productive for you?

Life is a surprise, and that’s a thing that I keep learning. There’s a surprise around every corner. This project continues to show me surprises. There are things that have happened in this project that I would have never seen coming. When I first started this project back in whatever year this was, I remember that I thought I was gonna get laughed out of New York. I thought nobody was going to understand what I was after. And this project has taken on a life of its own. And I know some people haven’t liked some aspects of it, and that’s fine. I want this project to represent the diversity of the human experience — or what my mother used to say, she used to say “This project is a sound monument to the human experience.” And I think I’m still going in that direction. I think the work is still walking in that direction. I hope people get inspired from it. I hope they feel hopeful. I hope they find love for themselves, and love for making in it. I have a deep gratitude for what history can teach. The possibility of making something out of nothing is as vast as the universe. It’s not about the tools, it’s about vision — that is something I hope people get from this. Memory, witness can move and shake and challenge and affirm, and present future but can also present past, can place presence in a way that I just think is incredibly affirming and hopeful and shows a certain kind of strength within a particular kind of historical humility.

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