Matana Roberts is anything but traditional. Hailing from Chicago and having deep roots in the city’s jazz scene, she’s come into her own as the mastermind of the expansive COIN COIN series, a twelve-volume exercise in “sound quilting” that crosses time and space to preserve and relate the black experience in America over the past five centuries. So far, she’s released the first three chapters; river run thee, issued by Constellation Records in 2015, is the latest. Outside of her solo efforts, Roberts has made forays into dance and academic work, as well as appearing on recordings from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and TV on the Radio.
I caught up with Matana at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, directly after she had participated in a panel called Musical Interpretations of Middle America. We had an extraordinarily pleasant conversation, her answers neither canned nor under-developed, but instead somewhere in between, as would be expected from someone clearly still discovering her own place and purpose in the world.
I can’t imagine conceptualizing a twelve-volume work in advance of making it – did the idea of COIN COIN come all at once, or how do you organize it?
I grew up hearing all of these stories about certain places and certain people, and when I boiled it down to the stories that had always particularly fascinated me, and represented different historical periods that could be connected, I narrowed it to ten. I wanted to figure out a way that I could challenge myself as a composer by grouping all of these different concepts under a single umbrella – I had started to experiment with some of the ideas in other works and it just wasn’t working out. But I had forgotten that I also like experimenting with solo work and hadn’t made any room for that, so I decided to bookend the ten. That’s how, unfortunately, it turned into twelve [laughs]. I’ll have to stay vigilant.
So it’s all laid out, at least in a narrative sense?
Oh yes. But I am doing it a bit out of order – that’s the only thing that I regret. Like Chapter Three that came out, that should have actually been chapter one. And then Chapter One should have been chapter two, and then on. But at this point, the way it’s looking, I might wind up releasing things not totally in order. Chapter Four will definitely be next, but after that I might jump forward to Chapter Seven before coming back to the timeline.
What attracted you to the collage style that you’ve arrived at?
I was always working on things that way visually, originally just as a way of personalizing my instrument cases. These collage-y, weird, outsider art pieces to carry around. Musically, I was always writing in these smaller snippets instead of larger pieces. I studied at conservatory, but I didn’t study composition; whenever I took a stab at composing I was usually told to do something else [laughs]. It’s how I’ve taught myself how to deal with composition: in these small segments, creating this larger thing. When I was doing visual art, I was always working with these disparate pieces of found objects that, separately, didn’t look so great but en masse suddenly became this whole other thing.
I’m also really inspired by the African-American tradition of quilting, and how quilting was this utilitarian family thing that was a necessary piece of art beyond simply being art for its own sake. My grandmother would talk about it and say that it’d be stitched together from everybody’s old clothing. I’ve always been fascinated about how taking these mundane objects and combining them correctly can make them bloom into this beautiful other thing.
Would you say that your music has the secondary, or even primary, function of historical preservation?
I’ve gotten so much from learning about history, particularly American history; you have moments where you’re having a bad day or a rough time and it’s nothing in the context of history. History has helped me keep my head up and moving forward, and shown me how to connect to people who I may otherwise have no connection to. There’s also some familial guilt – I come from a family of educators and community activists, so making art that had no service was not my path this time around.
I imagine that it’s impossible to avoid some harrowing discoveries in the course of your research – can it be painful or difficult to navigate incorporating that into your work?
It is really painful, and it’s actually one of the reasons that the albums don’t necessarily come out at fast as I would like. I find that dealing psychologically with some of the material that I come across is really challenging. I also think that as an artist you have a responsibility not to over-exploit those people, so I’m constantly playing head trips with myself trying to figure out how to do it without overdoing it. And then how to talk about the painful history without making the people that I’m sharing it with receive it badly or make them feel bad about themselves. The one thing that drives me through it all is knowing how nice my own life is, since these things had to happen first in order for me to be at this point.
Do you give much thought to an intended audience?
I try not to think about it, but I do. The series is my way of trying to deal with sounds that are really difficult for people to take in – figuring out how to experiment with sound and still bring in a diverse group of listeners. To me, narrative is what pulls it all together. I want the intended audience to be people who want to critically challenge themselves, but who come from all different walks of experience. Sometimes, the intended audience will shrink down for a little while, and then push back out, and then shrink back down for a little while. Really, “intended audience” has always been about people who like to take in lots of different things, and I’ve been around people like that my whole life – people who are into really diverse ideas of beauty and music. That eclectic mix itself is actually very collage-like. But whoever can get it, I’m happy.
As you gain international exposure and tour more broadly, do you think that there’s a degree of subject-matter disconnect with audiences abroad?
I go back and forth about that. Because the COIN COIN work is so text-heavy, I’ve always struggled with how to re-create it for other audiences. I toured Chapter One with a translator, which didn’t work so well. The one think that I have to think about, sometimes too much, is the festishization of Americanness and particularly African-Americanness. I find myself having to translate certain things that I wouldn’t have expected – I played a show in Germany and said at the end that it had been a privilege to play for them, and a few people came up after the show saying “well, what do you know about privilege? African-Americans don’t get privilege where you’re from.” No, no, there are different layers of that word and different aesthetic meanings. So sometimes I feel like I’m fighting against generalizations that might make their way to other places.
On the panel just now, you guys were talking about how the Midwestern identity is often projected upon Midwesterners from outside. Being from Chicago, how would you describe it?
There’s just a sort of insularity about it. Sometimes the Midwest represents how certain ideas from the East and West might arrive a little bit later, but not all the time. Some of the most interesting ideas of the avant-garde got their start in the Midwest and emanated outwards. So there’s this give-and-take. I struggle with the Midwestern identity, because I’m constantly inserting myself into places that don’t have it. There’s a sort of Midwestern honesty, but then Chicago is called the Windy City not because of the weather but because of the politics. So the honesty is to be taken with a grain of salt, but there’s a hardworking ethic that’s different from what I’ve seen elsewhere. The big American idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is bullshit, but it’s the Midwest where I’ve felt that the most.
As a collective delusion or as being an actual reality?
Both. To end up in the Midwest was a very particular choice for my ancestors; to get on a train to Chicago, to write letters home to your southern family about how great the city is treating you when in fact it wasn’t at all. Keeping your chin up and pretending that things were going well in order to keep the dream alive. It’s a different kind of fake-it-til-you-make-it than the New York smokescreen, which I’ve actually gotten quite good at.
Obviously you have familial ties to the South – do you feel as strongly connected to the southern musical heritage?
It wasn’t until I experienced a great amount of pain at one time in my life that I really understood what the blues were about. That instant connection to the human experience comes about more from my southern roots more than anywhere else. A lot of the music that I connect to from my southern lineage is about narrative, is about documenting stories – not just love songs, or hate songs, or whatever – but about documentation of a time, a period, and a people.
But I also feel a kind of phoniness there for me, because I’m not from the South. As much as I try and explore these places, it’s through a filter. As much as I was around southern grandmothers and southern grandfathers and southern great-aunties, I’m still not from the South. That’s put me in this weird area where I’m sort of romanticizing, sometimes over-romanticizing, in a way that can affect the work in an over-sentimental sort of way.
It’s difficult to reconcile the sweet old lady you meet in her late life with the sixty years of history she lived through beforehand.
The South is also a mindfuck for me, because some of my family ended up in the North some of them stayed; some of my family fought for the Confederacy. There’s a different sort of reckoning with that history that happens for me here than in Chicago or New York. I remember the first time that I realized that some of the codes that I saw in Harlem, for instance, very much reminded me of the codes that I saw growing up between Memphis and Mississippi – it’s a similar way of being, which I’d never realized before I started spending more time travelling.
Jazz has such a rich history of spiritual exploration – what do you think pre-disposes the style to that?
I’m a weird hybrid in jazz music – I never know how to place myself correctly in the conversation. To me, the roots of jazz music in American spawn from sacred music, religious music, gospel music, and you can still hear all of that in those sounds. The blues, to me, sprung up in opposition to the dogmatic ideology of the black church. I tell people that I’m not really a jazz musician, but I’ve spent so much time with that music that you can hear it in everything that I do. You can say the same thing with jazz and spirituality: it’s not technically sacred music, but you can still see and feel the roots of it. There’s a whole history of musicians throughout the jazz tradition really pulling on that and using it as a tool for exploration.
I’ve heard it from other musicians that play other types of music, though – I had a great conversation with Daniel Higgs, once, who said that it’s important that music is more than a spiritual experience; that you chase after it because it’s the whole of your spiritual life. I think it’s just a microcosm of American music as a whole… what binds us from the beginning never really goes away.
Considering the personal nature of your work, you’re bound to come across some pretty bad mis-readings of it. Does that concern you much?
Sometimes. I think as an arts person you have to have a tough skin. An understanding that whoever you’re giving something to might not get it and that that’s fine. Unfortunately, we’re kind of living in the age of online rage, so that’s changed things. Not only online rage, but immediacy: when you put a record out into the world, you get to hear all about it right away in a way that artists of the past didn’t. They got to take a moment, as word would take a little while to get around. At the end of the day, I’m only a person, and I have to be open to understanding that people’s taking-in of something produced by my specific filters is going to be influenced by their own experiences.
Jazz seems particularly prone to a somewhat prescribed taste – a particularly narrow canon which marks the end of exploring the genre for a lot of people.
It used to really bother me that my records got put in the jazz section – the moment you see my instrument, you think “oh, it’s a jazz instrument, so of course that’s what she’s doing,” and then when you look at my history I get it – Chicago, the people that I’ve played with, etc. But then when you look at this music itself it was a whole thing with my label to see if we could put the record somewhere else – I don’t want to speak for jazz. I have friends dealing with the tradition of jazz in a way that I am not. So I find the idea of gatekeepers – listeners or musicians – really irritating. I feel like I can’t stand up for jazz in the traditional sense because I’ve gotten too frustrated with musicians commenting on what can or cannot be allowed in. But at the same time, if people coming across one of my records find sounds that are a new spectrum for them that introduces them to other people, that makes me really happy.
I think jazz has a problem with being a little bit too all-encompassing, and that my job as a sound experimentalist is to remind people that there are all of these other edges that they can access and explore. That’s why the records are coming out on a rock label, giving me the room to resist being boxed into a corner. I love jazz music, and I will always pay honor to those musicians in some way, but I’m interested in worlds outside of all that.