Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of the artist.
Visual composer. Mixed media composer. Saxophone player and composer. Critics might have a tricky time clarifying and defining Matana Roberts’ title and contributions because her artistry defiantly evolves. Mingling worlds and visions has been the thrust of her aesthetic since before she can remember.
The Chicago-raised artist’s acclaimed Coin Coin album series—of which chapters One, Two and Three have been released by Constellation in 2011, 2013 and 2015, respectively—explores nuances of memory, history, lineage, expressive instrumentation and “sound quilting.” But this week at The Jazz Gallery, Roberts promises an unscripted performance of saxophone expression both in solo context and in collaboration with drummer Gerald Cleaver. She asks only that Gallery listeners bring with them to each set an “openness and a willingness to journey.”
The Jazz Gallery: A lot of artists are directly (and indirectly) challenging peers and listeners to suspend their perception of genre, categories and labels. Do you think this trend is poised to change the way people perceive sound and music?
Matana Roberts: I think we are living in a time where strict classification is no longer possible as we become better global citizens and constantly sample other cultural values. As an African American artist, I am often having to grapple with the box of just my birthright, and fight to remind people that what they see is not all there is. So for me, in creativity I feel similarly. Art life is not linear; it’s hills, valleys, deadends and odd openings in some of the strangest places. Life can’t be boiled down to just being a “thing.” It’s many things, as is the creative life, in my humble opinion.
TJG: What prompted you to begin creating graphic or visual scores, and how would you describe your relationship with that practice?
MR: Lots of different things, partly because I’ve never been able to understand sound in the kind of tied up, bow-on-the-box way that musicians are taught to inhabit in order to be “professional.” I have a learning disorder and, for a long time, did not understand that the ability to “see sound” as well as “hear sound” was a gift. I always thought it showcased that something was wrong with me. I now know better. Also I have good friends who are great musicians, incredible improvisers—but in the old way of being “ear players.” They couldn’t read music but they could interpret everything else with an incredible accuracy. I wanted to know what my music might sound like if I mixed the traditional aspects of Western music with the old traditional aspects of just music on a global scale that, in some corners of the world, are still practiced—the idea of inhabiting sound, sitting [within] sound. And there’s a really interesting tradition with graphic score making, and I have been lucky to be exposed to musicians who explore visual language. I’m thinking about Anthony Braxton, Pauline Oilveros, John Cage—just to name a few.
TJG: Can you discuss some of your recent mixed media projects, and why it’s important for you to bring sound into other artistic mediums?
MR: My last mixed media performance was at the Park Avenue Armory Veterans room, for snare sextet: saxophone, samplers, mini synths, auxiliary percussion, voices and moving image. I often use historical data to build a lot of my work, and so I used the history of that room to create the piece. I also went to West Africa—Ghana—for research on another project, but also to learn a few different craft techniques with local artisans, and I used those methods to create the scores—a combination base of glass, cotton, wax. The history of that room leans a lot on “craft” taken from many different cultures, and so I decided I wanted to reflect that in the piece.
I also had an exhibition at the Fridman Gallery called “Jump at The Sun,” recently, that was an installation that showcased segments of a single mixed media score while a long-form sound composition/“quilt” ran in the background, and there were mini speakers behind each score that would trigger upon a person stepping in front of it playing a different segment of the sound quilt. Before that I wrote a piece for a 30-person mixed chorus in Berlin, which I used a visual digital score to build. I’m currently creating a mixed media piece for string quartet. I’m getting more and more commissions to create mixed media pieces for other people, so I am exploring that also now.