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.
TJG: You’re a storyteller in the traditional sense, and also through use of your horn, unbound improvisation, visual and live-action installations and pieces, etc. The online age has offered many people many ways to tell their story, often in an interactive kind of way. What do you see and hope for regarding the future of storytelling as an art form?
MR: Good question. I feel like a rogue storyteller—storyteller by default—mainly because there are stories I have inside that I feel are important to share, and if I don’t share them, they may die with me. So I must tell the story. I feel a certain urgency to speak in a non-linear narrative form, and I do not understand where it comes from completely. But I don’t really pay a lot of attention to the movement of storytelling as an art form; maybe I should? Where I come from, I was taught to share your truths always, in any way you can, and so that’s what I’m doing maybe. The digital age is exciting though, in that it’s given us more access to each other while at the same time overloading us so much, that we actually cannot hear what is being told sometimes. I’m all for access, though, and sharing ideas, and history, and human perseverance and hope. It moves me.
TJG: How has your connection to improvisation and spontaneous composition influenced your approach to visual media, as well as your relationship with your own instincts?
MR: Improvisation just fuels me. It’s very natural. I had always assumed it was natural to the human experience but I have since found that, though it’s inherently there, for some, the awareness of it is not there. Improvisation has taught me to trust my creative instinct—always. Which is easier said than done, but I keep doing it, getting more and more comfortable with failure that might arise. I have an adventurous kind of free-spirited—sometimes way over critical—personality, in a good way, in that I like confronting unknowns, terrifying myself in all sorts of ways just to practice different ways of “seeing.” So improvisation reminds me that it’s really not about “jumping in”; it’s about that initial “jump.” The process of getting past all that is full of so many riches, that I feel very grateful about having access to it.
TJG: Can you discuss your association with Gerald Cleaver, and what excites you most about your upcoming performance at The Jazz Gallery?
MR: I have always been a deep admirer of his music and work ethic, and he is a part of my larger global music community. We have maybe played together a few times, but it’s been quite some time. And so I wanted to get a chance to start doing something with him in a group setting on a more regular basis. I hope for this to be the beginning of something interesting.
I just love the Gallery. They have been standing up for me from day one, and I just have so many fond memories with them, and so I will always do something there whenever stars align.
TJG: Will you be performing or working through any pieces from the Coin Coin series?
MR: No, this is all about instinct, confrontation, hope of a different kind, separate from that work.
TJG: How has your journey through the South informed your creative process or your output?
I’m traveler by genetic design it seems—not sure where it comes from. My mother used to say that she knew I’d be traveling the world, as I was hard to keep an eye on because every time she’d look up, I was off somewhere, even as a toddler, as if I had someplace to be. I’m most comfortable inserting myself into places I probably should not be in order to garner a better understanding about communication, migration, history. There is something thrilling about it for me, and the American South gives one lots of opportunities for understanding, misunderstanding, perspective. I find it quite beautiful even in its sadness. I return there almost every year. Earlier this year, I was mostly in Memphis, Tennessee for three weeks finishing research for my next Coin Coin record. But that’s it for Southern travels this year. I’m focused more globally at the moment: Africa, Indonesia, Japan, Ireland and a few odd Europe to Canada by cargo ship bits. I’m ready to expand my globalness, learn about places that have always felt a bit beyond my creative reach—places that have traditions that are unlike the ones I know of so well. I feel like it will give me a lot of new things to bring back into the core values of my creative work.
Matana Roberts plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, August 18, 2018. The first set features Roberts playing solo saxophone; the second set features Roberts on saxophone and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.