Matana Roberts explores radically different musical settings

Entrevue réalisée par Alain Brunet

renseignements supplémentaires

Originally from Chicago, Matana Roberts, whom we must recognize as a non-binary person, has become a clear and powerful conceptual leader of this music at the confluence of contemporary writing and improvisation. They return to Montreal, one of their favorite ports of call and a former resident, to report (among other music) on the 5th chapter of her ambitious Coin Coin project, released last fall on Constellation Records.

Each part of Coin Coin explores radically different musical settings, from the free jazz and post-rock eruptions of Chapter One to the solo noise collage of Chapter Three. Featuring a new ensemble steeped in jazz, improvisation, new music and avant-rock, helping to expand the project’s existing sonic palette, Chapter Five is no exception, we can read on their Bandcamp page.

On their most recent recording released in September 2023, Matana Roberts were joined by fellow alto saxophonist Darius Jones, violinist Mazz Swift (Silkroad Ensemble, D’Angelo), bass clarinetist Stuart Bogie (TV On The Radio, Antibalas), alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle (Eye Contact, Sumari), pianist Cory Smythe (Ingrid Laubrock, Anthony Braxton), vocalist/actor Gitanjali Jain and percussionists Ryan Sawyer (Thurston Moore, Nate Wooley) and Mike Pride (Pulverize The Sound, MDC). The album is produced by TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone, who also contributes synths. 

Before their Montréal concert on March 8 2024, Matana Roberts answers to PAN M 360 questions.

PAN M 360 : Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the garden…is your latest installment as a  composer, improviser, saxophonist, and visual artist. An album has been released on Constellation, a few months ago. So how  is this installment « transcripted » in a live performance? Instrumentation? Interaction? Gesture?

Matana Roberts: The work is not transcripted. It is a combination of western notation, graphic notation, improvisation, and a series of directives. It really depends on the chapter that we’re talking about. The current chapter has not been performed, so there is a lot I can’t really answer yet, but we’re looking at opportunities to do that. All the chapters represent a sound language I’m trying to codify called panoramic sound quilting, and that comes with a series of information, notation and knowledge around improvised and creative music. 

PAN M 360: How would you briefly describe the evolution of Coin Coin vast project after 5 chapters done?

Matana Roberts: All I can say is that it has been a real journey that is still unfolding. I feel very privileged to have been given the space to create this work, and see no end in sight yet!

PAN M 360: Has the first motivations of the Coin Coin project been preserved from point A to now?

Matana Roberts : Yes, pretty much. The Coin coin work is a monument to the human experience, regardless of where we come from, what blood runs through our veins, we are all connected through the emotions, trials and tribulations of humanness.

PAN M 360  : How new styles and musical influences has also shaped the recent chapter of your creative life, as a composer and multi-disciplinary artist?

Matana Roberts : I don’t feel I have witnessed any new styles or new influences, rather than just life, living, trying to have a holistic existence, staying connected through art and community.

PAN M 360 : How your own human being and artistic identities have changed since the beginning of this project and how can we perceive it as listeners and observers?

Matana Roberts : I’m evolving just like any human. The only dependable option that we have is change. I’ve had many experiences in many ways to consider an art existence. I feel very privileged that I’ve never had to corner myself in to be one type of person or one kind of way.

PAN M 360 :  : The musicians gathered ont your most recent record is quite an eclectic crew!  It also reflects your own great eclecticism and interests to many artistic sources. Can you talk about those different collaborators backgrounds and tell us the way you made them interactive and creative?

Matana Roberts : When this project is done, it will represent a very wide community across genre, medium and just life experience. Many of the people on the Coin Coin records represent people who I really admire and who have also shown me a great deal of support through my time of growing and changing and exploring creativity. 

PAN M 360 : Of course, a recording session is not a live performance. You can invite people in the studio that have other activities, other solo careers or engagements. So who is traveling with you?  Who are your key collaborators in 2024?

Matana Roberts : This is a very difficult question in 2024. Many networks for music are struggling. Some are dying. It’s not much better in the visual arts. So I don’t really think about who is traveling with me. I just think about opportunities I can create so that more musicians and artists can survive. There’s no one I can specifically say, as the list would be too long, and I would leave too many people out, but I feel very grateful that I have a large pool of people to choose from, to create with, and to collaborate with, who represent many different places, perspectives, and proclivities. 

PAN M 360 : As a composer, Roberts draws upon strategies associated with the post-war avant-garde, including John Cage and Fluxus member Benjamin Patterson’s conceptual approaches to scoring and performance. The immersive work of Maryanne Amacher, in which “sound and the body almost collaborate” is another key influence.  

John Cage, Benjamin Patterson and Maryanne Amacher were visionary artists at their time. We understand that their post-war avant-garde legacy is crucial for your own creative approach.  Can you give us some examples of their compositional visions within yours?

Matana Roberts : I’m not able to specifically point to anything that would make sense to anyone else but me. Overall, I really look up to the way that these artists lived and the way that they carried themselves and moved through their work. I find their presence in and outside the canon deeply inspirational and compelling even so many years later, after so much of the work was created. To me, it seemed that they really lived their truths and it sat squarely in their work. 

PAN M 360 : Matana Roberts’ visionary project exploring African-American history through ancestry, archive and place. Weaving together elements of jazz, avant-garde composition, folk and spoken word, Roberts Porn tells the story of a woman in their ancestral line, who died following complications from an illegal abortion.

Since many decades, the re-discovery of African-American history remains highly important for so many afro-descendant visionary artists. It’s still crucial and we want to know how that is for you, as a human being living in North America?

Matana Roberts : I have lived all over the world and am a constant traveler. I can’t really relate and just claim North America in my worldview about my work. It is where I was born, but it is not where I remain emotionally, personally, and spiritually. I’m not an American citizen as much as I am a global citizen and I take that very seriously. Also, it’s very important to stress that regardless of what people continue to say about the Coin Coin work, the focus is not just on African-American history. I get offended when people try to keep it in that corner, the Coin Coin is about the American experience but from a deeper globalist perspective and it’s important that it is shared. I use my own ancestry as jump off points into areas of human concern that affect all of us, regardless of where we come from. My interest in history is no different than anyone else’s, and should not be cornered culturally in the way that some are asking. Thank you for your understanding. 

History is cyclical. Everything that is happening now we have seen before in different layers, different times, different rhythms, and we must look to history to constantly learn how to move forward instead of continually moving backwards.

PAN M 360 : At a time when reproductive rights are under attack, her story takes on new resonance.  Can you please give us some more elements of that issue through your own comprehension and your artistic response to that issue ?

Matana Roberts : The issue is very clear on the record, and also in the record liner notes that I personally wrote. It would be worthwhile to give that a look, but basically a person‘s bodily agency belongs to them regardless of sex, gender, race, social economic status. Your bodily agency should not be dictated by the state, and that is the issue. 

PAN M 360 : By unpacking family stories and conducting extensive research in US public archives, Roberts has created a rounded portrait of a woman who is, as their lyrics put it, “electric, alive, spirited, fire and free.”  You are going to perform on March 8, what does it mean for you being on stage that day in Montréal?

Matana Roberts : Well, until you asked this question I didn’t realize that March 8 was international women’s day. That’s very interesting! But overall Montreal is one of my favorite cities in the world. It was my home for a time, it has given me special things, time and time again that has allowed me to think about my own creative ethos, and just my place in the world as a human. It is one of the few cities in the world that when I visit, I feel like I am at home again, so I love playing Montreal. I love coming to Canada. and I hope it will remain that way for many years to come.

PAN M 360 : Thank you so much for your answers, Matana!Matana Roberts : Thank you very much for the wonderful questions, all the best to you!

As part of Suoni Per Il Popolo’s off-season program, Matana Roberts and guests perform this Friday, March 8 at Sala Rossa, 7:30pm INFOS & TICKETS HERE.

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