Matana Roberts on “Panoramic Soundquilting,” Living on a Boat and Exploring the South

Music Features

It’s difficult to come up with a better descriptor for Matana Roberts’ dense, enveloping music than the one she uses: panoramic soundquilting. Though the New York-based artist is most associated with the world of jazz, the work she has been doing as part of a 12-album series called COIN COIN stretches far beyond most genre boundaries, especially the recently released Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

Where the first two albums in the series (all of them are out on Constellation Records) hearken back to the potent sounds and politics of late-‘60s work by John Coltrane and the Liberation Music Orchestra, the third chapter is more like a modern classical work. The 12 songs melt into one another creating a collage of drones made by saxophone and synthesizer, a panoply of voices reading and singing, and field recordings that Roberts captured during a nearly month long sojourn through Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. And like the initial chapters, the album attempts to navigate our country’s still troubled history of race relations, and Roberts’ own journey through her past and present.

Paste connected with Roberts at her current home in Brooklyn—a boat docked in Sheepshead Bay—to discuss this new album, her experiences visiting the South for the first time and the art of improvisation.

Paste: So much of COIN COIN Chapter Three revolves around your first trip to the southern U.S. What was your conception of that part of the country before you went there?
Matana Roberts: It was kind of like a fairy tale, but like a nightmare fairy tale. That’s how it was described to me in different ways by family. I spent a couple years of my life as a kid living in Durham, N.C., and I had some inkling of what it might be like but not really the deep South. I didn’t have an understanding of the deep South, so this trip was really eye-opening. I’ve been all over the world, and there has been no place ever as foreign to me as the state of Mississippi. At the same time spending this time in the South made things that were foreign to me that I experienced in the Midwest make more sense because I realized it was a Southern aesthetic that I was experiencing. It was really interesting to see just how beautiful that part of the United States is and notice these little things that are happening to push it in a progressive direction while still paying attention to its history.

Paste: Before you went, did you already have the concept for the album in mind, knowing that you were going to be capturing field recordings and doing interviews with people down there?
Roberts: Yeah, I absolutely did. All the segments of the project have been planned out for a very long time, and I have a certain working aesthetic that I am dealing with. I’m using history as a place of inspiration but also as a way to use it to make sense of data. History is really just the collection of data. I saw it as a chance to go down there to collect content, but not clearly be sure how I was going to weave that content. I just felt like I was going to find fabric and then come back to NY and try to weave that fabric together in different ways.

Paste: What was some of your favorite things that you got ahold of in this process of collecting?
Roberts: Standing next to a couple of Hell’s Angels in the Mississippi State Senate house saying the Pledge of Allegiance was really special. Having my bags and person checked through as hardcore as those Hell’s Angels. That was really fascinating. You know, small Southern towns…one thing that they have that small Northern towns don’t really have are church bells everywhere. You hear church bells all the time. I only really hear things like that when I go to Europe, these small towns in Germany and Poland. I love language and I love accents, so having these moments of understanding that someone is speaking English to me but I have no idea what they’re saying. That was really fascinating. And then having these moments of wondering…I have my own culture filter about some of these things, and having to kind of check myself a few times. And understanding that maybe the way someone was speaking to me or directing themselves towards me had nothing to do with the color of my skin. But because I know that history so well, I’d hear things in a certain way and go, “Oh no, wait, what was that?” There was just so much to take in. And the food, god, the food. I’m going to these places where asking for a salad is the wrong thing to do. I remember I was at some restaurant in Louisiana and I’m looking at the menu and I go, “Alright, fried this, fried that. Steamed vegetables! Alright I’m gonna go for that.” The steamed vegetables come out covered in a layer of cheddar cheese. On that trip, I said I’d have one gut-busting fried meal a week and that was impossible! I just gave up.

Paste: I wanted to ask about how you use language and the texts that you were reading from on this record. On so many of the songs, the words start piling on top of each other. You can pick out little bits and pieces, but it’s nearly impossible to follow one narrative thread. What was your thinking on that?
Roberts: I’m really devoted to a certain sort of collagist aesthetic and I like what happens when all these sounds cross that are not necessarily completely related to each other. Then you listen back to them and it creates this whole other sonic palette. I call my, for lack of a better term, method of composition “panoramic soundquilting.” I’m definitely trying to quilt with all these different sounds and textures and it’s the only way I’ve been able to make sense of the different weaves which I’m trying to use within a historical narrative. And sometimes it doesn’t work out so well, sometimes it does. I never can really tell until I completely finish an idea or a series of ideas together. And in the case of this record, it worked out OK.

Paste: Some of the words on the album come from the book Dhow Chasing In Zanzibar Waters. What can you tell about that text?
Roberts: It’s a sea captain by the name of G.L. Sullivan who was a kind of bounty hunter of illegal slave shapes. He would intercept these illegal slave ships that were generally going to the U.S. because slavery had been banned in the U.K. five years before it had been banned here. But there were still ships making their way to the U.S. He wrote this diary, he kept a ship’s log about his experience and he published it as part of the abolitionist movement in the 1870s. It kind of disappeared and then got picked up again in the ‘60s and published once more and then it disappeared again. I collect photos from the turn of the century and am really fascinated with ephemera. I was looking for photos of African slaves. I’d seen drawings, but I’d never seen on the ship photos. I had heard that this book had those photos and had this narrative. At the same time I was doing an artist residency at Amherst College in Massachusetts where I had access to this amazing library system, and they indeed had it. I made a copy of the book, but it was so painful to give it back. I wanted to figure out a way to buy it, there were no other copies of it. It was just so fascinating to read because at the time I was already into boats and waterways and thinking about American migration in terms of tributaries and rivers and waterways. Around that time, I also traced some of my lineage through Ellis Island. I just became so fascinated with it that I wanted to figure out a way to pull it into the COIN COIN work. I’m nerding out in different ways on this record, and I’m thankful that people are accepting of it. I was very nervous about putting this out.

Paste: That’s surprising to hear because almost everything you’ve done up to this point has been so acclaimed. I wouldn’t think you’d be nervous about putting anything out there.
Roberts: You know, I live in New York City and this is a city where people praise you up and down all the time because they want something from you, you know what I mean? But also this is a solo record whereas the last two records were these ensemble records. On the ensemble records there’s a little subterfuge in there where I can be like, “Alright, well, you know, that’s not completely on me.” But on the solo record, that’s all me. There’s nothing there that’s not me.

Paste: Because you were the only person on this album, is that why, according to the liner notes, this took only three days to record?
Roberts: Well, no. What’s not on there is for the last two years I did some solo tours where I was experimenting with the work, using different setups, trying different things. And then I did a big performance at the Whitney of the some of the sound collage work I’ve been working. So what went in the studio in those three days is really like, two years’ worth of work.

Paste: That makes sense. Obviously a work like this needs some time to get put together.
Roberts: What you do hear in the studio though is what I feel Is probably my strongest strength where I feel most confident, the most strongest creative skill that I know that I can plug into and where I mentally had to tell myself to plug into it during those recordings: my skill at improvising and improvisation. I really had to anchor myself to that and close my eyes and say, “Remember, you might not be a master musician yet, but you’re a solid improviser, which means you know how to do this. If you think confidently about it, you can weave it together, you can make it work.”

Paste: Was there a point in your musical education where you realized that you had a knack for improvisation?
Roberts: Yeah, when I started playing music I was eight years old and it was through free music programs in the public school system. I was able to get free instruments, and I was a clarinet player for a long time. I wanted to be an orchestral player and I realized I started playing saxophone on the side and I noticed that there was this difference in how secure I felt dealing with each instrument. There’s a certain sort of natural security that I felt improvising and dealing with those traditions that just felt different from dealing with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. There was just something, and I still to this day don’t understand exactly what that is. I used to do these orchestral competitions as a teenager and you wear this concert wear: white shirt, black skirt all the way to the ground. And under that skirt, my knees were shaking. But I noticed when I performed on saxophone that wasn’t happening. I also grew up in a family that really had no money but my parents were really resourceful. So I felt like I had a front row seat to the improvisation of just living, which has really helped me now. I used to lament about that. You lament about being a poor kid who didn’t have all the opportunities as some of the wealthier kids had. But I was able to watch how one becomes resourceful and it’s something I’ve had to use time and time again as an artist in New York City.

Paste: On your website, you talk at length about your mother and how, before she passed away, you talked to her about taking this trip down South. I was curious to know what your mother thought about your artistic pursuits.
Roberts: The saddest and most melancholy thing about that trip was that we had always talked about doing that together and when I finally ended up in this one town that we had talked about going to together, I just started crying because I knew how happy she would be to know that I finally made it there. On her death bed…it was one of those things where you rush home, I had to jump on a plane and I didn’t really pack anything, and in my bag I had some of my old COIN COIN scores and I had never shown them to her. I don’t know why I hadn’t shown them to her, and the moment she saw them she completely lit up, and she said, “You ask musicians to play this?” It was one of my graphic scores with like all these colors and it was just…my mom at the moment was in traction. Her spine had collapsed from this ovarian cancer and she couldn’t walk anymore and she’s laying in bed in this hospice and to see her light up like that it just was everything. She was the most supportive of me exploring experimental art, whereas I had other people in my family…I have an uncle who was always like, “You gotta write that hit. Once you write that hit then you can go off and do like, all this weird stuff.” And so trying to explain to family members that I don’t know how to do that, and some of this is partly their fault! My father was a vinyl collector and some of the first records I was hearing was Albert Ayler and Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble [of Chicago]. So I was always around these experimental sounds. But no one expected me to grow up to do this in particular, I think they all thought it was a bit of a phase. The sad thing is my mother never got to see these records released. She got to see a few performances and that’s the one thing that does pull at me a little bit. I’m not sure if I would have dove into this project so wholeheartedly if I had known that she was going to die so young because most of the women in my family live into their nineties, so we’ve always had this expectation. She was 52 years old. When I first started this project, I bounced it off her first, she was the first person I called, and I said, “Mom, you know, I have this crazy idea.” Like if I had called her up and said, “I think I’m gonna move onto this boat in the middle of the winter,” she would’ve been, like, “Go for it!” Everybody else is like, “Matana, there’s something not quite right, she’s just a little abnormal, she’s too artsy, blah blah blah.” So I miss my mother for that.

Paste: Since you brought it up, what inspired you to start living in and working on a boat?
Roberts: I spent a lot of free time on the waterways in New York. It’s kind of like my alternate life. If I could just get through this work, what I’d love to do next is the history of the waterways in New York City. And I got fascinated with the small islands off the Hudson that you could only get to by boat. This boat kind of fell into my lap. I had to move; I was living in Harlem and I had to move and I only had a certain amount of time and all of a sudden this boat popped up for rent and I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to…” I’m of the camp that certain things happen and if they happen easy, it means you’re supposed to take it and run with it. That’s exactly what I did. I also was very curious about this part of Brooklyn. This is the part that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s super old school, working-class Brooklyn that’s very different from what people think of when they think of artsy Brooklyn.

Paste: Something I’ve come to learn about you over the past few months is that you are very active on Twitter and social networks…
Roberts: Yes, it’s out of control! It’s completely out of control. And on Twitter you can watch me struggle because I get into loops. I’ve never been this active on Twitter and I decided this year that I was just going to go for it for a little while. And I get in these loops where it’s, like, “OK, Matana, step away from the MacBook.” I’m also kind of worried about what it’s doing to my life. I’m not so sure it’s a good practice to have.

Paste: Is it good though to be able to get these things off your chest about what’s going on in Ferguson and the state of race relations in the U.S.?
Roberts: I hope so. I make the type of music that I make because I want people to have a certain sort of awareness about their surrounding environment and their community. That’s the core of who I’m trying to be as an art-making person. So I see it as a powerful tool of connecting with people about things that really matter me. And then lately I’ve been showcasing some pedantic stuff. You know, talking about silly TV shows. But I’m really trying hard to make sure that I’m focusing on these issues. It’s just such a strange time.

Paste: Is it hard to stay hopeful in times like these?
Roberts: For me, it actually is because the work that I’m focusing on is and the things that I’m really into are about history and history is often on this constant repeat. It’s a sad state of affairs but what always repeats is the hope, is the change. What always repeats is the progression before someone stupid pulls us back again and we have to push forward again But the fact that these same issues are coming back to—the same group of people that within my ancestry that’s the thing that troubles me.

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