Matana Roberts is an American composer, improviser, and visual artist. In addition to her solo performance, she has collaborated with dozens of musicians and ensembles, from her own trio Sticks and Stones to groups including Burnt Sugar, Exploding Star Orchestra, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Her visual and performance work has been presented at the Whitney Museum, the Fridman Gallery, and the Bergen Kunsthall. The first three installments of Coin Coin, a projected twelve album saga, weave together visual, musical, and personal material in an experimental tapestry of stylistic and historical breadth.
Roberts spent September 2017 in New York's Madison Square Park amid artist Josiah McElheny's Prismatic Park exhibition, absorbing the history, landscape, and activity of the park, and responding in real time to these surroundings.
Cam Scott corresponded with Matana Roberts after her residency at Madison Square Park, exchanging thoughts on performance, installation, visual scores, and American musics.
CS: This past September, in New York City, you took over the Prismatic Park exhibition by Josiah McElheny for five days. It was an incredibly evolving and involving work of site-based performance. How did the physical space of the park inform your process? Were you scoring the music as you performed?
MR: I was using a process that I partly developed while doing a six-month series of happenings at the Whitney in 2015, called "I Call America." Part of that happening involved having a dedicated space that included all areas of my explorative process—sound, moving image, collage—and working in a trance-like mindset for durational stretches, where I would work while also being observed, using all the elements around me (placed and not placed) to inform the direction of the work. I'm really into duration and endurance so that's a thing for me in everything I do... So yes, I was scoring as I went along.
The park informed me in a few different ways. First, within conversations I had with Josiah [McElheny] about the purpose of the placement of his pieces, the nod to the democracy and depth of it all for him, and then in my research into that particular park which has a pretty fascinating American history. Many spirit worlds run through that one space and I was trying to channel a lot of that in real time, using them as "informants." Another aspect of my work deals with accessing those worlds which human language really has no true descriptors for, and it's all about energy and plugging into a space in ways that are beyond collective man-made tools and group-think. It's another form of really deep listening, and I struggle with it, so I used this work also to work on it.
CS: You started out playing in very public places, where an audience receives the work as an unexpected encounter. At the park I loved watching how your composition merged with and blended the civic soundscape, enfolding buskers, for example, and the din of both traffic and discourse. Did you factor this in while playing? How different does it feel from street performance? Or from durational engagements in galleries, for example?
MR: It's so interesting, I spent some years as a street musician in New York and elsewhere and I assumed my time doing that would prepare me for what I would experience in the park. But no, there were moments that really I can only attach to the experience of that exact moment. It was so refreshing while also being somewhat frightening. But I guess it wasn't street performance in the manner I am used to giving, it was something else—an attempt at allowing strangers/witnesses to enter a more interior world that is not concerned about the comfort or stroking of the listener or performer ego. My goal is to spread ideas of American otherness/experimentalism to a wide array of folk, so it is important to me that my practices and processes be observed inside and outside the gallery, the club, the venue, the institutions, the corner ... I want to reach as many people from as many different walks of life as I can. I want them to see possibility, even if it's not a possibility that speaks to them in the way it does me.
CS: It's fascinating how you use different musical textures and idiomatic material to weave temporalities and stories together. This makes me think of how jazz might be the proper vehicle for something intimate but also pre-personal or historical. How did you embark on the path of this project? Did you discover it in, or with, the music?
MR: It's been a mix of things, but mainly because I don't really place it directly in the jazz medium, or think of it in that way. I’m interested in exploring many different types of American musics and conceptual bents in the work, and so I'm sort of weaving a lot of different elements, mostly focused on experimentation for experimentation's sake if I'm honest.
CS: How much of the work on this project is done without instrument in hand, outside of the studio?
MR: This work of mine in particular is definitely a research-based practice, in that I like to explore the physical places that historically inspire the work. Dealing a lot with migration, and the locality of "place" and what that means or can mean exactly. So for that reason there is a great deal of travel involved so that I can capture the sound of a history, the sound of an Americanness. Next year is exciting for me as I will be exploring more of Europe, Africa, and parts of Oceania for the work.
CS: You've mentioned Panoramic Sound Quilting, a social or collaborative model, as an integral approach to composition. Can you share a few words of explanation? How did you arrive at this practice?
MR: I've always been interested in art that has a cemented utilitarian use within a cultural base. The place of craftwork as an extension of community and collective memory, for instance, I find thrilling, so as I started piecing my process together it became pretty clear that my curiosity was piqued by the ideas backing these practices, that create objects that have use while also making an ode to memory of a collective humanness.
CS: There's a sense of a radically democratic desire in how this might allow you to connect improvisation and composition, for example, or the layering of voices and narratives throughout Coin Coin. Is It fair to say that this is as much an ethical as it is an aesthetic program?
MR: Yes, this is fair to say. I'm interested in making work that adds to community dialogue and so in that sense the ethical questions for me are quite inherent in the work. But most of my aesthetic sense sits in the finished object/evidence that connects it all for me and in some sense also squarely sets my thought process on new paths around a certain cognitive dissonance that can arise from trying to pair the two. They are not always in "concert" in my creative inner world.
CS: You've generated a number of really striking visual scores, after the manner of collage, that appear to use historical dates, numerical data, and more to convey instructions. Do you have a customary approach to notation?
MR: I do. I really enjoy data, working with data, ogling data, deciphering these traces of what gets left behind to be remembered. My approach keeps expanding though, this I am finding and I'm uncertain of where it is taking me sometimes. But the thrill is in moving through the process as much as getting to some finite idea, because it seems to be quite never-ending. Also I have found most of the creative formulas I've come up with are not insertable, really. Each set of data directs its own concept and customizations that are very unique to themselves, and that is the only dependable aspect of my process I am finding so far. They seem to take on lives of their own also...
CS: " ... Breathe ..." is an explicitly political work of memorialization, addressing state violence and anti-blackness in America, and your commentary seemed to really complicate the wealthy, touristed patch of Midtown in which it appeared. There were moments when it felt like a one woman protest. How did you experience this unfolding? How, in your opinion, does music protest?
MR: To me, my personal act of breathing, living, working as I do is an active protest. I stand on the backs of many people across class, gender, and racial lines that never got a chance to express themselves in the manner that is afforded to me and my contemporaries. I make a living out of what some people would naturally assume is "nothing." I see possibility in nothingness, freedom in imagination, joy in historical pain, so my artistic presence is sometimes a bit too jarring for people to handle and I experienced that in the park. I was yelled at a few times, threatened at least once, because I choose to see what they will not. And to be honest, I'm okay with that. It reminds me of just how free I am, and exactly how that came to be.
To learn more about the work of Matana Roberts, click here.