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EXCLUSIVE: Matana Roberts Part One: 'COIN COIN', #BlackLivesMatter and Beyonce, Jay Z Baltimore Bailouts

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Jun 16, 2015 02:03 PM EDT

For the past eight years Matana Roberts has been at work on her Coin Coin series exploring themes of history, memory and ancestry through narrative, musical and visual compositions. The multi-chapter composition of self-described “panoramic sound quilting” exposes mystical roots and delves into the intuitive spirit traditions from several pockets of American pastoral past. In 2011, Constellation records began to put out the Coin Coin project, now up to it’s third release: Chapter 3 entitled River Run Thee.

A set of solo compositions for electronics, multi-tracked voices and her staple saxophone, River Run Thee directly deals with the American waterways and what transpired through nautical transportation in the past interspersed with field recordings and spoken-word passages. From Sticks And Stones in the early aughts to her solo and ensemble work on Constellation and Central Control records, Matana has made a name for herself as an internationally renowned composer, bandleader, saxophonist, sound experimentalist and mixed-media artist.

Late last month, Matana presented Coin Coin: The Remix, a redux of River Run Thee at The Kitchen. Joined by drummer and percussionist Tomas Fujiwara with video work conceived by Daniel Marcellus Givens, the performances offered two rare reworked stylings of Chapter 3 in relation to the first two: Coin Coin Chapter 1: Gens des Coleur Libre, and Coin Coin Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile. To wit, the two-night residency held the celebratory honor of the series five-year release anniversary.

In this first segment of a two part series we caught up with Matana to discuss The Kitchen performance, life living on a boat and what pop culture means to the Black Lives Matter movement.

CLASSICALITE: This winter your release of Chapter Three entitled river run thee, continues on the path of your twelve part COIN COIN series you’ve dubbed ‘panoramic sound quilting.’ What aspect of the video score evoked two solo works for this chapter?

Matana Roberts: When I first put the series together it was initially only ten chapters based on the history and the nature of the different stories I spent time looking at on the American history narrative I wanted to explore. I also wanted to figure out a way to challenge myself as a composer. Then, I realized I left out one of the things I love doing: the solo performance. I composed two solo segments to bookend the series. One solo segment to specifically deal with my interest in working with video -- I've kind of been working with video from the beginning of the series, trying to figure how exactly I want to utilize it and not just use it as a spectacle of some sort.

The other solo segment of the work will be quite different as I'm working with a video artist instead of doing the video work myself. My video work process has become so insular in a way that I wanted to see what I might gain from how someone else takes to the instructions and information I give them. That's why I brought on Daniel Marcellus Givens, who did some of the first video work for the ‘Coin Coin’ series before I started doing it myself.

 C-LITE: How was the collaborative experience performing reworked versions of Chapter 3 at The Kitchen with Givens a few weeks back?

MR: I see these collaborations more as live sound experiments, a live sound collage using a lot of ideas from Chapter 3 while giving a nod to the other two chapters. If people were really listening they heard snippets of them. I also used low-fi samplers to try to create a live concert length sound collage, that to me, weaves in a lot of the ideas that I like to do with a live ensemble.

The performance at The Kitchen was also a celebration of the series release in May of 2011. I like to use these opportunities as chances to experiment, which means they could be a complete failure but I don't know how else to work.

 C-LITE: Your reasoning for not staging the performance as a straightforward run was because you wanted see what else you could pull out of this piece of work?

 MR: I feel it needs more work and more ideas of consideration. I also need a break from doing every aspect of it. I've noticed that when I do this music with different people, which is one of the reasons I put it together so that I could formulate a language that I could bring in different people to kind of work through the system, I like the different things people bring from their own personalities. Improvisation is very much a language of personality. I found it's always good to have at least one person who's familiar with the language before I move other people in and I found that to really be key in my ensemble music.<

C-LITE: When creating these mixed media compositions does the ideation for the video score come first in your process or the narrative?

MR: The story is always the base. It's not necessarily a layer to the story, rather particular ideas from some point in history that I'm looking at that relates to the work for me. Then it moves into working with my hands. In terms of creating visual art, I really like the feeling of paper between my hands and painting and drawing and all these things. My video process was to take what comes after creating the physical art and then try to collage them into video. In my work I always want to go with the craft part over dealing with the digital material because I don't want to ever get too over-involved in becoming a digital artist. I just have an uncomfortable relationship with technology in some sense, in terms of the ways it's kind of taking over our lives...  

C-LITE: Your Twitter account is awe inspiring. The majority of your posts are re-tweets, all of which are great information on aspects of human rights and environmentalism. One that struck me in particular was in relation to Beyonce and Jay Z possibly having funded the bailouts in Baltimore and how that slightly regained your spirit in pop music.

 MR: Make no mistake, I think I said in the tweet “a tad”and when I say "a tad of myself" I mean a very tiny part of myself. Because, at that time people were saying "Beyoncé and Jay Z are being humble and blah-blah-blah." No, no; let’s not get it twisted. The thing about the part music industry their in, their very brand conscious. And they have to be. Maybe they are being humble. There are people who listen to their music that don't, you know, agree to that sort of thing. Jay Z is kind of in bed, they are bedfellows with that part of the music industry. You really can't be radical in the things you're saying, or you can, but if you do there is just a sort of feeling. Part of me was like, "great”.

One of the biggest problems with Ferguson was just seeing all these young kids trying to build this movement and their looking up to these folks because music has always supported revolutionary ideas, right. But when that first started you barely heard from some of those people and it was because this idea of branding has become huge. I participated in conferences and talks about music with the Future of Music Coalition in Washington DC. Kids are becoming more business conscious because so many people in pop culture are participating in this branding world. I mean, I was happy to see and ok with someone with some money and some power within that part of the music industry stepping forward a little bit. But there was also a part of me that understands why they don't want that, you know. Because at the end of the day there trying to stack paper. I don't think it would necessarily hurt them that much considering how much money they've made, so I've had mixed feelings about it. I used to love Jay Z way back in the day.

I would never throw Beyonce under the bus. Women throwing women under the bus, I just don't support that. She’s had to play this game, he's had to play this game, they’re doing what they can do and we're all doing our part. I guess I’m just excited to see their doing their part; this is a part they can do. I'm not gonna criticize them too much.

And I'm glad you liked the retweets because I just feel Twitter is such a weird place. When I first joined Twitter I would write stuff and was like why am I doing this, I'm not really adding to any sort of conversation. I was reading this study the other day on how “likes” raise endorphin levels.

 C-LITE: That makes total sense.

 MR: Isn't that scary? That's so scary. I bounced around with different digital platforms to try to experiment with how I can reach people and spread ideas. I think Twitter is good for spreading ideas and so I try to retweet ideas. I often clear out that Twitter feed because sometimes it goes in such a negative direction. Is there anything good out there we can talk about?I try to not get attached to clickbait, which is very easy to do on Twitter. I’m trying to be careful but every now and then I'll write something and then I'll have some late night where I'll wake up in the middle of the night and go "I can't believe I said that, why did I say that." It’s very easy to be misunderstood in a 140 characters so I get nervous about that. I sometimes retweet things that are just like "whoa I can't believe someone thinks like that," but it's important for other people to know. I also try to retweet opportunities for artists. I've recieved a lot of public support, grants and commissions that have brought me to this particular point so I try to make artists aware of that as well. And paying attention to the environment is also important to me.

 C-LITE: I love the simplistic way you worded the Beyoncé and Jay Z tweet. And yes, in 140 characters you can often be misconstrued, however, I saw where you were going and I had the same feeling when the news broke.

 MR:  Like I said, that's something they can do, that's something they should do. I could have gone on a whole Twitter rant about branding but, no, I'm not gonna do that. At the end of the day they are doing what they can do. So, what is it that I can do instead of criticizing other people about what they are doing? They are actually trying, they actually did something. Twitter can be such an ugly place it's such a reminder of how much work we still have to do. I worry about how these tools are effecting creative people and how it's creating more noise in our heads then we need. I feel like a hundred years from today they might be able to look at the quality of the artists' work and see the effects from the digital culture.

Thank you for a great concert, Matana!

Posted by Fridman Gallery on Wednesday, June 10, 2015

 C-LITE: Switching gears, you just released an entirely new piece, "Always", on Relative Pitch Records. Where does this fit into the Black Lives Matter events, the Baltimore issues and going back even further into the ‘COIN COIN’ series?

 MR: It’s not related to the ‘COIN COIN’ series at all. I like trying to keep the rhythm of putting out a record a year and so the record was going to come out. The 'COIN COIN' Chapter 3 record has all these different ideas that I love and love exploring. But I also wanted to get an opportunity to just deal with the bare core of where my work comes from and that's dealing with the saxophone all by myself. I love giving solo performances that are just solo saxophone. The Chapter 3 record is saxophone, voice, text and all these different things so I realized that realeasing them in the same year was a good thing to do just to showcase the different things I'm interested in. I also wanted the opportunity to support a local label. I owe a lot to Constellation Records.

It's all this circular thing as a musician: you put fifty dollars in one musicians hand and its gonna come back to you. I'm hoping what they've started with that label in terms of community building comtinues. It's a great luster of people there putting out records by some really interesting musicians of this time. I'm really honored they asked me to do something.

 C-LITE: You're really a humanitarian at heart. It’s hard nowadays, everyone is always so disconnected.

 MR: New York City is hard and art people are very sensitive. We're all so sensitive. I've just seen so much; I've seen artists fly and I've seen artists die. I've seen this in-between of just weirdness. Artists don't have the space to be what they want to be. I don't know what I'm supposed to ultimately be doing but I've been trying to use my work as some way to piece those ideas together and give voice and support to anyone that has any interest in creativity.

Be sure to take a read over at Matana Roberts Part Two: Living on a Boat, Surfing the Rockaways and the NYC Waterways Code of Honor where we dive into her experience living on a boat, newfound love of surfing, sustainable living and the rules of the NYC waterways.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Matana Roberts, Chapter 3, River Run Thee, Black Lives Matter, Beyonce, jay-z, Constellation Records, Coin Coin, Classicalite Q&A

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