Maybe music is the best means to tell stories. Not stories that you read in a book or see in a movie, but stories about the world inside us and the world around us, stories about the things and people that came before us that are responsible for our being, for who we are. Because we are more than just a series of events, a personal history, we are representatives of our families and our cultures.
In her ongoing COIN COIN series, Matana Roberts has been excavating and retelling stories about the people who came before her, both in her music and art.
She brought a new chapter to the Veterans Room at the Park Avenue Armory for Jason Moran’s “Artists Studio” series, the multi-media piece Blood.Blue(s): A Remembrance. It was right there in the title, stories about things that had come before, pulled forth from memory and revivified, even if only for an hour.
Roberts led an impromptu-seeming ensemble, the Snare Sextet, of six percussionists—Kate Gentile, Tomas Fujiwara, Qasim Ali Naqvi, Mike Pride, Ryan Sawyer, and Justin Veloso. They were arrayed in a V, the open end facing the audience, the point leading back to Roberts at her station. The performer Geng, credited simply and accurately with “word speak,” was on a balcony, stage right in the performance space.
Blood.Blue(s) began and ended with singing. Roberts and the percussionists repeated an upward perfect cadence on the syllables "ah-um," at first a mantra and then a slow vamp over which she then sang a melody—no words, only syllables. This was beautiful and transporting, setting the performers and audience outside the flow of both normal and musical time, putting a contemplative frame around the performance. This was a still point between two ticks on the clock, a space into which the mind wanders and free-associates.
That was the form of the piece, stream of consciousness but with one well-defined packet of music, memory, and experience succeeding another. Accompanying the performance was a projection of abstract images of her own making. Roberts herself sang, she played the saxophone with her rich, flannel sound, she directed the Sextet (in the program she was credited with Butch Morris’s term “Conduction”). She sampled and looped bits of her own playing and singing, creating a Robert Ashley-like bed, a kind of murmur of the nervous system and the synapses. The loop, turning back on itself over and over, was something like the sound of history embedded in the mind, repeating itself, because the past is never past.
Musically and narratively, this was more abstract than what can be heard of her COIN COIN series on three individual albums, Gens de Couleur Libres (2011), Mississippi Moonchile (2013), and River Run Thee (2015) (all on the Constellation label). Outside of a few of her phrases, and the key use of a parade march rhythm, there was little of the jazz-based AACM sound that is one of her lineages—this was new music.
And it was impressionistic expressionistic storytelling, a narrative of moments independent from chronology. The combination of all the elements—so many that if you picked out one and concentrated on it, you would miss everything else—created a state of relaxed but keen focus, open to what was happening, primed to respond.
There were explicit hints of not just the past but the ambivalent feelings we hold about it in the text Geng recited. There was the refrain—one Roberts herself spoke—of “It’s always good to come home again,” at times qualified by “it’s so perplexing.” What, exactly? Home is never quite the same place on each return, and our home, everybody’s home, this country, is a mighty perplexing, messy place.
Shit is fucked up and bullshit, more so for African-Americans, for whom shit has been fucked up for 400 years. We are in an important and frustrating cultural moment, where the enduring fact of racism and the insistence on the obvious, that black lives matter, are being pressed against the consciousness of white America. And the white America that is in the position to do something about this is putting up resistance. There are the obvious racism cards pulled out by governments large and small, there are all the people who think Trayvon was a thug because he wore a hoodie, there is the insidious racism of rich white liberals who say all the right things but then panic at the prospect of more black kids enrolled in their schools.
Saying that Roberts is bearing witness to all this, past and present, is true and obvious. What is much more powerful is that Roberts is showing the indisputable humanity of African-Americans—maddening in that we should ever have to be in a place where that must be demonstrated, but that’s America, where denying the humanity of African-Americans is one of the original pastimes.
Roberts is pressing memories like dried leaves collected in a book, giving us shadows and outlines, trusting our curiosity and sensitivity. This is very different than jazz and other musics, where the musicians state something and we agree or disagree. She is an artist who uses music as the primary means to create an environment and experience that may not at first be completely comprehensible. It’s meant to secrete itself into a corner of the mind and soul and linger, become its own memory that will then influence how we see and respond to this world around us.
To begin at the end, Roberts and the Sextet brought back the cadence, and she asked the audience to join in. Singing along made one a musician too, binding the audience to the purpose of Blood.Blue(s), realizing Roberts’s ideas, directed by them. For a moment she made us complicit in each other’s lives, and shared humanity overcame the bullshit. That possibility, that optimism from Roberts, is a moral stance, and may be the most important part of her art.