Expressive, engaged and sensual, the works of Matana Roberts face the listener directly. The mixed media artist, self-taught for the most part, not only touches the attentive ear but also repeatedly triggers pressure points of cultural memory. Her experimental sound worlds – often coupled with enveloping visual and spatial elements – are addressed to everyone, challenging our capacities for both multi-sensory perception and reflection in equal measure.
As a musician, Matana Roberts creates pieces, concerts and albums characterized by the sonic and stylistic openness of the Chicago and New York free jazz scenes. Her diverse approaches integrate free modes of playing into pre-structured forms, juxtapose elements taken directly from jazz, rock or traditional music with forms of new music improvisation, and guide the explosive power of free jazz into audibly comprehensible structures. (The Chicago Project, Central Control International 2007; Live In London, Central Control 2011; feldspar, Tour De Bras 2014).
In dealing with her own family history, Matana Roberts is currently developing one of her most wide-ranging projects, which is taking her on a very personal journey of discovery into the Afro-American history of the USA. Coin Coin is an homage in sound to the legendary Marie Thérèze Coincoin, who in the 18th century was able to free herself from her existence as a slave. Matana Roberts envisions this moving sociopolitical story kaleidoscopically through an array of artistic, musical and theatrical ideas. In addition to twelve concept albums, three of which have already been released, her multimedia project consists of texts, graphics, audiovisual installations, workshops and concerts. Coin Coin is emerging as a “panoramic sound quilting” of field recordings, electronic sounds, text recitations, free jazz passages, gospel, blues music and operatic singing – a ›fever dream made of sound‹, as the artist herself describes it, with its own myths and tales.
The concepts of her pieces and albums typically feature collage-like structures, which Matana Roberts steers into performances that transcend genre – as for instance in the COIN COIN Happenings 2010/11 (Fields of Memphis, Trail of a Tear, Mississippi Moonchile and Gens de Couleur Libre); in the series of artistic explorations i call america in 2015; or Blood.Blue(s): A Remembrance 2018. For these site-specific works, the artist develops texts and performance concepts together with graphic scores (e.g. Trail of A Tear 2010, A Breathe 2017). Beyond the experimental combination of sound, image, prose, song, film, objects, and musical improvisation, these works illuminate history and sociopolitical topoi – multiple narratives, historical consciousness and political emphases encounter both preset and improvised structures. The expressivity of her collages continues to be the basis for her numerous immersive concerts and performances, and have overflowed into two exhibitions (I Call America II 2016, jump at the sun 2018) at museum venues. While performing as a musician or as a visual artist, Matana Roberts almost always simultaneously acts as an ethnographer, a storyteller and a politically engaged activist.
Text: Fabian Czolbe
Translation: Andrea Lerner