Download: Matana Roberts's Intense, Cacophonous "Pov Piti"
With anguished "scream sing," lyrical sax pyrotechnics, and a 16-piece ensemble engaged in a blustery dissonance, composer Matana Roberts has made one of the most arresting LPs of the yearlocal or otherwise. Her Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (out now via Constellation) is an hour-long suite about the African experience in America, reaching as far back as the slave trade. Employing her own graphical notation, her scores for Chapter One (the first in a 12-part series) are a vibrant patchwork of traditionally notated song segments, xeroxed photos, clusters of words, geometric shapes, and colorful drawings. Somehow translated into sound in a Montreal recording studio, the music is similarly collage-like: snatches of traditional American folk songs ricochet across the room, bursts of Ornette spiral from spiritually uplifting catharsis to pure cacophony, muted drones remind you why Godspeed! You Black Emperor love her. Everywhere, Roberts sets a scene with her spoken-word narratives then provides an emotional counterpoint with her edge-of-forever soloing. The nearly eight-minute "Pov Piti" is bleeding with expressive post-rock crescendos, smeary Sun Ra bounce, and a jagged sing-song that kickstarts the album's narrative in 1742. It used to take days for Roberts to recover from its far-beyond-intense scream solo.
Download: Matana Roberts, "Pov Piti"
Q&A: Matana Roberts on "Pov Piti"
What is "Pov Piti" about?
It's based on an old Creole folk song called "Pov Piti Mamzelle ZiZi" that is basically about a girl with a broken heart, though there are many versions. But what you have on that track is combination of segments. It starts with "Pov Piti" and then goes into an improv practice I call "oral memory," where I speak the memory that I have written in. In this segment I am trying to live a slave girl's story, and then it leads into another piece after that. It is hard to break this piece into "tracks" because each Coin Coin segment is written as a full-length concert piece with no breaks.
How does it fit into the rest of the Coin Coin series?
Each Coin Coin score is dealing with my interest in formulating my own mode of visual notation. Each score is a combo of traditional western notation and visual scoring and sound sculpting techniques for improvisers across sound traditions. Each segment of Coin Coin is dealing with some historical story I am interested in as it relates in some part to my own ancestral oral history that I have been researching.
How did the musicians react to using your use of "graphic notation" instead of a traditional score?
I'm very careful about whom I pick to play this music. It takes a certain kind of open-minded improviser to deal with it. All the wonderful musicians on this record treated my notation with a great deal of love and respect.
The vocal piece in the first half of this song seemed like it would have been physically and emotionally grueling for you to perform...
When I first [performed] this piece back in 2006, it would take me about two to three days to recover physically. But I incorporated this into this chapter because I am very much interested in the experiential nature of creating. Coming from a line of people that sometimes had to scream inside as well as out, I just wanted to know what it felt like. It's a lovely contradiction, incredibly taxing, but at the same time wonderfully freeing. Now I'm able to do it in ways that don't wear me down like it used to, but it's still something. I actually have a hard time listening to these parts of the record...
A crew of Montreal musicians play on this. How did you balance time between Montreal and New York?
It was tough. Montreal and NYC are both great cities, but the community vibration is just very different and it always took me a few days to readjust myself to each locale. While in Montreal the last few years, I was a visiting scholar, involved in a research project between McGill U and Guelph University called ICASP, Improvisation, Community and Social Practice. It's an international research project that explores musical improvisation as a model for social change. I helped them develop a music improv program for at-risk youth at a Canadian drop-in center, using some of the group building tactics I use in the Coin Coin pieces and also using some tactics by other types of music I have been inspired by over the years, such as hardcore, punk, hip hop and new wave.
What's the most memorable show you've ever played in New York City?
One time I did a Coin Coin show at Tonic, where I bound and chained my body on the stage because, again, using this work as experiential work, I wanted to "know" the sensation of being chainedwill never do that again. I chained myself up a bit to tight, and had no time to readjust. It was really epic trying to play the saxophone and conduct a band this way... Another Coin Coin show I did in NYC where some audience members walked out and asked for their money back because they said it wasn't "real jazz." Also, some of the shows I did with dancer Savion Glover and poet Reg E. Gaines when I first got to NYC at the old Knitting Factorythat was always an amazing experience. I got to meet and sit with Alice Coltrane because of that. Most memorable recent show would have to be last spring with Merce Cunningham dance at the DIA. During the rehearsal Merce came up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek because he loved the sound of my saxophone. That was a really special moment for me, and because of that one I got to sit at a dinner table afterwards with some of my idols: Björk, David Berman and La Monte Young. Oh, and recently at the Kitchen with sound giants George Lewis, Amina Claudine Myers and Richard Teitelbaum... Take your pick.
What's your favorite place to eat in New York?
Diana's Dumplings on Broome and Eldridgebest deal in town. And then a hop skip and jump to either the Doughnut Plant on Granddangerous place that joint isor a little longer walk to Lula's Sweet Apothecary on East 6th, where everything is milk and dairy free and ridiculously amazing.