Explore Program Notes

Composer Portraits: Matana Roberts

I’m under arrest—for what? For what? For what? (8:29-:34)

Why am I being apprehended? You’re trying to give me a ticket for failure— Why am I being apprehended? You just opened my car door. You just opened my car door… So you’re gonna, you’re threatening to drag me out of my own car. (8:40-:50)

And then you’re gonna stun me? Wow. Wow. For a failure to signal? You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal. Right, yeah. Yeah, let’s take this to court. Let’s do this. For a failure to signal? Yup. For a failure to signal… (8:52-9:02)

What are you— What are you— Why am I being arrested? Why can’t you tell me why— Why am I being arrested? Why won’t you tell me that part? Why will you not tell me what’s going on? (9:35-:46)

I’m not compliant? Because you just pulled me out of my car. Are you fucking kidding me? This is some bullshit. You know it is... (9:47-:53)

I’m getting—for what? For what? I’m getting a warning for what? For what? (10:39-:46)
 

—Sandra Bland (1987-2015), excerpts taken from the dashboard camera video of her arrest by State Trooper Brian Encinia in Prairie View, Texas, July 10, 2015

 

It was a sunny Texas summer day. Sandra Bland, who was about to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, was on her way to pick up groceries when a police cruiser sped up behind her. She gave the right of way, and the officer pulled her over on a flat, tree-lined stretch of road for her failure to signal the lane change. And so began a series of events that not only altered Bland’s life but precipitated its end. She died under mysterious circumstances in the Waller County jail three days later on July 13, 2015, a case that has officially been ruled a suicide.

At 7:41 in the dashboard camera video, Bland can be heard questioning State Trooper Brian Encinia’s request for her to put out her cigarette, at which point he ordered her out of the vehicle and opened the driver’s side door. Bland refused to move. He attempted to grab her and threatened her with a taser, compelling her to comply. On the shoulder of the road, out of view of the dashboard camera, she cried that the trooper was twisting her wrist so hard she thought it would break. He forced her to the ground. She tells him that she has epilepsy. Another officer, who had arrived to assist Encinia, kept Bland pinned by kneeling on her back. At 13:00, they instructed her to get to her feet so she could be taken into custody, but she told them she was unable to feel her arm and that she couldn’t hear, that Encinia had slammed her head into the ground.

“It’s only a matter of fate that I wasn’t in that car,” says multidisciplinary artist Matana Roberts (b. 1975), a music & sound fellow in the 2019 DAAD Artists-in-Berlin program and a winner of multiple Doris Duke awards. “When I watch that video of Sandra Bland being arrested, in the whole exchange that she had with that officer, every single word she said is something I could hear myself saying.”

Bland asked why she was being apprehended a total of 14 times over the course of that heated confrontation, a violation of her rights that is at once incomprehensible and completely believable in 21st Century America. She never received an answer. References to her encounter with Encinia including this incredible fact, words Bland spoke in a series of YouTube videos she made in support of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier in 2015, and excerpts from various political writings contributed to a fragmented text that anchored previous versions of Roberts’ composition I call america: Sandy Speaks (2019). They (Roberts identifies as gender fluid) created the experimental requiem in memory of Bland and all victims of police violence. In tonight’s world premiere of iteration II, Roberts has recomposed their conceptual score framework for twelve musicians to incorporate new materials, leave elements of chance, and foster improvisation through a politically conscious lens.

“It’s a way to honor her presence, her fight, the legacy that she has left behind for others to carry forward,” says Roberts. “But it’s also a coping mechanism for me as a brown person, a black person, a way for me to remember my placement in the world, and to never forget my own privilege in that I’m still able to be here to make things.”

 


 

Both Roberts and Bland are Chicagoans, the starting point for the resonance Roberts feels between their lives. Roberts explains that their own awareness of mistreatment by the police and systemic racism started at a young age. Roberts’ father was racially profiled and pulled over while driving with a frequency that they describe as “regular as Christmas.”

“The first time I found myself in the back in a police car, I was seven years old,” Roberts recalls. “I had shoplifted something really silly from a corner pharmacy. I can’t remember what it was. The pharmacist called the police, and one police officer came... Instead of walking me home, because I didn’t live far from this pharmacy, the police officer dragged me into the back of his police car. My memory from that is the amount of screaming that I was doing. And the amount of people who were witnessing that, yelling at the officer, and saying you don’t have to put her in the back of the car. I’ll never forget the look on my parents’ faces when that officer brought me home because it wasn’t the look that I did something wrong. It was the look that there’s something wrong with this officer.”

Roberts describes their parents as black radicals, who encouraged their freedom of expression. “We didn’t really have money,” Roberts says, “but they always managed to pull together money for books and records,” including those by avant garde jazz musicians Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. They took Roberts to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the theater; at the age of ten, Roberts attempted to write a play. Roberts’ grandmother took them to the opera. They credit free public arts programs for their education in classical music and dreamed of being an orchestral clarinetist, entering statewide competitions even though there “weren’t a lot of other kids who looked like me.” They also played bassoon and violin.

“I’m really interested in pushing against what I learned because I question [musical] language,” Roberts says. “What is the dominant language, why is that the dominant language, and who gets to say it’s the dominant language?”

Chicago’s rich cultural life taught Roberts that there are many ways to be a working musician. They became serious about the alto saxophone—and improvisation—as a 16 year-old high school student, playing in post-rock and Latin music scenes and for theatre, most notably a production of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Roberts could be found at jam sessions hosted by saxophonist Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge on Sunday nights and by saxophonist Von Freeman at the New Apartment Lounge on Tuesday nights, patriarchal figures who mentored countless young musicians on the South Side. Roberts formed a trio called Sticks And Stones with bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor, who recorded a self-titled debut together (482 Music, 2002). And Roberts later paid tribute to the scene with Anderson at her side on The Chicago Project (Central Control, 2008).
 

“I’m really interested in pushing against what I learned because I question [musical] language,” Roberts says. “What is the dominant language, why is that the dominant language, and who gets to say it’s the dominant language?”


Roberts left the city for college, followed by graduate school. For a period of time in the early 2000s, they were a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective that made what the press superficially labeled “free jazz.” This historic organization sought to dissolve musical boundaries by supporting experimentation and self-determination, asserting what Roberts’ contemporary and their producer on The Chicago Project Vijay Iyer describes as “a kind of authoritative mobility” between genres and artistic forms. Musician George Lewis explores the AACM in his book A Power Stronger Than Itself, explaining to The New York Times in 2008, “With the AACM, you’re not rooted in a set of simple, codifiable practices, but you’re rooted in an attitude, in a creation of an atmosphere, in an orientation to experience.”

That orientation to experience helped sustain Roberts when they moved to New York City around 2002, initially a lonely prospect. They not only wanted, but needed a multiplicity of artistic contexts in order to thrive (a trait that Roberts now understands, in hindsight, to be related to their neurodivergent tendencies as a person with ADHD). Roberts’ Chicago roots emboldened them to resist the pressure to focus narrowly on music, and jazz music in specific, in the face of the orthodoxy of New York’s straight ahead jazz scene.

“I love the jazz tradition and that music,” they explain, “but it was so painful as a person with ovaries to have a full sense of my own agency in that art form. I felt like I had to shut down parts of myself in order to be accepted by my male peers and for my sense of safety. Because I have dealt with my fair share of lecherous people in the jazz tradition. So I’ve never been able to fully stand up for that music because there have always been elements of trauma involved for me... I’ve been uncled, fathered, and brothered through this music, too, but the music also has a misogynistic, extreme heteronormative foundation. I’m queer. I don’t have a label for that. I haven’t always been out about that. I came out three or four years ago. There’s not always room for that conversation…”

“I knew a drummer when I first moved to New York, who would invite people over not to play music with him but to ‘annihilate them in sound.’ Those were his exact words. And I remember thinking, Yeah, right. For a while, jazz musicians would use the word ‘killing’ a lot. Oh, that solo was killing. Oh, that band is killing. It’s killing— Is that what we’re doing? That is what we’re doing. There’s a certain narcissistic flare with jazz strategies that speaks to a low self-esteem in the music because, no matter how much we want to play like the giants of that music, we’ll never be them. It’s not just about the music that made them. It’s about the period, what they were living through. We have a whole other set of things that we’re living through.”

Instead, Roberts turned towards conceptual projects for which they envisioned listeners brought together collectively in a “womb of experience.” The best known of these is Coin Coin, a critically acclaimed, multi-chapter work of enormous scope whose development began in live performances in 2006 and has been documented in a series of recordings on Constellation Records: Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (2011), Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (2013), Chapter Three: River Run Thee (2015), and Chapter Four: Memphis (2019), which, incidentally, features a mug shot of Roberts’ maternal grandmother on its cover. Roberts has plans for a dozen chapters in total, what they have referred to as their Ring Cycle. Chapter Five is expected in 2023.

Coin Coin begins with the mythical story of Marie Thérèse Coincoin (1742-1816), an ancestor of Roberts who was freed from slavery, became a successful landowner, and helped establish a community of Creoles of color along Louisiana’s Cane River in Natchitoches Parish. An exploration of Roberts’ lineage across multiple branches of their family tree, Coin Coin excavates personal and national history, activating links through expanses of time that carry both ineffable joy and suffering. Roberts’ compositional language relies on a technique they call “panoramic sound quilting,” which layers and stitches together storytelling, borrowed texts, field recordings, and electronics, while sounding written and improvised materials that evoke folk songs, string band tunes, spirituals, gospel, blues, and jazz. The result is dynamic, living fabric fashioned out of our glorious and troubled past.
 



I call america: Sandy Speaks shares Coin Coin’s density and richness of meaning but relies on a different set of compositional tools and structures. One in a series of pieces titled I call america, it began during Roberts’ 2015 residency at The Whitney in response to America Is Hard to See, the inaugural exhibit at the then-newly opened building on Gansevoort Street.

Roberts had long taken photos and videos, worked with paint and collage, and documented their experiences in zines. In their Whitney studio, they designated one corner for digital media, another for painting and drawing, and a third for found objects, with microphones in the center and a projection screen occupying one wall. They invited other musicians to visit and improvise to what they were seeing. “[Bassist] Henry Grimes came,” Roberts remembers. “That was amazing.”

The residency altered their career trajectory, opening doors to prestigious institutions typically out of reach for musicians: Centre Pompidou, Akademie der Künste, the Park Avenue Armory, Walker Art Center, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Fridman Gallery, and Pace Gallery. At MoMA, they performed in response to one of the art world’s most imposing arachnids, a Louise Bourgeois steel spider. On a creative level, the engagement with gallery spaces has had a significant impact on Roberts’ mixed media practices as represented by their musical scores. which have been presented in three public art exhibitions. They are beautifully crafted, expressive documents in and of themselves.

“The Whitney gave me room to really think about the possibilities of sound sculpture in real time, instead of sound sculpture as a static thing,” Roberts explains. “It gave me room to think about graphic notation in a way that I wasn’t really thinking about it before.”

I call america: Sandy Speaks, which appeared in its first iteration on the Time: Spans Contemporary Music Festival in 2019, is performed in response to what Roberts calls a “conceptual score framework”; it incorporates moving images, collage, text, and pre-recorded sound. First, Roberts creates drawings and collages using images, paint, ephemera, and Western musical notation on paper. Then they photograph, film, and digitally manipulate these materials into a moving image, eventually codifying musical interpretations that can be communicated to the performers. Each time Sandy Speaks is performed, Roberts fashions a new iteration by rebuilding the score’s foundational elements in a process that resembles “how old outdoor sculptures recede and change when they become weathered or destroyed.”

At the time of this writing, Roberts was continuing to rework materials for the conceptual score of iteration II. Yet, even if this document were complete, it would not be fully predictive of the resulting piece, which leaves room for chance and improvisation. A “bracket form,” the sections of Sandy Speaks do not have a predetermined order, and they can be expanded or collapsed in response to the performance environment. Each musician will be playing from a paper manuscript and/or a video monitor positioned on the floor, and some will be working with pre-recorded sounds, but they must follow Roberts for additional visual, verbal, and sonic cues. Sometimes these cues trigger a particular musical action from the ensemble; at other times, they determine the next action. The graphic nature of the score gives the musicians a great deal of freedom in the sounds they choose to create while feeding off each other’s energy (and yours).
 

Each time Sandy Speaks is performed, Roberts fashions a new iteration by rebuilding the score’s foundational elements in a process that resembles “how old outdoor sculptures recede and change when they become weathered or destroyed.”


“I like these pieces to have room to bring out the individuality of the people participating,” Roberts says. “It doesn’t really take shape until we’re all in space together, and we’re with the audience.”
 



Irrespective of how the musical specifics of Sandy Speaks shift over time, one element remains steadfast: Roberts’ commitment to communicating social justice issues through their music, addressing what they describe as the “national apathy towards the continual murders of people of color at the hands of the police.” When Bland perished, Roberts conducted research into her background, read investigative reporting, poured over court documents, and watched the HBO documentary Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (2018). Roberts also viewed the series of videos made by Bland herself, attempting to “understand her as a full person and not just a symbol of American violence and the police state.” (Many of these videos, which Roberts found on YouTube, are no longer available.)

Bland’s words live on in Sandy Speaks: how she affectionately addressed her YouTube followers as My beautiful kings and queens. How she told them, I’m praying for you all… I love you all… Love you guys… How she asked them, What are you going to do? What are you going to do to make a stand? And the heartbreaking, Wow. Wow, that marked her disbelief the moment she was forced from the safety of her car. In the midst of the music, these are more than words. They are shapes. They are textures. They are cues for the musicians—and cues for us.

“These are not lone cases; they keep happening again and again and again and again,” Roberts reminds us, invoking the names of Bland, Samantha Ramsey, Rekia Boyd, Dontre Hamilton, and so many others. “How is it possible that black people still have to navigate the country in fear? It creates this toxic level of hypervigilance that makes it hard to stay open and hopeful and not overgeneralize or be prejudiced against other people. As a brown person with ovaries, a black person with ovaries, a person of color with ovaries, I have never felt safe. Ever. I want the next era of living to feel a little safer.

“I do not want her to be forgotten. I do not want victims of this kind of violence to be forgotten. I do not want this legalized murder to be forgotten because history is always moving through cycles. Making this piece was also a way to place some of these people in the canon of remembrance and remind other arts folk that you have some agency so that it will stop repeating itself—not in my lifetime, but at some point. And I just want to add my little link to the brigade of people who also understand this and want to stand in fellowship together to say that this is unacceptable.”

 

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She currently teaches at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. 

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