Tag: multidisciplinary

Matana Roberts: Creative Defiance

Conducted at the artist’s home in New York City
January 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by B. Abrams
Transcribed by Julia Lu

If there is any way to distill the wide-ranging artistry of Matana Roberts, it might be to focus on the ways in which she eludes definitions. Where the weight of other people’s expectations—of her instrument, her genre, even her race and her gender—might have fenced her in, she has instead pushed off these bounding walls into new areas of exploration, both sonic and narrative. The Chicago-raised composer, improviser, and alto saxophonist offers a friendly yet confidant smile as she explains, “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”

For Roberts, that kind of self-definition seems to flow hand-in-hand with a certain creative restlessness. While the influence of jazz in her music is apparent, she has expanded her creative palette to encompass a broader world of improvisation, experimentalism, and theatrical storytelling. This drive is perhaps most clearly showcased under the heading of her work Coin Coin, which she began developing in 2006. Divided into 12 “chapters,” the project includes multiple ensemble configurations, graphic notation, and explorations both compositional and historical. It is a work that is intensely personal and yet strikingly universal, incorporating her general interests in ritual, spirits, and genealogy alongside a more exacting trace of her own bloodlines and the stories of her ancestors. Like much family history, the path is circuitous and the narrative open to interpretation. Whether she and her flexible band are whispering intimate secrets into the ears in the audience, cajoling them into joining in, or screaming at their side, however, the result is a piece of transfixing emotional power.

In her artist statement, Roberts includes a line which has inspired the title of this profile, “Through my life’s work, I stand creatively in defiance.” In the course of our talk, she celebrated what sets her apart and the vital role art can play when taken outside of its usual hallways. And while certainly there are outside forces that can try to hamper her artistry, she has also come to realize that sometimes the most forbidding barriers are the ones that can build up inside. “I have all these things that I want to try creatively,” she acknowledged, “and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way.”


Molly Sheridan: It’s maybe too easy to label a saxophonist a jazz artist even if the genre relationship is not particularly strong. I know you often find yourself pushed in this direction, but is that where you feel most rooted or where you have been placed by others?
Matana Roberts: I try to push myself away from that word, though I will always have a love for that music and for a lot of those people. But for what I’m trying to do, I find it really confining on so many different levels—not just musical, but also in terms of the culture and certain types of generalizations that come with that word that I don’t like. I was a clarinet player first, playing classical music, but in terms of really dealing with the saxophone, it came from dealing with jazz music. There is an influence of jazz in my music, and there’s always going to be, but I feel like I’m more of a hybrid. Real jazz musicians to me are people who are deeply dealing with the traditional aspects of that music. I’m considering those aspects, but I’m not dealing with them in the way that they are. It partly has a little bit to do with gender, a little bit to do with race, and just at my core there’s a certain sense of punk aesthetic that I will always ascribe to. Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.
MS: So there’s both a social and an aesthetic tension there?
MR: Yeah. African American jazz musicians have to deal with certain sorts of generalizations that I find really uncomfortable, and I get to feel a little bit of that when I travel, especially outside of the United States. I’ve learned a lot about how global my bloodline really is, and I want to live in a way where I’m not ignoring all those different segments. Then, I try to not really jump in on the gender thing, but I’m tired of having my work and my music or any sort of artistic output judged by men. The jazz world is still is a very male world. In order to be a part of that world—when I was really thickly a part of that world—I had to ignore certain aspects of my gender that made me, in the end, really uncomfortable. So I’m trying to chart something that takes in my love of old American traditions—not just jazz, but jazz is one of them.
MS: You made a move from Chicago to New York in 2002, and the way I’ve heard you speak about The Chicago Project, the album you released in 2008, and the artists you worked with while making that recording, it sounds like it represented a kind of graduation in a sense. Is that an accurate impression?
MR: When I was asked by Barry Adamson to make a record where I could pay the musicians well and bring on a producer that I trusted, I just felt that I needed to use that first recording as a way to honor the people who had really helped me. I was already living in New York at that time, and I could have used that opportunity to solidify one of my New York bands, but all those guys on that record—especially Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, and Fred Anderson—they brothered and uncled and fathered me through this music when I first starting playing in Chicago. So I don’t know if it was a graduation, but that record is a document of things. I don’t think I’ve ever told them that, but I hope they understand. That record and the music on that record is my thank you to them.
MS: We’ve spoken some about what you do take from jazz, but even in an “end of genre” age, you have integrated various streams of influence in a particularly rich and personal way—and not just multigenre but multidisciplinary. What experiences or instincts pushed that side of your work? Who was influential to you in that regard?
MR: I’m highly influenced by visual art, more than sound. I’m influenced by those people and traditions that are not considered high art, that wouldn’t be let into some places because they come from more of an emotional place rather than an intellectual place. They come from more of a folk place, more a place of the heart, than some other traditions. I’m attracted to ghosts and spirits and spooks and these things. The graphic notation comes from my love of visual art. But also I have a learning disorder and the way I understand music or just understand logic is sometimes a lot different than other people. It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t stupid, that it’s a different kind of intelligence that I have. I still don’t understand how it’s worked out the way that it has, but luckily, I’ve been able to use a lot of those things in the way that I deal with music.
I’ve always been interested in theater. When I was kid, I wanted to be a playwright, and I grew up going to the opera. We were one of the few black families with season tickets. My grandmother would save up for that and drag us. I hated it at the time, and now I feel really privileged that I got to experience that. Growing up in a classic Chicago African-American neighborhood, where you are constantly exposed to ideas of signification, to ideas of ritual—even going to black churches and seeing how black American people deal with that—used to really rub my punk side the wrong way. But now I’m able to look back at that and see how culture deals with the idea of spectacle. I really want to use my work as a way to explore those different themes that are not necessarily just related to the African American experience, but related to just the experience of peoples. There are common themes that run through all cultures in terms of ritual and presentation—ideas of pain, joy, sadness, gladness, and these traditions that get passed down, that don’t necessarily get documented, or commercialized, or valued. I’m interested in placing my own value on those things.
MS: Your piece Coin Coin, which is kind of a poster child for this type of exploration and multidisciplinary artistic integration, is obviously a huge project, so there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start by speaking just about some of the big concepts and the structure of the work, and then we’ll dig into the details.
MR: Coin Coin is my interest in history and folklore. Some parts of it have to do with research that I’ve been doing on my own ancestry, and I use some of that information to dig deeper into ideas of narrative. Right now, Coin Coin is very much about the African American experience in America in some ways, but the whole overarching thing is about just exploring these human universals. My mother used to call it the musical monument to the human experience, and that’s how I pretty much like to explain it. It’s a multimedia sound project about my love of history. There was never enough time in the day to be a hobbyist in that and also deal with the music. When I realized I could put them together, that’s kind of the whole overarching theme.
I wanted to create a project that would allow me to challenge myself as a composer in terms of dealing with different ensemble configurations. I had so much narrative that I could break down into so many segments that I realized I could also apply that to different ensemble configurations. Each segment deals with the same kind of graphic framework and some similar ideas so that when I’m finally done with it, perhaps I can link them all together.
There are ten ensemble chapters and two solo chapters that bookend the project in my head. It’s all formulated, but the solo chapters are still under development. I just came off tour working on those. Five of the ensemble segments have been performed, and now what I’ve been doing is having these Coin Coin experiments where they’re not full chapters, but they’re ideas that I’m trying to consider in the work. I don’t have the kind of money where I can just have a lab ensemble. I have to plug them into a performance to fund them. But each chapter is structured and written out and there’s a narrative for each one. I just have to get to them.

MS: Considering the financial challenges that might hamper work of this scope, can you tell me more about how the development and composition process for these pieces has worked?
MR: Before I started the project, it was very rare that I could sit down and write a song. The one thing that I’ve always loved about jazz is melody and that will always be a hallmark of all of my work. But I also grew up during some of the best eras of hip hop and also was really heavily influenced by riot grrrl and punk, and so I would try and write and I could never finish a song. Every now and then a song would come out from beginning to end, but usually they would come in snippets, and I’d have just these pieces. For a while I felt like a real failure. Then I started weaving the snippets together and understanding that maybe they are all part of the same thing or, if they aren’t, I can make them part of the same thing. I also became more and more interested in graphic notation and the ways in which musicians see sound.
So I just started weaving things together in that way. I remember the first score I put together. I thought I was going to get laughed out of New York City. But we did it and it was like magic. I was like, wow, this kind of composition is possible if you make sure you do it from your heart. Every piece of graphic notation that you have on a piece of paper, you should be able to really break down and really minutely explain, so that it’s honest. When I went in that direction, it all started to make sense.
MS: What made you question that initially? You mentioned that you thought you were going to be laughed out of New York City.
MR: I went to jazz schools and had some really negative experiences. Those places sometimes will make you feel like anything that you have to offer is not good enough—not just jazz schools, any institution can do that to you. So I really let that undermine me. I had a professor in college that told me the only way that I was ever going to get a gig was to marry a musician. And at the time, I believed him because he was the professional and I was the student. So, I still had all these little scars from that. It almost seemed too playful and too imaginary for anyone else to understand. I found out later that that was not true, but I needed to go through that process.
MS: Can you describe the graphic score/notation system that you are using in the work?
MR: To be honest with you, I’m not sure I can really break it down because it’s work that I’m still trying to develop. Things have changed. That has been the interesting thing about it, and what has slowed it down somewhat, too. I thought I would be done with all 12 chapters by 2011. Ha! No.
To start, I had a really deep interest in sacred geometry and symbolism. I was using some Native American and African symbolism. Then, looking at these different locales that I’m dealing with—Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi by way of Africa, Ireland, England, France, Scotland—and looking at how these different places throughout their history have dealt with symbolism, and what symbols have remained. Oftentimes, I would pull symbols from that, that I could draw. I think partly this is also because I wish I could draw. So I would look at a shape or scribble and imagine how I could interpret that in sound: what someone could ask of me in terms of how to interpret that and, most importantly, how I could use it to not really create melody but how it could create texture. So that is the direction that I’ve always taken the graphic scoring. Also, people always accuse me of having a really personal sound, or a really personal approach, which is a nice accusation, but I also wanted to figure out a way that I could create but still have the performers’ own personalities come through. The first chapter of Coin Coin I actually put together partly because I wanted to play music with my friends who couldn’t read music—a lot of Canadian folk that I really loved who are amazing improvisers, but weren’t readers. Then sometimes I would do some of this work with people who were amazing readers, but not good improvisers, and there’s a definite difference in that. So, I just wanted to figure out a way to create the scores where I could find these little textures that I was interested in. Now, even with re-renderings of chapters that have already been recorded or that I’m still performing, there are still new textures that I’m looking for that I haven’t heard yet. So I’m trying to push that into the next segment of scores.

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin

Courtesy Constellation Records

MS: It seems like you would need to be both particular about who you involved in performing the project, and then also decide how much control you wanted to have over the sounds they eventually produce. How have you picked those people, and then how much do you try to control them?
MR: Well, one day I sat down and made a list of all the musicians I knew in New York by instrument—so overwhelming!—and all the musicians that I really like to play with that I just could never pull into my regular quartet or trio. It was a way that I could experiment with the graphic notation that I still needed to formulate and understand, but could do it repeated times with different groups of people. That’s one of the reasons I’ve taken the score to different cities—to play with different musicians in different places. Now there are some core people that I always call on any chance that I get. One of them I would say is the drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who has played on pretty much every incarnation of the project since I started it. But I look for a certain kind of person. Their heart matters to me more than some sort of technical execution. I’ve not always been successful in that—sometimes you just don’t know what you’re about to step into and some musicians are just not comfortable in the directives.
There is an incredible amount of control that goes on though, still, because I do utilize different systems of conduction and conducting improvisers. It’s something that I learned from watching Butch Morris and from the days that I used to be in this band called Burnt Sugar that also uses Butch’s conduction system. Then, going back and hearing old Sun Ra recordings—Sun Ra also used conduction. So even in recorded material that people hear, I’m trying to sculpt the sound within the framework of the score. There is some open improvisation in there, but I never liked open improvisation for the sake of open improvisation. It’s always bothered me. So within the Coin Coin scores, I try to dissect things and put them back together and cut them down and push them back up. Just trying all sorts of things.
MS: I love how the first chapter you recorded, Gens de Couler Libres, is such a completely enveloping piece and I was interested to read how many other commenters felt motivated to point out that your work here was “not alienating.” And yet you’re not afraid to seriously scream in the course of things. In a sense, it feels like you’re both embracing and emotionally punching the listener within the same work. It’s just a pretty aggressive thing. So I’m curious about your decision to do that. Did you hesitate at all? How has this felt to you in performance?
MR: First off, I highly recommend it! It’s incredibly therapeutic, though it’s not something I can really do on the regular and I don’t—that chapter does not get regular performances for that reason. It really wears the body down. When I first started doing that chapter in New York, after it was over, I felt like I needed to be carried off on a stretcher.
My whole thing about dealing with this history and dealing with these ideas and themes is I want some sort of experiential feeling of it. I wanted to know what it felt like to do that. Most of the things that I’m into are things that are experiential in nature. I want to know what pain feels like, I want to know what the depths of misery feel like, and that’s a hard way to live. But within those scream-sings, there’s a lot of joy there, too. There’s a level of life and living and experience. Those screams on that record were incredibly difficult for me because my mother had just passed away maybe ten days before that was recorded, so those screams were therapeutic in a different kind of way. But there’s a welcoming to them, too: We’re here. I’m alive. Let’s celebrate what we do have.
The other thing about the Coin Coin work is there are things that the work has told me I had to do that I did not want to do. That has been the speaking. That has been the singing. That has been the screaming. Those are the things that when I was putting that first chapter together, it was like, “Ahhh, I don’t really want to deal with that! Why do I have to do that? Why can’t I put an ensemble together and make them do that?” But I felt that I needed to have an understanding and experience of those ideas.
MS: Screaming in pieces usually only elicits a kind of nails on chalkboard reaction in me, but I didn’t get that sense from this piece so it intrigued me. There’s an intimacy to it.
MR: There’s an intimacy, but that’s the other thing where gender jumps in. As an African American female performer, there’s a certain sort of fetishization that goes on that has been around since the beginning. I’ve had to deal with that a little bit in ways that have been surprising to me. Sometimes people will still take it to a base level—oh, she’s just trying to get attention by putting that in there. Or they’ll define what that scream is. They’ll listen to the narrative and assume exactly what it is that’s being screamed about. There’s a power to those scream-sings. That’s why I think more people should do it.
MS: Do they mistakenly ascribe it to a certain “character” or something in the narrative?
MR: They ascribe it to a character. They ascribe it to violence. It’s automatically ascribed to a certain kind of violence. And yes, there was a certain amount of violence in slave history, but there’s also so much more than that. Why can’t those screams be screams of joy and perseverance? Why do the screams have to be whittled down? This one person I was dealing with last year was whittling it down to sexual violence. And okay, well sure. But have you been listening? It’s something that I just have to remember that I can’t care about. You do it. You put it out there. Whatever people want to do with it, they do with it. You move on to the next thing that you’re doing.
MS: As a woman journalist who often finds herself interviewing other women in a field that still has serious parity issues, I feel a constant tension as to whether or not to include the subject in interviews. But here it seems particularly relevant, considering the context of Coin Coin and the experience of hearing women’s voices and stories, to make sure that’s fostered and presented.
MR: I used to avoid these questions. There was a time when I used to try to talk about them, and then, maybe about ten years ago, I just stopped because I felt like it was pulling me down instead of pushing me up. As a black musician, I’m already focusing on a certain kind of difference. My parents were black radicals. So, growing up in this environment, it was constantly pounded into you: difference and what you have to do because of this difference. Then having to deal with the gender things was a whole other deal. Now, I feel a bit more open to talking about it because even though I try not to get on the soap box, I think it’s important to just talk about the importance of women’s voices. That’s one of the reasons, when putting that first chapter of Coin Coin together, that speaking was demanded, that singing and that screaming was demanded—it was a certain kind of statement of womanhood, too.
I’m at a point now ten years later or so where I’m a bit troubled by the way in which women musicians and women composers still are not heard of or still not supported. I’m tired of having to deal with “business and industry issues” that are highly male. I’ve loosened up a little bit, but on my website, there are no pictures of myself. That is purposeful, that was a feminist statement to me to say, you know, my body is not for sale. My person is not for sale. The sound is what I deal with. Now, I’m about to change it a little bit because I feel more comfortable in the statement of who I am, and I think it’s obvious. But there was a period there where I just felt like I was really being boxed around by men. I’ve made some changes also in the past couple of years to ground myself a little bit more in the difference that I have and that I represent, but not allowed it to close me off or create new ideas of hatred of men, who I love. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of really wonderful men.
The question of women in this music has a lot also to do with just the question of women in society and what is expected of us and what is not expected of us. A lot of the male composers and male musicians I know who are working, and working steadily, are oftentimes able to do that because they have a wife or a girlfriend who is a breadwinner. They’re able to have families and to do these things because they have a partner who’s willing to take on those things. Most female musicians and composers that I know don’t have that. It doesn’t really happen in quite the same way, though I’m not convinced that it has to be that way. The issues that exist within this music have a lot to do, as always, with the issues that still exist in our society, which is highly patriarchal no matter how many different ways we want to slice it. I’ve talked to women musicians from other generations, and what has been crazy to me is the repeated stories. We can sit there and just compare stories by theme and just be like, “What? I thought the man of this generation was more enlightened than the man of that generation.” No. It’s just like this commonality, which can kind of bring you down. At the same time, my difference has also helped me, I think, and I feel a lot of gratitude for that—that I stand out in a sea of men. One of the reasons I moved to New York was because there were so many women saxophonists here who were amazing musicians and had very specific goals for themselves. I wanted to be in a city where that was going on. Now I’m not really as attracted to that as I used to be, but that was one of the impetuses for coming here rather than going back to Chicago or going somewhere else.
MS: I was going to say, how do you keep yourself motivated to fight that tide? It sounds like you came to New York for that kind of community, but now?
MR: I feel strong enough because I’ve also realized how multi-rich my own creative path is, and how it’s not just portioned off to music. I’ve been able to bring in all these other things that inspire me. My community is a community of not just musicians, but of artists of all kinds. I also really see my work as a form of community work. There’s a social conscience to the work that I’m trying to do, but in terms of the contribution that I really want to make on a social level, it’s not quite there yet.
MS: In what ways? Can you talk a little more about that?
MR: I just feel this music has allowed me to have a bit of a platform that I can use for positive influence and positive things for other people. If you’re being given a lot—I’m paraphrasing—it means that you need to give even more. Living this life, there have been some real difficulties, but I’ve been fairly lucky. My most satisfying work of service has been working with people for whom the arts can act as a kind of refuge and form of personal expression to deal with pain and societal pressures. Having more of an activism strain moving through my work is what I hope to do. I’m the product of a public school education. All that free arts stuff that I got—if that wasn’t there, there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now. I grew up in neighborhoods where I got to see what happened to people who didn’t have access to those things. So I hope to use the work more as a platform for bringing focus back to some of those ideas. But I still haven’t touched it quite yet.
MS: You were also up in Montreal doing a project with kids.
MR: Yeah. It was with at-risk native Canadian youth. I helped set up a music program at a drop-in center there. I did a few zine workshops with them. I’ve done a lot of community outreach over the years. I am not the type of person that could ever be a traditional educator or someone that people see every day, but I like infusing myself into these environments. I’ve done work at homeless shelters, and it’s the people that are really going through things, those are the people who can really be helped by art, more so than anybody that’s walking into MoMA or the Whitney. It’s those Chicago neighborhoods where there’s not quite that sense of hope, those are the places that really need art. I think about that a lot. But I come from a family of people who did a lot of community service, so I think that’s what that’s about as well. I feel I have to step up and be a part of that. Because what I’m doing being an artist, or being a musician, that is not a high enough vibration for my family line. There’s more I’m supposed to do.
MS: Do you feel like you take that onstage with you, too—that desire for connection and active community support and development?
MR: Yeah, that’s an aspect of my personality that has always kind of disturbed me a little bit. I have this intense desire to connect. Always. And oftentimes, the only way that I know how to do that is to come from a really personal place in terms of how I put the music together. I want my musical output to be an experience for all involved, not just the musicians but for everyone. I want us to be able to create sort of a womb together of possibility, which doesn’t necessarily transfer to always being positive. I don’t mind it if people come and don’t like it; that’s cool, too. It’s just creating kind of this moving organism together. This spontaneous way of connecting to strangers who are not really strangers because we’re really all in this together. That has always been really important to me, and it’s sometimes made me think I’m in the wrong profession. I need to go do something else where that is more immediate. But somehow, so far, I’ve been able to feel that a little bit in performance and the feedback that I get from people. I get really detailed feedback from people, and that used to scare me a little bit, too. [laughs] I’m okay with that now, because that is at the level that I want people to really engage.
MS: That makes me think specifically about some of the reactions to the first chapter of Coin Coin, because for everything that piece covers, it very clearly and very powerfully digs into racial issues and the history of slavery. How has working on and performing the piece impacted your own thinking when it comes to the issues you’re addressing in the work?
MR: It’s jumped through many different forms and there are many different ways in which it’s come back to me. On this last solo tour that I did, at every show I made each crowd sing with me the slave auction from the first chapter, and I forget how intense that is for some people. Mid-verse, I always have to stop and say, “Listen. This is a happy song. And I want you to understand that without the bidding of these people, I wouldn’t be here right now enjoying my life.” So that’s how I like to look at those things. I know from what I’ve experienced so far with the work that for reasons I don’t completely understand—but it makes me incredibly happy—that people are able to go into a deeper part of themselves and connect the story I’m telling to some story of their own. Oftentimes after shows, people will come up and share the most harrowing stories with me to let me know that they were able to connect even though the history is different for them. But I will say, the first time I started doing that sing-along with people, especially because there are rarely people of color in the audience, it took a moment. I’m like, “All right, I just sang a slave auction with a group of white people. I hope they understand.” Am I damning these people? No, I’m not damning anyone. But I want to share this. I think it’s really important to pay attention to history because it is constantly repeating itself. And there are so many beautiful stories within it that can teach us so much, so I will just continue to go in that direction.
MS: Not that we don’t all have our dark histories, but does audience reaction differ between Europe and America?
MR: The European audiences I’d say are a bit more political than the American audiences in some respects. I mean, singing this with a crowd of French, it’s interesting the spirit that comes through. The French were just on fire, because they have a particular understanding of the pain of that history because of the African influence in their own country. Singing this with a crowd of anarchists in Leipzig? Awesome. It’s about a spirit of survival more than it’s about race, class, or gender. Traveling through Germany recently and going through cities that were completely destroyed during the war and talking to people, hearing them recount stories in a way that they could attach to my own. I was in Poland telling some of these ancestral stories and feeling the pain in the room of people who couldn’t go back before 1945 because there was nothing left. There’s no record—there’s no anything!—just these stories. It just brings it full circle for me about the importance of sharing history and, most importantly, sharing the most painful parts, because that’s what people can plug into. Then, it allows you to deal with more avant-garde sounds that they might not be able to plug into otherwise. That’s another reason why there is narrative in the work.
MS: We actually have been very philosophical in our discussion about this piece, but we haven’t gotten into very much detail when it comes to its musical underpinnings. So let’s take a focused look at that.
MR: I’m heavily influenced by a lot of musicians that have come out of Chicago. Not just the avant people, but the more traditional people, too, because there’s a common theme running through that city—I don’t understand why it happened there—where it was always about original sound, and original voice, and original approach. That combined with the certain brand of black radicalism that I grew up in there. It was expected that you understood that you could do anything you wanted to do, and that you should always hold in suspicion anybody that tells you that you can’t. You should always hold in suspicion anyone that claims that your idea is not valid, no matter what color they are or what their gender is. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an important organization in fostering that for a lot of people—myself and for other young musicians. So by the time I got here, I just always felt that my possibilities in terms of dealing with sound were pretty endless. Sometimes that’s actually really overwhelming, but that’s fine.
MS: I’ve heard you equate your composition process with quilting.
MR: When I started saying that, the feminist in me was like, “Why are you talking about quilting?” I don’t quilt, but that’s a tradition that is on my Mississippi side, and my grandmother, her mother, and her father, they used to quilt together. It was like a family thing, and it made me realize that the way that I was putting the scores together, with these segments intertwined with graphic notation, was a form of quilting. I think I actually wanted to create music in a way that my family might understand as well. I grew up around a lot of avant-garde music. My dad was a vinyl collector and into Sun Ra and Art Ensemble and Albert Ayler and all these people, and there’d be music on all the time. I remember having a really hard time trying to understand that music. The only way that I know how to understand these things is by dealing with narrative and story and how I can hoist my imagination onto the sound. So oftentimes I’m looking for sounds that evoke certain kinds of emotion. That’s really kind of the underpinning of a lot of the graphic notation, and this approach to texture.
MS: I think you can hear that as a listener, but it’s a very non-linear experience. More like a fever dream—you’re one place and then something else starts creeping out and all of a sudden you’re turned towards a whole new area.
MR: That’s so wonderful. I like that idea of the fever dream.
MS: What’s your relationship to the saxophone at this point in your career, then, now that you’re doing more composition?
MR: The saxophone is always going to be at the core of everything that I do because the saxophone taught me a lot about feeling and emotion and connection. The saxophone, the alto in particular, connects to people in a way that the other saxophones don’t sometimes. I remember Henry Threadgill talking about how he switched from tenor to alto. He was playing in church revivals and realized that the alto brought the Holy Ghost to people. I need the saxophone as an anchor. When I’ve tried to unanchor it, my life has gone insane. It is my tool to work through things, and when things get too overwhelming, I’m also able to shave down, and go right back to the alto, and it’s like, okay, this is the heart of everything. It’s the heart of everything that I do.
MS: Do you think there’s a point that will come when you’ll say Coin Coin is finished, or is it one of those works that will always be part of your life, that will go on, growing and changing, like a living thing?
MR: You know, originally there was a start, and there was an end. I had it broken down by years, by months. But then I would get through one segment of it and be like, okay, that was interesting, but what is it like if I do it like this? Or I could do it like that. And so now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a living thing. And I will complete the chapters, but the idea—the work as a construct—will continue even beyond that. It feels like legacy work. I had no plans for that when I started, but that’s what it feels like now.

MS: Is there room left in your head for anything else?
MR: It’s difficult, but I refuse to just focus on Coin Coin. The history that I am dealing with is so heavy sometimes that I actually feel drowned by it. It’s important for me to have some other ways of opening. I have a new New York quartet, and my focus with them is to keep all the graphic notation out of that and just to deal with my love of themes and songs. And I still explore solo saxophone work that is just in the tradition of solo saxophone. No extra anything. I have all these things that I want to try creatively, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way. You can do anything you want to do.

Making The Face

Face Rehearsal

The Face in rehearsal on August 21, 2012. Photo by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

The Face, my new multidisciplinary chamber opera premiering in Los Angeles on August 25, 27, and 28, has been in the works for more than seven years and involves an international team of creative artists. Most operas these days—especially new ones—have lots going on, so to call an opera “multidisciplinary” isn’t exactly surprising. In The Face, though, “multidisciplinary” is intrinsic and fundamental in several crucial ways. The principal extra-musical elements—poetic text, choreography, and film—are not intended as laminations but rather built deeply into the structure from the ground up. The Face is an intimate, intense psychological drama with a tightly woven musical narrative.

The libretto is by the poet David St. John, a colleague of mine (and now a good friend) at the University of Southern California. The text comes from his novella in verse, a cycle of forty-five poems also titled The Face (Harper Collins, 2004); it is indeed highly poetic, just what I was looking for. The language is concise, emotionally charged, colorful, and downright beautiful. I had previously set two of David’s poems in a piece commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble (The Village: Two Poems of David St. John), and I had also been interested in his poetry for a number of years, so exploring the idea of a libretto from David St. John felt somehow inevitable. After the premiere performances of the Hilliard Ensemble piece in Europe, I approached him about collaborating on an opera. We had a meeting in late 2005 at which he proposed several possible ideas. His first choice by far was to use his recent novella, and he gave me a copy of the book to read. Both the poetic language and the dramatic possibilities immediately struck me, so I agreed. David created the libretto by following one of several narrative paths through the novella, a path which, in eleven scenes, focuses on the main character, a poet named Raphael, as he struggles with the recent loss of his lover and muse while juggling the demands of a Hollywood movie being made about his life and his increasing notoriety. A crucial element in the process of creating the libretto involved David asking me to identify passages in the cycle of poems which contained language that I, as the composer, was especially drawn to—and lines that David fashioned into a stunning libretto. David St. John has been an ideal librettist, a dream to work with.

Not surprisingly, quite a number of people in my world knew I was hard at work on an opera and that I was on the lookout for a stage director with a theatrical vision suited to this project. A young singer with whom I’d worked in Los Angeles, the French soprano Myriam Zekaria, was touring France in a revival of the opera Les Enfants Terribles (Philip Glass/Jean Cocteau), and she urged me to see the show in person. On a whim, I followed her suggestion and traveled to Paris and Lyon to experience the work of the theatrical production company—Heliotrope—who were working on this project. I was bowled over by the power of their artistic vision and promptly arranged a meeting with two members of the company: Paul Desveaux (director) and Yano Iatrides (director/choreographer). The meeting resulted in the birth of an artistic collaboration on The Face between two organizations separated by a large ocean—Heliotrope (based in Paris) and Firebird Ensemble (based in Boston). We subsequently decided that Paul Desveaux would create the dramatic and film concept for the work and that Yano Iatrides would direct and choreograph The Face. In addition, we added another two members of the Heliotrope team—Laurent Schneegans as lighting designer and Amaya Lainez as assistant director.

One of the things that engaged me most about the work of Heliotrope was their ability to fuse various elements onstage (lighting, dance, staging, poetry, and film). Many productions take a layering approach to multidisciplinary works, but I wanted to create an opera which integrated the elements in an organic way. Working with performers who do not come from a classical dance background fascinates Yano Iatrides. (She frequently choreographs works involving actors, street artists, singers, and comedians.) Her uncanny ability to instill in them an approach to movement, of “dancing the staging” in a way, is in part how she communicates her very unique dramatic vision on stage. This is far beyond blocking; our four singers embody the discipline of dance while singing new opera. Rehearsals each day start with an extended and rigorous session of movement training as the singers embark on a process of physical and emotional exploration of themselves and their characters. Stage direction and choreography follow naturally from this starting point as Yano begins working through various scenes from the opera. Breaks tend to feature what are evidently her three staples: coffee, cigarettes and air. Yano is intense, to be sure, but we all find her to be very lovable.

The process of obtaining visas for our international group of artists has been a huge hassle, to be sure, and several experienced opera people pointedly suggested sticking with a domestic team. We needed O-1 and O-2 visas requiring peer review from American professional unions, signed contracts, and extensive evidence of “extraordinary ability” in order for U.S. immigration to approve the applications, even for only temporary employment on our project. This required more than six months of work, and the seemingly inevitable procedural delays necessitated the considerable help of senatorial offices in Boston so we could get our team into the United States on time. (My advice: begin the process well in advance, use an immigration lawyer if possible, and keep pushing.) As it turned out, Yano Iatrides’s paperwork was completed in time for her scheduled flight from Paris, but Amaya Lainez was delayed six days. Our lighting designer is coming in on time later in the rehearsal period. The three weeks preceding our first day of rehearsal in Boston were quite harrowing as we, and especially our producer, Kate Vincent, were waiting for final visa approval and processing. In spite of all this, I don’t regret a minute of it, and that exploratory trip I made to France over spring break a few years ago to experience their work was well worth it.

Last but certainly not least in the “multidisciplinary” aspects of The Face is the film element. In this opera, Raphael’s lost beloved and muse Marina—a crucial character—is a silent role on film. Marina died in some terrible, unnamed catastrophe, and Raphael is unhinged. I knew from the beginning that Marina would be a “home movie” character and made space for her in the music, but neither David St. John nor I knew exactly how this film element would play out. Enter Anton Nadler, a young filmmaker who is active in New York and Los Angeles. Our story is set in Venice Beach and the movie-making world of Hollywood, so Anton seemed to me a perfect choice. The film of Marina can be imagined as a collection of home movies made some years ago by Raphael, and Marina plays to him and his camera in casual and intimate scenes. Anton Nadler shot the film in and around LA during a preview/residency of the opera at the University of Southern California on its Visions & Voices series last April. Jane Sheldon, the young Australian who is our soprano (Cybele) in The Face, also plays the silent role of Marina on film and adds to the poet Raphael’s (the British tenor, Daniel Norman) very considerable emotional confusion. The results are quite striking; the camera loves Jane, as they say. From early in the rehearsal period begun in Boston in late July, Marina was a presence on stage, a fifth character intrinsic to the staging.

A decidedly-not-insignificant aspect of this project is the fact that The Face has been produced outside of the world of traditional opera companies by Boston’s Firebird Ensemble and its founder and director Kate Vincent. I had worked with Kate and Firebird in recent years on several projects, including a recording, and Kate decided to take the opera on as a new adventure for her ensemble with Kate herself producing. The Face has an acoustic score without electronics and whiz-bang sound effects (though I admit we do have an electric guitar), so Firebird, with its superb musicians and chamber music ethos, was for me the ideal choice. Gil Rose, founder and artistic director of Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a respected champion of new music and new opera, came on board as music director.

In addition to creating this production of The Face, Kate Vincent and the Firebird Ensemble wanted to develop a significant educational component for the project. This has been achieved through the creation of an internship program for young people in the theater and music fields. We have given a group of students from theater schools, colleges, and universities from across the country the opportunity to assist and be mentored by the professional team. These students are now functioning in assistant roles for the stage director, producer, stage manager, repetiteur, film crew, and costume designer; three talented young singers serve as covers for the cast during the production.

One inevitable result of the Firebird Ensemble taking on The Face was that it has more than tripled Firebird’s operating budget for its tenth anniversary season. Los Angeles, where David St. John and I are based, seemed to be a logical choice for the premiere run. (We will do an additional concert performance in Boston, Firebird’s hometown, on August 31.) Working independently from an opera company is both challenging and freeing. A big company has a significant infrastructure and the financial resources to handle production, stage and musical direction, casting, and promotion, while a new music ensemble has to build this from the ground up. On the other hand, while a major opera company tends to focus on a full season of standard favorites with perhaps something from the 1940s onward and just maybe a premiere added in, a new music ensemble or small independent production company can dream and create independently. In addition, the scope of a project like this for a small organization such as the Firebird Ensemble has resulted in an enormous artistic investment on their part. On the production side, I as the composer have had direct input into the choice of the stage directing team, the cast, and the music director. I’ve been involved in decisions about staging, set, costume, publicity, marketing, lighting, personnel, travel, and myriad other details. While this process might not be for everyone, my deep involvement in every aspect of this opera and the experience of working with a passionate and exceptional collection of artists, singers, and instrumentalists from all over the world is an experience which I would not trade for anything. The Face has taken me seven years to create, and I want to follow its every step to opening night on August 25.


Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett is a composer, conductor, and chair of the composition department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music where he also directs the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble. His chamber opera, The Face will be performed at Los Angeles’s Aratani/Japan America Theater on August 25, 27, and 28, and at Boston Conservatory Theater on August 31, 2012.