Matana Roberts is an internationally renowned composer, band leader, saxophonist, sound experimentalist and mixed-media practitioner. Roberts works in many contexts and mediums, including improvisation, dance, poetry, and theater. She made two records as a core member of the Sticks And Stones trio in the early 2000s and has gone on to release a diverse body of solo and ensemble work under her own name on Constellation and Central Control over the past decade. She is perhaps best known for her acclaimed Coin Coin project, a multi-chapter work of “panoramic sound quilting” that aims to expose the mystical roots and channel the intuitive spirit-raising traditions of American creative expression while maintaining a deep and substantive engagement with narrativity, history, community and political expression within improvisatory musical structures. Constellation began documenting the Coin Coin project in 2011 and has released the first three of a projected twelve album-length chapters to date, with a fourth chapter arriving this October.
Roberts has been called "a major talent" (The Wire) and "the spokeswoman for a new, politically conscious and refractory Jazz scene" (Jazzthetik). Her Coin Coin work has been widely and highly praised for its stylistic innovations and narrative power. Noted music critic Peter Margasak has written of Coin Coin: "Memory is a powerful thing, but it's so private, fluid, and unreliable that it can seem almost impossible to capture in a work of art—and history is often no more stable, once you look closely enough. Roberts has succeeded at evoking both, though, and gives her audience a long look at something ghostly, tragic, and beautiful. She is carving out her own aesthetic space, startling in its originality and gripping in its historic and social power."
A self-taught mixed media composer, the Chicago-born Roberts earned two degrees in performance from a smattering of American institutions but received her primary training from free arts programs in the American Public School System.
She is a past member of the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) and The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). She has been a Van Lier Fellow, a Brecht Forum Fellow, a Copeland Fellow, a Jerome fellow, an ICASP fellow, an FCA awardee, and an Alpert Award In The Arts winner. She is also a recipient of the Doris Duke Impact Award and the Doris Duke Artist Award. She has been invited to teach, lecture, run workshops and/or take up artistic residencies in countless places under different conditions and with diverse communities over the past decade and is a past faculty member of the Banff Creative Music Workshop, Rhythmic Music Conservatory, School for Improvised Music, and Bard College.
Throughout the summer of 2015, Roberts engaged in a series of open-ended public explorations as part of an extended residency at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She titled this series of research-based sound excavations i call america, building on the title of the Whitney's inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See. Building on this work she has gone on to present three public exhibitions of her graphic score work, including i call america II in 2016 and "jump at the sun…" in 2018 at the Fridman Gallery in NYC. The first European exhibition of her work happened at the Bergen Kunsthall in Bergen Norway, 2018.
In 2015 she collaborated with the filmmaker Laura Hanna on a film short entitled CODE: Stop & Frisk. From this work in 2016, she began to organize public art talks and concert fundraisers that contributed to the families of victims of police brutality. In 2017 she built off this work creating a mixed media work for a 32 piece chorus, entitled “…breathe…”. It was premiered in Berlin, Germany as part of the No festival, sharing the bill with Pussy Riot. The piece was then premiered in NYC also in 2017, at the Roulette Intermedium.
In 2015 Roberts began her "In Memorium" series, initiated by an interaction with Eva Hesse’s sculpture untiled no. 1 at the Whitney Museum. In 2016 the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery commissioned a piece for saxophone septet called "its all a damn game," which was created in conversation with Andrews' artwork and writing. Next in the series was a mixed media piece for chorus, commissioned by the Berlin Jazz Festival, entitled "For Pina", based on the work of dance legend Pina Bausch. In 2017 she performed an in memorium interaction with Louise Bourgeois's Spider that was on view as part of the exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait.
In 2017 Roberts also presented solo work in conjunction with the exhibition COSMOPOLIS #1 COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE at the Centre Pompidou. In 2018 Roberts presented another new mixed media piece for drum choir at the Park Avenue Armory, NYC. Also in 2018 Roberts toured alongside British sound artist Kelly Jayne Jones, in a collaborative piece that combined different elements of their mixed media practices.
Roberts has played with and alongside Rob Mazurek, Myra Melford, Vijay Iyer, Roscoe Mitchell, Greg Tate, Nicole Mitchell, Henry Grimes, Kyp Malone, Meshell N' degeocello, Jayne Cortez, Seb Rochford, Fred Anderson, Latasha Diggs, George Lewis, Craig Taborn, Tyshawn Sorey, David Berhman, Kyp Malone, Pat Thomas, Pauline Oliveros, Reg E. Gaines, Daniel Givens, Savion Glover, Anthony Braxton, Kid Lucky, Liberty Ellman, Amina Claudine Meyers, Jeff Parker, Handsome Furs, Robert Mitchell, Quest Love, Julius Hemphill Sextet, Merce Cunningham, Okkyung Lee, Joe Maneri, Beans, Bill T Jones, Josh Abrams, Chad Taylor, Dave Douglas and John Herndon, John King, among many others. She has recorded as a guest musician with rock, pop, and electronic groups as diverse as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, TV On The Radio, Savath & Savalas, Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Deerhoof and performance artists My Barbarian. She also continues to work as a sidewoman on a plethora of collaborative projects exploring a variety of artistic mediums.
Since the release of her last record, she has been extensively traveling, exploring parts of the American south, western Europe, Africa, Indonesia, and India by air, train, and water. These voyages have allowed her to build on a personal archive of experience which has inspired much of her work to date, with a thematic focus on migration, memory, sound, and the place of history in uncertain times. Roberts is also a 2019 DAAD fellow in music composition.
Of her work, Matana says the following: "At my artistic core, I am firmly dedicated to creating a unique and very personal body of sound work that speaks to, and reminds people of all walks of life to reach, stand up, give voice, regardless of difference, created from mere labels of intellectual classification. In my ideal world the idea of 'difference', is an illusion designed only for modern economic division and elitist intellectual hierarchy. Through my life's work, I stand creatively in defiance."