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This past Wednesday night, December 9th, I went to hear composer/saxophonist Matana Roberts perform her COIN COIN project at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. The project is wonderfully hard to classify, as it is a fountainhead drawing from multiple streams of influences, but Matana describes it as,
"...a large scale 12 segmented sound narrative about my family history [called COIN COIN]. Through research, interviews and loads of family help, I have been able to explore stories, folklore, and mystery surrounding my ancestral history going back to about 1704, covering at least 3 continents, spanning a ridiculous cross section of cultures..."
Coin-Coin was a legendary figure in some mid-18th and 19th century southern African-American lore, but she was a real person: Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a women (and possible ancestor of Matana) born a slave in Louisiana but through various circumstances, became a free women who ended up a successful landowner, slave-owner, and businesswoman at a time when most blacks (men and especially women) were illiterate, uneducated, and poor. Matana maintains a blog, In the Midst of Memory detailing her thought process on different subjects dealing with developingCOIN COIN and you can find out more there, as well as links to interviews discussing the project.
On Wednesday night as I listened, I was reminded of a surface tonal connection between COIN COINand Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which I read a couple of years ago and saw the movie over Thanksgiving weekend). Both have a topical seriousness and desolation in which laughter, joy, or hope seemly is an ancient legend people only could vaguely comprehend. Of course this is to be expected dealing with the horrors and terrors both are dealing with. However after thinking about it more, The Road comparison is only partly accurate and COIN COIN, underneath the surface, probably has more cultural resonance with some other books I've read: The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison's Beloved or A mercy, and Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall. Those powerful and solemn books deal with issues in and around slavery and illuminates the psychic and psychological toll inflicted on all involved and all who survive (both black and white). Each book has a surface theme one could describe, as one character in In the Fall says, "Mostly, people are cruel, given the chance." Now I do believe everyone, given the right circumstances, has the capacity to live up to such a negative statement, however I don't subscribe to that pessimistic view in the reality of day-to-day. I am an optimist but with such depravity in history, it does make one empathetic to the felo-de-se of some who are oppressed and who lack opportunity through no fault of their own. Yet, despite that stream of anguish, one comes away from each book (well, at least me), not with lack of hope or with despair, but with an astonishment at how one can go on and how one does go on when faced with such abjection. How much would you cost? is one of the questions Matana asks in COIN COIN and which I believe she means what is one's own value as a person (both the literal monetary question referenced in slavery but also solipsistically as who one is) but I think another way to think of it is, what would you do or what would you be, placed in a similar horrific situation or circumstance? Would you have the same desire to survive, to continue? Would you degenerate to cruelty and self-destruction or as The Kid says in the movie The Road, would you still be a "good guy?"
Leonard Bernstein said it well in his fifth Harvard University Norton Lecture from the early 1970s, The Twentieth Century Crisis,
"Why are we still here, struggling to go on? We are now face to face with the truly Ultimate Ambiguity which is the human spirit. This is the most fascinating ambiguity of all: that as each of us grows up, the mark of our maturity is that we accept our mortality; and yet we persist in our search for immortality. We may believe it's all transient, even that it's all over; yet we believe a future. We believe. We emerge from a cinema after three hours of the most abject degeneracy in a film such as La Dolce Vita, and we emerge on wings, from the sheer creativity of it; we can fly on, to a future. And the same is true after witnessing the hopelessness of Godot in the theater, or after the aggressive violence of The Rite of Spring in the concert hall...There must be something in us, and in me, that makes me want to continue; and to teach is to believe in continuing. To share with you critical feelings about the past, to try to describe and assess the present--these actions by their very nature imply a firm belief in a future."
Now while I positively enjoyed both COIN COIN and The Road, I didn't feel like I 'flew away' after reading or after seeing it. However, I did feel that desire of humanity to survive, to live, to keep moving on. COIN COIN struck me as sonic consonance of the themes and feelings to be found in books like The Known World. The compositions were often structured improvisations mixed with definite written sections for the ensemble. Sometimes during the performance there was a box passed between the musicians, with color-coded beads inside, which corresponded to color-codes on the musician's parts and determined how they navigated the written music (Nate Chinen, who conducted a post-concert talk with Matana, has some photos of Matana's music here). The music flowed seamlessly from piece to piece for about an hour and a half and was a polyglot of stylistic diversity. Sections of contemporary classical gestures mingled with free jazz, spoken word, and modal jazz (a la mid-1960s John Coltrane, think the Impulse albums Crescent or Coltrane and you get an idea), performed by a wonderful ensemble (Gabriel Gurrerio (piano) and Daniel Levin (cello) stood out, but also featured were Jessica Pavone (viola), Keith Witty (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums)) lead by Matana's sinewy alto saxophone playing and sometimes her speaking, singing, scat-rapping, and on three occasions, issuing a primal, tortured scream, which seemed to emerge from the depths of the spirits of all of her black ancestors. A powerful accompaniment and counterpoint to the music were video projections by Daniel Givens early in the evening but especially later when photos from Matana's family lineage, dating from the late 1800's onward, were shown behind the band. Like most African-Americans today, Matana's family comes in many different hues and shades of black, brown, and white. Seeing the photos of marriages, parties, school photos, celebrations, one had a pride and joy at seeing middle-class African-Americans in the early 20th century, so often seen by history in such stereotypical distress and poverty, being depicted in all manner of complexity in life: with dreams, and loves, and desires, and faults just like anyone else. Of course watching the photos, I couldn't help thinking about my own family history and how I fit into it as well as the larger African-American tapestry, even though that tapestry is only one part of many elements defining who I am. And I think this is one thing that is intriguing and universal about COIN COIN, no matter your 'race': through Matana's exploration of her own history, it helps open up your awareness to connections to your own family past and to one's inner self reflection of what that means to who you are.
Seeing such an unclassifiable project, one that mixed dramaturgy, sociological and anthropological research and study, performance art, and jazz, one could trace influence to some past projects from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Matana, from her own admission is a tangential member (if Chicago's Second City is the incubator of much of American comedy today, then AACM has to be some kind of equivalent for the downtown music scene all over the globe). But Matana's work is singular in its own ambition and powerfully thought-provoking in its scope. I, for one, am happy to know of her work and that she addresses such a subject with clarity, questioning insight and vision and I look forward to seeing COIN COIN develop in the future. It is a project which should be seen and heard and discussed by many more.
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