In the world of music, the saxophone represents many things. It is classical and jazz, it is woodwinds and brass, it is melody and military—it is sexuality and it is soul. And given its multifaceted role in American musical traditions, it is also a fascinating lens through which to explore America’s complex political history.
Composer, saxophonist, and sound experimentalist Matana Roberts does just this in chapter three of her massive, 12-part “Coin Coin” series. Gigantic in scope, the series is a visceral musical exploration into the sounds, the stories, the history, and the legacy of the American slave trade—a panoramic sound quilt piecing together the diverse trajectories of the African diaspora.
Each album in the series features a different configuration of instruments and sound textures—the first featured a 16-piece ensemble, the second a sextet, and the third? Just a single performer: Roberts herself.
“Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee” weaves a rich musical tapestry of saxophones, songs, field recordings, loop and effects pedals, and spoken word recitations—all composed, performed, and carefully layered by Roberts.
So what does it sound like? Well, it’s sort of like a surreal sonic dream—a musical merging of ritual and spectacle. Roberts’ influences are a melting pot of jazz, improvisation, classical, and the avant-garde, and her album is a vivid wash of colors and sounds, wailing saxophones and spoken word, field recordings and folk music.
But aside from the idiosyncratic sax solos, one of the most striking elements musically is Roberts’ voice. She flows just as easily from mournful singing to spoken texts, folk song fragments to vocal improvisations. If “river run thee” is a one-woman opera, then Roberts is the star, viscerally experiencing each twist, turn, and tragedy.
Her voice brims with a gritty, earthy, urgent soulfulness, echoed by saxophone moans and static swells. Oscillating tones, ghostly whispers, and eerie electronics providing a foreboding accompaniment—and each track bleeds into the next as she paints a vivid and unflinching narrative, a tragic history of civil rights issues in the U.S.
“I have a particular fascination with history as narrative and how narrative constantly gets cut up and changed and completely taken out of context, or put in context and taken out again,” Roberts said in an interview with Bomb Magazine. “To me history is not linear; it’s on this constant, cyclical repeat.”
Roberts recorded the album in the same Montreal studio she used to mix the first two albums in the “Coin Coin” series. For this third installment, she played the “river run thee” tape back over and over again, responding to what she’d already recorded and adding new musical layers in real-time from start to finish—thus injecting the energy and spontaneity of improvisation directly into the album.
But for all the intensity and intimacy of this one-woman album, “river run thee” is actually an entire symphony of sounds and stories. Roberts took her source material from across generations and geographies, amassing historical and documentary information through interviews, site visits, field recordings, and travels—and for that reason, the album is so much more than just a personal reflection on the state of race relations in America. It is critical musical analysis of our nation’s art and politics: past, present, and future.
“One thing I love about history in the making is that it has shown time and time again that there is resolution,” she said. “It won’t be a permanent resolution, because this country still hasn’t fully acknowledged that it is built on denial. I sense that this is not going to change soon; therefore it’s important for American artists to make work that reminds us of our responsibility for progression. The choices that I make as an artist have a lot to do with that.”