Although Ted Hearne and Matana Roberts are both Chicago natives, the two composer-performers seem miles apart in terms of their musical upbringings. Hearne started out on a classical music track, eventually joining the precocious composer collective Sleeping Giant. Roberts, a saxophonist steeped in jazz history, emerged on the city’s thriving improvised music in the 1990s in the trio Sticks & Stones. Later, Roberts embarked on one of the most ambitious long-term musical endeavors of our time, a twelve-chapter opus rooted in African-American history and genealogy, titled Coin Coin. 

Both musicians are omnivorous listeners who routinely flout the expectations and rules of their dominant fields. As the boundaries between musical words have grown more porous, and the distinctions between these worlds ever less meaningful, Hearne and Roberts have remained at the leading edge of that transformation. Hearnes musical theater pieces have freely collided electronic music, hip-hop, and political commentary within ensembles that ignore genre identification. Roberts’s sound-quilting strategies extend even beyond the breadth of African-American music to draw upon noise-rock, opera, British folk, and anything else that fits into their elaborate constructions. 

Hearne and Roberts recently spoke over Zoom—Hearne, dialing in from Berlin where he was mounting a new piece called over and over vorbei nicht vorbei at the Komische Oper Berlin; and Roberts in New York City, wrapping up a visit to perform at the annual Winter JazzFest before heading back to San Diego, where they are serving as an assistant professor at the University of California this year. 


Matana Roberts: I just want to know: How are you doing? There have been some really wild shifts in music lately. There’s a real gutting of the cultural sector across global lines right now. I’m noticing that when people come to me for advice for certain things, some of the advice that I would have given them before the worst of the pandemic is not applicable. Opportunities are scarcer, it feels, though I also feel like people are noticing that, and trying to create new opportunities to make up the difference. A lot of people have left the cultural sector to do other things; mass layoffs and things that are happening in music media, for instance, are terrifying. And so I wonder how you’re operating with that information these days?

Ted Hearne: It’s interesting that you frame it in terms of the advice that you give. That’s a big point, where I really feel that impact, too. I was never so grateful to have some affiliation with institutions and stability when the pandemic hit. The reset made me look at how much support the cultural sector has. How much is someone who has ambition and drive willing to work at building community? How much opportunity do they really have to make it work for themselves and for the community?

I started thinking that when I was in my early 20s, there were more opportunities for people to be able to do that, and now it just seems a lot harder. I think I was set on this capitalist track of just going and going and going, and just hustling and hustling. The pandemic provided a moment to sit back, and both assess the privilege of the position that I was in, and also how difficult it is. And the advice for the students is different. I used to always just be like, “Move to New York . . . community . . . ” but now it just sounds like “Grind, you just have to grind,” and that can be really toxic for people.

MR: During the worst of the pandemic, I felt the privilege of art life even though everything disappeared. I had a schedule that was so insane that I remember I looked at it, at the start of that year, going, “I don’t know how I’m gonna do all this.” And when things started getting canceled, I was like, “Oh, great, now I have more time to work on this.” I had a very nice situation that allowed me to just stay pretty isolated, but to also rethink the grind—like, what does it mean? And how not good it is for creativity. Creativity needs rest. Creativity needs times of doing absolutely nothing so that ideas can pop up. Creativity needs time for you to focus on other people, other things in your life, and also to reassess how you’re taking care of yourself to push through to this next level.  

I still feel this kind of guilt of privilege, versus friends who are frontline workers, or friends in the medical field, or friends whose gigs disappeared. Then I had a moment of, Okay, this is it. Taking stock of how my life has been, being kind of happy about what I’ve gotten to do, and thinking, Okay, this is how I’m going out. From the headlines, it seemed like the African-American community was even more heavily affected, just the numbers of people dying in the communities that I’ve been a part of throughout my life. I have a pre-existing asthmatic situation. I just thought like that for a good three weeks. Finally, I was like, “Oh, I can work on that piece that I’ve never had a chance to work on, because I don’t have time. Or I can do some other creative things that I really would like to take a stab at that I don’t have time. How am I really feeling, emotionally? What really is going on? And who can I check in on?” Thank God for the internet.  

“I’m trying to weave a quilt of friendship and admiration. I’m interested in possibility, and what’s not standard.”
Matana Roberts
“I always say that all music is political. I feel like some artists themselves, or some institutions that present artists, will explicitly disavow that, and that is a political act, also.”
Ted Hearne

MR: I got into trying to have a deeper understanding of how sound affects the physical body. Because I was so freaked out, I was spending a lot of time in these soloistic practices with sound and instru- ments. I work with electronics, which I really love, especially as part of the studio practice. But I started having a desire to work with instruments that only took human propulsion to create, outside of the saxophone. The saxophone is a machine. It’s a simple machine, but it is a machine.

I wanted to work with more simple machines, more wind vessels. Oddly, I had never understood how fun the percussion floors at most music stores are. I’m also a composer, and I like to have some tactile understanding of writing for certain instruments: Bells, kalimbas, triangles, gongs. And then all the different flutes, so many simple reeded things. I just dug deeper into possibility and into under- standing that slow is fine, instead of this boom, boom, boom, which is how we move. That’s how I was moving. I started to feel that the work I was making was not only being made too fast, but it was also sounding too fast.

 TH: Forgive me, this is going to be really broad, and I don’t know how to frame it exactly, but when you’re talking about

wanting more wind vessels and feeling this connection to this type of instrument and wanting to explore that, this is some- thing that I’ve thought about with your music. How much does the process of how the sound is made, and how much does the culture around whatever the instrument is, and whatever music is associated with that instrument—how much do those things play into the music that you write? And how much do you think you hear them in the music you produce when you write for those instruments?

MR: The one project that I have, the Coin Coin stuff—I’m really trying to pull in specific people who I want to include, so that when that project is all said and done, I want it to represent this really diverse community of interesting folks. There are tons of interesting folks all over the place, but people who have made a real impact on me off the bandstand, as well as on the bandstand. Sometimes people will ask who are some of these people Matana is asking to play this music. I’m trying to weave a quilt of friendship and admiration. I’m interested in possibility, and what’s not standard. I don’t really like writing for standard instrumentation. I’m interested in the possibility of really diverse sound worlds. But also, Ted, I still don’t know what I’m doing.

TH: That’s good!

MR: I’ve got two degrees in this stuff. I think you start to understand certain formulas or workflows that work for you. But I still feel that music to me—music composition, music performance, the art world stuff that I do—it still feels like a mystery, which scares me a little bit, but it also keeps it fun.

TH: If I was a different personality, if I learned how to write for an ensemble, like a string quartet or something, I would amass the knowledge about that and do that because I got good at it. But that’s so boring to me. It’s nice to learn how to do a thing, but then it’s time to learn the next thing.

MR: I’m having dreams of writing for mono-ensembles of just one instrument so I can get to know the instrument a little bit. I took one composition class in college and that professor told me, “This is not going to work out for you, so we need to find you something else.” Sometimes when things are bad, I hear my head going, “Oh, this is probably what he was talking about.” I’m more interested in figuring out ways to strategize composition, conceptually. I’ve had some real failures with that. There are limits even in the biggest possibilities, and I’ve started to catalog what actually works, especially when dealing with graphic notation.

TH: I feel like that’s a good place to be. I love the idea of writing for the people who have made an impact on you. I feel exactly the same way, and I think it’s really important to do that, and also to write for people who could be that person, based on the music that they’ve made, and the way that we interact off the bandstand, as you say. I may not know you, but I will know you through this process. Also, the differences of people that are embedded in the ensemble. For me, that’s a really important value. Everyone’s learning from each other, and everyone makes music differently. When we start to have this shared experience that gets narrower or narrower, we start self-segregating, which I really hate, writing music that perpetuates that.

In Coin Coin, in these different albums, there’s an amazing overlay of different instruments and different patterns, different stylistic approaches. The tendrils of those things are connected to all these different people, and not just the people that are making the music. Of course, you want someone who can communicate those things authentically—and those are the musicians that you’ve employed— the layers of culture. This is a huge part of why your music is really meaningful to me, because there’s this really alive respect for these different layers. You’re not saying, “The Matana approach is this clean box, and I’m gonna portray culture this way,” but you’re allowing this freedom of the layers. I hear the layers, and it feels really transportive. I’m wondering how Photos: Jen Rosenstein (Hearne); Geoff Albores (Roberts) you think about representing a culture in a sound, or if you think about that at all. Or does it just come from the person?

Photos: Geoff Albores (Roberts); Jen Rosenstein (Hearne)
Photos: Geoff Albores (Roberts); Jen Rosenstein (Hearne)

MR: I feel like I have a responsibility to speak in a certain way about some of these cultural hallmarks that are very present in the music, but I’ve also tried to create a pathway for myself where I’m trying not to be overly dependent on those hallmarks. In the Coin Coin work, I’m exploring lineage—a lineage that’s pretty wide across the spectrum—but because the front-facing focus is folks of color, sometimes I feel like people have wanted to collapse it down to that. I ruffle at that because that’s a jumping-off point, and that’s where I find a deep well of inspiration, but it’s not all I’m trying to talk about.

The Coin Coin work is a monument to the human experience to me, and that transcends all these other things. Like you—and in some of my other work, also—I’m trying to make some very clear statements about culture, about political points of view, about, again, the human experience, because music is about connection. And music is supposed to be about community, I thought. With the Coin Coin work, I wanted to be as honest as possible, so that it didn’t seem like I was trying to write for this kind of instrumentation just because it’s marketable, or it’s catchy, or it’s so unusual. I’m hoping that it’s created more room for other people trying to explore political ideologies in their work. All music is social justice work, all art is social justice work. I don’t care if a person’s drawing flowers or writing about the songs of coyotes or whatever; it’s all social justice work. That’s something I think about, but it reminds me to ask you how you think about instrumentation, because you’re always writing for something really unusual and interesting. I look at some of the stuff and I go, How did he have that idea? Like the piece about farming? Where do those ideas come from for you?

TH: Oh, yeah, the farm piece [Hearne’s choral work, Farming, which had its premiere at Art at Kings Oaks, in Bucks County, PA, last year]… I mean, ideas come from people, right? The people that I want to work with, but the potential power of adjacencies that really spark. I always say that all music is political. I feel like some artists themselves, or some institutions that present artists, will explicitly disavow that, and that is a political act, also. Their work is political whether or not they say it, and that’s sort of my tag. I love the way that you’re saying that all art is social justice work. It strikes me as another side of the coin, but a more generous side. I think of musical communities as reflections of the world as I see it, the communities in the world. Putting things together that you might not see together is another version of what you said, like writing toward the world you want to see. And I want to see the conflict of different viewpoints—not in a bad way, but because I think that conflict is necessary.

Donald [Nally, who directs the new-music choir The Crossing, which commissioned Farming] grew up on farmland in Pennsylvania, and he asked me to write a piece that they could do outside. He didn’t give me very much to go on, because I think he knew that I would take it some- where, but I think that he was feeling some sadness about the way that the land has changed, and how difficult it is to get real food anymore. The transformation of so much farmland in that area to suburban sprawl and stuff like that.

There’s a type of piece that can make that point without bringing up the idea of our responsibility toward that condition, that feeds into agrarian nostalgia—this American idea of the old days, the farmland, blah, blah, blah. With choral music, especially, if we don’t lay it on a foundation of some difference, or lay it up against something else that’s a different view- point, then we can forget about it. That’s because of the impact of colonialism, the way that the land has been treated in the United States. And what is the conception of the land around that? We could just say we’re missing our beautiful fields. If we’re going to be on the land, this has to be electronic music, and we have to really show our imposition on the land. We’re not going to be like, Look at the sunset! We’ve got to be like, Look at the sunset against some hyperpop played on giant speakers, because we’re gonna feel that.

MR: I’ve been talking to a couple of musicians who all have been trying to get a hold of land, to try and have a different sort of connection, like a reminder of how disconnected we, as communities, have become from where our food comes from, where we live, how we live, and what we live on. There’s some land in my family that was given in a will and then taken back in a secret will that showed up, and nobody knows where it came from, back in the ’40s. It’s a wild story— this handwritten will—that completely changed the number of acres that were left to some people, and I have this fantasy of bringing that land back in, and then understanding my own disconnection. I thought it was really interesting that you were dealing with those issues. With the rise of these gentrifying forces happening all over the place, it’s really hard to give any sort of direction to people, let alone to ourselves, about how to best move about all these changes.

TH: Conflict is an interesting thing at work. I’m a person who navigates toward it, and that’s where I grow the most, when someone asks me to confront things that I hadn’t thought about well enough, or that I might be wrong about. I think it’s also a reaction to some classical music patterns. My mom was an opera singer, and the chasing of some ideal of perfection—this is the way that things are supposed to be done—there’s, like, a reaction to that. I feel like when we’re moving toward that in music, it’s not that generative, actually. It certainly doesn’t move toward the kind of conversation that’s necessary to really listen. I think that we should be listening more.

MR: Yeah, I can’t believe how undervalued listening is. I’m laughing to stop from crying because there’s a lot of other things we could talk about in that regard. I used to make these jokes about what it would be like if Congress sang together. Think about that—if there was like a choir requirement, how might things be different?

TH: From your lips to God’s ears! Seriously, that’s a good idea.

About the Author
Peter Margasak is a Berlin-based music journalist who spent more than two decades as a staff writer at the Chicago Reader. He’s currently at work on a book about the intersection of jazz, experimental, and rock music in Chicago between 1992-2002.