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Restless in the city that never sleeps, Mary Halvorson spends her waking hours with her music. The guitarist-composer flew back to Brooklyn in the middle of a European tour, after the pandemic reduced her dates from eight to four—and then to none. 

Quarantined with her guitar, she explores new possibilities and reinterprets elements from past projects. This past week, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Halvorson for a virtual discussion on composition ruts and revisions, mysteries of the instrument, and what’s next for Code Girl. 

The Jazz Gallery: In past interviews you’ve spoken about sound density in terms of instrumentation and just sheer number of instrumentalists. What are some of the more recent ways you’ve challenged yourself to maintain this sort of Halvorson agility and intense clarity of sound and intention inside that denseness?

Mary Halvorson: I’m glad you hear it like that [laughs]. It’s always a challenge when writing for a larger group—and even when you’re improvising with people—to ensure it doesn’t have to be everybody all the time. If I’m writing for a group, I’m definitely aware of having different colors pop out, and having moments of density but not having it feel like it’s constant—in other words, being able to leave space, or have different orchestral possibilities pop out.

For me, it’s also based around the specific people I’m writing for and their instruments. I very rarely write a composition that’s an open instrumentation composition that can be transferred to different groups; I pretty much always write very instrumentation-specific compositions. For example, if I’m writing for my octet which has a pedal steel guitar, four horns and guitar, bass and drums, I’ll be thinking about all those colors and trying to have it make sense and have different voices and sub-sections of the band come through in different moments, as a contrast and release from the density of the full band.

TJG: Did it take you some trial and error to maintain that balance of inhaling and exhaling and pacing with specific configurations?

MH: It’s always trial and error. I think it does take some work, particularly when you just get started with a new group. You’re kind of excited about all the colors and all the voices, so it’s probably easy to over-compose. But what I often do with compositions is, write them, then take a step back, then come back to them with a fresh brain [laughs] maybe on a different day. And sometimes, it’s during those moments when you’ll see the big picture more clearly: “Oh this is way too much,” or “Maybe if I get rid of some things in this one section,” or “Maybe this other thing needs to be made longer.” I do a lot of revisions. I write very quickly but then I go back and revise. So I think kind of the best way for me to see the big picture is to take some time away from a piece of music and then come back to it.  

TJG: That must be hard to do when you’re really excited about a project. 

MH: Yeah. But also I think of the time away from actual composing as part of the composing process, too.

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Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

From conservatory students to seasoned road veterans, everyone across the jazz community is grappling with the same questions right now: How to maintain our mental health, how to keep writing and practicing, how to take care of ourselves and our families, how to make up lost income, how to stay safe and sane. Last week, we spoke about these issues with saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana. As a core member of The Jazz Gallery community, Aldana had wonderful thoughts on how to develop a routine amidst this crisis, as well as fond memories of the Gallery looking ahead to the ongoing 25th Anniversary celebration.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Melissa. How are you doing?

Melissa Aldana: I’m in New York. Right now, it feels like everything is so fragile… It’s hard to accept everything that’s happening. But somehow… [laughs] I’ve been able to do about five, six hours of practicing a day. My purpose right now is to take care of myself, practice, and stay calm and positive. Everyone is having those same feelings.

TJG: Did you lose a huge amount of work?

MA: Yeah, I did, I lost a lot of work. But I was able to finish out a tour. The hard thing is to stay calm, positive, and try to make the best of this situation. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t play with people right now. I need to do an online concert, or something, but right now I’m working on getting through the quarantine.

TJG: What have you been practicing?

MA: I’ve been working a lot on sound, which I’ve done for years. I do a good hour of long tones, a good hour of time feel, some other various techniques focusing on control. I’ve been working on Bach on piano too, an hour and a half every day. I’m trying to compose a little bit, been transcribing solos, working on claves, standards in all keys, whatever I can do to keep my head busy right now [laughs].

TJG: I like how you start your day with control—it’s really important to practice being in control during this out-of-control time.

MA: Oh yes. To me, that’s the most important. A big part of my practicing can be boring, in a sense. A bit obsessive. But years and experience have proven that if I’m consistent like that, if I am aware of how I practice, I start moving forward. I know that it really works for my sound and helps get things together.

TJG: What have been some important resources for you during this time? People, apps, websites, walks… What’s keeping you held together?

MA: I’m walking a lot, exercising quite a lot, a good hour and a half every day. I’ve been constantly doing yoga, trying to meditate, though it’s really hard. Long walks. I have an elliptical at home. I’m slowly getting it together… I’ve been walking, I’ve been giving myself homework, things to learn, like Bach on piano. Doing basic things, reading books, taking advantage of the time.

At the same time, I’m telling myself that there’s no reason to push myself so hard. Why not learn just how to be? That’s something a lot of us don’t do, just be. We don’t have to be working all the time, running around, writing music. What about just being yourself? It’s been an interesting week, and it’s going to be an interesting couple of months of personal growth.

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