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.
TJG: Some of your collaborators—or rather, collaborators of collaborators—sometimes have a specific way of composing where the orchestration is minimal and they’ll have a series of notes that create a rhythmic pattern that has no scored melody or maybe some harmony with no clear rhythm, leaving the piece pretty open. You tend to be exacting in the detailed orchestration of your compositions, as you just discussed, but I’m wondering if you ever play around with that specific writing device.
MH: Most of my compositions are pretty highly orchestrated, and deliberate. But I also think that all of us fall into patterns when we’re composing, certain ways that we find success in writing something—or methods that are more comfortable, I should say. So occasionally I’ll take a completely different approach, or try something less intuitive. I think it’s important to try to get out of ruts [laughs]. And that can certainly happen with composing.
TJG: When you notice that you’ve used the same writing method for the past however many projects, do you actively resist using it by replacing it with some other method or device?
MH: Sometimes it’ll be about a small thing. If I’m writing a book of music for a certain group, I do want to take into account all the pieces—a collection of pieces—which is probably going to be an album eventually. So let’s say I’ve written four compositions, I’ll sit back and think about the four of them: “What’s missing? What have I not put in there?” I might find my tendency is to write pieces in a similar range of tempo, so I might say, “I’m gonna write a tune that’s really fast,” or “I don’t have a ballad yet.” It could be something very simple, like setting a parameter for myself based on what I feel is needed for the overall balance of the project. Or—we were talking about density—if everything feels really dense, maybe I’ll try to do a composition which features smaller subgroups of the ensemble.
TJG: I’ve really been enjoying this new Intakt release with the Very Practical Trio presenting original music from Michael Formanek. Can you talk a little bit about what inspires you artistically when you challenge traditional instrumental roles in an ensemble setting?
MH: I shouldn’t speak for Michael, but I do think he considered the diverse roles of the saxophone, guitar and bass. For example, it doesn’t have to be that the saxophone is always soloing and the bass is always playing a bass line, [instead] we’re playing around with more mutable or shifting roles as a trio. I think he also thought of it as a chamber project, and wanted to explore what types of sonorities would open up in the context of a drum-less group.
It is fun to play around with those different kinds of roles. And that’s something I think about with improvising, too. There are ways for horn players to comp for somebody who’s soloing. They don’t have to just be in a role of somebody who’s taking a solo then laying out. So I do think about playing around with different types of roles, and I think guitar is a great instrument for that naturally. It has those role built into it. It can be a rhythm section instrument, a comping instrument; it can play bass lines, solo or be a sonic instrument. It can be an electronic instrument. I think that’s part of what drew me to the guitar—it does have this shapeshifting quality to it.
TJG: Speaking of the instrument it, you’ve spent a substantial amount of practice time deep diving into voicings.
MH: Mmhm. In fact, that’s one of my quarantine activities.
TJG: What has that time spent revealed to you about the possibilities of your own instrument that maybe you’re only now beginning to explore?
MH: There’s so much to learn on the guitar. I’ve always been fascinated by the guitar neck and all [its] possibilities. For me, it’s a never-ending project of trying to get better. I think Bill Frisell described it once as chipping away every day at a block of wood, or something like that. I really related to that because that’s exactly how it feels. There is always more to explore. For the past few years I’ve been particularly interested in expanding my knowledge of chord voicings. I always work on ear training, facility on the instrument, patterns, arpeggios, scales, tons of other stuff. I write a lot of my own exercises.
Right now, we’re not really practicing for anything specific. There’s no performances, which is kind of strange, but I think [it’s productive] just taking the time to really just explore the instrument and chip away at—there’s just limitless stuff [laughs]. Sometimes it’s hard to even know what to start with.
TJG: I imagine some of that stuff doesn’t even reveal itself to you until weeks after you’ve been working on it.
TJG: Particularly in instances throughout Code Girl, I’ve noticed your tendency toward patterned repetition, or maybe like, patterned displacement. What’s thrilling to you about developing these wildly improvised and explorative compositions around patterns and repetition—maybe deceptive repetition?
MH: For Code Girl, the songs are really coming out of the lyrics, because I write the lyrics first. So for me, the real core of it is guitar and voice. The way I write them, I write the lyrics, and then I sing the lyrics and play guitar along to it, and then I kind of flesh out the song around that. So some of the pieces could be described that way; there probably are a lot of variations on patterns and things like that, for sure. And if the lyrical structure is irregular, I’ll compose the music around it so then the musical forms might become irregular as well. But for me, it’s really a song project, so it’s centered around that. Theoretically I could have stripped down versions of those songs with just guitar and voice.
TJG: It’s interesting that you sometimes compose irregular music or an odd meter around irregular lyrical structures. During one of my very first interviews with Camila Meza, she was discussing how people often ask about her odd-metered compositions. And she said something like, “I don’t do it on purpose, it’s the lyric.” Sometimes her lyrics land in 7, and then she just constructs the rest of the composition around that phrase. I thought that was really honest and fascinating.
MH: I think that’s really cool, and I really relate to that. What’s even more interesting is that that’s not how most people write songs. So it’s interesting that she does that, too. I think that most people write the music first, and then add lyrics to it. So in a way, it’s the less traditional way, or more of a backwards way [laughs] of doing it. But to me, that’s the only way it’s ever made sense.
TJG: I know everything’s on hold, but do you have any projects you’re currently developing that we might not know about?
MH: In December I recorded a second Code Girl record. The lineup’s a little bit different and it’s sort of an expanded version of the debut. I’m also going to have special guest on a few of the tracks. The record will be out in the fall on Firehouse 12 Records. And actually that’s what we were doing when all this crazy coronavirus stuff was starting; we were in Europe performing all the new music. We ended up only being able to do four out of eight of the shows and had to come home early.
TJG: Was the special guest with you, or is that a super surprise?
MH: No, no. It’ll be a surprise. He’s not gonna perform with us.
TJG: So it’s a he.
MH: Yes, and he’s one of my heroes.
TJG: Those are our clues.
MH: Yeah [laughs]. The next thing that I’m going to release is a new album with the collective ensemble Thumbscrew that I’m a part of with Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara. We recorded an album of Anthony Braxton music to celebrate his 75th birthday which is coming up in June. We went to his archive in Connecticut last year and chose pieces—mostly previously unreleased, mostly early Anthony Braxton compositions. The way things are going, we may not be doing any record release performances anytime soon, but either way the record will be coming out on Cuneiform in June, and I’m pretty excited about that.
TJG: If we could turn now to one of the reasons for this interview series, in what ways has The Jazz Gallery empowered your creative experimenting over the years?
MH: The reason Code Girl exists is because of The Jazz Gallery. Rio gave me a commission to do a new project and that’s what I decided to do. So the very first gigs we did were at the Gallery, and I wrote the very first Code Girl music for our performance there. It’s always been a place, to me, that has been so supportive of the entire community, and also a very wide swath of the community—which I think is really cool. It’s not just a niche thing where only a very specialized kind of musician can play there. I think there’s a really diverse range of musical styles happening there, which is something I really value, too. You could go there every day for an entire month and hear so many different types of jazz and so many cool, creative musicians exploring different types of music.
So I think that’s great, and the fact that they’ve been able to keep this going for 25 years and have such a dedicated staff and board. I know it’s not easy to keep a venue like that going for so long. It’s amazing, really. So many musicians consider it a home where they can try new projects and debut things and have a really great performance space. And a lot of musicians like to hang out there and go check out music. It’s a place that’s fostered a community over a long period of time. And it’s a place that’s very special to me personally, as well.
TJG: What’s your hope for the future of the venue and the community it’s fostered?
MH: This probably sounds like a copout answer, but I mean it. I hope they keep doing exactly what they’re doing because it is really special. It’s also really cool that they have their commissioning and residency series, that they’re able to give younger musicians a chance to get started. The mentorship series is really cool, as well. So the fact that they have things like that, and then also provide a space for more established musicians to go in there and perform—if they’re going after 50 years, that would be amazing. And I hope that happens. I don’t doubt that it will.