The Importance Of Mary Halvorson’s Recordings During The Pandemic Year

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Mary Halvorson remained busy during the pandemic year, releasing a new album with her group Code Girl, as well as with the trio Thumbscrew.

(Photo: James Wang)

Do you think musicians have the responsibility this year—or any yearto be political or highlight injustice with their work?

I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but I think it’s great when it’s done well. At the same time, I feel if an artist wants to make music that doesn’t highlight that stuff, that’s completely fine. Music can serve as an escape from injustice, too.

This latest Code Girl project was also one of your first projects with lyrics, and it specifically uses poetic forms. What’s your history with poetry?

I’ve loosely experimented with it probably since I was in college; I’ve always enjoyed it. When I was in my 20s, I had a rock band called People that I wrote some lyrics for. And in my duo with the violist Jessica Pavone—I wrote some lyrics for that. So, I was doing it a little bit over 20 years, but I wanted to do it more.

Does using lyrics allow you to access ideas that are more difficult to get across with purely instrumental techniques?

Yeah, I think it does open up another element of music. Almost all the music I’ve played is instrumental, and a lot of the music I listen to has lyrics and singers, and I was thinking about that discrepancy. So, I’m trying to bridge that gap.

How did you meet singer Amirtha Kidambi, who appears on both the Code Girl albums?

A friend of mine, Charlie Looker, has a group called Seaven Teares, and she sang in that and I just loved her singing. She is just such a powerful singer and a great improviser.

How did you choose the personnel for Artlessly Falling, and how did it help bring your vision to life?

I thought because I’m trying something so new to me, it would be cool to use Thumbscrew and have a familiar foundation that I can build it on. I really trust Michael [Formanek] and Tomas [Fujiwara].

Then, Adam O’Farrill—he’s one of my favorite trumpet players. He’s a really open, searching player. María Grand, she’s similar—her sax playing has a searching quality, and also this ability to go seamlessly between chord changes and forms. Then I found out she sang, and I loved her voice—it’s a very high wispy voice, almost the opposite of Amirtha’s.

What about the addition of songwriter and vocalist Robert Wyatt—is his music significant to you? How did you end up getting him involved?

He’s one of my heroes. I probably listen to his music more than anybody’s music. From the second I heard it in my mid-20s, his music really impacted me.

And then, there was this club in New York where every time I went in there, they were playing Robert Wyatt and they knew I was a big fan. One day I was in there and they were like, “Hey, we’re mailing him a package. Would you like to include something?” I gave them a CD of mine and I wrote him a little note, and Robert wrote me back. We started this correspondence after that. I was in touch with him already when I realized I really wanted to have a male singer on this record and that he was my first choice. But I had read an interview with him saying he had stopped making music. Still, I asked him anyway. He wrote back right away and said, “Oh, I’d love to.” I still can’t believe he’s singing on the record. It’s really meaningful for me and it was such a great experience getting a chance to work with him.

I know Anthony Braxton is another hero of yours, and you took classes with him at university, right?

Yeah, he’s basically the reason I’m a musician today. I’m really not sure that I would be if it weren’t for him. He taught at Wesleyan University, where I went to college. I was doing music, but not with any intention of making it a career. Meeting him just blew my whole world open. He showed me how large the world of music is, and he would always say, “If you’re not making mistakes, something’s wrong.”

So, how did this Thumbscrew record, The Anthony Braxton Project, come to life?

Braxton’s organization, the Tri-Centric Foundation, invited several groups to play his music in honor of his 75th birthday, including Thumbscrew. It was really cool, because he’s such a prolific composer, and the Tri-Centric Foundation is in the process of archiving all of [his writing]. So, we went to the office in New Haven, looked through the whole archive and chose compositions—mostly early compositions of his that had never been recorded. We were able to go through and decipher his extensive composition notes—it was a pretty intense process. We had an artist residency in Pittsburgh, too, so we spent that month working on his music and trying to bring new pieces to life.

Speaking of birthdays, you recently turned 40. What kind of thoughts did that stir up for you—particularly about music?

You know, it’s funny, I was just talking to my friend, Jessica Pavone, about the idea of slowing down a little bit. When we were in our 20s, we were running around trying to do as much as possible, and the music reflected that. Now, I feel like I want to focus on a few things with a sense of development and focus.

Has 2020 reshaped your music-making in any way?

It has allowed me—and probably has allowed just about everybody—focus. But I think it’s hard to have perspective on what the impact will be, because we’re so in this crazy time period. It does feel like a period of rapid growth.

Have there been any positives from releasing two albums during the pandemic year?

In a sense, because there’s no live music, recordings almost take on more importance. I’m a huge Fiona Apple fan, and when she released her new album in April, the fact that we were stuck at home made my experience with the music more meaningful. And I feel like once live music can happen again, nobody will ever take anything for granted ever again. Audiences and musicians really, really miss it. DB

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