Mary Halvorson by Steve DiBenedetto

BOMB 126 Winter 2014
Bomb 126 Nobarcode
Halvorson 1000

True or False: Because visual artists work pretty much in isolation, they listen to a lot of music.  They may even develop all kinds of theories about music. They may even pick up an instrument, and when no one is looking, might improvise what they are certain is a genius composition. What a groundbreaking session and damn, what a waste, this should have been heard by everyone! I have done that. Once or twice. The degree to which visual artists’ often obsessive concern for music tends to outweigh musicians’ concern (or anyone else’s) for art intrigues me.

I had never heard of Mary Halvorson when, listening to the radio one day in my studio, her guitar-playing first announced itself to me. I was immediately struck by a sound that was raw and inventive in a way that bypassed all expectations of how “jazz” guitar should be played. There was a component of friction involved, almost as if the “song” were at odds with being played. Not sure if this was someone from an exploratory rock type background, or an accomplished jazz guitarist utterly determined to avoid playing in an accepted idiom, I was totally engaged. This was the sort of jagged, unsettled, fearless, hybrid sound I look forward to hearing in any music.

At first I thought of it as a conflation of Robert Fripp’s edgy intervals and the angular wanderings and crystalline spareness of mature Anton Webern, but I soon realized this was a much too narrow framework to define Halvorson’s playing. Nothing is off limits to her, yet she is not a desperate, impatient experimenter. Her ability to combine seriously composed material with on-the-spot playfully eccentric improvising is exhilarating and original. Everything she does, no matter how unexpected, is grounded in a secure musical sensibility. Recently I saw her lapse into a wild and wobbly episode on the guitar with a slide that was as transcendent as it was unsettling. She can make the most basic plucking seem exotic and make unhinged virtuoso sonic excursions appear intimate. A lot has been said, is being said, and will continue to be said about Mary Halvorson. She is one of the defining voices of music today.

—Steve DiBenedetto

Steve DiBenedetto The other day I was listening to The Hook Up record Actionspeak and I’m trying to find this thing you did, it was in “The Throes,” that cut in particular … Remember that?

Mary Halvorson Oh yeah!

SD It’s just wild. You really pull the stops out on that. You always do, in one way or another, but I particularly like that one. That’s ultimately what got to me about your playing, years ago. The thing that’s key, at least to me, is that it was not immediately clear how to retrace what genre your attitude was coming from. It’s obviously manifesting itself in jazz but there are other influences “contaminating” it. Which seems key to this whole sound of yours—your ability to allow the sound to get a little warped, mutated.

MH Yeah, totally. I really like beautiful melodies, and I like harmony and rhythm, and then, turning the weird switch just a little bit, derailing them. There’s an element of surprise. But then, that gets tricky too, because if you’re constantly doing that, it’s not surprising anymore. So it’s about balancing the different elements—if everything’s out of time, throwing in something rhythmic, or just trying to feel what the music needs. 

SD That’s another aspect to your output that’s amazing—that it can be so divergent, genre-wise or approach-wise, and yet it always comes down to this very specific sound that you own. How do you remember your sound evolving?

MH I studied jazz in high school and a little bit in college, and I had a couple of teachers, Joe Morris and Anthony Braxton, who really encouraged me to try my own thing, to experiment and find a voice. Joe wouldn’t play guitar in the lessons because he didn’t want me to copy what he was doing. That was a really strong message, because the whole point of the lessons was improvising and finding your own thing.

SD As a teacher, at what point do you encourage kids to go wandering? And when do you reel them in?

MH It comes back to balance again, because they have to learn scales, and I think it’s good to be studying some kind of a tradition, too, whether it’s jazz or classical or rock. It’s good to have a foundation. For me it was tied in with listening to all kinds of different music—just hearing how some people stuck with tradition, and some people took it to a whole new place. Being around Anthony Braxton is another example. He developed a whole universe. Seeing that and studying with him was really inspiring to me, like, Oh, I can do whatever I want. I wasn’t only going off the deep end, but I was more encouraged to do that than maybe some people were.

SD Were you the kind of kid who, if you heard something challenging or unusual, you were like, I gotta check that out?

MH You know, this was never love at first listen. Even with the first jazz I heard—Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk—I didn’t really get it, and I remember listening to it over and over again. And gradually I started to get it. The more you know, the more interesting it gets, and that’s definitely true for weirder music. I wasn’t instantly drawn to weird, crazy music.

SD As much as I have found myself drawn to that stuff, it’s taken me a while to hear the musicality in things that are extremely dissonant, or texturally intense, or just extreme volume-wise. Did Sonny Sharrock ever do anything for you?

MH I love Sonny Sharrock.

SD Oh man, I saw that guy play I don’t know how many times—he was destroying strings and picks, the dude was a complete buzz-saw. (I only recently heard that record of his, Ask the Ages. I guess he died right after that.) I wanted to ask you: what happens when you have all these ideas as to how you’re going to approach a show or a recording, and yet you know people are going to throw things at you at a moment’s notice. I guess that’s the fun part, but also nerve-wracking, I would imagine.

MH It is. But the unknown is what makes it fun. I mean, if you’re playing the same set of music every night, and it sounds the same every night, to me, that’s a problem. I get bored quickly. So that unexpected stuff is nice and when people are really in the moment. One of my favorite examples of this is Marc Ribot, whom I got to play with for a brief period of time in Sun Ship. The way he dealt with that band was so amazing. He’d have all these songs we were going to play, a set list, and then we’d get to the concert and the energy wasn’t there—you know, he wasn’t not feeling like playing the first song that he had decided on. So he just plows right into something else without notice, and you’re scrambling to catch up and find where he is. You’d be constantly on your toes and constantly forced to improvise. I really learned a lot from that about being in the moment, but also out of your comfort zone. The kind of music that can happen in that space is definitely different than if it’s overly controlled.

SD With Ribot, was there a discussion about what you just described?

MH No, it was never talked about, and I don’t even know if he intended to pull the rug from under us. It was just what he’d do. That’s what was beautiful for me—I’m trying to catch him and find where he is. Some days the set would stay more to the schedule, it depended on where we were, the mood of the room, and the people. The music reflected all of that and I really admire that.

SD I like that your stuff has a chaotic aspect to it as well as precision. It has this crystalline clarity and definitiveness, and yet there’s this slippage and warpy-ness, opportunities for just complete noise, for the breakdown of your approach. When I first heard your stuff, I thought: This is what I’ve been wanting to hear, like, how come it took so long? (laughter

MH I do think a lot about clarity, and I like the idea of being in control of the instrument. So if I place a totally smeared, flabby-sounding line, I want that to be on purpose, not because I couldn’t execute something. It’s not like I have one hundred percent control, but I try to make those decisions purposeful.

SD You pull off these super fearless moments, almost like, Where’s the song? What happened here? Where am I? I love that disorientation.  If you can play everything really well, then you need to subvert your fluency and create opportunities for new and awkward textures. I was listening to your thing with Joe Morris from a while back, with that biggish group, the girl playing violin—

MH —Lava Bat.

SD Exactly. In Paris. At one point it sounded like everyone was trying to play like Django Reinhardt, and yet it was mutant.

MH Lava Bat is a play on Hot Club, which is based on the Hot Club of France with Django. So it is based on Django’s music.

SD How improvisational was that whole episode?

MH One hundred percent. We did talk about the concept, and we did practice that concept quite a bit, but none of it was written down.

SD But you had it in your head? Elaborate on navigating improv and the way trust is involved.

MH Trust is definitely a big part of it, and that’s why it’s really important to me to have the same band over a long period of time, because once you trust people, you don’t have to overplay, and you don’t have to guide where things are going. It’s important to not feel rushed or stressed out. So I can play really quiet and then see if I can get the whole band to hear that and follow me down. Or I can support what someone’s doing or take it in a totally new direction.

SD You are in 14 groups or something and you travel with these units. Is that a way in which you think your sensibility or concerns are reinforced, even though you’re in different environments?

MH Yeah, from hanging out a lot with the people I play and travel with, and they are my friends—I probably learn the most from them. 

SD Did you study piano?

MH I took basic piano classes when I was at the New School, but no, I really don’t play piano. But it was cool because you get very different chord voices working with the piano. I’m so much more fluent with the guitar. But the chords you get on guitar are somewhat limited, by nature of the instrument. Without weird tunings it’s hard to get four clusters of half notes right in a row—it’s super easy to do on piano.

SD That’s such a great phrase: “four clusters of half notes.”

MH Did I say half notes? That sounded cool but it was wrong. What I’m trying to say is, four half steps in a row, so C, D flat, D, E flat, in the same octave. It’s just extreme clusters. That’s not the only difference, but it’s an example of how piano has more range and more playable chordal possibilities.

SD When I was in school, I got to go to that Yale-Norfolk program for third year art or music students. Morton Feldman was up there, and he wouldn’t let any of the students play his compositions.

MH Really? 

SD Yeah. But George Crumb had these compositions where he would have clarinets playing into the piano strings, trying to get them to vibrate, you know, invocational. It was wild. Morton Subotnick and the Tokyo String Quartet were playing Belá Bartók every Friday.

MH Oh, I love the Bartók String Quartet stuff.

SD So what’s up with your punk rock career? Have you abandoned People?

MH Well, actually we added an electric bass player who also sings, and we recorded an album in—it’s depressing—2009 or 2010. But we had two record labels totally screw us over—saying they were going to put it out, stringing us along, and then not putting it out. Anyway, we’re on our third label now, which ironically is the same label that put out People’s first two records. They had gone on a hiatus and then they decided to come back, and now we’re just waiting. I really like the record. We had Peter Evans do horn arrangements on it, so there’s tuba, trombone, and also trumpet. It’s an involved project, but we’ve just been sitting on it.

SD I’m a little shocked that anybody would hesitate to put something out, given your reputation.

MH Well, audiences come to expect the girl that plays weird stuff and freaks out on guitar. That becomes part of your reputation. And then they hear me in this band, where I’m singing and playing this composed music, and Kevin [Shea] is freaking out on drums, and they’re just like, “Well, this wasn’t what I expected.” Which is fine with me. People don’t have to like it.

SD And you’re singing on all this?

MH Yeah, and I’m not a good singer. That’s part of the point. Basically I started singing because I wrote these vocal parts and they became too complicated to bother teaching to someone else, so I was like, I’ll just do it.

SD The other day I heard “I Want a Refund” or is it “Give Me a Refund”? It’s hilarious, I mean, it’s genius.

MH The lyrics are really funny. Kevin writes most of them, but the lyrics for that actually came from a note—a friend of mine from Kansas had a friend who got put in jail for the night because he climbed up a clock on a church and changed it to say 4:20, some stupid thing.

SD (laughter) That’s a serious crime.

MH So he got arrested and when he was in prison, he found this note taped to a soda machine—and those are the lyrics to that song. The note said something like “I put in a dollar, received change, and pressed for a Diet Pepsi, but it wasn’t available. Please send me a refund.”

SD I love the way you’re holding these notes, going into some operatic zone, and then talking in a more or less plainspoken way. I thought you covered a lot of territory with that one.

MH The only other project I sing in is the duo with Jessica [Pavone]. We have a couple of pieces with vocal tunes. But if people ask me to sing I usually say no. I definitely don’t consider myself a singer.

SD It just complements, in a good way, this constellation of your activities, with these different bands. Of course, I’m very curious about Weasel Walter.

MH Oh, I love Weasel.

SD I mean, that guy may be my favorite living drummer, his whole attitude and vision, going from metal to jazz. I’ve always thought, How come these genres are so seemingly segregated?  Everyone knows that everyone cool is listening to different things. I wonder how you see the current music landscape. To me it seems amazing how many talented people are out there, in your generational zone.

MH It’s an amazing time for music. More and more people are open-minded, and because everything’s kind of been done, they are drawing from so many things, and making unique combinations.

SD Being “free” today basically means playing super normal. It doesn’t have to be weird, antagonistic, and exclusive. Do you feel completely open, like anything is possible?

MH I guess so. I feel free to go in any direction I want to. I’m not attached to genre. I’m not attached to jazz by any means. I’m not trying to create something that’s weird, although it does come out weird, sometimes. I just want to make music that I think is interesting. That could be anything.

SD I was listening to Ben Young, who is a jazz historian on WKCR, and he’s been talking a lot about Cecil Taylor for the last few months. Part of me is just waiting for him to say, “Sometimes this is just crazy-ass sounding stuff!”

MH He’s probably listened to it so much that it doesn’t sound crazy. That’s the thing, after a while, nothing sounds crazy anymore, because you get used to it.

SD Well, also, I do love the attitude of sticking to a more or less conventional instrument or conventional instrumentation. This is something I’ve been occupied with, for what it’s worth, with painting—knowing that there are all these options out there, and every reason in the world not to make another painting. But it’s like, well, that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t give a shit! Painting doesn’t mean anything. Art matters but the medium doesn’t. Have you ever had that feeling with music, like you’re making music out of the fed-up-ness with music even existing?

MH I’ve never thought of it quite in that way, but I get what you’re saying.

SD I’m thinking about the way different periods provide different kinds of problems, or crises. There’s always a crisis that certain art forms are facing. Like, it’s over. It’s dead.

MH And then something else inevitably comes up.

SD Yeah! That’s my point… But I love that you have taken the same six strings—whatever length those things are—that millions of people have played, and you’re finding new ways of plucking the damn things, and manipulating the sound. I’m frankly super-curious about your equipment.

MH I use 12s. They aren’t the heaviest strings, some people use 13s, but that’s uncommon. I use a thick pick and a heavy attack, and my guitar is really loud and really resonant. You hear a lot of guitar players where the tone is all the way rolled off; you can’t really hear any of the guitar. It’s all coming from the amp.

SD Would that be someone like Bill Frisell?

MH More like the soft touch of Pat Metheny. Some jazz guitar players do have less of a sharp attack.

SD You have your pure sound and you manipulate it with these little doodads.

MH That’s funny. The pedal that I use to make that sound is the Line Six Delay Pedal, that green box. Every guitar player has this pedal. (laughter) I use it for delay a little bit, but I mostly use it to make that sound. I have an expression pedal, and a foot switch for it, so it’s just messing with the delay time. When you go from no delay to some delay it makes that sound.

SD So it’s like a pitch?

MH It sounds like a pitch shifter but it’s not. When I was at the New School studying jazz, I was getting a little bored with the guitar, especially in a jazz context. So I thought, What’s awesome about the guitar? Effects pedals! Maybe that will get me excited about guitar again. So I bought this pedal and, turning the knobs, I discovered that sound. I really liked it, so I worked on developing it. I haven’t changed my equipment in the past 15 years. I don’t know a lot about gear. I like what I have. I also have a distortion pedal and a pedal for volume and custom tremolo. I’ve had my guitar since 2000, although I’m experimenting with different travel guitars. I’m actually having a custom guitar built, which I’m very excited about. It’s going to fold. The neck is going to come off.

SD Wow! They have that perfected nowadays, I guess? 

MH Bass players have been doing it. It’s a nightmare trying to travel with an upright bass. I have seen a few where the neck comes off—you put it next to the body or in a separate little case and then you don’t get charged oversize, just overweight. Mine’s going to be a semi-body hollow guitar.

SD Who’s doing it for you?

MH This guy Flip Scipio. He’s amazing. This is a weird, one-off project for him. He’s really serious about figuring out how to make it work. He’s been consulting gun machinery people about bolting it.

SD My kid loves this footage of Lemmy from Motorhead, the part where he picks up his bass and starts playing it like a rifle. Shooting at the audience. You have to love Motorhead, I mean, Jesus, how can you argue with that? Where does the metal thing fit in with you?

MH Growing up, I was never a metal head. I came to it later. I really love it but it’s not a huge part of my music—but at the same time, it’s important. The sound of it has probably influenced me in some ways. Do you know Mick Barr?

SD Oh, excuse me! I was going to ask you about him.

MH He’s incredible! He’s insane! When I stumbled upon him about 10 or 12 years ago, I couldn’t believe it. So people are using metal in really interesting ways.

SD This excites me a lot because this fits into my whole idea of collapsing genres: Why can’t those tonalities, those sounds, those approaches, get more exploratory and ambitious and let’s see where it can go. I saw Mick Barr play years ago in East Williamsburg. The guy just got up there, and strummed the daylights out of this SG, over and over for an hour and a half.

MH The endurance alone it takes to do that … but then he’s also got all these intense, jagged ideas.

SD You are playing with Brandon Seabrook? I heard a thing with him and it absolutely blew my mind. It was the most noised-out tsunami of information.

MH Yeah, Brandon is amazing. He plays banjo and guitar.  He has crazy pedals. His decisions and ideas are really original. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Tomas Fujiwara has a new trio featuring Brandon and Ralph Alessi on trumpet. It was unbelievable. Hearing that I thought, I want to do something with Brandon.

SD You’re also playing with Gerald Cleaver. Who, apparently, has said that he wants to bring violence back into jazz. (laughter)

MH Did he really say that?

SD I don’t know if it’s true, but I want to believe that he did. This is exactly what we need.

MH He has a band called Black Host that just put out an album. Brandon plays guitar on that, actually. Live, it’s just so intense. Gerald Cleaver is such a great jazz drummer and then he can play super-crazy stuff, and everything in between. He’s very versatile and his feel is incredible too.

SD It’s important, I think, to use all this diversity and awareness that’s available, but not make it sound like you’re sampling or dabbling in it, as opposed to absorbing it.

MH Exactly. That’s the problem with the attention-deficit age, the age of the iPod shuffle. It’s information overload.

SD In theory it’s supposed to make everyone more aware. Smarter.

MH Nobody has the attention span.

SD Is there any sort of trajectory you’ve taken so far? Like from the textural, adventurous noisiness approach, to doing increasingly more melodic things?

MH I was more antagonistic about jazz after I finished college. Although I learned a lot, I had to take a break from it. I have gradually come back around to it, though,  because it’s the music I grew up with and that I love. So if my music has become a little more jazzy or melodic, it’s because I’ve grown more comfortable with that—but I have no idea what direction I’m going to go in.

SD That’s what I was talking about before—the contempt for music factor, you get fed up. In a way you are creating things out of a response.

MH It’s definitely a response. Everybody goes through that. Unless you end up playing traditional jazz, you will get frustrated. It’s hard, though. In order to teach jazz you have to institutionalize and you have to create within that. Things have to be correct and get graded. It feels like a trade school. It’s valuable to learn technique, how to play your instrument, learn a tradition—but you risk getting burnt out. It’s important to keep it in perspective. These are tools—a means, not an end.

SD I like to think that if you have good stuff, one way or another, it won’t go unnoticed.

MH Most of the time. Although occasionally people will have good stuff and it will go unnoticed. I had a couple lucky opportunities when I was younger that really helped me.

SD And you knew how to capitalize on it.  What were they specifically?

MH Getting hired to play in Anthony Braxton’s band when I was just starting out as a musician. I got to travel all around with him and meet a bunch of people and play his music. Having encouragement is important.

SD Not to belabor the teaching business, but it can be very frustrating. You’ve probably experienced this—you can be insightful, encouraging, and utterly positive, but what if they don’t get it or don’t want it, however talented they may be? People have to be willing to sustain adversarial conditions.

MH Of which there will be many. (laughter)

SD Maybe you succeeded in this because you didn’t take it super seriously as your first choice: You’ve said that science was originally going to be your major.

MH I was very serious when I decided to make music my life, but I did have very low expectations in terms of having any kind of success with it. I am a practical person by nature, and that was totally impractical.

SD I find it fascinating that you play this wild, adventurous music, and yet you seem very well adjusted. It got me thinking of Derek Bailey.

MH I love Derek Bailey.

SD The first time I saw him live I was, That’s what he looks like? Huh? Like he’s some Mr. Country Englishman, and yet he’s playing this nutty guitar stuff.

MH I have a friend who’s a shrink who always jokes with me. He says, “You look normal but you’re not.” (laughter)

SD It’s cool to see which people look like what they are producing. It’s very different if there is some madman up there going absolutely berserk, like Weasel Walter. That guy is utterly hilarious. Chewing on cymbals. And then there’s someone like you, who comes off as super intense, yet you’re not transmitting this manic vibe.

MH People have said to me that I don’t look like I’m having any fun. But I’m not going to fake any disposition other than my own, which is more on the serious side.

SD There’s a lot of humor in your work, your music and your album covers.

MH My dad’s a landscape architect. As he’s in the process of retiring, he’s doing much more painting. He has a little painting studio set up. I did not inherit any of his visual art talent. Even if his work is abstract, it ends up looking like a landscape. It’s as if he can’t help it—it’s so much in his brain. On a couple of my albums he has provided the artwork. The image of the three-headed guy on my Dragon’s Head record was on a postcard he sent me once. He didn’twrite anything on it—he just drew that picture.

SD He must feel very happy about that. Validated?

MH He loves music. He basically got me into jazz. It’s fun for him and he also likes coming up with song titles—he gives me entire notebooks filled with them. He loves poetry, too.

SD Tell me about your quintet.

MH My group is with Ches Smith, John Hébert, Jon Irabagon, and Jonathan Finlayson. My last two records are with the quintet. Last year I recorded a septet record, adding Ingrid Laubrock and Jacob Garchik to that band. It’s out this fall. We had a record release with three nights of the septet at The Stone.

SD How does compositional process work? Do you fool around and hear things and say, Oh, maybe I should involve that? Does improvising by yourself lead into composition?

MH I definitely compose by just improvising on guitar until I play something I feel could be the start of a composition. That can take days. I try to acknowledge if I’m feeling inspired. If I am, I will improvise and try to start a composition, and if I’m not, I will just run scales. Getting to that starting point is the hardest part for me. Once I get that I’m able to just go.

SD Do you record everything?

MH No. If I play something I like I just repeat it and repeat it. I learn it. Then I will put it into the computer and add other parts, like a bass.

SD And later on you think of what combination of instruments might work?

MH No, I always know what band it’s going to be for. I have that in mind while I’m playing around on the guitar. Then I think about the other parts and piece it together as I go. I don’t have an overarching idea of the structure. It’s not always pre-planned, which is why it ends up in totally weird places. It’s an improvisational approach to composing.

SD I love how a lot of your tunes have so many different parts moving at different paces or tempos all at once.

MH The more instruments you have, the more fun you can have with layering and translating melodies. There are just so many more sonic possibilities when you have more instruments to work with.
(Looks down at the table.)

SD That’s my map.

MH Wow! Look at that! That’s a detailed map.

SD I like to know where I am going. Thanks for this conversation.

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Originally published in

BOMB 126, Winter 2014

Featuring interviews with Leonardo Padura, Amie Siegel, Phyllida Barlow, Kai Althoff, Dodie Bellamy, Edwidge Danticat, Hans Witschi, and Mary Halvorson. 

Read the issue
Bomb 126 Nobarcode