December 2008

Mary Halvorson: Fractured Guitar

Mary Halvorson’s music is best described as “slightly off.” Indeed, that’s how she herself describes it: “I would say about my compositional style, and I think it’s true for my guitar playing as well, that I like to have things that are slightly off. Chords that aren’t complete chaos, but also aren’t completely straight. I like unexpected twists, something that might make it a little unusual without being completely abstract.”

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Peter Gannushkin

Mary Halvorson Trio (L to R): Ches Smith, John Hebert, Mary Halvorson

The Brooklyn-based, 28-year-old electric guitarist and composer’s résumé bears out her fondness for idiosyncrasy. Her unique playing style—brittle, knotty and abrasive—has earned attention in the avant-garde community and work with ensembles led by Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum and Trevor Dunn. Halvorson also has two duos, the rock-oriented People with drummer Kevin Shea and an acoustic project with violist Jessica Pavone. In October she released her first recording as a leader, the bewildering Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12), with her trio featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith.

It’s also the first recording on which all compositions are Halvorson’s. “I really wrote for these specific musicians,” she says. “It’s a project I’ve been thinking about for a long time but was waiting to figure out the right people. I’ve been playing with Ches in various projects for years, so he was an obvious choice, but then when I met John I sort of formed an idea in my head.” She learned Hébert’s sound not by playing with him, but by listening to him play live and on record. “I wrote the first six compositions on the album without ever having heard the band. Then we played a gig and worked out the rough edges, and I wrote the rest of pieces after I knew what the band sounded like.”

If this seems a roundabout path to organizing and composing for a band, Halvorson’s development as a musician was similarly roundabout. A native of Brookline, Mass., she began playing the violin as a child, but switched to guitar in the eighth grade when she discovered Jimi Hendrix. “I went out and bought a black-and-white Stratocaster so I could be like Jimi,” Halvorson says. “Then I got a Hendrix tablature book. Before I played or took any lessons I’d learned how to play a bunch of his songs. That was my first introduction to guitar.”

The switch to jazz came because her first instructor happened to be a jazz player, and because Halvorson coincidentally discovered her father’s record collection at the same time. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk; those were the things my dad had,” she says. “And then I got into Dolphy, Mingus and Ornette. Then I went on to Wesleyan University and met Anthony Braxton.” Ironically, though she would later study with Joe Morris and be influenced by Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock, none of the music that turned her toward jazz guitar was, in fact, jazz guitar.

Though she began performing within the small arts scene around Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn., it wasn’t until 2002, when she began studying at the New School in New York, that Halvorson really found her voice. “I figured out a lot, just by figuring out what I didn’t want to do,” she explains. “I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to play straightahead jazz. So in response to that I was able to figure out what I did want to do.” She soon began playing in a trio with drummer Mike Pride, and in 2004 joined Braxton’s 12+1tet, in which she still plays today.

Despite the formative influence of cerebral, deliberate composers like Braxton and Eric Dolphy, Halvorson describes her approach as intuitive. “If I start to overthink things, they don’t work,” she says. “I usually don’t think of larger forms first; I kind of write as I go. I’ll start and just keep going. But I don’t necessarily have an overarching structure in mind. I might, but I usually don’t.” The results are dynamic, dissonant labyrinths such as Dragon’s Head’s “Sank Silver Purple White” and “Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies.” The unusual titles are another extension of Halverson’s intuition: “I just numbered them initially, but wanted to give them actual titles,” she explains. “So I started scribbling stuff down as I was falling asleep—whatever nonsense popped into my head. I didn’t think too much about the meaning. I’m sure there is one, but I don’t know what it is.”

If she composes on instinct, though, Halvorson’s compositions are also geared toward the musical instincts of her bandmates, Smith and Hébert. “They’re both amazing musicians,” she says. “We know each other’s music and playing styles pretty well. I think I would have to try pretty hard to make something they couldn’t follow.” Sometimes, it seems, being slightly off is right on the money.

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