×

FIMAV / Mary Halvorson on Amaryllis & Belladonna concert

Interview by Alain Brunet

Additional Information

Exceptional composer, guitar heroine of avant-jazz and its peripheral zones, formidable improviser, the American Mary Halvorson has acquired the reputation of one of today’s leading musicians in the post-genre fields of the so called “musique actuelle”.

Her discography, which includes more than fifty collaborations and a dozen albums as a leader, bears witness to this. She has received numerous accolades and honors with the Thumbscrew Trio and her other ensembles, and has been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. One of her recent projects includes a rare collaboration with the mythical Robert Wyatt. Tour de force !

She has been known at FIMAV since her first concert in the ensemble of Anthony Braxton (circa 2007), who was her professor at Wesleyan University (Connecticut). She has subsequently given several performances in the Bois-Francs and the current one is devoted to her two most recent projects, Amaryllis & Belladonna (Nonesuch), which have already delighted international critics.

Although she was first associated with contemporary jazz, even if her guitar sound is in the jazz tradition, her music is now post-genre as it includes a wide range of styles, from consonant indie folk to atonal contemporary music. 

At the height of her possibilities, the 41-year-old musician generously offers us this diptych, which she will defend in the Bois-Francs, this Saturday, May 21, 10 pm, at the Colisée in Victoriaville.

« Amaryllis & Belladonna » is her most ambitious project yet, and it showcases her composing skills.

PAN M 360  : Do you agree with those notes in the Victoriaville festival program? 

MARY HALVORSON : In terms of scope, it’s true that it’s the largest project I’ve written for, with ten musicians when Amaryllis and Belladonna are combined. It was a new and intense challenge for me, writing for string quartet plus a brand new sextet, and it’s definitely composition-heavy, although there’s plenty of improvisation woven in as well. I feel so fortunate to be playing with all these wonderful musicians, and to be able to perform at Victoriaville Festival this year.

PAN M 360  : You have been heading so many projects… Do you have son favorite achievements? What made you really proud as a leader / composer ? Maybe you don’t think in those terms.

MARY HALVORSON : I don’t really think in those terms. I enjoy challenging myself to explore new musical worlds, and to not make the same record over and over again. Each project is unique and I try to fully immerse myself in whatever is happening currently– in this case, Amaryllis and Belladonna.

PAN M 360 : The paintings on your double project web pages are quite beautiful. Can you comment on their choice?

MARY HALVORSON : The paintings were done by the musician and artist DM Stith, someone who I respect and admire greatly. His concept for the paintings was based on the idea of the poisonous flower, Amaryllis Belladonna. I wanted the paintings to express that duality: something both beautiful and poisonous. I had high hopes for the designs and he managed to exceed them!

« The concert will be split into two parts. « Belladonna » is a set of six compositions for electric guitar and string quartet. She will be teaming up with a highly regarded American ensemble, the MIVOS QUARTET. »

PAN M 360 : Could you explain the crucial aspects of those compositions for guitar + string 4tet? What were you mainly seeking in that specific area ?

MARY HALVORSON : I’ve always loved the sound of string quartet music. When done well, it sounds like one enormous instrument, a force. I considered writing for string quartet alone (with no guitar), but in the end I wanted to be a part of that sound so ended up writing myself into it. Plus, I feel guitar with string quartet is a beautiful sound, and one that is underexplored.

PAN M 360 : How is the marriage between an amplified guitar and an acoustic quartet? How did you develop this relationship with Mivos Quartet, excellent ensemble without a doubt?

MARY HALVORSON : I’ve been an admirer of The Mivos Quartet for a long while now, and have heard them perform in many different contexts. One of the things that drew me to them, in addition to their musical excellence, is their open-mindedness and ability to play seamlessly through so many different styles of modern music. I felt they understood what I was trying to do from the first minute of the first rehearsal– they really nailed it right away.

PAN M 360 : From your perspective, is there a narrative from the 1st to the 6th piece? What are the links between them?

MARY HALVORSON : In theory the order of compositions could be shuffled; in other words the pieces don’t have to be performed in the album order, and they may not be tonight, I’m actually not sure yet. The pieces do add up to create a narrative, and when I composed the music I was certainly thinking about how the pieces contrast and complement each other to create a larger whole. Still, the order may change slightly from performance to performance. I do have certain pieces I enjoy starting and ending with, though.

PAN M 360 : How would you comment your own evolution as a guitar player in the recent years ?  Also as a soloist/ improviser? How did you work on the textural aspect of it, I mean tone, pedals, etc.

MARY HALVORSON : It’s a lifelong goal to get better at the guitar, to improve my technique, ear, and facility on the instrument, and to expand the scope of what I can express and communicate. I once heard Bill Frisell describe that process as chipping away at a block of wood, and I really related to that. It’s hard to pinpoint one’s own evolution as it’s almost always gradual, but I do work consistently on improving, and during the pandemic I had more time than usual to really sit with the instrument, think about my weaknesses and what I want to improve upon. This type of nuts and bolts practice is probably what I work on most, and developing textural stuff, pedals, improvising happens more during gigs, sessions, etc.

« Amaryllis » is her new sextet of improvisers, here performing her compositions, some of which also include the MIVOS QUARTET. Which means there will be ten musicians on stage at some point. HALVORSON’s music has never reached that scope before ! »

PAN M 360 :  Patricia Brennan (vibraphone), Nick Dunston (bass), Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Jacob Garchik (trombone), and Adam O’Farrill (trumpet) are also playing on the record and will be performing at FIMAV.  So there is a specific approach with this line-up. Can you explain what led you to this ensemble?

MARY HALVORSON : I had a weekend booked in the summer of 2020 at the (now kaput) Brooklyn Stone. I wanted to do something completely new for those performances, and thought about musicians in the sextet, curious what that grouping of players would sound like. This sextet is a combination of old and new friends: all incredible musicians and improvisers who I admire greatly, and who I knew would execute the music with both precision and recklessness. I wrote a bunch of music for those Brooklyn Stone performances, and like most events that year, they ended up getting canceled. But at that point I was so excited about the music and the band that I kept going with it, figuring I’d make it happen eventually. 

PAN M 360 : Of course, the rhythmic aspect of Amaryllis is more about jazz, the whole aesthetic of this record is chamber jazz. Can you please describe briefly the core of those compositions?

MARY HALVORSON : I wasn’t thinking about jazz specifically when I wrote it– or any genre for that matter– really just hearing the sounds of the individual musicians in my head and trying to envision music that would work for this combination, regardless of style. I often write in an intuitive/ improvisational manner, going train-of-thought and just seeing what comes out, trying to express whatever mood or energy I’m feeling in the moment. There were no gigs happening when I wrote this music, so part of what kept me going during that time period was the joy of writing compositions for these bands, and imagining what the music might sound like. It gave me something to look forward to.

PAN M 360 : Do you plan to record again with this ensemble?

MARY HALVORSON: I haven’t thought that far ahead or come up with any specific plans yet, but I have already written some new music for the sextet, and I’d say it’s likely I’ll record again.

PAN M 360 : Where is the duality of Amaryllis & Belladonna? 

MARY HALVORSON: I liked the idea of having two projects which can exist separately or together. The music is different but there are points where it overlaps. It’s not always possible logistically and financially to perform with a ten piece band, and I’m grateful for the opportunity whenever it happens. There will also be times when I perform with the sextet alone, or just with Mivos Quartet. But when possible, the tentet can come together for a large-scale performance.

PAN M 360 : Regarding your Artlessly Falling previous project with Code Girl, how could you convince Robert Wyatt to perform on a few songs ? Tour de force ! 

MARY HALVORSON : Having Robert Wyatt sing on Artlessly Falling was a dream come true. I have been a Robert Wyatt fanatic since my mid twenties and he is one of my musical heroes. I have also been in touch with him for many years, exchanging music and emails periodically. So quite simply, I asked if he would be interested. I still can’t believe he said yes! Working with him was an incredible experience, as was getting the chance to compose music especially for him. Not only is he one of my favorite musicians of all time, but he’s a wonderful person, a joy to work with, and he really brought those songs to life.

MARY HALVORSON IS PERFORMING AT FIMAV , ON SATURDY MAY 21TH, COLISÉE DES BOIS-FRANCS

Subscribe to our newsletter