Composer/guitarist Mary Halvorson didn’t set out to be a musician of any kind. “I was going to be a scientist; that was the original plan,” she recalls with a measure of amusement. She arrived at Wesleyan University set to study biology, in fact. “And then I met Anthony Braxton and dropped all my science classes.”
Still, as an artist for whom the concepts of sonic exploration and stylistic evolution are grounding touchstones, perhaps the personal history is not such a stretch. Halvorson benefited from the examples of teachers like Braxton and Joe Morris, under whom she was encouraged to find her own way into music and experiment with sound. As a result, she has crafted a personal musical style that she characterizes as largely instinctual, rooted in the “huge, hollow acoustic sound” of her oversized vintage Guild guitar and a strong attraction to “a sharp clarity of ideas” in her compositions.
Most frequently labeled a jazz guitarist, Halvorson is comfortable in the jazz camp (a bent traceable to her dad’s record collection and the leanings of her first guitar teacher), but she tends to use the descriptor as more of an adjective than a noun, often further tempering it with a gesture or a vocal inflection that encourages you not to paste her work down too securely. A glance through her recent and upcoming performances shows that she herself certainly hasn’t. “I’m still figuring out how I want to play and I’m trying out new ideas all the time,” she explains. “To me, that’s really important, to keep learning and challenging myself, to work with people who maybe I wouldn’t normally work with or with things that are outside of my comfort zone.” If for no other reason, she admits that otherwise she gets bored.
The upcoming release of Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 Records) featuring the Mary Halvorson Quintet, is very much an outgrowth of that spirit. After listening to a lot of music with horns and thinking “what would my take on that be,” Halvorson decided to follow up her 2008 release, Dragon’s Head, written for her trio by expanding the group from herself, John Hébert (bass), and Ches Smith (drums) to a quintet that now also includes Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone).
To create Saturn Sings, Halvorson brought a great deal of fully notated music to the new band, but the work was open enough to evolve and respond to group input and the experience of multiple live performances. “I don’t really enjoy composing a lot of the time, actually,” Halvorson admits. “It usually puts me in a terrible mood, because it’s really difficult, but then once I get going, it’s really hard for me to pull away from it. . . .I try to just put something down and not worry, ‘Is this too much like that or is it stupid?’ I try to turn all those voices off and just go.”
From there, the band comes in and, over time as the players get more and more comfortable with the work, it naturally evolves. And the composer, and perhaps the scientist, in Halvorson appreciates that process of discovering the music. “I don’t think I’m really a control freak in that way,” she says. “If something is straight up wrong, I’ll say so, but I do kind of like it when I’m surprised.” It’s an instinct that fuels and shapes her music as she hunts for new ideas and fresh sounds.