An In-depth Look at Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl and Away with You

Guest Writer: Vanessa Vargas

An immensely talented composer, improviser, and guitarist, Mary Halvorson has been active in the avant-garde jazz scene in New York since 2002. In the past eight years, she has released seven album recordings – six of them demonstrating her skill as a bandleader and one as a solo guitarist. Her original trio has increased in size to form her octet, producing the recording, Away With You. As her largest band to lead, the album demonstrates her intricate compositions, filled with complexity in order to interweave all eight instruments. Her most recent album, Code Girl, consists of five members, including a vocalist, and stemmed from the collective trio, Thumbscrew. Not only has Halvorson created the compositions for each piece, she is also the writer of the lyrics, bringing a new element to this recording that has not yet been seen with her other bands.

While Halvorson has worked with lyrics and singing in the past, Code Girl, is her first project where she includes it in any of her bands. Code Girl was released in March and incorporates fourteen pieces that are split between two CDs. The band consists of the three members from Thumbscrew: Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Joined by two members, Amirtha Kidambi on voice and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, the five form Code Girl. The album continues to have the fluid distortions, rhythmic and harmonic experiments, and carefully calculated compositions that can be heard throughout any of her past projects. The aspect that sets this record apart from the others, is the introduction of a vocalist, who is present in all but three of the fourteen pieces.

Halvorson’s decision to create this group with a vocalist was based on her interest in music that included singers and her desire to grow beyond only leading instrumental bands. She was “thinking about that discrepancy, and wondering what it would sound like if [she] wrote for a group with a dedicated singer.” Halvorson has ventured into writing lyrics and has sung them herself in the past such as in pieces with longtime collaborator violist Jessica Pavone. Through creating this project, Halvorson was “ready for something different and felt it would be a fun challenge to try to expand a group to include music and lyrics.” Her extensive background in playing with a variety of musicians in different groups has contributed to her the knowledge and understanding of the possibilities of what a vocalist could add the sound of a band. Throughout the record, one can hear Halvorson embracing this new project head on.

Halvorson has much experience composing and leading a variety of bands. As her largest band yet, her octet actually began as a trio back in 2008 and released their debut album, Dragon’s Head. Since then, Mary has progressively grown her trio into an octet, each progression marked with a release of an album record. ​For Halvorson, “enlarging bands piece-by-piece allows [her] to…grow a solid core/foundation first and then have the freedom to experiment with adding new elements and unknowns on top of that.” The trio was originally included John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums. They were later joined by Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone and Jonathan Finlayson on the trumpet to form the quintet and release Saturn Sings in 2010 and Bending Bridges in 2012. The third addition to the group included Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone and Jacob Garchik on trombone, releasing Illusionary Sea in 2013. The last addition to the band was Susan Alcorn on the pedal steel guitar, completing the octet. However, Halvorson claims she originally did not have any intention of adding another member to her septet, but after hearing Alcorn play, she “felt [she] just had to add her.”  With this eight-member band, Halvorson has demonstrated her skill for composing and leading through Away With You, which was released in October 2016. Through the eight years that it has taken for the octet to form, Halvorson has really honed her skills as a leader and composer permitting her to experiment with this instrumentation.

The complexity throughout each of Halvorson’s eight pieces foregrounds the record Away With You. The interplay between instruments shift from one pairing to another throughout each individual piece, allowing for there to be a mix of sounds in the melody and rhythm. As her largest band, Halvorson is playing with a mix of musicians, half of them playing horns, which usually hold a strong presence in any type of music. With this specific grouping, there is also a doubling in tone that happens through pairings of instruments – the guitar and the pedal steel guitar, and the alto and tenor saxophone. Both of these pairings allow for Halvorson to have a broader range to play with when thinking about the compositions and allows for the separate melodies and rhythms to interweave easily. The album opens with “Spirit Splitter (no. 54)” which exemplifies the interplay between instruments. The recording starts off strong with the large group overlapping each other with different melodic phrases. Specifically, the horns layer over each other in a way that it becomes almost impossible to tell which instrument is playing which line, especially with the occasional moments where they come together to emphasize specific notes.

The compositional approach is very different with Code Girl. With a completely different grouping of members and instruments, this record focuses on a different kind of complexity through its compositions. There are still those moments of fluid melodic shifts and changes with distorting sounds, but they are structured to accompany the lyrics of each piece. Halvorson states, “I always write the lyrics first, and then compose the music around the lyrics. Therefore, if the lyrical form is irregular, I will usually make the song form irregular to match it.” The words of the song maintain a strong presence and it is clearly important to Halvorson that listeners are able to feel and hear each lyric. The composition allows for there to be sections of instrumental experimentation within the spaces between verses. The second song on the album, “Possibility of Lighting,” begins with an almost synchronized melodic line. Kidambi then comes in, singing the lyrics to the same tune. After the first verse, there is a shift in the melody that allows the vocalist to explore textures primarily. There is a balance between the vocalist and the other four members that Halvorson works out in every piece.

Through each composition, Halvorson seems to explore the numerous possibilities of playing with that balance. In “Deepest Similar,” the vocalist extends the amount of time each word is being said, creating pockets for the trumpet or guitar to fill in with rhythmic variations. This method of holding out certain sections of the lyrics can also be seen through the piece “And,” which also allows for the sounds of the guitar to interweave with the sound of Kidambi’s voice. In a different type of movement, the vocalist signals a change in the music in “Accurate Hit.” After the last word of the first verse – “disorder” – is sung, the second verse is accompanied by a similar melody but includes some distortions by the guitar. The second verse ends with the word “choked” which then leads to a final verse accompanied with more distortion from the guitar as well as the vocalist.  Through the variety of compositional arrangements, Halvorson allows for the album to preserve the extensive range in sound that never becomes overbearing or redundant. Each piece varies from one another through melody, harmonies, pairing of instruments, and setting.

Similar to Code Girl, there is a theme laid out for each individual song in Away With You, which tends to be a place to return to at the end of multiple songs. Halvorson lays out the theme of the piece towards the beginning – a melody or phrase that feels very thought out – and allows for the movement of the piece to either build up on top of it or to break it down. Even after the dramatic shifts in melody or rhythm, the music is still able to be resolved in the end. One way of creating that resolution is by bringing the melody back to a place that is similar, if not, the same as before. There is a cyclical shape to the music because of how the beginning and end point almost meet, generating a feeling of a narrative being told. In the title track, the movement and tone that is set by the musicians creates a very narrative setting – almost as if it exemplifies a walk or journey. The piece begins with the guitar playing a repetition of a melodic line and the drums and bass in the background acting as an additional beat. The trumpet and alto saxophone come in afterwards, adding their own melodic phrase that perfectly blends with that of the guitar. The trombone and tenor saxophone follow suit in adding their own line to the mix, creating this beautifully interwoven piece in layers. The song continues to build up and break down these layers through different pairings and changes in melody, even allowing space for a drum solo in the middle, and ending with the same melody that was played a minute into the song. The way Halvorson manipulates the music, allows for the piece to circle back and resolve itself but continues to be moving forward.

In Code Girl, the lyrics are often used to further explain a present concept through the music. However, while the words add an additional layer to the recording, their meanings remain very open to interpretation. The words are not necessarily overly poetic or what feels instinctively made for a song; they are often simple phrases and descriptive in setting. They create the same kind of narrative that is presented in Away With You, but allows for there to be more structure surrounded by the words. In “Pretty Mountain,” the second verse begins with only vocals being heard, and as the four line verse progresses, the guitar joins and then is followed by the trumpet, bass, and drums in a flowing rhythm. At first listen, it could be assumed that the lyrics are sung following the movements made by the instruments. But through a deeper listening, it becomes clear that the lyrics establish a setting for each individual piece and the music follows in creating that same feeling. The method through which the lyrics and music are interwoven and balanced out are influenced by the musical artists to whom Halvorson listens.

Listening through Mary Halvorson’s other records, such as Meltframe and Dragon’s Head, one can hear the variety of influences through her compositional choices. The same range in influences is still present through both Code Girl and Away With You but in a more subtle way that highlights Halvorson’s own style. She makes sure to try to “keep the influences as broad as possible, in order to ensure that no one influence comes across too strong.” After years of working on her arrangements, these two more recent records are both successful in that part. Halvorson’s skill in composing and leading bands is evident through each piece, containing a range in movement, tone, and melodic and harmonic changes.

When working on Away With You, Halvorson was thinking about groups that included many three, four, and five part harmonies, as well as pedal steel guitar players. Examples of work that she was listening to includes the American Gospel Quartet, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Sam Rivers’ Configuration, and the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartet. Just in these three examples, the range in musical influences is clear. Similarly, Code Girl has just as broad of a range in vocal music that Halvorson looked to, such as, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Deerhoof, Annette Peacock, and Etta James. The vocalization through Robert Wyatt’s album, Rock Bottom (1974) can be compared to that done in Code Girl – changes in the octave and extended and repetitive notes. Working in the progressive rock/avant-rock scene, there are compositional similarities with Halvorson’s work.

This large variety of influences is a part of what makes both of these albums, Code Girl and Away With You intriguing. The instrumentation of both groups allows for Halvorson to experiment in two uniquely different ways that continue to maintain her well-known style. While Away With You, includes many members that she has worked with before, it is the first record of her octet. Through the progression of increasing her band size, she has been able to improve her understanding of each individual musician and their instruments, allowing to use her knowledge and skill of composing to a larger extent. Code Girl, on the other hand, is the first recording with this group and with a vocalist. While the variation and experimentation is still present, there is still more to look forward to as she works with this group in the future.

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