Two years ago, when the coronavirus pandemic first brought the world to a standstill, Mary Halvorson joined countless others in withdrawing into herself. That’s not to say soul-searching is any kind of departure for Halvorson – the endlessly inventive guitarist, composer and songwriter, named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019. But in the enforced calm of the lockdown, she decided to explore what which you might call a new language: composing for string quartet.
“Really, the only writing I ever did for strings before that was the duet I had with Jessica Pavone, the viola player,” Halvorson told me last fall. “I took lessons with her during the pandemic, to learn how to write better for the strings. And I read orchestration books; it became a big project. I played the violin as a kid, so I think it was partly related to that. But I was sitting in my room trying to imagine the bow, even though I can’t play the violin anymore. I’ve always loved the challenge of doing something completely new.
Halvorson was speaking during a panel discussion at the Other Minds festival in San Francisco last October. A month earlier, she had recorded two albums, her first for Nonesuch Records: Belladonna, who places his guitar alongside the Quatuor Mivos; and Amaryllis, which incorporates Mivos on a few tracks but mainly features a sextet of prominent improvisers on the stage. Both albums were produced by John Dieterich of Deerhoof and will be available May 13.
This morning, Nonesuch released “Night Shift”, the first single from Amaryllis. It’s a strong showcase for Halvorson’s new sextet, featuring Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Nick Dunston on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Here’s a video of the track, animated by Robert Edridge-Waks and featuring paintings by Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist DM Stith.
Mary Halvorson – Night Shift (Official Video)
With its stop-start melodic line over a 10/8 meter groove, “Night Shift” not only recalls Halvorson’s other medium-sized ensemble writing, but also the melted shine of the Steve Lehman Octet. (The comparison surely owes something to the instrumentation: that mix of trumpet, trombone and vibraphone, against a core of bass and drums.) On other parts of the album, Halvorson merges the sextet with the quartet string player, working with his biggest palette composer so far.
“Amaryllis features some of my favorite musicians on the planet,” she explains in press materials. “I started writing music in 2020, when the world slowed down and most activity stopped, and all i had was my guitar, a pencil, some staff papers and a computer. The thrill of imagining what music might sound like kept me sane during this time and gave me reason to move on.
Pre-order Amaryllis and Belladonnathat Nonesuch will be released on May 13. Halvorson will perform music from both albums at the National Sawdust in Brooklyn on May 18.