To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on Mary Halvorson’s Sound Horizon performance on Thursday night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Guitarist Mary Halvorson presented a series of riveting solo explorations in the Walker’s Burnet Gallery (within the Andrea Büttner exhibition, as part of the 2016 Sound Horizon series) on Thursday night. On display were all the things Halvorson’s fans have come to expect from her—hairpin rhythmic turns, oblique harmonies, and crystalline melodies punctuated by occasional bouts of lacerating distortion—alongside unexpected twists and unfamiliar repertoire.
In anticipation of the show, I had revisited an essay written by Halvorson entitled “The Invented Horizon Is Free” (published in the 2012 book Arcana VI: musicians on music, edited by John Zorn). In the essay, Halvorson describes how she arrived at this title using a gradual iterative process, one that loosely parallels her process for finding new musical material:
I started with a saying from a fortune cookie that read, ‘You are free to invent your life.’ I then tinkered with the fortune cookie text a couple words at a time until finally settling upon a modified proverb, ‘The invented horizon is free.’
Initially, I had hoped that I might be able to employ this same process to arrive at some clever amalgamation of “The Invented Horizon Is Free” and “Sound Horizon,” the name of the series of which Halvorson’s Thursday performance was a part. My attempt didn’t produce any particularly interesting results, but Halvorson’s title nevertheless remained turning in my mind. It seemed to succinctly encapsulate some of the most striking constants in her otherwise radically diverse and far-reaching output: her all-pervading commitment to artistic invention and expressive freedom.
It seemed fitting, then, that Halvorson began the night with a tribute to the jazz great Ornette Coleman, identified perhaps more than any other jazz figure with the pursuit of complete creative freedom. Halvorson’s rendition of Coleman’s “Sadness” (a poignant choice, given the saxophonist’s passing last year) managed to translate the spirit of Coleman’s keening, blues-drenched sound to the guitar by employing a range of unorthodox techniques, including the use of a steel guitar slide and the progressive detuning and re-tuning of her guitar to mimic the weeping arco bass of the original.
The sound of Halvorson’s guitar attracted a growing audience. The crowd gradually filled in the chairs and meditation cushions provided until only standing room remained. Halvorson, seated with pedals under her feet as though she were driving a car, seemed unconcerned with the intermittent hubbub, focused only on coaxing an ever-expanding array of sounds and textures from her guitar.
Highlights from the first two sets included a spare, meditative take on Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino,” and an arresting, tremolo-heavy rendition of French guitarist Noël Akchoté’s “Cheshire Hotel.” It is worth noting that, in a performance consisting entirely of covers, Halvorson drew her repertoire exclusively from tunes written by composers within the jazz tradition.
That’s not to say Halvorson’s song choices were conventional. Alongside luminaries like Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner, she inserted the music of contemporaries like Tomas Fujiwara and Chris Lightcap. Her mesmerizing treatment of Lightcap’s “Platform” culminated in cascading torrents of distorted sound that dissipated almost as quickly as they had arisen. And her fertile imagination and keen ears allowed her to tease out the latent quirks and idiosyncrasies within even the most classic tunes. Halvorson’s bracing, angular take on Oliver Nelson’s “Cascades,” for instance, managed to transform that hard-bop classic into something like a noise rock anthem.
Halvorson delivered a kind of disclaimer towards the end of her second set: “I don’t normally play this many sets solo, so I’m going to be playing some new stuff for the third set,” she said. A pause. “I’m not sure whether I’m telling you to leave or stay.” Luckily for those who stayed, the third set offered some of the evening’s gems, among them a haunting Paul Motian tune and a shapeshifting version of Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.”
As I returned home after the performance, the phrase “the invented horizon is free” continued to echo in my mind. What did “invented horizon” mean?
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously observed, “It is the eye which makes the horizon.” In other words, the horizon, fixed though it may seem, is a human creation: an invention. It seems that Mary Halvorson has brought this line of thought to bear on her approach to the jazz tradition. As her choice of songs makes evident, she is not so much interested in rebelling against the jazz tradition as she is in engaging with it in contemporary and highly personal ways. As the crowd witnessed Halvorson continually invent and re-invent the horizons of her own artistry, it became clear to everyone present: the invented horizon is free.