For Sound Horizon 2016, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program: Mary Halvorson (February 11), Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich (March 24), and C. Spencer Yeh (April 28).
How does an artist find her voice?
Experts say to live life. Experts say to practice. Experts say to explore, deconstruct, appropriate, hybridize, internalize. Experts say to add your own inflection, your own cadence, your own twist. But even if an artist somehow finds her voice, what exactly is she voicing?
For musicians like Mary Halvorson, a long fixture in New York improv and experimental circles, her voice is ostensibly the guitar’s voice. Or, rather, the guitar becomes a proxy for her supposed “internal” voice. An extension, a stand-in. A substitute. But is her voice really about who she is? Is the voice ever really about who a person is?
Maybe. But when I hear Halvorson fumbling haphazardly into a chord and articulating its dissonance through arpeggios, I hear her voicing tension. When she filters the guitar through delay, splaying sound molecules on the walls, I hear her voicing the room. When she’s violently scraping the strings, I hear her voicing the guitar’s materiality. When she’s scaling the fretboard in impossibly quick, complex movements, I hear her voicing the limits of human physicality. Halvorson’s guitar is not a reflection of her voice, but an eruption of a communal voice: she gives voice, we romanticize it.
The beauty found in Halvorson’s music isn’t necessarily about her finding a voice, but about the act of voicing itself. Nowhere was this clearer for me than on 2015’s Meltframe, her first solo album after a career marked most significantly (and prolifically) as a leader or member of jazz groups of various shapes and styles (she is also a former student of Anthony Braxton, an avant-rock musician in People, and a chamber-jazz artist with violist Jessica Pavone, among others). On this album, Halvorson finds herself both alone and among friends, darting through coarse, meandering moments of solitude while appropriating lovingly from her favorites (Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley). Rather than bracketing herself off, Halvorson’s guitar-voice opens the conversation, gesturing toward the mirror while displacing itself historically, affixing itself on a continuum of an avant-garde that’s still avant-garde against many odds.
When critics say that Halvorson is the “future” of jazz guitar (a sentiment pervasive in much writing about her), they’re really saying that her guitar playing is a future for jazz guitar, one that their very proclamations are aiming to preserve and make room for. But Halvorson’s guitar work has always created its own space, its own justification for emergence beyond genre and history. Originality is everything, but originality is also bullshit—both beautiful and disgusting, an aspiration and a dead-end. The myth of originality wants us to frame our experiences in terms of uniqueness—at best to find ruptures and breaking points and the limits of “good taste”/convention, at worst to whip us into a fog of individuality and lubricate the movement of products, the latter playing like capitalism’s own poetic cadence.
But music has an ability to not only reflect, but to also embody capitalism’s most despicable outgrowths, resisting it at the same time that it critiques it. Halvorson’s politics need not be known to hear the protest in her music, even if it has nothing to do with the free market. Because the voicing itself can be heard as a protest—against silence, against assent, against coherence, against convention, against acceptance—wrought by the destructive quality in her virtuosity, the immediacy in her attacks, the subversiveness in her melodies. It’s a protest, however, that seeks commonalities and communal modes of operation, as in line with Brandon Seabrook and Marc Ribot as Mick Barr and Annette Peacock, making her no more the future of jazz guitar than the future of whatever.
This is one way for a voice to function in capitalism. Because, aesthetically, music can serve to dissolve identity, to erode borders, to wriggle free from ideological baggage in order to tap into shared experiences or feelings that don’t need language for meaning. Because, aesthetically, music can be about an ambiguous, completely irrational expansion, without having to be determined through the narrowed lens of dogma or rhetoric or a reified future.
Halvorson’s voice is not her own voice. It’s a voice that we’ve been hearing throughout history. It’s a voice that she found already entrenched in its own peculiar contexts, willfully obscured and faintly heard in the gutters. It’s a voice chirping away anachronistically on the soggy frontiers, lost and found, yet perpetually made anew. It’s actually our voice, and it continues to say something important.