New York City and the Pull of the Moon
Mary Halvorson has become a fixture in the New York City music scene. Encouraged by Anthony Braxton to find her own musical voice while she was still in school, Halvorson has accomplished that, leading to gigs and recording dates with luminaries such as Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Tim Berne, John Dieterich, and Braxton himself.
She also leads her own groups and is a member of several jazz and avant-garde ensembles, including Thumbscrew, a trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. In 2016 she founded the art-pop quintet Code Girl, for which she is also the lyricist. Halvorson was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant for music in 2019.
What does the word creativity mean to you?
That’s a really difficult question to answer, but I guess maybe it has to do with taking a risk or pushing yourself to discover something new, whether that involves music or another art, or simply finding a new solution to a problem.
On a really great night, when you are improvising and you find yourself playing something that you’ve never played previously, or played the same way previously, what is happening? How do you experience that?
First of all, isn’t it interesting that what you just described only happens sometimes, and at other times you can feel totally uncreative, like you have nothing? I’m very sensitive to those shifts in energy from day to day, whether I’m practicing, or trying to compose, or playing a gig. Some days are on and some are not, and others are somewhere in between. I don’t really know why that is. Maybe it has something to do with biorhythms or some other kind of physiological energy? But not knowing when something like that is going to happen is also sort of the beauty of it.
Is that contingency sometimes also a concern?
Well, part of the reason we practice is to raise the lowest level of what we do as high as possible, so that even on our worst days we can still make something cool from that. Also, one of the reasons I enjoy playing with bands so much is that although I might not be feeling super creative on a certain day, someone I’m playing with might raise the level by playing something that inspires me. Sometimes it can be almost like a switch that just flips on and immediately boosts my energy level. That’s also why playing solo can be so difficult. If you have a bad day, there’s nobody else there to lift you up.
Try as best you can to describe what you are experiencing when that energy is increasing. Is it like there is an actual charge of some sort of tangible energy?
Yeah, I would say so. I know this sounds cliché, but it feels as if I am channeling something, because I don’t feel like I’m making any effort. In fact, when the energy is really flowing and ideas are coming easily, it feels almost like the opposite of effort. I feel more like I’m exerting effort when I’m not feeling inspired. But as for what that inspirational energy actually is, I have no idea.
Whatever that energy is, would you say that it originates from inside you or some external source?
Probably mostly within. For me, a lot of this stuff feels personal and inward and is based on mood and emotion. People say they “woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” and that can sort of happen musically, too. A lot depends on how your body is feeling and how your energy is. Of course, just because you wake up in a good mood and your body is feeling good, that doesn’t necessarily mean the music is going to be happening. You could be in a horrible mood, and feel inspired to channel that into something. Also, sometimes at a gig I won’t know how creative I might be feeling until I actually begin playing. And speaking of waking up, creativity may have something to do with tapping into a different part of our brain, sort of like we do in sleep. We can’t get there when we are awake, but when asleep we can access this whole other reality.
Is creativity an innate ability, something that can be learned and cultivated, or a combination of those things?
It’s probably an innate ability. I think the part that can be learned or worked on is confidence and trusting your instincts when going for new ideas. One thing I hear a lot from my students is that they’ll be playing something and then think to themselves “this is stupid” or “I’m not so sure about this,” and then they just stop, like they were being held back by their own brains. But if you are trusting your instincts, then often the first idea that pops into your head will be the best one, and that’s something that can be worked on. There’s also the confidence that comes from your ability to execute on your instrument the ideas you hear in your head.
Do you ever find yourself thinking “this is stupid” or “I’m not so sure about this” or even “damn, I’m doing really well” while you’re playing?
I try not to do those things and one reason is that no matter what the situation might be it can always shift. I’ve definitely had gigs where for the first few songs I felt like I was not totally in it, and then I became more in it as the gig went along. Or the opposite of that, where I was feeling really good and went for something that fell a little flat. So, I try to not get too attached.
Of course, sometimes there are thoughts that arise from your surroundings. The audience may be bugging you out, or the amp sounds horrible, or the sound in the room is driving you nuts, or you can’t hear the bass player. Those kinds of things lead to thoughts that are difficult to get rid of, but I’ll attempt to play through them, by which I mean push them aside and try to get to more of a state where I’m thinking intuitively and in the moment.
Are there things you can do to make it more likely that creative energy is going to flow?
I almost do the opposite. If I begin writing music or lyrics or something I can usually figure out pretty quickly whether I’m feeling creative. If I am, I’ll keep going with it, and if I’m not I’ll just decide that maybe that day isn’t the right day, and instead I’ll work on chord changes or arpeggios or something that doesn’t require as much creative thought.
Is the creativity that you experience in the moment while improvising live different than your experience when sitting and composing a piece of music or writing lyrics?
Writing lyrics is something I’ve had less practice with at this point, so it isn’t as comfortable to me as writing music. I’ve experienced brief moments where the words suddenly began to flow, but writing lyrics typically involves agonizing over every little detail, so it isn’t like I can just get into a creative state and go.
As for improvisation and composing music, when I’m playing an improvised gig, I am still trying to think compositionally and to create something with some kind of logic and coherence. So, I’d say the two things are related, though they are also very different headspaces and processes.
So, part of you is trying to go with the creative flow in the moment, while at the same time, part of you is thinking rationally and trying to organize what you play in a way that you feel makes sense, or is at least satisfying to you musically?
Yeah, I would say so.
How do you find the sweet spot between those things?
What I’m thinking about most of the time is balance; what does the piece of music need right now in this moment? And that comes back to trusting my aesthetic and trying to tune into my first instinct without debating myself. So, while I try to avoid overly rational thoughts, that’s still definitely a type of thought,
You’re not necessarily thinking about how a particular chord progression or sequence of notes will satisfy some compositional need, but rather what’s appropriate relative to everything else that’s happening?
Yes. Although even when I’m writing a piece of music, I’m not analyzing it as I write. Even if I have a bunch of notes in a chord, I’m listening to the sound that chord is producing, and not saying, “Okay, this is Amin9, and now I’m going to go to this next chord.” I’m playing using my ears, and then later I’ll go back and analyze what I did. I have studied my share of theory, but I try not to be thinking about that in the actual moment that I’m playing, whether live or while writing.
Would you say that the purpose of studying and practicing is to absorb that knowledge into a subconscious place and then have immediate access to it while you’re improvising, without having to think about it?
Exactly. That’s the lifelong goal. In a documentary on Bill Frisell, he described practicing as chipping away at a block of wood, and that is what it feels like. It’s this lifelong thing, trying to get to some point where you have access to a wider range of ideas, and ideally so that anything you hear in your head can instantly be executed on your instrument.
You live in New York City. What role does environment play in your creativity?
Since I moved to New York when I was 20 or so, there’s been so much creative stuff happening and there are always new things to discover. The cross-pollination between the different music scenes and musicians is inspiring because you hear so many musicians doing amazing things all the time and that provides a lot of momentum. A big part of how I’ve grown as a musician is through collaborations and learning about how the people that I’m working with approach music. There’s also something about the energy of the city itself. I don’t know if it’s just that people are always in a rush, and doing things and going places, but it gives me energy.
Would it be correct to say that you think of creativity more as an organic process connected with, say, the brain and the nervous system rather than a “channeling the cosmic energy of the universe” kind of thing?
You know, in a weird way, I’m going to say it’s both. I think I’m both a very rational person, which would lead me to say that it’s something we’re generating in our nervous systems and in our brains, but one of my big hobbies is astrology. I’ve always been kind of tuned into the energy of the moon, for example, or researching where the different planets are in the sky. The pull of the moon on the earth and the pull of the planetary energies also interests me, and how that relates to each individual’s specific creative thing. I’m not sure, but you know, it’s nice to imagine that there is some kind of larger force happening that isn’t only internal.
In that sense, it’s like the solar system is just a big New York City.
Exploring the cosmic possibility for a moment, is there a transcendent or even spiritual aspect of creativity that you’ve experienced?
It can certainly feel like a transcendent experience when you’re in a creative zone where something really magical is happening musically. I would almost say it feels like a healing force. For example, we all have records we go back to when we’re going through a really tough time, that are for lack of a better word, healing. That’s a quality that I look for, and that’s important to me. I feel people really need music for their spirit and their mental wellbeing. When it’s really happening, I would say that’s what it is.
When its transcendent, can it also be transformative and affect who you are?
Yeah, I think having these experiences, whether it’s playing music, or listening to music, or checking out some art, can have a lasting effect on your perspective and your wellbeing, enriching and giving meaning to your experience and your life.