Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone :: In Conversation

Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone go way back. The two longtime friends were bandmates in Anthony Braxton’s ensemble, and between 2005-2011, they recorded four duo albums for vocals, violin, and guitar, offering up skewed, Harry Partch-inspired folk-jazz that was at once haunting, lovely, and perplexing. This month, they usher in new projects with their own combos. On October 9th, Pavone released Lost and Found via Astral Spirits, a spacious and patient set of suspended tones for violin and viola that seem suspended in time.

And on October 30th, Halvorson releases her second album with her Code Girl band, Artlessly Falling. On it the MacArthur Genius churns up progressive avant-garde jazz rock, and is joined by the legendary Robert Wyatt, who lends his signature vocals to three songs.

Having shared the stage—and long drives while on tour—for years, Pavone and Halvoron have unique insight into each other’s heads, so they join us to discuss their continued musical evolution, reflect on mellowing out, and cutting tour short due to the pandemic. We’re pleased to offer this conversation between close friends, collaborators, and creators Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone, which has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Jessica Pavone: I listened to your record and one of the striking things that I heard—I think it applies to both or our records in a way—it made me remember how we used to call you “Spiky.” 

Mary Halvorson: That’s funny, I remember a lot of weird nicknames but I don’t remember that one for some reason. 

Jessica Pavone: Yeah, Ches [Smith] used to call you “Spiky” because your playing was so angular, right? And I was just thinking about this recording, and I think we’ve both slowed the fuck down. I feel like I can just hear how old we’ve gotten. Not old in a bad way, but I feel like with this record, you take your time. Every idea, the way they’re presented.

Mary Halvorson: Yeah, I think I would agree with that in general and I think I know what you mean. I definitely have slowed down and I’m sure you have. I remember being in my 20s and working an office job all day and coming home and making a pot of coffee and working on music all night, and it’s like, I can’t do that now. I think the pace of life becomes a little slower but I think also maybe we’re not in a rush so much. There’s more time to develop a concept. Maybe we’re more comfortable in a way with that notion of not having to run around.

Jessica Pavone: Not having to say it all at once or something. I think just trusting. This definitely happened for me. I think I used to be like “oh if I don’t change this people are going to get bored” and then I realized oh I can listen to the same sound for two minutes. I used to worry “Am I boring people?” but it turns out people have a lot more patience with a sound.

Another thing that was really striking to me, it reminded me a little bit of your septet. You write music that’s written but it’s also improvisatory where people have space to solo. And I feel like with the groups you put together, you don’t ever dominate. Your voice is just as equal as all of the other voices. I remember that from when I saw your septet at the Vanguard, it wasn’t a you in the center and the ensemble around you kind of a thing. I really noticed that in this record, everyone’s voice is very equally heard. It’s very well blended. It also sounded to me like you were crafting an album. It sounded very deliberate to me.

Mary Halvorson: That’s so funny because I had the exact same thought about your record. That it really felt like a suite as opposed to a collection of pieces. It blended together into this one long piece and for me it was really emotional. With this year being so tough, there’s something really “healing” about it. I don’t know much about cymatics—how did you used used it in this record?

Jessica Pavone: Cymatics is a study of wave vibration. The science and experiment of it is, say you take a metal plate and put sand on top of it and then you vibrate a pitch under it, a pattern will appear in the sand. It will look like a flower or a geometric pattern will appear. It’s a visual representation of what sound actually does, like the air pressure of vibration. Your body is made up of what. What happens to your body when you listen to or are around sound—if you do a sound healing and there’s a vibration or a bowl or singing bowl near your body, the vibration will do that to the water in your body. So the two are related in how sound moves matter, and I was thinking a lot about how that affects our bodies inside of us. I never got too into the science and physics of understanding exactly the nuts and bolts and the frequencies. But I still feel like the feedback I get is “oh I was listening that and I felt it”, and that was my intention when I was writing and what i was influenced by, but without saying “I’m going to make this an F-minor chord because I know it makes people feel that way”, it was never that scientific, it was more thinking about this concept of how sound vibrates the water in our bodies and how it affects how we feel.

Mary Halvorson: This is both our second record with bands. Did you find writing the second record to be easier or harder or just different?

Jessica Pavone: I felt like the first record was more like shots in the dark. I was writing for the ensemble, and while I was writing that record I began to realize this is what I was interested in, and then I studied with a sound healer for a little while in between the two records, so it definitely refined my understanding a little bit. And kind of what I really learned from that experience was it doesn’t need to be dogmatic, like “which pitch hits what part of the body”, it’s not like that, it’s intuitive and it’s accepted that it’s not a dogmatic thing. It’s trusted that it’s intuition. With the second record I took more freedom in expanding my notation. At least half the first record is still very notated in meter, like read, counted, read counted. And I think I started to develop my way of loosening up my notation where there’s more of an element of choice for the musicians. We are reading music on a page but it’s not strict.

Jessica Pavone: How about you? There’s a big difference. I like how there’s three voices.

Mary Halvorson: Thanks, that was something I was thinking about, how it would be interesting to have more than one voice. Partly, I was just thinking about vocal harmony, almost background vocals. [I wanted to] play around with harmonies a lot and have different voices as a different means of expressing some of these sounds. 

Jessica Pavone: A lot of times when we work with a voice, that voice is the centerpiece. And it doesn’t feel that way at all on your record, because I think the music is very equally distributed among the instruments. I don’t think any one of the voices really dominates at all. And there’s two songs where it’s just Robert [Wyatt] and there’s maybe a little Amirtha [Kidambi] behind. The Maria [Grand] one, there’s something about it that reminded me of Deerhoof. 

Mary Halvorson: I never thought of that but I could see how her voice and Satomi’s [Matsuzaki] voice, while they’re very different, they’re very high and there’s a certain fragility. Maria’s voie has almost a wispy-ness to it.

Jessica Pavone: I remember when you got really into Robert. I remember being on tour with you and you had just gotten into Robert Wyatt and we were in the car and you were playing it and signing. And I remember what was going on in our lives at the time and how it was just so messy back then, it was a messy time. I wish I remembered the song you were singing. I don’t want to butcher the song, but he’s singing about someone or, when you’re drunk you’re something.

Mary Halvorson: Oh yeah! That’s “Sea Song.” That was the first song by Robert Wyatt I ever heard. And maybe that’s why that album is so powerful for me. Talk about healing. To me his music has such a healing quality and it has helped me through difficult times of my life just listening to his records over and over. But I think it’s because I heard that song first, that I have a particular affinity for it. 

Jessica Pavone: Yeah, and thinking of being in the car with you and you singing that song. That was probably 15 years ago, if not longer. Now he’s singing on your record.

Mary Halvorson: I still can’t believe he’s on the record, which I know sounds weird because the record’s been done for a long time but I still just can’t believe it. He’s the nicest person in the world too and was so cool to deal with, it sounds like a cliche but it’s like a dream come true. 

Jessica Pavone: We were talking about being band leaders a little bit. That’s a thing I feel is just as much or more of a job than just writing music sometimes.

Mary Halvorson: Oh, for sure.

Jessica Pavone: I was thinking recently how I just kind of want to do that thing where I’m a composer and write a piece and send it in the mail and someone plays it. It’s a whole psychology, bringing people together, the right people together, it’s not just about people being really good at their instruments. It’s also: are they easy going? Are they easy to schedule? Are they excited about the project? There’s nothing worse than hiring someone and then they don’t even really like it and you can kind of tell.

Mary Halvorson: As I’ve gotten older my tolerance for bullshit with people playing my music has gone way down. So for me it’s not only how well they play as you said, it’s are they going to be fun to go on tour with? Are they going to being a positive or fun energy to the band and be open to taking the music to other place, or whatever it might be. Someone you can rely on and you want to hang out with. It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about more, because you’re right it is a lot to be a band leader. A lot of responsibility. It can be great but it’s not the same as just showing up for a gig or showing up for somebody else’s gig. And talk about probably the most stressful band leading experience of my life was with this band, because we were on tour in Europe when the coronavirus stuff started happening in March and we had to cancel half the shows and get home. Because I felt responsible.

Jessica Pavone: If you were touring with a bunch of divas can you imagine?

Mary Halvorson: Oh my god, and everybody was so cool, that’s the thing. Imagine if everybody wasn’t? We were just cracking jokes and making the best of it. We actually had a really good time despite the fact it was so incredibly stressful on so many levels. I know you have an octet as well, and that’s somewhat related to this [new record] right?

Jessica Pavone: I was heavily writing the quartet music when I thought, I was doing the Braxton thing where I was like “What if I had a 100 string players? Or 1,000 string players?” I was getting into that mindset, but then it was “Ok, maybe let’s just try eight.” So I was writing this music and thinking of expanding it to be bigger, but I’m actually thinking of it as a much bigger group and it’s all different players. There’s a violin duo that I saw. I played on a bill with them and saw them perform, and the set of music they played was so on the mark with the music I was writing and I was like I want to work with those people.

Mary Halvorson: What was the duo?

Jessica Pavone: They were called Du. 0, these two violin players. Their set was like “this is what I’ve been wanting to hear my entire life,” and I didn’t even know them but I wanted to work with them, for them to be my violin section. And then I just expanded it with the low instruments. It is a completely different group, but I am writing for it similarly where I am using the clock. I’m even expanding it with the flexibility of the notation, where everyone is in a different tempo. Where everyone is pulsing on a note but everyone’s at a different tempo, so it’s kind of like a really messing of sound. Someone will be instructed to be, “your pulse is going to go faster while someone else is keeping theirs the same.” So I’m messing with time more with this group.

Mary Halvorson: Do you feel you can visualize what it’s going to sound like? When so much is left up to chance, for me personally I find it much harder to envision how it’s going to sound than if I’m writing something that’s in a very specific meter and form. 

Jessica Pavone: That’s why this is kind of huge for me, because I’m the kind of person who writes everything out. A lot of this music is informed by my solo music. I use a clock when I perform my solo pieces, it’s like “be in this sound for three minutes and then be in that sound for three minutes.” That’s where I’m getting the ideas from. For me it’s this balance of giving—no one’s soloing, it’s like an integrated woven, kind of thing, and I guess I experimented with this a lot with the quartet. If we have a three minute window and you’re alternating between those two pitches and that person is alternating between these two pitches, we’re going to make sound clusters that I could never compose. And I test it on the piano. I’ve been composing on the piano a lot, because I can simulate what I’m going to hear on the piano. Say there’s eight pitches that were oscillating, I can put the pedal down because it’s a string and think what if these people were playing these select pitches at random, how would the sound together, you know? I use a very small pitch palate. There are a lot of parameters. I’m not a chance person.

Mary Halvorson: I imagine the more you write like this the more you’ll be able to hear in your head 

Jessica Pavone: The octet, in a way, was a lot easier. I wrote some stuff—I don’t like when people refer to music as stuff—I wrote some notations that I hadn’t really worked with before but had a sense of how it was going to work or wouldn’t work because I gave it enough parameters to control it. But I also experimented with being in a space like that and then going into metered space. I’ll put half the group will go into a meter while the other half is still kind of floating. All those structures.

Mary Halvorson: I also really love the idea of building something that’s partially improvised, but it’s not soloists jumping out. It’s really powerful. 

Jessica Pavone: To the contrary, in your record, there is soloing, but it’s not crazy like someone is blowing over a whole tune, but there is space for everyone to express their voice. And I think that’s what your music is like coming from the jazz tradition, moreso. 

Mary Halvorson: It’s interesting what you were saying about what you learned from solo music. I also feel like to tie it into what we were talking about before and leaving more space in your music, I definitely learned that from playing solo. It taught me to leave space. I found when I first started working with it I sounded like a nervous talker, I was rushing through everything. And I would listen back and realize that I was filling up too much space, and I think that applies to other projects, trying to learn that concept of not being in a rush to do everything at once. Solo playing is really informative, I think you can learn a lot from playing it.

Jessica Pavone: Yeah, just to be patient. I pretty much did that straight for four years. Before I released that first quartet record in 2019, I hadn’t released an ensemble record since 2012. So that’s seven years where I was only just doing solo music. Partially because I was exhausted putting bands together, but also I think I was really finding my voice. What made you put the Code Girl ensemble together? 

Mary Halvorson: It was partially inspired by musicians like Robert Wyatt where I found I was listening to a lot of music that had singers and lyrics and more song-based, but that I was playing a lot of instrumental music. I wanted to try to incorporate something where I was writing words and lyrics and try to bridge the gap. You and I had done that a little bit in our duo. Experimented with a little bit of singing. So then in the band People, I would sing as well. But I also realized over the years that I don’t want to sing. I liked doing it when I did, but I kind of want to stick to the guitar, I think my singing is very limited. In People, I think it kind of worked because the rough singing worked in that context but I was curious to write for a group and for a singer that can actually sing. I do feel like it made such a difference, to be able to write a melody and hear someone transform it in a way I wouldn’t have been able to do myself. I was thinking about all those things, and I think it’s what we try to do most of the time, which is bridge a bunch of influences or a bunch of things we’re curious about and see what happens.

Jessica Pavone: It doesn’t come across as—and this is going to sound stupid—but it doesn’t come across as a singer/songwriter record, which it obviously is. But the voice is just another instrument with the rest of the group. Often times [on records] the voice is on top of everything and this is not written that way at all.

Mary Halvorson: It’s such a common thing for voice to be way out front, and I notice this when we perform with that group. I always tell the people doing sound that I want the instruments mixed equally. I want the vocals with the horns as if they’re another horn. And fifty percent of the time they’re still two times too loud. I think it’s just because, especially in rock music, it’s so normal to have the voice out front, and that wasn’t how I was hearing it all. It’s like what you said, it’s part of the ensemble and there’s other things happening too.

Jessica Pavone: It really comes across, for sure. 

 Mary Halvorson: It’s so cool to talk about music with you. I have this experience too with other musicians who are close, where we talk a lot and we think about music all day and sometimes we just don’t want to talk about music; we just bullshit and talk about other stuff. But when we do talk about music, it’s always so interesting, it’ll be like “Oh, I didn’t know Jess felt this way about this or that.” Even though we talked for an hour yesterday, we weren’t talking about music. So it’s really cool.

Jessica Pavone: Yeah, it’s like brain off from that sometimes. But also we just know each other. I feel I know your music as far back as anyone.

Mary Halvorson: Yeah likewise. I’ve followed your music for, how long have we been friends now? Almost 20 years. To follow the arc of that is really cool, but sometimes you just take it for granted and don’t ever have conversations about it. 

Jessica Pavone: Yeah, it’s like “Oh that’s our job, yeah.”

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