Mary Halvorson, Guitarist and Composer | 2019 MacArthur Fellow


I’ve always played the guitar with a
strong attack, and I’ve always really valued the physicality of the instrument,
and really being able to hear the wood and the resonance, but the beauty of
electric guitar is to be able to have effects pedals, and distortion, and
amplification, to get a kind of recklessness. I’m Mary Halvorson. I’m a
guitarist and a composer. For me the most unexpected shift in my career was actually the decision to become a musician in the first place. I always
thought I would study science, and music to me was more of a hobby. But midway
through college I had gotten so hooked that I ended up having to drop my science classes and go for it. For me the main motivation in writing music is in the process itself, which to me is a process of discovery, of trying out new ideas, trying to channel your intuition,
and experiment, take risks, fail, try again, and it’s that process itself that I find
really exciting. I play in many different configurations, from my solo project to
large ensembles. Thumbscrew is a collaborative trio I’m a part of with
the bassist Michael Formanek and the drummer Tomas Fujiwara. I have an octet with pedal steel guitar. I really fell in love with the sound of the instrument,
and I wanted to try to add it to one of my bands. My band Code Girl came about because I realized I’d spent most of my musical
life playing instrumental music and so I wanted to have a project where I was
writing lyrics, and then also composing the music. And it became kind of an
experimental song project with voice, trumpet, guitar, bass, and drums. Right now I’m working on the second Code Girl album. Each of the songs, each of the
lyrics is going to fit into a different poetic form, and then I’ve composed
pieces of music around those forms. I’ve also added a second saxophonist and a
second singer so that I have a wider palette to work with for creating these
songs. When I was growing up I had very few female role models, and today I’m
seeing a real momentum shift. And these days it’s not uncommon for me to play in
bands where women outnumber men. I feel like the way it works when you’re
creating music that’s personal is you’re taking influences from your entire life,
and it’s sort of being filtered through your own personal aesthetic. And through
the choices that you make, you’re then creating something new.

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