Things to See and Do: Mary Halvorson Plays Christian Marclay at the Whitney

by Seth Colter Walls


Grossly talented indie-rock shredder Marnie Stern has a song on her forthcoming record called “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black.” This title has the double-edged benefit of being true as well as wry-since it preempts (one hopes) a lot of lazy “think pieces” on the subject.

Still, even for underground kids who grew up swooning over the plodding-on-purpose instrumental technique of mid-90’s Kill Rock Stars bands, there is now an undeniable pleasure in seeing women give off true, hot-shit guitar grind. (For more of this, watch Marissa Paternoster of the Screaming Females rip through “Bell” here.) So while people are keeping score on this level, we should have a serious talk about Mary Halvorson.

Halvorson sits on the forward-looking end of the modern jazz continuum, which means that the small-ish number of people who know her work tend to dig it a great deal. But while she’s fully paid up on her avant-dues (thanks to having studied with Anthony Braxton), you can tell Halvorson actually listens to and cares about more popular forms. She uses distortion and other effects with a sparing restraint, while moving with ease from druggy dirge to spiky post-punk even in her clean-tone playing. Because subtle artists who also possess intensity in the reserve tank are always welcome, Halvorson’s is a public that deserves to grow a bit bigger.

This October, more than two years after her stunning debut Dragon’s Head, Halvorson will be putting out Saturn Sings — a record that finds the guitarist writing songs for her established trio, as well as for an expanded quintet that employs trumpet and alto saxophone. (She says she wanted to write harmonies for those instruments based on her affinity for both Alexander Scriabin as well as Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, about which: BE. STILL. MY. ETC.) One of my favorite cuts (based on initial listening) is a quintet number called “Crescent White Singe,” which flirts with elegant swing, dreamy guitar modulations and freak-out ensemble bashing. This is a good “lunch break” song, I think (in addition to being well suited for other times of the day), and you can stream it right here.

[wpaudio url=”″ text=”Mary Halvorson, ‘Crescent White Singe’” dl=”0″]

Now, if you’ll allow a pivot, the thing about this city of New York — the thing that will just kill you with regret if you allow it to — is that not only are there an incalculable number of worthy things happening, but the people making those things also wind up being involved in 18 other projects led by other people that you should also check out and so, oh my God, it’s tempting to just stay home with Netflix, I guess. I had one of these mental palpitations a couple weeks ago, when I realized I was missing Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo performing some of Christian Marlcay’s compositions at the Whitney Museum. I love Marclay’s early, abstract turntablism — based on records that he spliced and collaged together — and had never seen any of his visual art.

So what the heck was I doing wrong with my life that I was missing this thing at the Whitney? Eventually, I calmed down and looked at the museum’s schedule. Their Christian Marclay Festival runs through September, and features dozens of amazing musicians interpreting Marclay’s “graphic scores” at various times. And blammo: last Saturday, Mary Halvorson was one of them. In fact, she was playing twice: once at noon, with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Ikue Mori on electronics, and then solo at 4pm, when she had a date with Marclay’s “Wind Up Guitar” (a nylon-string acoustic guitar with 12 music boxes inside, the “winds” for which poke outside the body of the instrument, to be twisted at the player’s discretion).

It wasn’t the world’s most beautiful sounding guitar — Marclay’s invention produces a rattling tone, what with all the gear inside — but Halvorson spun a half hour of gorgeous improvisation from it anyway. Halvorson’s other performance, with Courvoisier and Mori, of the Marclay score “Screen Play” (which is just a montage of stock and silent film clips, with little superimposed graphic effects that are meant to inspire the players), was also highly enjoyable. In between the scheduled performances, I hung out in the big Marclay visual gallery, and also checked out the Whitney’s other exhibits — among which is a full-floor retrospective of video- and film-based performance art from the past few decades. (So if you pick your spots and give yourself enough time, the Whitney’s $18 adult entry fee turns out to be quite a bargain. I spent six hours there.)

And here’s how Marclay’s “graphic scores” work. (Hint: not like most composers’ scores.) Marclay doesn’t read music himself, though he does collect every scrap of musical errata he can find out in the world. He then arranges this stuff — think stray musical notes on greeting cards, book covers, New York Times illustrations, etc. — into collages that can be exhibited, as well as interpreted by musicians as the basis of an improvisation. Crucially, the public-sphere musical notation lacks important information (like, uh, time signatures). Enter the musicians, who then fill in the blanks. It’s not jazz, it’s not classical, but it can be pretty impressive if you get highly skilled people to play along.

Thanks to the Whitney, we can show you this July 23 performance of Marclay’s “Ephemera” featuring Courvoisier and Mori — as well as Mark Nauseef on percussion and downtown legend John Zorn on alto sax. If you want to see an example of the Marclay collages these musicians are looking at while they’re playing, click over this way. (Also: this video runs about 32 minutes, so maybe don’t try to watch it at work.)

So now you may be wondering “what of note is coming soon?” This Saturday, a new Marclay piece will be added to the Whitney’s rotation. “Prêt-Ã -Porter” is a graphic score made out of pieces of clothing — dresses, shirts, pants — that have musical notation printed on them. But in this case, instead of “reading” the collages like typical scores on a music stand, the musicians — including Halvorson! — will be watching models strut that clothing about the gallery space, reacting in turn to whatever they can “read” off of the clothes while all the vogue-ing is going down. The installation-cum-fashion-show-cum-musical-improvisation also incorporates a bottle of single malt scotch and several glasses, which the models and musicians are welcome to draw from at their own discretion.

I believe I’ll be going.

Now you know where to stalk Seth Colter Walls.