Mary Halvorson Named 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellow

Source: MacArthur Foundation.

Mary Halvorson is a guitarist, ensemble leader, and composer who is pushing against established musical categories with a singular sound on her instrument and an aesthetic that evolves with each new album and configuration of bandmates. She melds her jazz roots with elements of experimental rock, folk, and other musical traditions, reflecting a wide range of stylistic influences.

Halvorson’s guitar playing is distinguished by her percussive picking style and the distinctive clarity of tone she produces on her vintage Guild hollow-body guitar, which she amplifies with subtle, pitch-bending electronic interventions. She is equally adept at picking out delicate and nuanced melodic lines and producing a spray of atmospheric noise. Over the past dozen years, she has performed solo and in settings ranging from intimate chamber jazz ensembles to genre-crossing groups of five, seven, and eight players. Her debut album as a bandleader, Dragon’s Head (2008), features her original compositions written for a trio of guitar, string bass, and drums. On Away with You (2016), she leads an octet that fluidly blends the timbres of a brass section with the dramatic effects of a pedal steel guitar, an instrument more frequently associated with country music than with jazz. For the ambitious double album Code Girl (2018), Halvorson composed both original music and lyrics for a quintet that includes her longtime, three-player collective, Thumbscrew, joined by a vocalist and trumpeter. Each track on the album showcases her interest in finding ever more imaginative ways to build intricate musical structures with ample space for improvisation and organic collaboration and to balance striking harmonies with moments of dissonance and distortion.

A virtuosic performer and adventurous composer, Halvorson defies convention with her idiosyncratic, sonic explorations at the intersection of jazz and rock.