The word “artlessly” has several meanings. It’s usually used as an adverb suggesting something authentic and direct. The implication is that there is no attempt to deceive or exaggerate. In terms of art and literature, the term signifies a work that is natural and simple, unaffected by pretensions. Mary Halvorson has named her latest effort Artlessly Falling. The title tune is a sestina, one of eight poetic forms for which Halvorson composed the music. All of the song-poems are deliberately overwrought. Their language and instrumentation seem the opposite of artlessly. If anything, they are artfully done and show cleverness and skill. They are also abstract and weird, discordant, and dissonant.
So what is Halvorson’s point? Perhaps she is just referring to her state of mind where impressions and observations bounce around her head in a higher state of consciousness. Consider the three-line envoi that ends the title track that takes its verbiage from the previous six stanzas: “A hole-in-one warns me: not worth his salt / Crosscut that arctic orbit as gray / Whale: wild, breaching. To hell with your wrong arms.”
The meaning is vague and associative. That matches Halvorson’s guitar accompaniment. She strums in fits and starts with stretched out pitch-bending effects and odd time signatures. Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl features Amirtha Kidambi, vocals; Martha Grand, tenor saxophone, voice; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Michael Formanek, bass; Thomas Fujiwara, drums; and English musician Robert Wyatt taking vocals on three tracks. They generally keep things unharmoniously moving forward as if time is standing still. The clash is purposely tuneless.
The other seven poetic forms include a double tanka, a found poem, a pantoum, a villanelle, a ghazal, a haiku, and free verse. They share “Artlessly Falling’s” sophistication and avant-garde sensibility. Even the found poem “Last Minute Smears” based on Brett Kavanaugh’s Congressional Testimony from September 2018 moves in unexpected ways. O’Farrill’s trumpet and Grand’s horns take on serpentine qualities that slither in unmelodic ways. Halvorson’s guitar keeps popping up at variance with the other instruments. Kidambi articulates the lyrics with aplomb, seemingly sounding confused and animalistic at times.
Wyatt’s vocals, especially on “Bigger Flames”, sound pained as he sings about things like “a coy curtsying earthquake”, “atrophied crucibles”, and “charred Russian dolls”. The vocals reveal the singer’s emotional state as the instruments swirl in odd patterns around the lyrics. Halvorson’s guitar is sometimes louder than Wyatt’s singing and keeps things moving ahead even as the narrator reflects on the past.
Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. That may be what Halvorson meant by “artlessly”. The plan was to have no plan, but this doesn’t seem quite accurate. There are musical structures here. The music is dramatic and can be a jarring listen. The players do connect. They contribute individually to make sounds together as part of a whole even as they simultaneously come off as disputatious and conflicting. It would not be a stretch to describe the album as cacophonous. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her. She may be falling, but that indeterminate state sure beats crashing.