Belladonna is the companion release to Amaryllis, two simultaneously released albums from guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson initiating her collaboration with Nonesuch Records. Recorded with the Mivos Quartet -- violinists Olivia De Prato and Maya Bennardo, violist Victor Lowrie Tafoya, and cellist Tyler J. Borden -- it offers five through-composed pieces enhanced by her guitar improvisations. Halvorson works in a longstanding duo with violist, composer and improviser Jessica Pavone, but Belladonna is her initial foray into composing for strings. Listening to a plethora of string quartets while sidelined by the quarantine, Halvorson read several orchestration books and asked Pavone for guidance. After completing these five pieces, she penned three more for Mivos to perform with the sextet she recorded with on Amaryllis. The two "modular and interlocking" offerings were premiered live at Brooklyn's Roulette in the fall of 2021.
Halvorson's composing here is more abstract than on the companion set. Despite her outside approach, these are no less welcoming. "Nodding Yellow" is introduced by a six-note cello pattern before the rest of Mivos enter by plucking strings. Halvorson dialogues with Borden and Lowrie Tafoya. She plays single-string accents in conversation, supplemented by fragmental chords for emphasis as the violinists continue to pluck rhythmically. They join the viola in the final third and shift the proceeding to a seven-note vamp punctuated stridently by alternating cello and guitar. In the brooding, resonant "Moonburn," the string quartet's sorrowful, yet nearly pastoral articulation of Halvorson's harmonic melodies is responded to with aggressive bluesy notes, slide phrases and knotty multi-note runs from the composer's guitar, adding not only textural and tonal contrast but an expansive harmonic complement. Halvorson introduces "Flying Song" with an assonant four-note pattern echoed by Mivos. She shifts to a two-chord vamp underscored by arpeggios as the chamber group erects a lush tonal body for conversation and exploration. At ten minutes, "Haunted Head" is the set's longest track. Halvorson's guitar offers a lilting fingerpicked pattern, then extends her root chord flow to the violist who responds by lengthening the lyric frame. Violins and cello enter as the guitarist returns to her subtly articulated progression as Borden trills, fills, and extrapolates on the harmony. Lowrie Tafoya and the violinists deliver tonal counterpoint to the lead instruments and one another, before receding into more mediative terrain. Halfway through, the guitarist begins building a knotty solo and the strings become more forceful as they accompany the unfolding narrative. The title-track closer is a startling, dramatic exercise in contrapuntal interplay. The strings, in near constant tension with one another, offer tonal inquiries to Halvorson. She bridges them in call-and-response with a carefully articulated, yet nearly whimsical solo before carrying it out on a rockist tip. In sum, Belladonna is as lighthearted as it is provocative. Halvorson's love of wide tonalities and intricate harmonic interplay are anchored by sophistication and a healthy dose of wry humor. She weaves them together in five pieces that nearly sing.