A key change
It took a scary leap of faith for composer and film-score maestro Dustin O’Halloran to make the move to piano – it was like falling down the rabbit hole, he tells Siobhán Kane
DUSTIN O’HALLORAN is a traveller in so many ways. The Los Angeles native moved many times before returning to his birthplace and enrolling at Santa Monica college. It was a homecoming which was to provepivotal in his evolution as a musician.
“I met Sara [Lov] in art class, and that was more or less the spark that got me in to music. We started writing songs together and formed the band [Devics]. Through that I came back to the piano, and started working on my own. I made some recordings so that I would remember the pieces and played them for Simon [Raymonde] at Bella Union, who said he wanted to release them. I panicked, as I didn’t see myself as a pianist, but he encouraged me to get a little deeper in to it, so the whole journey up until now has been me falling down the rabbit hole.”
Moving to Berlin in the past few years seemed like another leap of faith. “I think so. Every place has its own rhythm, and it has breathed new energy into my work. Of all the places I have lived, it is the most interesting. There is a real crossover of genres. Robert Lippok from To Rococo Rot recently remixed one of my songs, and that would never have happened unless I lived here. It’s exciting to get a completely new perspective, I like being surprised.”
This new perspective is evident on Lumiere, which is more expansive in terms of sound and instruments than his previous piano records. “I had been working on some film scores, and experimenting with strings. I wanted it to be a more colourful affair, to show the shades and tones you can use. I wasn’t sure how it would all come together, but it did.”
With such a painterly sense of making music, has he ever tried painting? “Not yet, but I picture myself painting in my old age. I get really inspired by paintings and how I feel about them musically, and this record was a lot about that. When you use new instruments there is this period of discovery where you don’t really know what you are doing. I am at the tip of the iceberg, because it is so vast and beautiful. Listening to other works you realise how deep you can go, you know you will never be bored. I like the idea of slowly expanding, but not so much in an orchestral way, because I still want it to have an intimacy.”
O’Halloran shares common ground with composers such as Nico Muhly and Ben Frost, but also musicians such as Owen Pallett and Grizzly Bear, who are producing rich pop and rock music with a classical music sensibility. Can he sense a movement at work?
“There has been an interesting shift – people from the rock world have started to experiment and compose, but treating live performance like they would a rock show. It’s nice for people to have alternative, new tones for the ears. The classical world is mostly about performing pieces by dead composers, and there are a lot of beautiful old pieces, but coming from playing in a band I also have modern influences, and on Lumiere I
approached strings in a minimal way, which is perhaps more of a modern reference.
“What is different now is that more people are collaborating, and that is creating something bigger. A few months ago I did a collaborative concert with Hauschka and Jóhan Jóhannsson, who mixed my record. It raises the bar a little bit. There are some really talented people composing right now, and I feel lucky to be part of it in some way.”
I remind him about an interview he did with Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis in 2009, in which he said that the sound of the tram affected his work; the street acting as a less obvious soundscape.
“Completely. When I was living in Italy in the countryside. I was affected by the sounds of the birds and animals, natural sounds. Here in Berlin it is really urban, and when I am working I listen to the rhythm of the place, the sound of the language spoken, the trams and the trains.”
His intelligent, engaged artistry also shines through his work as a film composer – the withdrawn harpsichord and piano providing a subtle restraint in the excessive world of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, for example.
“Sofia had all the film before she edited, so I wrote a bunch of pieces in response, and she chose a few to use. With An American Affair, William [Olsson] sent me the script, and the ideas came before I saw a picture. That is when beautiful accidents happen and you get this third element, not trying to force an emotion but create a new one. It is a tricky process.
I think there is a dark side to film -scoring – it can be a beautiful collaborative process, but a destroying one too. For me, it is more important to create works of art that can live on their own. Many film composers do their best work early on, when they are using their real creative energy, but when they get into the machine, they don’t experiment as much and discover new voices.”
One of these new voices is the director Drake Doremus and his film Like Crazy, who O’Halloran has just worked with. “The film got accepted to Sundance. It’s a love story about two people from different countries, and the difficulty of not being in the same place at the same time. Strangely it was something I lived through as well.”
This kind of serendipity seems to provide a basis for all of his projects, whether working with Josh Pearson on his most recent record Last of the Country Gentlemen or on Soulsavers’ Broken.
“It was a real pleasure to work on that Soulsavers record. Rich [Machin] and I actually met through Josh Pearson. I love Mark [Lanegan]’s lived-in voice, and that Palace Brothers track [ You Will Miss Me When I Burn] was me creating an arrangement around his voice that doesn’t get in the way.”
He rarely stops working. “I have another project coming out with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid. It’s a pretty different record from everything I’ve done, and there are also a bunch of B-sides that my label is slowly going to release that are experimenting with layered sounds, and strange micing techniques. I also have another film score I am finishing, and have been producing so much music lately that maybe I need to get out of the studio for a while.”
Getting out of the studio means performing live, which O’Halloran is just beginning to enjoy, for the most poetic of reasons.
“When I first started doing piano shows, I was petrified. It is so stark. Maybe that is why I like it too, especially in this age of constant information and communication – to have a moment with yourself and the audience. You have to be completely present, those moments are harder to find now, and I love it for that.” I tell him that he is one of the only composers I would happily have soundtrack my life. “That’s a great compliment, and you know, I do accept baked goods. I will take cookies.”