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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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