Dustin O’Halloran, Pianist & Composer

Wyndham Wallace shoots the breeze with Berlin-based pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran…

Dustin O’Halloran

If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, you may already be familiar with Berlin-based Dustin O’Halloran’s exquisite solo piano music: the American contributed a number of pieces to the film’s soundtrack, including the haunting ‘Opus 23’. A member of the band Devics, who were signed to Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union Records label, he has released two albums of Piano Solos (Volumes 1 & 2) under his own name, as well as the slightly more elaborate Lumiere and a live album recorded in Berlin’s Grunewald Church, Vorleben. Both are available on the 130701 label.

One of the most exciting of the new wave of post-classical artists – which also includes fellow Berlin residents Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick – O’Halloran specialises in sparse but beautifully melodic compositions that linger long after they’ve passed. He’s also developing an impressive reputation as a soundtrack composer, and recently provided the score for Like Crazy, which picked up the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at Sundance in 2011.  Wyndham Wallace speaks to him about his work and his love for the German capital…

What drew you to Berlin in the first place?

I was living in Italy for a long time in a very small town, and felt it was time to be back in a city. I wanted to stay in Europe, and really the only city I could imagine living in was Berlin.

Has the city had a significant effect upon your work as a musician?

Definitely. I’ve had the chance to enjoy a lot of collaborations here that have been really inspiring, from a double piano concert with Hauschka to working on a remix with Robert Lippok. Also, just the energy and sounds of the city have breathed new things into the music.

Your latest album is a live recording from Berlin’s Grunewald Church, which is also where Nils Frahm recorded The Bells. Why did you choose this location, and what made this stand out from other live performances?

I never really intended to release a live album. It was just more of a case of the right recording at the right time. Nils was having his release concert there, and we actually set up all the microphones to record later after the show for the new project I have with Adam Wiltzie, A Winged Victory For The Sullen.  As it turned out, the performance was all acoustic and went really well. Everyone was so quiet, and there was a special atmosphere that night. Later, listening to the recordings, I thought, well, if I am ever going to release a live album this should be it.  An hour before the concert, my mother called me to tell me my grandmother had passed away. I was really close to her, and she was the first grandparent I lost. So I dedicated the night to her, and I think this created a special atmosphere.

There seems to be a strong (ahem) ‘post-classical’ scene developing in the city, centered around people like yourself, Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick, with certain special guests passing through (like Hauschka). Why do you think you have all gravitated together?

I guess its natural, as none of us are really far away from each other. There is a mutual respect, and there are really not that many people working in this in-between world we have found ourselves in. It’s been good to be inspired, and also I think it keeps everyone working harder to make something important. When your peers are around you listening it’s a good thing.

You’ve also hooked up with Stars Of The Lid’s Adam Wiltzie to record a new album under the name A Winged Victory For The Sullen. What can you tell us about the music? Where did you record the album? What’s the significance of the name?

I met Adam a few years ago in Italy when he was playing with Sparklehorse, and it sparked a mutual admiration for each other’s work. We decided to do a song together, and when we finally had the chance to work on it, it went so well it turned into a whole album. I think the making of this record was one of my favourite recording experiences, as we did it in some amazing and beautiful acoustic spaces. We began writing in Berlin and Brussels (where Adam lives), and also recorded in Grunewald Church, then did strings in the old DDR radio studios, and it was mixed in a 16th century villa in the Italian countryside, completely analogue to tape. The music is slow, epic and universal. I think it has this really neutral state, like floating in space, so we wanted to name it something with a sort of grand feeling. The name is a reference to the statue in the Louvre, The Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Dustin O’Halloran

What can we expect from you next (after the Winged Victory… album)?

The first thing I need is a holiday. Three records and a film score in a year have been quite a lot! Then I’m going to start working on new material for another solo album.

You’ve been diagnosed with synaesthesia. Could you explain what this has meant to both you and your music? Were you always aware of it?

I was always aware of it, but never really understood it was a condition that many shared until I did some research on it. I started reading a lot about Kandinsky and composers like Messiaen and Shoenberg, who all shared this as well, and it made me realise this really distinct connection between painting and composing. I think it made me more comfortable with how I visualise and see music.

Who have been the biggest influences on your music, obvious or otherwise? And what colour is your favourite music?

Painting has always been a big influence on my work, especially the works of Rothko. This kind of elegance and spiritualism…Blues, reds and blacks are my favourite colours. There are some of his paintings that just vibrate sound. I can’t explain it.

Your first commercially released music was with a band, Devics, but your more recent solo work reveals a deep love for minimalist classical music such as Debussy, Satie and Chopin. Did you come to this kind of music late, or was your love for it always there?

I always loved this music, and even from the beginning of Devics I always worked in private on the piano. My first instrument was the piano and my first love of music was classical, so I guess I’m just coming full circle.

What provoked you to move from ‘dream-pop’ to solo piano work?

This was never a decided move. I had always worked with piano, though mostly just in private. When I moved to Italy, it was the first time I had a chance to focus on it and actually record some pieces. Simon at Bella Union Records heard it and asked me if I wanted to release it, and honestly I was hesitant in the beginning because I felt it was too personal and intimate. But in the end it was a good push he gave me.

You weren’t classically trained as a pianist, I believe. What brought you to the piano, and how do you think your lack of a formal musical education has affected your work?

Well, I had a few years of lessons when I was young from a church organist, nothing crazy, no conservatory. But I always had a love for the instrument.  I think my lack of education has been a good thing creativity-wise, but now I am doing my own studying to catch up on skills I missed out on.

Do you think your lack of such classical training has held you, and similarly minded musicians, from being accepted by the classical community, even though you’re arguably working in the field? If so, why?

Perhaps in some ways, as I think the classical world is more infatuated with virtuoso playing than composition. I suppose they have to do something with all this training! But I think sometimes simple things are better: direct compositions that don’t need to rely on flowery arrangements. But I have never claimed to be a classical musician, even though I have some influences. I suppose the more I get deeper into composition and learn more, the closer I get to that world. But I have seen some things change recently with my last record. There were some nice reviews and interviews in some classical magazines like MUSO. So maybe it’s changing?

With it getting harder and harder to make money from recorded music, have you ever thought about seeking a patron, as classical composers in former years once had to in order to survive?

That sounds great. Can you help find me one?

Do you think the piano has a special ability to communicate timeless emotions? And do you miss playing the guitar during live performances instead of being seated behind an instrument, side on to the audience?

Perhaps the reason is it’s really one of the few solo instruments that represent all the scales of music and can be so diverse. It’s the one I feel most connected to. I do love guitar though: I recently got to play again when Devics were invited to do four shows in China last October. It felt good to hit a distortion pedal again!

Vorleben album cover

You’ve now worked on three movie scores, including Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. How does this differ from creating music for your albums, and which is preferable?

I think it’s quite different to work on film scores than your own music, but I enjoy both in different ways. With film there is always some kind of structure already laid out, and sometimes even a tonal idea.

Do you consider the word ‘sentimental’ to be an insult if applied to your music?

Not really. However people want to feel is OK. I have been known to be sentimental at times.

Your music has a very meditative, calming quality to it, and yet it’s not been accused at any point of falling into the ‘New Age’ camp as, for instance, George Winston was. Where does one draw the line between what is and what isn’t New Age, and is it even important?

Well, this is funny question… Some other people have talked about this. I guess New Age was more aligned with spiritual healing or something? I think I’m more involved in composition in the way composers are, but if people feel calm when listening to my music that’s fine with me. I listen to Bach all the time to calm down.

Are there any other musicians in Berlin for whom we should be keeping our eyes peeled?

There is great band called Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra. They are amazing.

Where is your favourite place to go in Berlin to contemplate?

The grassy banks of the Kreuzberg canals in summertime.

Where is your favourite place to go in Berlin to let your hair down?


The self-titled debut by A Winged Victory For The Sullen will be released 9/9/11 on Erased Tapes. You can listen to some of Dustin O’Halloran’s music on You Tube.

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