In Conversation: Dustin O’Halloran

The composer-pianist reflects on his new album, 'Silfur', and revisiting his past...

Having spent much of the last decade collaborating with his peers, the past year has very much been a time of introspection for composer and pianist Dustin O’Halloran.

Whether it’s his work with Adam Wiltzie on their ambient project A Winged Victory For The Sullen, or collaborations with fellow composer Hauschka, scoring the likes of Lion and, most recently, director Frances Lee’s Ammonite, O’Halloran’s output has always been imbued with a careful, gentle and reflective quality.

For Silfur, his first solo LP in a decade, O’Halloran was invited by Christian Badzura Executive Producer of legendary classical music record label Deutsche Grammophon, to re-visit and re-interpret selections of his previous work. In doing so, it offered him a chance to explore the shifting perspective of music through time and place.

Currently based in Iceland having been unable to return to his home in Los Angeles during the pandemic, the project presented an opportunity to draw inspiration from the unique atmosphere of his home away from home, revisiting material spanning four solo albums, in addition to creating two entirely new works.

O’Halloran sat down with Clash to discuss the new record and how he’s been keeping his mind occupied whilst locked down in Iceland during the pandemic.

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The past year has obviously been an intensely reflective period for you, but you were already entering a bit of an introspective phase when Deutsche Grammophon approached you to make this record. Has the pandemic kind of made that process feel even more introspective in a way?

Yeah, there were so many layers because the world was isolated. I was going back through my past, which is its own experience – and being in Iceland, which is already another layer of isolation… Usually I put the past away and I really love moving forward, but I kind of felt that it was a long time since I've worked on my own music. It was like “Where did I leave off?”. Some of those early records were recorded really lo-fi when I lived in Italy and I thought it would be nice to give them a different recording… It was a chance to kind of finalise some pieces – things that I thought I could do better, play better. And also just to see what changes over time.

It's funny, I didn't even think about this until I’d finished the record, but Deutsche Grammophon is in the business of re-recording pieces constantly. And I actually thought about that: how many times have Bach, Chopin and Ravel been re-recorded? Every time there's a new recording, people want it. It's the idea of what has longevity? What can be timeless? And re-recording things, there's always something new to discover in it. So I tried to find the pieces that, for me, still had meaning or I thought that I could still find something in.

Did you view it as an opportunity to take an active look back at the music? Or was this more of a chance to pause, reflect, relive some of those moments, and then kind of put those pieces to bed?

There were a lot of circles that got completed on the record. Francesco Donadello did the first sessions… He and I met when I lived in Italy. He's just an incredible engineer, musician and he eventually moved to Berlin. So we started working together in Italy, he moved to Berlin and started a studio and did a lot of work with Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir, and then he mixed and recorded every A Winged Victory For The Sullen record, so he came to Iceland and we got to record these pieces. And he's been with me on this whole journey, so it was really great to work with somebody that you just feel so comfortable with.

Then I found that I wasn't getting enough space in some of the recordings… If I wanted more decay, I had to find the place to do it, so that's why I ended up doing the second session at the Fríkirkjan church, which is in the centre of Reykjavik. And that was actually the first place that I ever performed, about eight years ago. I performed with Hauschka and Jóhann Jóhannsson. That was the first time I'd ever been to Iceland. I never thought I would live here, so there were a lot of circles like in my life kind of following me through this record.

What was it that inspired you to revisit these particular pieces? Did you identify any that had a particular emotional resonance, or were there pieces where you specifically felt that there was unfinished business?

Christian made a list of pieces that he thought would be interesting, and I made my own. There are some pieces that I just never wanted to record again… They capture a moment and I don't want to try to make it better. The pieces that I chose; I thought to give them a different more dynamic recording would be interesting. And I thought that I could play them better and give them a bit more detail. Some of them I’d played a bit live, and I sort of changed them through that evolution, so it's kind of a way for me to sort of document that.

Was there anything that you found particularly enlightening revisiting these pieces?

There's a simplicity to the work and I think that I'm more comfortable with that. When I first started writing the pieces, I never felt… I'm working on the piano, but I didn't go to conservatoire – I don't feel like a pianist in the traditional way. But as I've gone through so much of my career and my work, I've sort of realised that there's a real beauty to that… If anything, I wanted to create even more space and give things, sometimes a slower touch or take out some notes, minimalise it a little bit more.

The last few years have kind of been defined by your collaborations with others. A Winged Victory For The Sullen released 'Invisible Cities' earlier this year, which was originally conceived as part of a multimedia stage production, but I understand it didn’t get to tour.

It was staged a few times. The premiere was at the Manchester Arts Festival and that was it. We didn't play it live – it was recorded – but the stage production was wild. It was one of the biggest productions I've ever seen. It was set in a whole train station and it was a 360-degree audience. It involved video mapping, dancers, acting. It was so massive. When I walked in, I actually didn't realise what a crazy production it was. And they even built a river in the middle. They built like a Venice canal. There's a part of the play that happens in Venice with a boat. It's just mind blowing.

I imagine there was always a plan to release it, but did the pandemic expedite the process of turning that into an album?

Yeah, I mean we had the music and then all of a sudden the tour was over. And we just thought instead of waiting, we could just kind of get it done… It was fast for us to turn another record out, but most of the material was done, so it was more editing and how to make it cohesive as a record, but it was a nice thing to be able to do.

You’ve worked extensively with Haushcka. You had been collaborating on projects before you worked together on the score for Lion. Is it fair to say that you both have a pretty good sort of shorthand at this point?

Him and I just work great together. We're friends first and we were friends for a long time before we ever did Lion. Lion was our first time collaborating. It’s a really smooth process. The language of film is so different than making a record. I think when I first started making films; I always went into it like I was making a record and over time I learned that you have to give a lot of space… Where an album or piece of music for a record can be dense, it can be filled up, and you can put a lot of information into it, you need to give more space to the story. And I think that that's something that him and I also give each other… You have to kind of put your ego aside and figure out what is going to make a better film and what's going to tell the story… So him and I just found a really good space to collaborate… We both generate things in different ways. But we're very different in how we approach them and it works for us.

I revisited Marie Antoinette recently, which was fitting because 'Opus 17' is one of the tracks that you've revisited not once but twice on 'Silfur'. Sofia Coppola had approached you before the cameras started rolling, right?

Yeah, I never wrote to picture. I just wrote. They sent me a kind of look book of images and ideas and she was looking for… She was looking for this kind of innocence and so that's kind of what I was trying to capture with those pieces… It's funny, because actually I ended up re-watching it during the pandemic. I hadn't watched it for years. And I was actually surprised at how well it held up.

What prompted you to revisit Opus 17 twice?

That was one of those pieces that Christian put on the list that I wasn't sure I wanted to do it and record it again, but I just thought it would be interesting. It's pretty different to the other pieces… It's just a very classic kind of counterpoint piece. And then I did a string session, and I was thinking, why don't we try this on strings? It sounds very Baroque… I'm a big fan of Baroque music… Those kind of harmonies sort of follow my work a bit and it's something that I always get a lot from… It's a fine line recording a piece like that, but, I also I thought maybe it'd be nice to have a moment without piano.

What have your listening habits been during lockdown?

It's tough when you start working on music every day to listen to music… It gets hard to go home and want to listen to music. But actually, I brought my vinyl player from Berlin and there's a really great record store called 12 Tónar. It's been around for like 35 years in Reykjavik. I love buying vinyl, I love supporting the record stores, and so I've actually been listening to a lot of old jazz. I've been going back to Miles Davis, and just kind of getting into that era. It's been sort of my palate cleanser… During the pandemic, since I've been here this whole year, I started a little chess night. They were just a record store and when the pandemic hit, they opened up a small bar. Larus [Johannesson], the owner is a chess master and chess is a big part of Icelandic culture.., We'll go there and put on some records and play chess. And that's sort of been the way that I’ve been listening to music lately.

That sounds ideal.

It's just the things that are keeping the brain active in a different way. And I think that listening to music all the time isn't always productive for me. It's good to take space and just and not listen to music as well.

I can understand not wanting to constantly have it in your head 24/7.

Yeah, it's good to give yourself some breaks. And honestly, the sound of the wind here, it's like a constant instrument. I mean, the wind here during the winter; it's some of the craziest, loudest… it's just wind on another level, but I've never experienced anything like it. It just shakes the whole house… I've been enjoying it. It's a force.

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'Silfur' is available now via Deutsche Grammophon.

Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap
Photo Credit: Anna Maggy

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