I interviewed Dustin O’Halloran by email in 2015. Email interviews can be good and bad. Often bad. Maybe my worst interview of all time was an emailer with Jóhann Jóhannsson, then and now one of my favourite artists of all time, around the time of The Miner’s Hymns. At the time of this Dustin O’Halloran interview I had seen Jóhann with Dustin and Hauschka in the Sugar Club in 2012 and I had (a Google and a Gmail check tells me today) already interviewed Jóhann. Emailers depend on how engaged the interviewee is and how often you get to follow up a question. Dustin had some time it seems and was willing to share it. I loved his response to my question about him and Adam Wiltzie as Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. That I was dying to know.
In 2006, Dustin O’Halloran became a household name in hip households when a trio of his sparse, lovely solo piano pieces landed on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. ‘Opus 17’, ‘Opus 23’ and ‘Opus 36’ had an immediate emotional resonance that made you wonder where you’d already heard them when you hadn’t, and elegant memorable melody has remained O’Halloran’s calling card throughout a prolific decade of solo work, film scores, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen (AWVFTS) is O’Halloran’s collaboration with Adam Wiltzie, one half of drone pioneer duo Stars of the Lid. In 2011, AWVFTS’s eponymous debut contained the immensely gorgous, elliptically titled ‘Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears’. You could see the lineage here: Stars of the Lid were behind ‘Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage’, wherein they perfected the art of hiding a breathlessly beautiful piece of music behind a half-daft name. You don’t always want people to know how much you mean it, particularly when you really mean it.
AWVFTS, who play in the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire on February 10th, released their second album, Atomos, the score of a contemporary dance piece, late last year. Like AWVFTS’s debut, Atomos is a spacious, enveloping meeting of musical minds, a summit between texture and space and unabashed melody. As the Pavilion show approaches, Dustin O’Halloran took some questions from State, talking about the art of collaboration, the great state of film music, and why sometimes it’s not so bad when the music stops.
State: You and Adam Wiltzie have collaborated on two albums now, coming from apparently quite different musical backgrounds. I’m interested in the process of collaboration and how you decide on a collaborator.
DOH: For myself I think good collaborations find you. I met Adam pretty randomly in Italy when I was living there and we became mutual fans of each other’s music. When we started working on music we didn’t realize what it would become or if it would even work. It’s all been a serendipitous surprise really. I think we both have learned a lot from each other… and also give each other space.
Ultimately, a good collaboration brings you out of your own head and helps you find places you would not have gone otherwise. I think Adam and I have pushed each other to new places, especially with our new record Atomos. We really tried to find the boundaries of our music and it’s nice to feel that; to know you can grow. I think we still have some more music to make together.
You said in an interview in the Quietus, “Adam and I have such different ways to work”.
Well, we have both been making records for a long time, so you tend to have your ways of working. It’s hard to be more specific, but I would say Adam really is great at using space, finding parts that you would not otherwise hear and stretching them out; creating a sense of timelessness. I think I’m more into the details of arrangements, crafting out subtle details.
You’ve cited Erik Satie as an influence. In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross wrote of Satie’s Gymnopedies that it “discard[ed] centuries of knotted-down complexity in favour of a language at once simple and new”. Does that ring true to you and is that something you took from him for your own work?
I think Erik Satie was really a break through in contemporary music and maybe one of the first minimalists. He created strange and simple melodic structures that were deceptively simple. I have always been attached to this kind of musical language and try to seek out what is necessary. I’m not much into over-embellishment, or playing notes just to fill space. I think every note should count.
Is it always obvious in AWVFTS who did what? It would appear obvious – the shifting cloud-like STOL-style chords are Adam, the poetic piano and strings are you. But I remember reading Elvis Costello saying that when he collaborated with Paul McCartney they switched roles—Elvis went as sweetly melodic as he could while Paul shoved way too many words into one note. I’ve always imagined that one of the pleasures of collaboration is not being yourself and I wonder whether your musical personality changes.
Yeah, I think people would be surprised and who did what. We really switch roles a lot and especially with the new record we both rubbed off a bit on each other. Sometimes I would work on guitar sounds and Adam would work on strings. By the time we finished the record it was hard to remember who did what.
Can you say something about the experience of scoring a ballet? This is a first for you, as far as I know. It seems like a very different task to scoring a film.
When Wayne McGregor asked us to score his new dance piece, neither of us had ever worked on a dance score. It was totally new ground and we were intrigued. It’s a contemporary dance piece, not ballet, so all traditions were out. Wayne really wanted to push the boundaries of dance and what dance music can be, which is why he asked a group who barely has any rhythm in their music, I suppose. We didn’t know how it would all work, but when we saw his choreography I was really blown away at how wonderful it worked together with the music. It created this shell for the dance to live inside and felt really fresh to me. If you ever get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. Their dancers are just incredible. What they put into it is just staggeringly beautiful and intense. Wayne is definitely one of the great artists of our time and I feel lucky to have been able to work with him.
AWVFTS are on on Erased Tapes, along with Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick, Rival Consoles and numerous other great acts. Like Rough Trade in the 80s, Domino in the 90s, Bella Union in the 2000s, they just seem like the most incredible detectors and nurturers of talent.
Robert and Sofia at Erased Tapes work pretty hard to bring the music they believe in to the people. I appreciate this a lot, especially since it’s so tough to keep a label alive these days. I think it’s a good moment for the label and like all things time will move on and fads will change, but hopefully the people fighting the good fight will be able to continue.
Your pieces on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack and your solo piano albums were important for my musical development as a listener. Along with other works of similar vintage (Jóhann Jóhannsson’s IBM 1401, Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks), this work directed me towards contemporary music and from there to a greater appreciation of classical or composed music in general. They were gateway works; let’s say I probably wouldn’t be quoting at you from an Alex Ross book if I hadn’t heard ‘Opus 17’ in 2007.
Thank you, I appreciate that! We all have our gateway music that leads us down our paths. For myself, I have found through the works of others being able to really appreciate more atonal pieces: Xenakis, Bartok, Schoenberg, Scriabin and so on.
How did your involvement in the Marie Antoinette soundtrack come about?
The pieces I did for Marie Antoinette came after I released my first solo piano album. Sofia Coppola’s music supervisor Brian Reitzell heard it and played it for Sofia. She was writing the script at the time and I guess it struck a chord as they asked me to write a few pieces for the film.
Secondly, and in asking this I’m aware you’ve been playing piano since you were four—is composed music something you’ve always been steeped in? A related question (asking as a dad of small kids)—how did your parents get you into the piano as a pre-schooler?
My mother was a ballet teacher and she really encouraged me to play. But trust me, I hated practising. I think what was really encouraging is after I had finished my practising I would sit and write things on the piano, and I think this planted a seed. Even my early teacher was really encouraging and let me play one of my first pieces at a recital. I was probably nine years old.
On film music: It seems you can’t put on a movie anymore without hearing yourself or Max Richter or Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Ólafur Arnalds is right now being heard by more than five million UK TV viewers every week on Broadchurch. It is a great time to be a lover of film music – from the listener’s perspective. Is it a great time to be a film music composer?
Yeah, I think it’s a good time all around for composers. There is more interest among ensembles and orchestras in playing living composers and films are using more interesting artists; a changing of the guard, I suppose. I think Jóhann Jóhannsson is definitely one of the living greats. Our studios our actually right next to each other and he is good friend. I do enjoy scoring films. It’s a big challenge and you usually end up with music you would never had written for yourself. It’s such a big collaboration between directors and actors and cinematographers and so on. But I also feel it’s really important to continue writing for yourself as well. Where there is no compromise and no timeline. It’s where you really find yourself, I think. When it comes time to work on a film you really draw from this well of ideas that you need to nourish.
Any other film composers you rate highly?
Recently I really enjoyed Mica Levi’s score for Under The Skin. I think it was a really unique and special score. I just saw it performed live with the film and it made me appreciate it even more.
A local question: you’ve visited Ireland on a number of occasions now and you are, in fairness, an O’Halloran. Have you had much of an opportunity to explore Irish traditional music or Irish contemporary music?
Sadly, beyond playing shows I have not had a chance to explore Ireland. Obviously I have a lot of heritage there and it’s something I really plan to do at some point. Somehow I always feel a kinship there… and I’m glad we have had such a nice response to our music there!
Finally: in interviews with you, we read about Satie and Debussy and other touchstones for you that are pretty intuitive. Is there any music that you are into that we would be surprised by?
I have been going through a period lately of not listening to much music at all, so maybe that’s a surprise. I find after writing and working on music all day, the sounds around me are really interesting and I want to give my ears a break.