Dustin O’Halloran Glows on Lumiere: An Interview

On his recent release Lumiere, Dustin O’Halloran makes deeply felt, quietly stirring contemporary classical music with the help of other, well, luminaries such as Jóhann Jóhannsson.

ELM: I read that you’re a synesthete, which is interesting because I’ve known several other composers who are as well. How do you think the synesthesia affects your music, if it does?

DO: I always had this condition, but never really understood it or knew there was so much information about it until I started to study painters with this same condition. It really opened up a whole new world that connected painting and music, sound and color. I really started to read a lot about this connection when I was asked to perform at the Guggenheim in NY for their 50th anniversary, it was also the opening of the Kandinsky exhibition at the same time. Walking through this retrospective it was incredible how musical these paintings were, and how his series of “compositions” ,which he felt were his musical interpretations, how they really FEEL orchestral. I found a really distinct connection between painting and composing…how similar the process is. And seeing works of people like Rothko and Messiaen it just makes complete sense to me how these are expressions of color and music.

In my own compositions it helped me to have more freedom expressing these ideas and perhaps also helped me get ideas across to other musicians that I work with. Its a language I understand, and I suppose since I am not formally trained it gave me some grounding in what I believe is a really important part of music and composing.

ELM: What is your composition process like?

DO: It’s always a changing process.. sometimes it starts at the piano, sometimes just in my head. Other times when I am playing some other instruments. Recently for a new project I even made a kind of graphic score and worked with this as a starting point. But mostly its just being in the right space to receive some good inspiration as you never know when that will be..!

ELM:Do you ever compose by writing the notation first and then sounding it out?

DO: No the notation comes after and its the painstaking part for me as I’m not formally trained. But Its nice to finally see pieces in written form..it gives them a sense of gravity and timelessness for me. Knowing that others could play them the way I wrote them is such a different way to share music than just with a recording. They start to belong to everyone in a way and I really like this.

ELM: In other interviews I’ve read with you, you’ve mentioned a lot of my favorite composers (Part, Satie, Glass, Bryars, Hauschka, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Peter Broderick) as being either your favorites or your contemporaries. I was hoping you could recommend some more obscure
composers.

DO: Hans Otte, John Luther Adams, Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou ( Ethiopian composer) ,Simeon Ten Holt to name a few.

ELM: Speaking of Gavin Bryars, I also read you talk about listening obsessively to his amazing “The Sinking of the Titanic.” Do you think you’ll ever work with found sound the way he does in that piece, if you haven’t already?

DO: Yes I really love this piece, how it mixes sounds and orchestra..its one of my favorites. I have used a bit of found sounds in my recording..but more in a subliminal way. Recently I have started a new project with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of The Lid called ” A Winged Victory For The Sullen”..our record comes out in September on Kranky. We did a lot of string recording and then did a lot of experimental treatments afterwards which had some inspiration from Gavin.


ELM: What music do you like that’s less classically-oriented?

DO: I listen to all kinds of music really. I like a lot of electronic experimental stuff like Christian Fennesz and Alva Noto, Tim Hecker.. I really like the textures they work in and the abstraction of the music. But I also love great song writing too.. Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Cave… and I really love the new PJ Harvey album as well. I have had the chance to collaborate with some great song writers as well.. I recorded with Josh Pearson for his new record and also Mark Lanegan..so I have a lot of interest in things non classical too. If it’s honest , good music that captures some kind of spirit.. thats what I look for.

ELM: This is a clumsy question to ask, but I’m going to try anyway. Lumiere was composed over several years and several countries. How did you retain your vision for the album, or did you find that it was ever-morphing?

DO: I wanted to take my time on the record and was also working on film scores at that time, so the few years I spent was not always working on the record, but also other projects. I knew that I wanted to do something other than another piano solo record and the film work was giving me a chance to work with new instruments, so I wanted to bring that to my own work.. but give the pieces time to evolve. I started working on the record when I was living in Italy and then moved to Berlin where I finished it. And this move really made a difference in the direction I think. Moving to a new city is like starting a new relationship…your filled with a new spark and I met a lot of inspiring people

ELM: What was the hardest piece on Lumiere to finish, and why?

DO: I spent some time on Quintette. N.1. as I really wanted it to be a chamber piece of music that we could record all together at the same time. And I wanted it to have these really distinct different sections.. so it took some time to make it all feel right together.

ELM: Do you play the piano every day?

DO: I try to…but it does not always happen. Sometimes a break is good too and to come back to it fresh.

ELM: Tell me more about the film projects that you’ve done.

DO: I recently finished a film called ” Like Crazy” . Its a love story about a long distance relationship and we ended up winning the grand jury prize at Sundance this year which was quite a surprise! It comes out Oct 28. I also worked on a period film set in Kennedy era starring Gretchen Mol called “An Amercian Affair” that was a kind of thriller/coming of age story…I’m really happy with how the score turned out on this, its a small ensemble with harp, oboe, piano, and strings and we recorded in this historic studio from the 60s in Milan so it was the perfect setting for the film! I also worked on Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”. I recording some original pieces for the film on an old pianoforte from the 1700′s in Paris during the filming. It was amazing to record on this beautiful antique instrument that was so different than the modern piano.

ELM: Who helped you make Lumiere?

DO: My biggest help was Jóhann Jóhannsson, who mixed it with me. I really love his work and his sense of how strings should sound.. and this was the first time I used so much strings so I wanted to have someone I trusted. But also other artist friends appear on the record like Peter Broderick, Adam wiltzie, and also Nils Frahm helped with some recording as well..

ELM: Do you plan to ever write an opera? What about a program piece?

DO: Have not thought about an opera yet..but who knows?! Maybe before that I would like to try something for larger orchestra.

ELM: Do you ever work with a prepared piano?

DO: Yeah I started to experiment with it a few years ago, but ironically at the same time I met Hauschka..we became good friends and it was hard for me to go back to that because its really his thing. But I do love all these sounds you can get out of the piano. I have some recordings I have done with prepared piano.. who knows maybe I will release them one day?

ELM: What are some of your favorite pianos that you’ve played?

DO: My favorite piano hands down is the Boesendorfer at Grunewald Church. Its circa 1950s and in amazing condition…there is just something about this instrument that pulls music out of you. I was lucky enough to record my live concert there…and I really believe this instrument had such a big part in it.

ELM: Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?

DO: I would love to collaborate with film maker Michael Henecke.

ELM: Who are your favorite writers?

DO: I really love Haruki Murikami, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald

ELM: If you could raise awareness of one social cause, what would it be?

DO: Poverty and inequality.

Dustin O’Halloran Homepage

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