Entering Dustin O’Halloran‘s felted-feeling world, whether painted as a sonic backdrop to acclaimed films and ballet, performed for his project, A Winged Victory For the Sullen, or experienced in the stillness of his solo albums, is very much about being submerged in music as a pathway to another state. It is a simultaneous presence to oneself and to the whole, a tuning into the precious layers of humanity enfolded in the music. It was a privilege to collect Dustin’s reflections on turning to his work as an approach to transcendence, on sitting at the piano as a kind of meditation.
Can you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person, for those who don’t know your work?
I’m a composer. I started with a band with the singer Sara Lov, it was called Devics, and we released music on Bella Union, a UK record label. Then I started working on my solo piano records, which were also released on Bella Union. I released another record on Fat Cat, called Lumière, and I’ve been slowly working on films along the way, on Marie Antoinette, Like Crazy, and most recently, Lion [with Hauschka]. Basically, I’ve been exploring electronic music, piano compositions, string compositions – anything that I want to hear! [Laughs]
How did your longing for creative expression first manifest? Can you trace it back?
My brother gave me a tape of one of my first piano compositions. Pretty early on, I didn’t love piano lessons. I didn’t really take serious piano lessons, but I loved sitting at the piano and composing in my own way. It was really interesting to hear this super early, super elementary composition, because there is an element of DNA that is still there. That interest was pretty early.
Did your family offer fertile ground for musical creativity?
My mom was a dancer, she taught dance, so I was always around movement and music. We were all a very creative family; there was a lot of expression. I think I was the one who was the most focused on music, but it’s all relative, really.
You’ve mentioned your synaesthesia and the influence of Rothko’s work. Could you elaborate on that? How does your synaesthesia manifest itself – are you translating an emotional colour into your music?
I always saw colours when I was composing, and when I started to read more about it, it made a lot of sense to me, because when I’m creating music, I’m never thinking about the chords, really. I’m not thinking about the mathematical part – it’s always the visuals for me, it’s always been about colours. It’s always been about how to combine colours to get the colour that I want to see. And I feel that way about music, too. Brown and orange are not my favourite colours, and some music really reminds me of that, so I haven’t really been able to listen to it so much! [Laughs] My favourite colours that I like to work with are blue, and green, and white, and reds… These are my palette.
Do you start with colour, or with sound? How does it work?
I start with sound, and then search for the colour in the sound. In the composition, too. For me, usually the colours are very pure, in a way, and probably muted. I imagine that it probably feels that way for other people, as well. I feel like it’s a natural thing, to feel the essence of blue or white in my music. Maybe it’s just me, but I always think that’s obvious.
You seem to be on the road a lot. On a day-to-day basis, do you rest on rhythms in order to create? Do you need to be in a special environment?
I don’t really compose outside of my studio. My studio is my haven, where I work. And I usually create a bit of space… I spend so much time in my studio that it has to feel like home. I’ve been living in Berlin for about ten years, but I am moving back to Los Angeles. I’ve been in Europe for about fifteen years… I was living in Italy before that. Now I’ve bought a house, and I built a studio here in Los Angeles. I grew up in Los Angeles, so it’s a bit of a homecoming for me. But now my studio is back in my house, and it’s a place that I spend a lot of time in, so I make it very comfortable.
I travel a lot on the road with my project A Winged Victory for the Sullen – most of the touring that I’ve done in the last five years has been with that. I’ve kind of slowed down my solo touring because that project became so active, that between the scoring and all of the other things that I’ve been doing, there’s just not enough time to stay on the road. My favourite place is the studio. When I’m on the road, I don’t get a chance to compose, but when I’m in my studio, it’s every day.
Do you think this sense of homecoming will affect your work? I was reading the notes to your first AWVFTS album, and the recording locations are very geographically precise – various studios, the Funkhaus, Grunewald Church, but there is also a very poetic description… “outside Ferrara, Italy, next to a big river with Mr. Donadello” – it could be the title of a short story! How does geography influence your music?
[Laughs] I think it always does… Because most of my composing life happened in Europe, I felt like coming to Los Angeles might be strange, but I found a place that’s a little bit isolated, so I have a little bit of separation from the city. For me, it’s just about finding a sense of space and quietness. Obviously, where you record, acoustic spaces have a big influence, but when I first came back I did the score for Lion, and I realised that you take your work with you. I like moving because it changes your work, it pushes you into different places. I don’t think that I could stay in Berlin forever. It’s been a really positive thing to feel an evolution.
Did I see you at the Funkhaus, last October, at Gyda Valtysdottir’s performance?
From the outside, Berlin gave me the sense that you were evolving in a kind of family environment, and obviously, your work is very collaborative… How will that work in the future?
Gyda and I are good friends, and there are a lot of people that I love collaborating with in Europe. Ironically, since I’ve been here, I’ve already recorded with Gyda twice… Los Angeles is like Berlin, people come through. That’s what I liked about Berlin; it was a very metropolitan city, and a very international city. But I think if you live in London, or you live in Berlin, or New York, or L.A., your friends are going to come through in some way. A lot of people that I collaborated with in Berlin didn’t live in Berlin, so it’s about being in a place where people are coming through…
Francesco Donadello, who has been a great collaborator of mine… he’s been here a few times already. The world gets pretty small, and I’m not afraid to move around, and they’re not afraid to move around. I’m enjoying being back in the sunshine, to be honest! [Laughs] I missed the ocean. There are a lot of things that are really beautiful here.
The proximity to nature is much closer…
Oh yeah. We have the ocean, we have the mountains – it’s really spectacular.
Would you say that you have a guiding energy, an overarching theme, or a major question that you are trying to answer?
I’m always kind of looking forward and backward at the same time. Recently, my work is much more forward-looking. In the past, I was more interested in memories, and this sort of nostalgia, the way that memories stay with you, in how they evolve inside of you. I think now, I’m more fascinated with the sort of metaphysical realms. Not so much the future, but transcendence is what I’m more interested in right now, things that are less about story-telling, and more about a state of being.
I was at your Barbican performance of Atomos, and it was like a musical meditation for me. How do you return to the world after that kind of experience? How do you access that place, and how does the transition work for you?
A Winged Victory is a really special project; it’s the combination of Adam [Bryanbaum Wiltzie], and me. I’ve played so many shows, and I really love that state… Even if no one’s in the audience, it’s a really beautiful state to be in. It’s just something that’s special between him and I, which I couldn’t do on my own. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done, happy with what we’ve been able to do. That was a really special show for us, as well.
What is your closest experience of a state of connection, to a state of being, as opposed to doing – to a kind of transcendence?
I think playing piano is always the most natural state of being for me, because that’s when my physical body is connected to music. If I’m writing, it’s a very simple, direct connection. In a way, my meditation is to sit and play the piano. That’s the closest feeling – writing at the piano.
You mentioned somewhere that you are exploring meditation…
Yes, absolutely. It’s really hard, and I’m not good at it, but it’s something that I’m definitely exploring. For me it’s all connected, and maybe it’s even more interesting than music. I really think that transcendental states are really important to music. We’re in an age where a lot of people are remaining on the surface of a lot of things because of the way that the media works, the way that we’re connected to our phones. Slowing down and taking time is how we know ourselves, how we are able to feel more connected to the universe… These are important things right now, more than ever.
I was reflecting on the scores you did for Drake Doremus’s Breathe In and for Wayne McGregor’s Atomos, and I saw a dynamic between longing and completion…
Well, Breathe In is a film score, so it’s more connected to the film, and ultimately, the film is what you need to follow [as a composer]. I always try to feel connected, to bring a part of myself to the film, so that it feels human and real. But that film is about longing!
Does the path that you’re creating match your highest intention? Are you enjoying what you’re creating?
For the most part. Film scoring is always a compromise – it’s work that I really enjoy, it’s very collaborative work, but I don’t think it’s the highest form of music. There’s a functionality to it that keeps it restrained, in a way. Ultimately, the work that I do for my records is more satisfying work. But I love making films, I love the collaboration, and the power of film – it’s just a different medium. What I love to do the most is just to make music without a timeline. In that sense, in the visual arts, the work that I did with Wayne McGregor for Atomos was probably my favourite collaboration, because dance is such a natural collaboration with music, it’s so human. It really brings its energy up to a different level. I was very proud of that.
In day-to-day life, how do relationships, obligations, etc. all fit into your creative life? How do you weave it altogether? The man, the artist?
There’s never really a separation, because you’re always trying to find a balance. Right now is a really, really busy time for me. It’s the busiest time in my life: I’m working ten to twelve hours a day, composing. I have a lot of projects going on, and I’m trying to make a balance of how to stay healthy and maintain a bit of contact with friends and family. It’s a very good period; I’m very inspired, working on wonderful projects. I’m up for it right now, but I don’t think I can maintain it like this forever. I’m finishing a bunch of film projects this year, and next year I’m working on original music, and I’m going to take time for that.
It sounds like you’re not stuck at the moment, but have you been stuck in the past? How have you moved beyond that? Where do you turn for solace?
Writing music isn’t a problem, but writing music that transcends – that’s not always happening. A lot of it is always putting the time in. You’ll get there. If I’m feeling stuck, I just need to go and hike, connect with nature, and friends. Just get out and live life. If I’m not connecting myself to life, then at some point, there’s not much to say… You just have to get out of the studio and live a little bit! [Laughs]
There’s a quote by Joseph Campbell that I always like to bring up, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Are you doing that? Are you following your bliss?
Yeah… For the most part. There are always moments when you question that. Doing what you love for a living doesn’t mean you’re blissful. There’s always a double-edge. Bliss is a much simpler answer than just creating art and making a living… I’m at a point in my life when I’ve been working as a musician for a long time, and there are things that I realise that I need to focus on that are as important and that don’t involve music. It’s not always about a creative bliss, it’s also about finding harmony with your body, finding harmony with the planet, and being in emotional harmony.
Is there a question you wish someone would ask you?
[Laughs] I’m happy to answer what people want to know. There are questions that I wish people wouldn’t ask me! [Laughs]
I hope I didn’t go down that road!
No, no – people ask all these insane questions. These have been nice questions.
Thank you very much.
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