Dustin O’Halloran plays The Sugar Club with Johann Johannsson and Hauschka on Sunday. Ian Maleney spoke with him about Berlin life, collaborations, and finding your own audience.
When we speak on the phone, Dustin O’Halloran is just back home in Berlin after a brief bit of migration to avoid the harsh German spring. The Californian was spending a couple of weeks in Italy, where he lived for seven years before making the move to Berlin. The decision to re-locate to the German capital has been integral in O’Halloran’s work for the past few years, and being in a central hub of activity has made all the difference to him.
“I can’t really imagine being anywhere else in Europe right now,” he says. “It’s really good. There’s a lot of people here in Berlin that are friends and composers. There’s a lot of access to the different players that you need and the studios. In Berlin there’s a lot of resources, a lot of exchange happening. I don’t think I could be as spontaneous in any other city, with people coming through and being able to come into my studio or we can meet. I think that’s why I wanted to be here, just so you can have those exchanges and they don’t have to be so planned out.”
For a composer and musician who works so much with tone, detail and colour, employing the subtlest of melodies and chord progressions, the isolation of the Italian countryside was both a blessing and a curse. While he had the time and space to craft his work to perfection, the lack of outside influence soon began to grate.
“I think when I was living in Italy, it was really great because I was focusing on my work but I reached this point where I felt like I got too isolated and there was never anything bouncing back to me”, says O’Halloran of the time in Italy. “I love working on my own work but I also love collaborating because it’s a great way to get our of your own head and just let go of things. I think, working alone for so long, after a while I realised I needed to be in a place where I could have more exchange and more things going on that I was interested in at the time too.”
Exchange and collaboration are at the heart of O’Halloran’s work at the minute, as he embarks upon the Transcendentalist Tour with fellow purveyors of atmospheric instrumental work, Johann Johannsson and Hauschka. The tour will see the three musicians taking their own linked but individual approaches to composition on the road, performing a whole night of music with no headliners or support acts.
“I guess it all kind of happened because we ended up on the same label,” says O’Halloran. “FatCat has the 130701 label and they put out my last two records. Then Johann was making the move from 4AD and he was looking for a new label and it seemed like a good fit. Johann mixed my last album, we did it together, and Hauschka and I have done a lot of touring and collaborating so it just seemed like a good chance to put all three of us together and take it on the road.”
O’Halloran puts the initial spark of the idea down to a lucky bit of programming at a festival. “The first time we did it was sort of by chance,” he says. “We did the Icelandic Airwaves festival where we were all played on the same bill. It was just such a great night that we all thought it would be great to take this out on the road and have a night where it was a full night of music and I think that people would appreciate it.”
Besides the tour, O’Halloran is also being kept busy with film work, doing scores for ever-bigger budget movies. It’s been regular work since he gained recognition with his score for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette, and it’s work he clearly enjoys. Having just finished work on Ol Porter’s upcoming Now Is Good, with Dakota Fanning and Paddy Considine, he has set to work on an un-named Drake Doremus film, a director he worked with previously on last year’s Like Crazy.
“I’m starting a new film right now which is directed by Drake Doremus with Guy Pearce in the lead, about a cellist and a pianist,” says O’Halloran. “Making a film about music is always tricky and that needs to be the main musical moment, you know? With this one, getting the right tone will be tricky but it’s a nice film.”
While film scores work alongside visuals to create meaning and tone, O’Halloran’s own music is left much more open to interpretation and this is exactly how he likes it. While other instrumentalists, such as Candian artist Tim Hecker, have spoken about interviews as an opportunity to explain elements of their work, O’Halloran takes a different approach. “I guess I’m the opposite in that way,” he says. “I let the music speak for itself and let people create their own prism of ideas around it.”
“Instrumental music is always sort of an abstract thing to talk about because it can be taken in so many different ways but I think people being interested in the process is what’s most interesting about it. I like to let people sort of create their own meanings for it and I don’t like to talk about what I was thinking about during the song or what my intentions were because I think that’s the beauty of instrumental music, that it can be interpreted in so many different ways.”
Just as important as what is being said or not said, is who it is being said to. The tension between viewing O’Halloran and his Transcendentalist comrades in terms of a classical tradition and one born of ambient and indie music, makes for all sorts of claims about where they fit into the musical spectrum. For O’Halloran, where he fits in is not important but he is not blind to where his audience has mostly come from. “It’s interesting, I’m mostly interviewed by indie music websites,” he says. “I mean, the classical is starting to pay more attention to what we’re doing but it’s been pretty slow. It’s mostly music sites that are reviewing it and doing interviews. Slowly, there’s some more classical people who are interested. I’m not from that world and I think it’s something in between. It’s not a part of the classical world and I don’t know if it ever will be really.”
The emergence of a middle ground, incorporating different elements rather than beholden to one tradition is a positive step as far as O’Halloran sees it. “It’s nice that we’re just finding our own audience and I think it’s about people who love music and want to listen to music,” he says. “Classical music has a lot of weight to it and the classical world has a lot of boundaries in some ways so I think for us it’s more important to find our audience. I think that is sort of happening on it’s own, which is nice to see.”
In the end, the Californian is taking a long view. “I think that it’ll be more a testament of time to see what stays,” he says. “The passing of time will let us know what is going to stick around.”