Dustin O'Halloran is the elegant, self-taught musical luminary behind profoundly touching films, such as Lion, Like Crazy, Marie Antoinette, Breathe In, and many others. His imaginative work has been lauded by international audiences, garnering an Emmy win for his delicate theme for Amazon's Transparent, as well as an Oscar nomination for his collaborative score with German composer, Hauschka for Garth Davis' Lion. As an artist in the modern classical realm, Dustin has released a gorgeous body of work and engages in a side project called A Winged Victory for the Sullen with Belgium based musician, Adam Wiltzie. In advance of the release of Marc Turtletaub's Puzzle, Dustin speaks on the melancholic beauty at the heart of his sound and what he has sacrificed for his artistry.
You taught yourself piano at an early age. What was the motivation behind taking up music in the first place? How did you establish a deep love and connection to the classical genre?
Music has always been the unspoken language of humanity. We all feel it. I was drawn to it because it felt like a way I could really communicate. From the very first moments I started learning music and began taking lessons from the organist at my mother’s church, it made sense to me. We didn’t have much money, so my mother couldn’t afford to send me to music school. My first teacher was very encouraging of me writing original music and developing my own style. I showed early signs of wanting to improvise and she never held me back from doing things my own way, which I really appreciated. I was able to interpret the pieces I was learning at different tempos than they were originally intended to be played. I never had hardcore conservatory lessons, my teacher gave me instruction in the basics and I continued to teach myself after that.
My brother recently encountered an old tape of a recital I did when I was around seven years old. I was playing one of my own pieces. It was cool to listen back to it because I realized that there was something there that’s still in me today. You can hear the beginnings of getting in touch with the initial energy of creation. Obviously, we grow and become more sophisticated, but it all comes from that first spark.
Did your mother’s work as a ballet teacher have any influence on your taste? Can you share some of your top classical records, composers, or pieces with us?
When I was young, I was exposed to a lot of classical music. She would take us to the ballet often and she was always teaching, so we would hear piano music often. She had an accompanist, who would perform Chopin, Beethoven, and all these early classics for her classes. Other than that, the records in our house were mostly 70’s music, but it was the classical music is what I really grew to love and made the most sense to me.
My tastes have changed over the years. Though I love Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart and find their work to be vital, I don’t listen to them as much anymore. Lately, I’ve been listening to more of Paderewski and Morton Feldman. That’s probably where the majority of my tastes lie now. Bach is the one that’s remained. Bach keeps going. Bach never gives up.
There are so many different and equally important periods of music to appreciate. I love baroque music, but I also love a lot of contemporary atonal music like Arnold Schoenberg. It depends on your mood. In general, I am always attracted to things that share a beauty, but also an introspection. I look for things that still have beauty even in the most difficult moments. If I had to pick, Olivier Messiaen and Claude Debussy are probably two of my favorites.
Entering music professionally, you began writing and performing with the genre-blending rock band, Dévics and later went on to pursue a solo career, creating beautiful and conversational alternative classical music. What have been the most distinct phases of your artistry?
Dévics was a really important period for me because I was learning about the process of making music, writing music for other instruments, and learning about creating sounds. From the beginning, I started recording everything, all of my own music and all of the music I made with the singer, Sara Lov. That experience opened up a lot of things for me. We were discovering music together and touring all over the world. We ended up living in Italy for many years near Bologna and made two records there together. After that, I was inspired to work on my solo material and made my first three albums in Italy as well.
How much of your approach to music is improvisational?
Everything I do starts from some sort of improvisational point and then it gets carved out later. I will usually write music and figure it out before sitting down to record. Once in a while, I will record a rough idea and put it down. Maybe that becomes the pieces, but I typically like to think about things, step back from it, and figure out how to put it together. With film scores, it’s a bit different because I obviously have less time, so you often have to go with the first ideas you come up with. For my own music, I tend to take more time to think about it.
Many of your listeners comment on how deeply your music touches them and are astounded by your ability to create such a strong sense of personal connection through your compositions. What do you think makes your voice as an artist uniquely yours?
I feel very lucky to do what I do. It’s always nice to hear that your music can reach people in the right way. I believe in the importance and power of music for myself, both as a listener and a writer.
I don't exactly know. When it comes to playing piano, my touch is a very specific touch and I think that is a significant part of how I approach my music. When I step away from that, it’s hard to say. Maybe it comes down to a feeling? Maybe there’s always an underlying bittersweet, melancholic kind of beauty present. Sometimes, I like things to sound a bit rough depending on the piece. I try not to think too much about trying to create. I just strive to make things I like, things that sound good to me. My taste influences how I like to record my piano and of course, the kinds of pianos I use. Every sound is something I would like to hear. For example, I don’t record on really bright Yamaha pianos and I don’t lean towards crystal clear sounds. I like beautiful recordings, but mine tend to have additional processing or character. I can’t really pinpoint a coherent style that has followed through everything I’ve done. I don’t try to think about it too much, I prefer to let other people decide.
Your most recent Sundance debut, Puzzle tells the story of a family-focused woman, who has lost her sense of self, only to discover it again through her interactions with a competitive puzzler. You have such a visceral and introspective way of capturing a character's personal experience. What was your intention with the musical treatment of this film and what did you deem most important to highlight about the characters? How does this score tie in with your musical aesthetic?
My score follows Agnes. I decided that that was the right choice because it's her story. I opted not to musically follow anything else because it had to evolve from her perspective. It's a delicate score because it's a very subtle film. It's very well acted. Kelly MacDonald is amazing in it. I wanted to give her acting and the film a bit of space, but come at it from a real honest, intriguing, and introspective approach. The music grows as the film passes.
For the end, I wrote an original song with a Scandinavian singer named Ane Brun. It's a piece of music that's incorporated into the score. As the film finishes, everything sort of blossoms, much like the character of Agnes finds her voice. I think of it as the score finding its voice as well. It doesn’t feel as overt as that, but it has a really great impact.
These really delicate scores I like to do can be very challenging. How little can you use to make something effective? I think that’s really special. I enjoy that side instead of thinking about how big you can make something. Musically, that entire concept is not very interesting to me because I feel like that’s what most people are striving for. I like working within the lower minimalistic registers of music, experimenting with making things impactful in quiet and subtle ways and emphasizing the spaces in between. Big musical moments are cool and they can be nice to work with, but for me, I like when the viewer has more space to process. It all resonates more.
I think we’re currently in an age where we’re bombarded with communication. Everything feels like an assault on the senses. That’s why I want to create things that have space and a place for me and my thoughts to exist. I don’t want something filling every single moment. Life is already full of so much information, especially through our phones. Everything is taking up room in our lives. Our immediate conscious mind is just constantly being overloaded. I look for things that create space for me.
You entered the universe of film music by contributing to Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. I understand that your original music was recorded on a pianoforte from the 1700s. Can you describe the immediate differences you faced writing to picture and tell us what it was like to work with Sofia and music supervisor, Brian Reitzell?
Marie Antoinette was my first legitimate film work. It was the first project that I really tried to write something specifically for. There had been other moments where I had created a few things. At the time, I was pretty focused on my solo material. They were in the process of shooting the film when they contacted me, so I was just writing a bunch of music that they could possibly use. It started my work on my second solo piano record, which got things moving quickly. It was great to be a part of that.
One of the tracks I recorded on my upright piano in Italy and then we did some recording in Paris on a French piano called a Pleyel. It was the same make that Chopin played, but a slightly later version. It was a really early piano and I had never personally played an instrument that old. It’s tuned lower than a modern piano, about a half-step lower in pitch, which gave it a darker and rounder sound. The mechanics are not as fast and the sustain pedal barely worked, but it was beautiful. It was really cool to play these songs I had written and translate them into that medium.
Drake Doremus' Like Crazy won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Your score features prominently in the film. Did its success open doors to new opportunities and insights? Can you tell us about the synergistic relationship between you and Drake?
That was an important film for my career because it was the first score I completed on my own. There was a lot of me in it. It didn’t feel like I was doing just any score. It was similar to my process of making an album. Winning the Grand Jury Prize got the film a lot of attention. Drake and I went on to make four films together in total.
Drake is definitely a music lover. Music plays a huge role in all of his films, so he really relies on the emotional state of music to aid in the storytelling. Our collaboration has always been nice. Drake creates this framework and specifies where the music needs to come in to create an emotional impact. Those musical moments are generally without dialogue, so it’s wonderful to have space to work with. Truthfully, some of my favorite scores I’ve ever done reside in the films I’ve worked on with him.
We are intrigued by your ongoing collaboration with German composer, Hauschka. I read that you met in Italy back in 2007 at one of his concerts. What was your initial impression of his sound? Can you describe how your musical partnership has grown over time? In terms of working styles, how are you similar and how are you different?
It was interesting because while I was working on Marie Antoinette, I was exploring prepared piano. I was with my engineer who I’ve worked with for years and years, Francesco Donadello. He has worked on pretty much every piece of music I’ve ever recorded since I moved to Italy. Francesco was the one to tell me about Hauschka, describing him as a guy who was known for his prepared piano work, so we went to check him out. The concert was great.
While I was there, I saw how Hauschka performed and it completely made me want to abandon the idea of doing it myself. I just thought, "Oh, man. This guy's so deep into it. I'm just going to give up." After the concert, we became friends. We’ve shared labels and we share management. Lion was the first time we collaborated together, but we had been friends for 10 years before that. Since then, we’ve done another film called The Current War together, which is stuck in limbo with The Weinstein Company. The score came out great, so hopefully, we’ll be able to release it one day.
Lion is a powerful, touching film, which chronicles the life of Saroo, a five year old Indian boy, who gets lost on a train only to end up in Australia, where he is adopted by a family. By the end of the story, he finds his way home in India as an adult. You used a gorgeous variety of pianos, including prepared piano, and quiet stringed instruments to create sweeping movement throughout the film. What led you and Hauschka to take such a sensitive, textural approach to this score? Did you anticipate that your work on Lion would receive such glowing praise and a range of high-profile award nominations, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar?
Lion is one of my favorite films I’ve had the honor of working on. I think the emotional space of the film is so unique. It’s really special. It’s hard to make emotional films that pull at your heartstrings, but Lion does and it just reminds me of the connection you have with your family and how powerful that can be. It’s a difficult subject matter to convey through film and capture those sentiments so accurately. That particular story resonated so strongly because it’s honest. It reminds us that fate is real.
I find that films like that lead themselves on some level. You start off exploring many different things and then at some point, you arrive at a sound that just fits into the film. We tried a lot of dynamic ranges and experimented with a lot of sounds before we discovered what felt right for the movie. There were a lot of tears in making that score because it’s such a moving film, so that hits you really hard when you’re working on it. The director, Garth Davis really wanted us to go there. He wanted us to go to a place where we could give a big part of ourselves through music. He didn’t just want a score. He wanted something that felt equally honest, so we went there.
You won an Emmy for the Main Title Theme for Jill Soloway’s Transparent. Can you tell us how you conceptualized the theme? What is your relationship to the development of the narrative over the past 4 seasons and how has that influenced your aesthetic choices?
Jill Soloway, the director, really loved my second record. Apparently, she listened to that a lot while she was working on the script for Transparent. The story explores Judaism and these traditional rituals of the Jewish family, which play a large part in the score. Transparent examines the whole family. Thematically, it’s about nostalgia. I think there’s always something kind of major, minor, and beautiful about old Klezmer music. There are elements of that in the waltz I created.
Jill was searching for something to ride that line between happy and sad. She wanted melancholy, but also something that musically conveyed mixed emotion. We were searching for that quality. I ultimately decided to do something really simple and see if it would work. It ended up feeling just right because of how it paired with the images of the title sequence. It worked out well.
As someone who is capable of synesthesia, how has the ability to see colors associated with music impacted your approach to film scoring, especially when provided with moving picture to work with? Do any luminaries from the realm of fine art inspire musical ideas for you?
I am always thinking of music in colors. I try to capture what colors are within a film simultaneously. Every film has its own palette and it’s about working with the colors I see.
Rothko is the master. I also admire Rauschenberg and Kandinsky. I am attracted to 50’s and 60’s abstraction. Paintings from that period are my favorite to draw inspirations.
What are your recording studio setups like in Los Angeles and Europe? What gear is most important to your composing process?
I technically live in both places. I grew up in Los Angeles and I still have family around, so it’s home and I continue to have a place here. However, I’ve lived in Europe for about 15 years. I’ve been in Berlin for about 10 of those years. I have studios in both places, but coming back to L.A. was something I started doing more in the last couple years. Most of the framework and music I’ve created has been done in Europe.
In Los Angeles, my set-up is probably a bit better and more equipped. I work in Pro Tools. I have an upright piano that I use just for felted piano. I’ve got a 1960’s Steinway that I’ve been starting to use and record with. I use a lot of vintage microphones. Tape delay. I have lots of analog pedals. I try to do as much analog work as possible. I like using organs and guitars as sources and then later, do the shaping in the computer. For strings, I go and record in other places, but occasionally, I will track solo strings in my own studio.
To date, what is the biggest sacrifice you've made for your career in music?
Probably my health. You're sitting in a chair, making music for 10 hours a day. While that's great for your mind, it doesn't do much for your body, so that's something that I have been working on. I think most musicians don’t realize the toll sitting takes on your health. Humans are definitely not meant to stand still, so we have to remember that. I had some back issues that really, really messed me up, so I had to change my lifestyle and how I do things.
The thing is, to be good at anything, especially music, you have to spend a lot of time alone. That means you’ll be missing out on a lot of things, but you have to put the time in to make something grow. You can’t really get around that.
If money was no object and you had all the space in the world to house them, what are the top three pianos you would love to have ownership of and why?
I'd love to have a Bösendorfer Imperial with the extra octave from the 1950’s. They're just magnificent instruments and the bass is incredible. The upright I have in Berlin is an August Förster, which is one of my favorites. It’s beautiful. The last choice would probably be a Fazioli, which is sort of like the Ferrari of pianos. They are very modern, incredibly well made in Italy, and produce a gorgeous sound. The very top of the line. It almost sounds unreal. It’s hard to describe, but it has everything. Just the way the harmonics and the bass comes across, it’s so pure. They’re very hard to find. Not too many people own them.
What’s next for you? Do you have any dream collaborations you are hoping to enact in the coming future?
Puzzle will be out in the summer. My next film with Hauschka called The Current War is also supposed to come out this year. I recently worked on a British mini-series for Sky TV called Save Me with another composer named Bryan Senti. I am additionally working on my own record, as well as a new record for an ongoing project I do called A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It is a collaboration with a composer from Belgium named Adam Wiltzie. So far, we’ve made three records together. This will be our fourth. After it comes out, we’ll tour.
Hear Dustin's score for Puzzle in theaters on July 13th, 2018.