Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
My mother was a ballet teacher, and as a child I would go to watch her students rehearsing with an accompanist, playing on an upright piano in the studio. At that age, I was more interested in what the pianist was doing than the dancers! Later I found composition by performing in bands, which offered a more experimental, less traditional route in – one which has led to some incredible opportunities.
Who or what have been most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
A healthy mix of Debussy, Bach, Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars, Messiaen, Satie, Cocteau Twins, Miles Davis. There are so many little things I’ve picked up on over the years, snippets of different styles of music have ended up in my works. Painting also inspires me. I look at the colour palette of a Rothko painting and wonder: what does that sound like? In what ways can you ‘paint’ with a musical palette to create beautiful sounds?
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The limitations of live performance are often tricky to navigate, as of course you only get one ‘take’, whereas the studio provides space for experimentation and time to consider different ways to record. In a studio, I have full control over how I want the recording to sound, but live performance takes so much preparation. Sometimes, a smaller audience with friends and family is more intimidating than a packed arena of fans!
What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
When Adam [Wiltzie of A Winged Victory For The Sullen] and I worked with the choreographer Wayne McGregor, we found that a collaborator of a different medium provided opportunities that we wouldn’t perhaps have found on our own. He was working on this concept about atoms, about how you can ‘atomise’ music by taking a small piece of it and using it to create something else. This was what Wayne was using for his dance work, so Adam and I played around with that idea in the music that we wrote for him. Those are the best moments; when you’re collaborating with others and they share a way to find something new within music, and you’re thrown out of your own head.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Working with great musicians is always a pleasure because they are sharing a specialised skill you don’t have. It’s a thrill to see someone sharing the culmination of all their years of study and practice, hearing an artist with such control of their instrument. As a composer, you have the opportunity to explore so many different soundworlds. With electronic music, it’s more about using your ears, and experimentation – it’s more limitless, in terms of the technology. The only constraints are your own mind.
Of which works are you most proud?
My piece ‘We Move Lightly’ captures a lot of things I look for in my music, something that can be harmonically rich and layered. ‘Opus 20’ is a piano work I always feel good about – I re-recorded that for the new record.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Minimalistic and essential, using the studio as an instrument itself. I love harmonies – the chords come before the melody when I’m writing. I try to find music that is pleasing to my ear. Above all, I try to lose myself in it as much as possible and enjoy the process.
How do you work?
I’m very much an active listener, I don’t over-think and put particular notes down on paper in a specific way. It’s something I’d like to work towards, because it seems like a beautiful way to compose, but because I began my musical journey as part of a band, the way I experienced music is through improvisation and experimentation. Keeping my ears open has been critical to my compositional process over the years.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Listen, moreover listen widely.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?
New composers should have a community that provides support while on their own individual journey. You never know who is going to write that piece of music that will be around for the next few hundred years and being part of a supportive network will mean those enduring works don’t fall through the cracks.
Where would you like to be in ten years’ time?
I would like to be working on my own music – and have a lot more free time!
Dustin O’Halloran’s solo album Silfur is released on 11th June 2021 on the DG label.
Dustin O’Halloran is an American pianist and composer with four acclaimed solo albums under his own name, and is a member of the band A Winged Victory for the Sullen with Adam Wiltzie. He released his first EP for renowned classical musical label Deutsche Grammophon in 2019, and A Winged Victory For The Sullen released their latest album, The Undivided Five, on Ninja Tune the same year.
(Image credit: Anna Maggý Grímsdóttir)