“I always follow where the music takes me,” says Dustin O’Halloran, and it’s a statement which could apply as readily to the pianist and composer’s slow drift across the globe as to his ever-evolving sound, for which he first won attention with Dēvics, the band he formed alongside Sara Lov, who released their debut album in 1996 and went on to sign with Bella Union. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, then resident in Los Angeles, O’Halloran later moved to rural Northern Italy for seven years, then on to Berlin for a decade, before decamping to Reykjavík in 2018, from where he now splits his time with Los Angeles again. His work has meanwhile pursued a similarly adventurous route, advancing soon after the turn of the century from Dēvics’ hazy dream pop to a series of increasingly ambitious solo albums, which in turn have led to an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning career as a composer of film and TV scores, as well as multiple dance and art projects. That’s not to mention his critically acclaimed collaboration with Stars Of The Lid’s Adam Wiltzie, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, an idiosyncratic, ambient orchestral project which has performed around the world.
His has been, in other words, a grand journey so far. Whether it be in the understated elegance of his Piano Solos Vols 1 & 2 (2004, 2006), the deft electronic touches that embellish A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s graceful soundscapes, or the imaginative, evocative arrangements characterising his (relatively) grander works – among them the fragile strings of his last solo album, 2011’s Lumiere; 2016’s elegantly atmospheric, Oscar nominated Lion score, written with Volker Bertelmann, aka Hauschka; and 2018’s bitter-sweet ‘Horizons’, Puzzle’s closing theme, featuring veteran Scandinavian chart-topper Ane Brun, who performed it at the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony – O’Halloran has constantly displayed a canny knack for unlocking familiar but often intimate sentiments.
It’s a talent he cultivated early: having taught himself to play piano at the age of seven, O’Halloran soon began writing his own music, inspired by the sounds emerging from his mother’s ballet lessons. Before long, the influence of the likes of Chopin, Arvo Pärt and Debussy was supplanted by a fondness for more esoteric acts – Cocteau Twins (whose Simon Raymonde would later sign him to his label, Bella Union), Gavin Bryars, Morton Feldman and Joy Division – and, by the time he was 19 or so, he was writing songs for Dēvics with Lov, whom he met at Santa Monica College, where he was studying art. Though he was initially reluctant to share his piano compositions, it was their very Satie-esque simplicity that helped establish him – alongside Hauschka, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Nils Frahm – as part of a musical environment in which he subsequently flourished. Indeed, Frahm has engineered recordings for O’Halloran, while the late Jóhannsson mixed Lumiere.
But while he’s won countless fans with his solo recordings and A Winged Victory For The Sullen – who released their debut album in 2011, with the latest, The Undivided Five, out on Ninja Tune in 2019 – it was the three solo pieces O’Halloran composed for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) which delivered his most significant breakthrough. Since then, he’s arguably become even better known for his work on Transparent (2014–17), which won him an Emmy, and Lion (2016), his first collaboration with Bertelmann, which earned nominations for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a Critics’ Choice Award. These, though, are just some of an abundance of scores he’s shaped. Others include films like Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy (2011), which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, and Breathe In (2013), starring Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, as well as TV shows like the BBC’s forthcoming adaptation of A Christmas Carol, directed by Nick Murphy – with whom, alongside Bryan Senti, O’Halloran worked on 2018’s BAFTA-nominated Save Me – and for which he has again collaborated with Bertelmann.
In addition, O’Halloran’s work has distinguished other artistic forms. In 2014, A Winged Victory scored ATOMOS on behalf of Wayne McGregor, the Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in London, while in 2019, at Minneapolis’s Liquid Music Series, he premiered an electronic composition, 1 0 0 1, with choreographer Fukiko Takase, who’d taken part in that earlier endeavour. Furthermore, having signed to DG earlier in the year, in November 2019 he released his debut EP, Sundoor, which offers a 20-minute piece entitled “196 Hz”, adapted from a 2017 site-specific composition for cross-disciplinary American artist Slater Bradley’s Sundoor At World’s End.
Whether the latter pieces – neither of which feature piano – are indicative of the path he’ll pursue next is known only to O’Halloran, and possibly not even to him. He recently reunited with his old Dēvics partner Lov on a song for her forthcoming solo album, while another track with Ane Brun will soon see the light of day, and he also appears on the final, posthumous Leonard Cohen album, Thanks For The Dance (2019), which stands in stark contrast to his work producing the final track on Katy Perry’s Witness (2017). Frankly, there’s little point in trying to second-guess where he might head next, and with studios in both Reykjavík and Los Angeles, he remains keen to go wherever the muse takes him. It’s how he’s always worked best, and it’s exactly what one would hope. After all, O’Halloran concludes, “Deutsche Grammophon are incredibly supportive in exploring ideas beyond chamber and orchestral music, and that’s what feels exciting…”