Thulian pink. Aegean blue. Juniper green. These are just some of the colors that I see when I listen to Dustin O’Halloran. Based in Berlin and Los Angeles, O’Halloran is an accomplished composer with a music scoring discography featured in movies such as The Hate U Give, Lion, Marie Antoinette, and more. Along with being a member of the rock band Devics, O’Halloran makes up half of A Winged Victory for the Sullen with composer Adam Wiltzie. The duo released their album The Undivided Five in 2019. The instrumental album has much to say but doesn’t use words to say it. The arrangements vibrate with piano chords that give hope, strings that sing with sullen and synthesizers that glow with a calm warmth. As I close my eyes and listen to the cinematic songs, I am reminded that beyond lyrics, music is meant to summon emotion. I listen and perhaps feel everything.
O’Halloran sat down with FRONTRUNNER to discuss the beauty of composing for dance, the colors he feels when writing and the upcoming film he co-scored with composer and pianist Hauschka, Ammonite.
How has Berlin and Los Angeles inspired you?
I lived in Berlin for ten years and I grew up in Los Angeles. It had a big effect on me. Berlin was a very important time for me. I shared a studio with Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir and we all had this composer commune, which I think is very rare. It was very beautiful to be able to share time with such great artists. Every place that you live affects you. There’s tempo. There’s a mood. The people that you come across always have a big effect on your output. All the music in the last ten years for me is hugely influenced by being in Berlin.
As a composer, do you feel you have to go the extra mile to make the music say something without it literally saying something?
I think the challenge with instrumental music is to find a voice and to find meaning. I never think of music as trying to be literal. I think words are such a different way of communicating than music. Music is the language of emotion. We have music because words just can’t describe or communicate everything. That project deals with the subconscious and something bigger than just finding words and a narrative. It’s a different way of working. The way things end up is not where we start. It’s a lot of intuition and subconsciousness with that project. The feelings and the communication depends on the listener which is a two fold thing that always has to happen.
What was it like working with Adam Wiltzie? What are some aspects of collaboration that you usually don’t get working solo?
Things always come out different when you’re collaborating. I think that’s the beauty of collaboration. Adam and I give each other creative space. We’re good at different things and I think that’s why the project works. He’s really good at creating space. He has this particular way of stretching time. I’m more based on the harmonies and some of the arrangements. It’s one of those projects that’s just worked really well and I’m really happy with what we have.
What really caught my eye about The Undivided Five are the song titles. My top three being Our Lord Debussy, Aqualung, Motherfucker and Adios, Florida. How did you and Wiltzie come up with these song titles? How do you see the titles of songs working with the sound?
Adam has got a culture of words. He tends to be the one to name the songs. We like to play with song titles a bit. There’s always a bit of humor in there. I think always taking yourself seriously, especially with instrumental music that can be serious, is a little boring. We both have a good sense of humor and a good sense of self. We try to have fun with it and add a little bit of mystery to the experience.
You’re well known for composing for film and television but you also compose for dance. Do you have a different process when composing for choreography versus movies and shows?
Dance is a beautiful collaboration, where film is very set in time and story. Dance is more open and free. It’s more natural to the way you write music. I love writing for dance. It’s a really beautiful way to experience music because dance is also an expression that’s wordless. This latest dance piece I’ve worked on was called 1001 was a collaboration with a solo dancer. It’s a really beautiful piece. The concept is loosely based on the concepts that are explored in Ghost in the Shell (2017), a Japanese film. The idea of consciousness and AI (artificial intelligence) and the development, how we look at the soul and how we look at consciousness as we explore this new age of AI and this idea of a new consciousness; that was a jumping off point musically for the dance. The piece evolves into an electronic soundscape and it starts from a very organic space.
Being able to be more conceptual is a freedom in dance because you have this element of movement to connect everything where music is just the experience of listening. It’s more three dimensional. You’re able to explore more conceptual ideas with dance.
Do you find yourself making music that tells a story or matches a story? What is that like and how does it differ from your usual creative process?
In film, there’s always a lot on the table. There’s a story, actors, colors, semantics, there’s a pace. There’s a lot that’s already pushing music into a certain direction. When you write music for yourself it’s a blank slate, it’s completely clear. You’re just pulling from a blank slate. Film music works best within the film. Sometimes you get film music that works outside of the film but I find more often than not that it needs the film to make sense because it’s music that’s a counterpart to something else.
Along with Hauschka, you will be scoring the upcoming film Ammonite. Tell me more about that? What are some things people don’t know about the behind the scenes of scoring a movie?
It’s a very minimalistic film, musically. It’s not a big film score but the music is very well used and it’s very meaningful when it is used. The actors are really wonderful actors. It’s a beautiful story. A very restrained story. A slow story. It’s got a lot of love, heartbreak, and deep emotions but it’s not a melodramatic film in any way. That’s what I really love about it. Francis Lee is a director out of time, and that’s what I like about him. He’s not following any kind of compass but his own. He fights hard to make these films that take patience and time. His films are like reading a book. You have to sit with it and give it your attention. I think in this time, where everything is coming at you full speed, we need films like that.
You mentioned that color and sound are connected for you. When people listen to your music, what do you want them to feel? What colors would you like for them to see?
I think everybody’s emotions can be their own. I think it’s nice that people connect to it in a different way and that it has meaning and everybody’s meaning is different. When it comes to colors, I see a lot of blues, purples, dark reds and blacks. Those are the colors I see in the music that everyone is gonna experience differently. Those are the colors I feel when writing.
It makes me think of Ratatouille. You know the scene where he eats the cheese and strawberries?
It’s exactly like that. It’s like me being a little rat, eating some cheese and colors are sparking in my head.
Where have been some unorthodox or satisfying places you’ve recorded that really affected the emotion of the music? And what have been some unusual instruments or sounds you’ve found yourself incorporating?
I’ve recorded in a lot of different places. I’ve recorded in a West German church. One of my live records was recorded in a west german church in Berlin. It was one of the first churches to be reconstructed after the war. There’s a special piano and beautiful acoustics. I also recorded strings in an East German studio in Berlin where all of the music was recorded from 1950, until the wall came down. It’s an amazing and beautiful space with incredible acoustics. I recorded at Air Studios, which is an incredible sound as well. It’s a church but has a beautiful and incredible open sound.
For A Winged Victory for the Sullen, we took all the recordings and recorded some orchestra in Budapest. We did some recording in Iceland. We revamped everything in this church from the 1400s in the center of Brussels. We took all the stems and amplified it into the acoustics of the church and recorded it. It became a big part of our record and the sound. That was the most ambitious and experimental thing we’ve done with sounds. Taking synthesizers and putting it through this massive church and rerecording it. It was incredible. We didn’t realize what great thing it’d add to the record.
You mentioned that it’s important for you to make music that is timeless. What makes a song or any piece of music timeless in your opinion?
You just trust yourself and speak what you want. Do not worry about what people care about or what people are gonna listen to now. You just gotta follow your instincts. I think truth is what is timeless. Anything that feels that it’s truly coming from a place of truth will be timeless.