Dustin O’Halloran: ‘I thought it was interesting to see what has stood the test of time’

Dustin O’Halloran is used to being away from his family in Los Angeles. For much of the past 20 years, the pianist and composer has lived in Europe, first in Italy, then Berlin and latterly Iceland.

Dustin O'Halloran. Picture: Anna Maggy

Nonetheless he is looking forward to returning to his home city the day after we speak. “I grew up there and I have family there, so it’s a place that I always go back to,” he says.

The sojourn coincides with the release of his first solo album for Deutsche Grammophon, Silfur. The record, which features new recordings of a selection of tracks from previous albums plus two new pieces, came about after a tour by A Winged Victory for the Sullen, his collaboration with Belgian composer Adam Wiltzie, was curtailed due to the pandemic.

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Confined to his home in Reykjavik, he says it “seemed like the perfect time” to work on a solo piano record. “I had originally planned to record it in Berlin, so it kind of ended up being a blessing in disguise,” he adds. “It was a really complicated time to do projects for a while and get people together, so a solo piano record was kind of perfect.

“Iceland also had it very good this year, considering the situation, they handled (the pandemic) very well and everything’s been pretty normal. I was finishing a film called The Old Guard with Hauschka (the German electronic artist Volker Bertelmann) and we ended up recording with an orchestra here in Iceland then I started working on Silfur.

“It was a great place to do that because...the acoustic spaces that I was in here for recording are incredibly beautiful.”

The 49-year-old sees Silfur as more than simply a recap of past glories. “It’s funny because I didn’t think about it until after I finished this record, but Deutsche Grammophon has history of re-recording pieces,” he says. “It’s funny how many times (classical) pieces get re-recorded; I’ve only recorded them twice.

“It wasn’t something that I ever thought I would do but Christian Badzura, who was doing A&R at DG, came up with this idea. I’d been working on so many collaborative projects – with A Winged Victory for the Sullen and film work – and it was a way for me to reintroduce myself because it’s been a while since I made a solo record.

“Personally I thought it was interesting to see what has stood the test of time for me, and could I give it another layer, could I bring something new to it. It’s really experiencing time in an interesting way because it was pieces that I wrote when I lived in Italy and Berlin, and it’s these fragments of my life that I wanted to see what would I want to perform again, what would I want to record again and how would I do it.”

O’Halloran’s score that he co-wrote with Hauschka for the Kate Winslet film Ammonite was recently shortlisted for an Academy Award. He says it was a particularly interesting project to be involved in. “Francis Lee is a very special, unique director,” he says. “One of the things that makes him so special is he’s such a minimalist with dialogue and music, and he’s very elemental.

“When we started the film we knew there was not going to be that much music in it, and I really appreciated that, because I think we’re in this period where people are just filling everything with so much information, so much music and so much story. I think it takes a lot of confidence to create space and to let things sit and not try to push a lot of narrative or music, so for me that was really refreshing that we knew we would have these small moments and they needed to mean something. They needed to be powerful and it wasn’t a big, monstrous score.

“For me, that’s my favourite zone, when you have limitations and how do you make the best of it. I always feel that’s where I work the best.”

Silfur is out on Friday June 11. dustinohalloran.com