Glance at Dustin O’Halloran’s ever-increasing list of projects, and you could be forgiven for assuming that he’s something of a restless spirit. His life story does little to dispel the impression - it’s a litany of motion, of different homes in different continents, and sometimes hardly any home at all. But all this activity is deceptive; or, at least, it’s just surface detail. All the time, beneath the surface, there’s been a constant, stealthy, steady pulse - O’Halloran’s wistful and beautiful music.
His compositions are languid and contemplative. The melodies are hestitant; plucked, slow-motion skeins of sound that fall languidly from solo piano or from naked acoustic guitar. And although they’re delicate - miniature marvels of nuance and balance - they carry an unfailing emotional charge. It’s hardly surprising, then, that O’Halloran’s music is being used, and heard, increasingly widely.
O’Halloran’s early years were spent in Los Angeles – he took his first piano lessons there at the age of 7, and played one of his own compositions live for the first time when he was 11 – but when he turned 13, things changed. He went to live with his father, a change of scene that proved disruptive in many ways – not least because it meant that he abandoned the piano for several years. Eventually, though, he found himself back in Los Angeles, where he enrolled to study art at Santa Monica College – and where a way back into music opened up.
It was there that he met Sara Lov; each recognising in the other a kindred spirit, the two formed Devics, an uncategorisable musical enterprise whose swooningly atmospheric songs seemed to float free from any obvious ties to a specific time or place. Not surprising, then, that their tenuous links to California were soon broken - they signed to a British label (Bella Union), and shimmered their way into the hearts of listeners all over the world.
Devics is an ongoing project – a new album, the follow-up to 2006’s Push The Heart is in the pipeline – but in recent years O’Halloran has found his musical activities expanding, gaseously, beyond it. The catalyst lay in the decision to move to Italy back in 2000 – he found himself based in an old farmhouse in the rural depths of Emillia Romagna, with space to think and the use of a beautifully restored 1920s Sabel piano. Gradually, he developed the conviction that piano music could avoid both the staid rigour of the classical tradition and the vapid noodlings of New Age, and he started to develop his own personal, meditative approach to the instrument. It was a shot in the dark, a purely instinctive activity started - initially at least - with no idea that there might be an audience. But when an album - Piano Solos – emerged (in 2005) things started to happen.
Bella Union fell for the record and immediately offered to release it. Others soon joined the cause – and, in that serendipitous chain of cause-and-effect that marks the progress of so many unheralded gems, word about the music reached director Sofia Coppola, who immediately asked O’Halloran to write some more for her then-work-in-progress Marie Antoinette.
It wasn’t the first time that a director had been struck by the seductive, filmic qualities of O’Halloran’s melodies – Devics had previously contributed to the soundtrack of Guiseppe Bertolucci’s L’Amore Probabilmente – and it wasn’t to be the last. Subsequently, he performed music for the Will Ferrell / Dustin Hoffman project Stranger Than Fiction – and his most recent cinematic project, the score for William Olsen’s feature-length movie An American Affair, is set to see the light of day later in 2009.
And if the spaciousness and poise which characterised début solo album Piano Solos and its companion release Piano Solos Volume 2 (2006) was in some sense a response to the remote tranquillity of his Italian retreat, it’s tempting to hear in the music for An American Affair an increased activity which reflects O’Halloran’s latest location – Berlin. As measured and as spare as ever, the score nonetheless enhances O’Halloran’s signature piano cadences with far more expansive arrangements. The touches are light – caresses rather than grand gestures - but sighing string quartets, diffidently plucked harps and the warm breath of woodwind all make their presence felt. It’s a sign of expanding confidence and a hint that the next solo album, whenever it arrives, will be an altogether more widescreen, immersive experience than the Piano Solos. All of which suggest that 2011 should be marked by yet more interest in the work of this singular – and singularly gifted – composer.
Having dropped his beautiful new album, Lumiere (his debut for 130701; an expansion of his usual solo piano material to take in lush electronics and orchestral arrangements) in the first half of 2011, Dustin quickly followed with the live solo piano album Vorleben in June 2011.