DUSTIN O’HALLORAN
SILFUR

“That’s always the difference between the time you do a thing and the time after, when you discover that there was something entirely new in it.” Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews

“As composers,” DUSTIN O’HALLORAN says, “we capture time: that’s what music does. But time is fluid; it doesn’t preserve music. It’s reexperienced and it changes. There are a lot of associations attached to music, but as I play it again I’m not really reliving those moments. I’m experiencing time in a different way: I’m connecting to myself years ago, but now, in the present, and I’m putting something back into the music.”

On SILFUR, his first album for Deutsche Grammophon, O’HALLORAN explores his art’s relationship with time in uncommon, thought-provoking fashion. All but two of its 15 pieces are new recordings of work first included on Piano Solos Vols. 1 & 2 (2004, 2006), Vorleben (2010) and Lumiere (2011) – four also feature additional string arrangements – yet, thanks to a schedule as busy as his music is often quiet, a lot has changed in the ten years that have intervened since that last record. He’s scored films and TV series – securing an Emmy for his Transparent title theme as well as Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for Lion, his collaborative score with Hauschka – while his ambient project with Stars Of The Lid’s Adam Wiltzie, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, has released five albums, some based on scores and soundtracks. SILFUR, however, embodies a return to “making music for music’s sake”. He’s found more recent pursuits unquestionably satisfying, but concedes that, “you’re accessing a different part of your brain creatively, making music by stimulus. When there’s no picture, no story, and you’re just playing with time, it’s completely different. Working on this record was like rolling back time to access that again, getting back to a pure uncompromised language and an understanding about where I came from.”

In truth, revisiting older compositions didn’t initially appeal to O’HALLORAN. For starters, he prefers not to look back, and he’s always been content with the idiosyncrasies of those early recordings, some made with limited resources on an old upright piano while birds sang outside or Vespas buzzed past the Italian farmhouse where he lived and worked. But, he says, developing this idea helped him realise certain practical advantages. “There are a lot of pieces I’ve continued to play live or carve out a little bit more,” he says, “and this was a chance to give them more of what I intended. There are some moments on the original recordings that, even though there’s a great atmosphere, I just didn’t play the way I wanted, or there was some depth missing. This was an opportunity to try to finalise them in a way that I could put them to rest, because there were things I wanted to see if I could capture.”

As O’HALLORAN delved deeper, this process took on a rather more intimate, metaphysical character. At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, he’d found himself marooned with his family in Reykjavík, Iceland, from where he normally splits his time with Los Angeles, and, as he began to acknowledge that its isolation was a blessing, so he began to reflect upon how his setting affected his bond with these pieces. “I thought a lot about the physical space that you’re in when you record or you’re writing,” he says, “and your connection to where you are geographically on the planet. I think every place resonates differently, and Iceland has a very specific resonance, more than any place I’ve been. The lack of people, the landscape, the volcanoes… Everything here, you just feel it.”

Consequently, O’HALLORAN chose his studios carefully. “These are not just recordings,” he emphasises. “They’re done in locations I connect with.” For his first sessions – joined by frequent collaborator in sound Francesco Donadello, in whose Berlin studio, Vox-Ton, they’d intended to record before Covid-19 arrived – he travelled to the peaceful surroundings of Akureyri, Northern Iceland, and its cultural centre, Hof, where he’d previously worked on scores in its theatre, which is famed for its remarkable acoustics. From there he returned to the capital, where he spent two nights recording with Bergur Þórisson – half of Hugar, and also Björk’s current musical director – on a distinguished Steinway piano in the old, wooden Frikirkjan church. This, too, had personal connotations: it was the venue for his earliest Icelandic concert, performed the very first time he visited. Time was spinning loops.

He chose his accompanying players wisely too. SILFUR features three pieces – ‘Opus 17’, ‘Opus 28’ and ‘Opus 37’ – whose string arrangements are performed by Iceland’s Siggi String Quartet, with whom he’d played all those years ago at the Frikirkjan church, although this time he selected another church, Víðistaðakirkja, south of the city, for its acoustic qualities. He also turned to Bryan Senti, a friend who’d arranged ‘Opus 55’ for additional violin, though lockdown forced him to record his part in Los Angeles. In addition, a new composition, ‘Constellation No. 2’ – the album’s final piece, and also the last O’HALLORAN recorded before leaving Berlin – features cellist Gyda Valtýsdóttir, with whom he’s collaborated a number of times and who took part in A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s first tour. Even his technical choices took the past into account: a conscious choice was made to employ vintage analogue equipment, with Donadello – who also produced the album – mixing the recordings to tape.

Given the personal significance of these venues, musicians and techniques, it’s hardly surprising O’HALLORAN became sensitive to his work’s relationship with history. It was, however, a gift he received in Akureyri which not only helped him crystallise his thoughts – just as he was these pieces – but which also presented him with the album’s title. No wonder: it too, appropriately, was a crystal, Silfurberg – ‘silver rock’, also known as Iceland spar – which is native to Iceland and notable for its birefringent properties. “It reflects light into two,” O’HALLORAN explains, “a double refraction. I thought about this a lot: it’s creating with light the way that I’m feeling about time. It’s splitting it into two, but at the same moment: the present and the past. I thought that was a beautiful way of looking at this record.”

SILFUR captures such magic, with O’HALLORAN’s elegant candour and unusual restraint showcased in a subtle but startling new light. Sometimes his love for other composers surfaces – whether that’s Bach, Debussy, Scarlatti, Chopin, Scriabin or, he recommends eagerly, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou ¬– but these compositions remain simultaneously true to his own unique, emotionally transparent style. Whether it’s his first solo album’s ‘Opus 17’ – which, as part of the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, originally helped bring him to a wider audience, and which is here reworked in both solo piano and string quartet arrangements – or a new piece, ‘Opus 56’, whose tranquillity is almost spiritual, he’s able to articulate something profound, albeit indefinable, yet instantly recognisable too. His secret? The ageless nature of his piano melodies, and the space in which he allows them to resound.

“These days I find it hard to listen to music that’s really dense,” he concludes, “because I feel like we’re in this age of so much information. So I gravitate towards simplicity more and more, and I always loved the piano: there’s nothing else to add. It’s so elementary, and yet it’s also a very complex instrument. There’s always so much you can do with it.” In O’HALLORAN’s hands, as a matter of fact, it can even transcend time.

For more information, please contact Chris Schimpf, Krista Williams or Carla Sacks 212.741.1000 at Sacks & Co.