The music of Iceland-based American composer and pianist Dustin O’Halloran is pure and uncompromising. His latest album – Silfur – is a collection of fifteen pieces that both refine and expand upon the composer’s concepts of time — past and present — channeled through music.
The new album, on German label Deutsche Grammophon, features new recordings of thirteen compositions from previous albums, including four new string arrangements. This retrospective selection is framed by two brand-new pieces, anchoring his work firmly in the present. Recorded by O’Halloran in Iceland in 2020, it acts as a thoughtful work of introspection, and a bridge linking the artist’s repertoire from past to present.
We spoke to Dustin O’Halloran about finding the time, place, and space to compose in a busy 21st Century.
Why did you decide to return to and re-record old material on your new album Silfur?
It was actually the idea of Christian Badzura at Deutsche Grammophon. I don’t think he knew the box he was opening! I’d never really thought about going back and re-recording things, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be a nice way for me to kick off writing music for myself again, and to really understand what I’d done. So, I got into it as an archival experiment.
I can imagine returning to old recordings and compositions could be difficult at times. You’d think to yourself, “Oh, I would do that so differently today!” Or did you find there was a certain energy in those old recordings that was inspiring?
I think it’s a bit of both. There’s always a sense of naivety that you know you can’t find again, and that makes it special. But then there’s also moments where I could have played that better, or I could have gotten a better sound.
So, I had to ask, what can I do to bring a new life to these? I think in the end the new versions are simply different, they have a different energy. Both the old versions and the new versions have a certain charm about them.
Looking back at these old piece, what did you want to carry forward, and what new layers did you want to add?
Well, I wanted to give these pieces a recording in a proper space. There’s so much feeling in a space. And so I thought about the fact that I am living in Iceland at the moment. There are these great acoustic spaces — great churches and halls — and things that are special to this location that I thought could be really beautiful to bring to these recordings.
Then, there were the compositions themselves. I really wanted to finalize every detail and make sure that every note was finally sort of set in its place. I love compositions that feel like that.
I’m sure you get asked about Iceland a lot — being a non-native — but it is really fascinating how space, and place, can affect the creative process. It’s not just the room, but the entire nation outside seeping through those walls into the music. How has living and working in Iceland affected you and your music making?
Iceland has certain calmness to it than very few places have. The small population, the amount of physical space that you have, and the way nature is so present here. You can travel 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik, and you feel you’re in the outback. It’s literally just on your doorstep.
The ocean is in front of my studio, and my house. We’re in the middle of the sea, the farthest livable place in the Northern Hemisphere. I think it creates a lot of mental space, and it allows you to move at a slower pace.
I think a lot of people — especially with the internet and the increased pace of media in general — have this longing for a little bit more time and space. You’ve sought that out, and made it a reality for yourself. But, even in Iceland, do you still find yourself battling the busy-ness that invades your creative space?
Well, ironically enough, it’s actually been really busy for me. Just this year, we just released A Winged Victory for the Sullen record. And there’s been other film projects. Despite the pandemic, despite living in Iceland, it’s been actually a pretty busy time.
I’m still old enough to remember a world without the internet. And I really feel the difference between now and then, when we let ourselves be bored, or let our minds wander. Boredom is the seed of creativity, I think. It’s the thing that helps you go deeper.
Young people who have grown up with the internet probably don’t even realize how it feels to sit back, to not have a phone or computer to look at. We fill our time with so many things now. It’s so easy to fill every moment.
We live in this modern world, with communication the way it is. It takes a lot of willpower to shut it out.
That’s why I like listening to vinyl – because it’s active listening. Just me and the music.
Follow Dustin O’Halloran at dustinohalloran.com
Photo by Anna Maggy