Not too long ago, it was a cliché for rock and roll stars to make a mid-life attempt at classical music. Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, and most recently Sting, have all joined in on the act, ditching their trusted rock instruments for the baton or even the lute, in the case of Sting. Their respective success could be argued, but it’s more than fair to say that they’d have a long way to go before they could possibly match the beauty that Dustin O’Halloran conveys with just his piano. Most might have heard O’Halloran’s work on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette sandwiched between early ’80s post-punk classics. What most might not have known is that O’Halloran, one half of the Los Angeles indie shoegazing band, Devics, is the young modern composer who wrote and performed these solo piano masterpieces.
O’Halloran began learning classical piano at the age of seven, but eventually found his way into a rock band. I suppose that he just couldn’t get that classical training out of his system, however, as he began writing solo piano pieces that bared his soul like the rock music couldn’t. These tracks caught the attention of Ms. Coppola, who then asked him to contribute a handful of pieces to her latest film. “Opus 17” appeared on his first Piano Solos volume, “Opus 23” is on this second volume, and “Opus 36” on the soundtrack exclusively so far. Upon hearing the songs in the film, one might think they were listening to source music from the period. All of his tracks, numbered opuses (opi?) in name, have the dark and spare beauty of Beethoven’s sonatas or Chopin’s etudes or ballads. They fit in perfectly amongst the Vivaldi and Reitzell as they do the Cure and New Order.
I am having great difficulty in finding something to write about O’Halloran’s music, as if you hadn’t noticed already. All I know is how it makes me feel, which is the ultimate goal of music in the first place, to both express and elicit emotion. Many modern composers are equally great, such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but their music can tend to leave some listeners cold. Not so with O’Halloran. Although some of the tunes might seem lonely, dark and forlorn, they are at the same time comforting, as if letting those of us feeling these things know that we are not alone.
The only other rock and classical summit in vogue right now seems to be Christopher O’Riley, but, despite the similar surname prefix, there are huge differences between the two artists. For one, O’Halloran composes his own pieces whereas O’Riley covers Radiohead and Elliott Smith, at least so far. O’Riley seems involved in the complexities of songs, of layering particular chords and notes to mimic multiple instruments and create mini-symphonies with his piano. O’Halloran is all about the space between the single notes. Each key is intricately placed and struck, in just the right time and just the right place, aiming for the heart through the listeners’ ears.
It used to be that aficionados of classical music were called `longhairs,’ effete types who turned their noses at any kind of modernity. I am reminded specifically, just so you have a popular culture touchstone to reference, of Major Charles Emerson Winchester of the MASH 4077th. He would sit in the swamp, enrapt in his music, trying to shut out the rest of the world. His knowledge of the music was encyclopedic. In short, he was the ultimate classical music fan. But I also remember the advice he gave to a classical pianist who lost the use of his right hand to shrapnel, and it seems somewhat fitting. His gist was that, although the young man couldn’t play the notes anymore, he felt the music. He could translate that gift in other words, not just through his hands. O’Halloran has that gift, that innate sense of music infused with passion. It is evident all over Piano Solos, Vol.2.
Ludwig Van Beethoven