||25 February 2011
Northern American ‘Alternative’ music in the new century has assimilated some of the instrumentation and elements traditionally associated with the classical music sphere into its equation. Los Angeles born composer Dustin O’Halloran has carved a career in doing the same but from the opposite spectrum. He compliments his atmospheric piano works with textures and personnel from the ‘Indie’ world without losing the neo classical seriousness of his compositions.
His first release on Fat Cat’s 130701 label (for classically aligned artists) is Lumiere which augments his previous minimalism with orchestral and subtle electronic layers to vivid effect.
A diversity and unwillingness to conform is identified in the opener 'A Great Divide', an impressionistic piece that draws you in delicately. The track shimmers like raindrops in a pool of water as the lighter notes of the keyboard and electronics play with space in much the way Eno’s 'The Plateaux of Mirror' does. Without warning, as the strings swell, you are transported to tragedy at the heart of some war film. O’Halloran achieves this change effortlessly. Given his soundtrack scoring on such fare as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, this sowing together of different themes has perhaps become second nature adding greater substance to his solo work.
'Opus 44' evolves from a singer songwriter piano mode. Flecks of the classical rear up in the melancholy created. It may be a sombre movement but like the classical/alternative structural dichotomy the themes of light and shade are forever duelling throughout.
On 'We Move Lightly' the choral synth is used as a musical anchor on which a 4/4 piano rhythm is let loose. A chill runs through the track brought about by the cold wind of the synth and the lonely violin of Peter Broderick (formerly of Efterlang). This is evocative cross genre music without compromise.
'Quartet N.2' and 'Opus 43' have prominent string parts to them and showcase the varied talents of the ACME Ensemble (Grizzly Bear, Owen Pallet, Nico Muhly). On the former the Quartet swim in violin sadness initially, only for the music to be elevated into a warmer disposition through the interplay between the strings near the middle. Teutonic and Eastern European gravity glides through the piece. On the latter track a diminishing scale of the piano and the weaving of the strings generate the apparent default bleakness position. O’Halloran talks about painting a scene through texture and atmosphere and this is demonstrated to great effect on this piece.
"Somehow in composing I had always viewed the work similar to how a painter would approach it, adding colours, texture, adding space, painting over the whole thing and maybe leaving just a corner."
The ‘space’ he talks about allows the modern classical influences to meld with the electronic effects and atmospherics of a more ‘Indie’ weight.
'Quintette N.1' again flaunts the line between darkness and light and exemplifies the conduciveness between genres. The floaty almost sweet nature of the strings at the beginning is replaced by a raw highly strung (pardon the pun) violin a la Avro Part 'Fratres'. This track typifies the artist’s classical instrumental take on the rhythms of other bands on Fat Cat such as Sigur Ros. This leads on to 'Fragile N.4', possibly the most accessible part of the album. Its cavernous piano has a rickety feel, almost childlike in its simplicity. The evolution and playfulness of the track is more associated with a forward thinking band rather than modern classical music which taken as a whole fights any notion of fun with reactionary violence or over-intellectualism.
'Opus 55' doesn’t go anywhere expressively new. The cyclical nature of the downbeat strings replicates the earlier feel on the album.
The closer 'Snow & Light' does exactly what the title says. The moody synth beginning is used as stitch work to give the piano grounding. The pitter patter of the keys sounds like snow drops on a window pane as a car drives away from a sorrowful encounter. And then the change, hope flourishes and light creeps in as the piano lightens and the strings open up. Yet again O’Halloran has transformed a scene within a piece with his deft touch of key or textures.
The composer must be commended in making such a distinctive classical album that appeals to those of an indie persuasion without losing direction or its essence. Anyone who has an interest in orchestral inclined bands, early twentieth century impressionist piano or modern textural classical could do worse than to give this a listen. Although not earth shattering in the least, one thing is for sure; Dustin O’Halloran will go on to greater things.
- Tim Gannon