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Dustin O'Halloran: Berlin's Neo-Classical Scene

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This interview is the final part of Headliner’s Berlin series, in which we visited the city to find out why Neo-Classical music has become so firmly based in Berlin; and in general, why artists and musicians are flocking to the German capital right now.

I find myself back in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s hippest locality. Like Shoreditch in London, Kreuzberg was the first part of the city to be touched by gentrification, with vintage clothing stores and artisan coffee shops popping up all over the place. I meet Dustin O’Halloran in an amalgamation of the two – Companion Coffee, located inside a clothing shop called the Voo Store, where I learn that if I order a green tea, I’ll receive two different infusions. You’d be mad to turn that down, quite frankly.

Unlike my previous two interviewees (Lambert and Ben Lukas Boysen), O’Halloran is an international settler in the city. He was born in Los Angeles (a city that’s about as different from Berlin as it can physically be), lived in Italy for a few years, but is now very much based in the German capital, with his studio only a few minutes walk from this uber-trendy shop.

O'Halloran is a film composer, and also releases albums under his own name, and also notably as A Winged Victory For the Sullen - a side project with friend and guitarist-composer, Adam Wiltzie.

As the artist arrives, sporting an immaculate beard and denim shirt, he fits right in. The barista asks if he’ll be having his usual, to which he replies “no, I think I’ll go black today”, with a smile. I’m keen to ask how he’s been dividing up his time.

“I’ve been working on a film called Iris with Adam from our project, A Winged Victory For the Sullen," O'Halloran reveals. The two last worked together on the music for a ballet called Atomos by acclaimed choreographer, Wayne McGregor. Was working on a film with A Winged Victory inevitable? “Yeah, it probably was! I think we could definitely do another one, but we’re just trying to work on our own music at the moment.”

Which leads me nicely on to my next question, as O'Halloran hasn’t released a solo album since 2011: his ambient piano album, Lumiere.

“Yeah, I got really busy with A Winged Victory,” he says. “When I started that project with Adam, I didn’t realise it was going to take off the way it did. We did a lot of touring, quite a lot more than I thought we would. I really enjoyed playing more in a group situation rather than just being a solo artist. When you tour in a group, the focus is much more on the music; when you tour solo, there’s also focus on the artist’s personality, and I’m much less interested in that.”

So how does O'Halloran juggle these three musical dynamics?

“I sort of just follow where the energy is,” he admits, with a smile, “and recently, it just felt like Winged Victory had the strongest energy, and I kept being pulled into lots of film work, also. But I’m definitely feeling like it’s time to come back to my own work. As long as I’m feeling compelled, creative and inspired, it doesn’t matter if it’s my solo work or a collaboration. I just follow a muse, whatever that might be. I like moving around to be honest, and I feel like all my different projects inspire each other.”

O'Halloran has written music for two films starring English actress Felicity Jones – Like Crazy in 2011 (Jones’ co star in the film, Anton Yelchin, was tragically killed this year), and Breathe In, in 2013. I half-seriously ask him if he thought he was in with a shout of being composer for the next Star Wars film, Rogue One, when he saw that Jones was announced for the lead role.

“No, no,” O'Halloran says, laughing. “Definitely not! I’ll let someone else rip of John Williams.”

So what about composing for a bigger budget action sort of film, a departure from the indie films you're best known for?

“That would depend on the context,” O'Halloran says, after some thought. “Ex Machina was one of the last film scores I really liked – that was a big film, and I thought the music was really well handled. There are ways to handle it where you don’t follow clichés. Johann Johannsson (a composer who is also signed to Fat Cat Records) has been working on some big films, and he always does it very elegantly.”

When I ask him for his take on Berlin becoming the heart and vital organs of Neo-Classical music, I notice a recurring theme, from my previous chats with Lambert and Ben Lukas Boysen, 'space'.

“You have a lot of space, and cheap space” he says, referring to both Berlin’s spaciousness, and the affordability of hiring out accommodation and studios. You couldn't have achieved what you have in LA, then? “Oh, definitely not. LA is a different energy. It’s a great city, a lot of my friends and family are there, and there’s a lot of super talented people, but like everything in life, the path you choose influences your music. Being in Europe has drastically changed my music. The US is still a very rock and roll focused country, but in Europe, there’s so much more electronic music, and contemporary classical music. So for Berlin, it’s not just the cheap rent and all the space – there’s an amazing creative community in Europe, and it really feels like Berlin is the hub of that at the moment.”

Dustin has to get back to his nearby studio and carry on with his current film project, so we leave Companion Coffee, and I wander off for a stroll along the Berlin Wall. I’m certainly feeling enlightened as to why the Neo-Classical genre has become based and is thriving in Berlin – the spacious, relaxed, and uber-creative vibe provide just the right fertile grounds for this understated music. In fact, it’s clear to me why musicians and artists in general are flocking to Berlin, particulary from places like London and New York, who are pricing them out at this time. Least of all, it’s no surprise why the careers of Lambert, Ben Lukas Boysen and Dustin O’Halloran have fallen into place so successfully in the artistic haven of Berlin.