Composer Dustin O’Halloran Talks Transparent and Working With Jill Soloway

TV Features Transparent
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From the opening credits of Transparent it was easy to identity Dustin O’Halloran in the score. The piano of course, his signature instrument, but also the delicacy in which it’s played. It’s sad, but sweet, and the perfect opening to a show we’ve all come to know as comparable to those opening notes: complex.

Paste has been an advocate of O’Halloran’s work for some time now. He got his start composing for Sofia Coppola on Marie Antoinette, then went on to create the scores for indie darlings Like Crazy and Breathe In, from director Drake Doremus. He’s since released four solo albums, four with his band Devics and collaborated on over 14 films.

But with the release of TV’s most exciting series of the year, Transparent, O’Halloran is finally breaking into the world of long-form composing. Amazon’s, Golden Globe-winning series, from creator Jill Soloway, has broken a number of barriers. At the center of the narrative is Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), who has finally decided to reveal a buried secret to his family—he’s becoming a woman. His kids, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Josh (Jay Duplass) struggle to make sense of the change, while discovering they’re going through some changes of their own. It’s growing pains all around.

O’Halloran, along with Soloway, has provided a musical undertone that both focuses on the relatable and realistic faults of the family, along with the tenderness that exists between them. Paste had a chance to chat with O’Halloran about working with Soloway, not judging the characters with the score and how pianos are just like people.

Paste Magazine: You grew up in Arizona in the desert. Was your family musical? That’s such an interesting landscape to begin your time as a musician.
Dustin O’Halloran: I was born in in Arizona, but I was raised in Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles till late ‘99. I moved to Italy and lived there for about seven years, then moved to Berlin. Strangely there are no other musicians in my family except my brother. My mom was a dance teacher. She taught ballet. She was a bit of a hippie and took us to art camps—really anything that we wanted to pursue artistically she supported. Probably my first real experience was with her. She had a piano player for her ballet class. There was a lot of classical music around in that time.

Paste: I grew up doing ballet for years and I always felt that in your music! Was Tchaikovsky or anyone an influence?
O’Halloran: In the early days it was the Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Bach; the classics. As I started getting into my own music, it was more contemporary, living composers, Morton Feldman, Phillip Glass, Erik Satie.

Paste: You also lived in rural Emilia Romagna, a region of Northern Italy.
O’Halloran: I had a band for a long time with the singer Sara Lov, called Devics. We came to Italy to record an album. I decided to escape Los Angeles! At Santa Monica College we started this group. I was writing my music and she was singing. I came into the idea of writing music when I started working with her. We ended up making five records on the British label Bella Union, touring mostly in Europe.

Paste: Then you end up doing a TV series set in Los Angeles! Tell me about Jill Soloway approaching you to work on Transparent.
O’Halloran: She and I have been friends for a really long time. Her former companion Bruce Gilbert was the music supervisor. We had been friends for a long time. She was listening to my music and it was interesting—she came to Berlin, and she told me about her pilot. She temped a few of my pieces in the pilot. We just thought well if you’re temping some of my music, maybe this could be an interesting idea to just do the score. She had been listening to my music while she was writing the script a lot. For her, it was really important to portray a sensitivity and humanity to the whole subject. She wanted it to have a depth to it. The feelings inside the music resonated with her. It ended up working really well, I think.

Paste: There’s a lot of Piano Solos Vol. 2 in the soundtrack—or at least to me!
O’Halloran: That was the one she was listening to!

Paste: Did you use that as a launching pad to craft the rest of the score?
O’Halloran: There were a few pieces she gravitated towards from my second record. We explored within the parameters of the world. The first season, we were never trying to veer too far because we wanted to create a continuity through the whole series. As each episode progresses, the music creates more depth.

Paste: You did the score for this in five weeks! You’ve been living in Berlin, so did you return to LA for inspiration?
O’Halloran: One of the things about how I work, and also with that particular sound, the piano—it’s a really big part of the feeling. I can’t just go to a studio and play on a Steinway. I went to Italy and brought back my piano, and put it in a van, and drove it through the Alps, and brought it to Berlin—right after that I got the call to do the series.

Paste: I play guitar, not piano, but I do get that specific strings and shapes of the guitar generate a specific sound. What about this piano gave it a unique sound?
O’Halloran: It has a really deep resonation; it has a dark tone. They’re just like people. They all have their own personalities. I couldn’t be without it! I put the piano in the van. I had a few cases of wine, Parmesan cheese, salami and an Italian bicycle. It was probably the greatest cargo that I’ve ever transported!

Paste: I’m jealous of that. I was already jealous that you lived in Italy! Wow. So when did Soloway or any of the other producers become involved? Was Amazon involved at all?
O’Halloran: The actual real scoring part was done in a short period of time. There were a few really rough scenes while they were filming. I knew that I wanted to keep it really organic and natural sounding. It was a very organic process for her to make it. When I started recording, I was just going for it. I was recording pieces kind of the way I write for myself. It was really just me playing and most of the time not even looking at picture. I wanted all real instruments, really intimate. The amazing thing is they gave [Soloway] so much creative freedom. She had a great team of people around her.

Paste: With Breathe In in particular, I feel like you and Drake [Doremus] have discussed the music being another character; it’s communicating everything that the characters don’t. Did the music play a similar role in Transparent?

O’Halloran: The way Drake uses the music is a little bit different than Jill. It does become this very strong, unspoken communication. With Jill, it more surrounds everybody—something to help tie the feelings together. There’s a communication there, but it’s a little bit more subtle. The series becomes more score-heavy later on as things get more complex.

Paste: How do you manage the balance between manipulating the audience with the music, especially on a family drama, and encouraging the audience towards an organic revelation within a scene?
O’Halloran: I think that’s where Jill was very clear that she never wanted to manipulate the feelings, but she wanted to create empathy. If it ever felt like it was pushing it, we would always pull it back. The acting is so strong in the series. They did such a great job. We could pull [the music] back so the performance could do the main communication. They go hand in hand.

Paste: What was the most difficult segment to score in this series?
O’Halloran: The trickiest scene—there’s a sex scene in a van; how to do that in the right way? You feel the energy, it feels sexy, but it’s not exploited. There’s a lot of boundary pushing elements, and to do them in the right way was a challenge. Everything we tried to do was always from a place of not judging. There’s no judgment in the way we view these characters. We see ourselves in a lot of them.

Paste: With TV there’s a longer story to tell, especially if the show continues for years. Are you interested in sticking it out the whole way through? Are you interested in that long form?
O’Halloran: The boundaries of what’s considered television have been broken now. Films are becoming the short form and compressing a story into two hours almost feels rushed now. Jill always viewed [Transparent] as a five-hour story, more like a book with chapters. There’s no cliffhanger, continuation; we wanted it to feel like a film in a lot of ways. The biggest difference is that because you have a lot more time, you can develop things a lot slower, you can have less music because there’s time to let things evolve. I really enjoyed the process and I think that’s why a lot of really talented people are jumping into that world.

Paste: Is there a story you’d love to score, maybe a novel? A filmmaker you want to work with?
O’Halloran: I mean I can’t say there’s anything specific – maybe Blade Runner! There are films that I love that would be an amazing film to score. I’ve been doing a project called A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It’s a dance piece. That was sort of the first time I had ever worked with dance. That’s definitely something I want to do again. It’s an organic process; we performed live with the dancers. It was a strange return because of my mom growing up in dance.

Paste: You could always pull a Sting.
O’Halloran: I don’t know if I’m going to be doing musicals! For me it’s about continuing to do a lot of different projects. It keeps me inspired and working with Jill and Drake, they’re so different. I’m just trying to stay out of the idea that I’m a music-making machine—keep it to a place where I’m inspired and creative.