By Elliott Chen
There is a strange karma that seems to pull the musicians I admire to Chengdu. In my hometown I would be able to see these artists, but I would never dream of meeting them, much less hanging out with them. When I first heard that Dustin O'Halloran was going to play at Little Bar last summer I couldn't believe my luck. Originally a member of Devics, he later moved on to composing delicate solo piano albums and pieces for films, such as Marie Antoinette and Like Crazy.
The show itself was intimate, with Dustin casually talking with the audience between songs with varying degrees of intelligibility. Afterward, I introduced myself to Dustin and his tour mate Adam Wiltzie. They seemed eager to cut loose a bit, so we went to Machu Picchu where they tried shaokao, chatted about the strange China phenomenon that is Maximilian Hecker, and swapped stories. At the end of the night, we went our separate directions, all smiling—another example of the wonderful things that seem to happen only in Chengdu.
So how did the initial offer to tour China come about? China is a bit off the map for neoclassical piano instrumentalists.
Well I came out last October with my band Devics, and we had some amazing shows in China ... this was my first time out there. The promoter was interested in my solo work, and we decided to see how it could work. [There] definitely does not seem to be a lot of piano instrumental concerts, as some of the towns I played in we had the only available rental piano!
You have synesthesia [a neurological condition that affects sensory perceptions, oftentimes visual perception]. I'm interested in how it affected your perception of China visually?
Well my synesthesia is mostly in effect directly with music. But I can say the colors I was left with from China were gray, rust, orange, deep red, dark green, brown, dark purple. And I think the strongest impression was how little I saw the sun through the smog. I have traveled all over the world, and I have never experienced such pollution in my life—to never see blue sky, I can't imagine it.
Did you have a chance to interact with or hear any local musicians?
There were a couple nights were I had local support which was really interesting ... to hear what was happening, and everyone was incredibly kind. Musically I can feel there is a bubble around China, which is not always such a bad thing. In the western world a lot of music sounds the same because everyone has access to the same press and music, and sometimes being isolated in a way can be really great creatively because you are forced to find your own sounds. I honestly can't say I have heard enough Chinese music to say what that is, but I'm curious to hear [more].
Your pieces are carefully composed and minimalist by nature. In a live situation, how much space is there for improvisation and reinterpretation of the original composition?
Well I'm not big on improvisation for myself. I have done it a few times, and I have a great respect for those who are good at it. But for myself I really work on the fine details of the notes, and to me, every note is precious and accounted for. So other than playing with timing and feel, I don't see any point in adding more notes just for a concert. If I am happy with a piece, I let it be. There are times though when after I have recorded a piece I continue to work on it, and this is sometimes when my live interpretation is different.
What's your state of mind when you play older songs? For example, your first solo records were more intensely melancholic than your recent ones. When you play your older songs, do you inhabit that old self for a few minutes?
This is an interesting question as the farther you get in time from music you wrote in a certain period the less you feel in that way, but it can change and take on new meanings I think. But I did have to put away some of my older pieces for a while as I just felt too far from them. I am actually only now coming back to some really old pieces and enjoying playing them again. But I think you have to move forward like everything in life, and I don't think I will ever write pieces like that again. They are naïve to me in a way, but that is also what is special about them. You can only have one first broken heart, and you can only see the beauty in it after time has passed.
So before you left Chengdu, I helped you record some useful phrases in Chinese on your cell phone to communicate with locals. Some of them included "No MSG please!" and "Fuck your mom!" Did you actually use them?
[Laughs.] Absolutely—that was one of the better nights out we had in China ... thanks for that! I was playing them all along the tour on stage ... and you can't imagine how many laughs I got from the audience! And by the way, that street food we had that night was still one of my favorites!
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