Interview with A Winged Victory For The Sullen

It happens once in a blue moon that an album that we’ve been waiting for quite a long time truly lives up to our expectations. It happens even more seldom that we know that respective record is going to be one of our favorites that year – even without having heard it. A Winged Victory For The Sullen, the lovechild of Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran managed to achieve this with their second full-length album entitled ‘ATOMOS‘.

Atomos means ‘indivisible’ in Greek. It’s the title of Wayne McGregor’s (founder of Random Dance Company and resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet) dance piece for which you’ve written the score that ended up being released as your second full-length album. How can you relate this indivisibility to A Winged Victory For The Sullen?

Adam: I reckon we kind of feel the same, but we also have maybe a slightly different way of how we were influenced by what Wayne was doing. I kind of liked the fact that I didn’t understand really all what the hell he was talking about. He’s on a level of intricacy that I don’t feel I am. He’s really highly into scientific facts, history and elements that I’m interested in, but not at a level that he is so fascinated in. That was influencing his idea of where he wanted to go with the dance. So when we first met him and he was just talking about everything that was happening, it was a little bit like Hildur’s cello… I kind of understand it and it’s fascinating but I would never ever come up with this. So I guess they have these kind of brains that I just don’t have at all. When we met him I was kind of missing a lot of information but it was interesting. The thing that won us over, indivisible or not indivisible, is that he just gave us this really simple palette of pictures, YouTube science videos and references that we could look at visually. That kind of jumpstarted us to understand a little bit of what he was talking about. Sometimes with conceptual art and music it really only means everything to the person who created it. You can kind of understand what they are talking about, but you never really completely grasp it. At least that’s how I feel about it.

Dustin: I think that Wayne probably would be a scientist if he wouldn’t be a coreographer, that’s pretty clear. He did a lot of research and a lot of studying and things sit in his brain for a long time before he brings it to the collaborative process. By the time he got to us, I think he had really planned out the whole thing and he chose us very specificially. I didn’t understand that until the end, because I realized that he knew we’d bring this element that he needed, that he was thinking of. But everything was really inspiring, it was very nice because it was the first time ever in a collaborative process that there was no narrative, there was no musical references given, there was no structure. He didn’t give us any guidelines on the structure except that it had to be 70 minutes and that it should have evolutions. But we were really free to create structures to build it in a way that we felt dynamic within our work, so it was pretty unique.

How did the collaboration work between you and the dancers? Were there demos of the songs or were you given clips of the movements to write the music to?

Adam: No, not at all. We started the whole process. It started with Wayne, as he brought us into his world, talking to us and giving us sort of references. He gave us a 6 week period to start creating a palette of music, and then we gave it back to him. There was a little bit more of a push and pull, we went out and met the dancers and had to see them reacting to the music, which was really interesting.

Dustin: That was really nice, because we got the chance to see how people were moving to the music, which is really different than how I would have imagined it. I mean, actually I couldn’t even think about how it is going to happen, but when I saw it I realized it was working really well. I think it did not influence the music, but it gave us the confidence that we were going into the right direction. With our first piece in dance we were not sure if this is working, so it was nice because we realized that this is going to work.

Adam: But in no way we were ever composing to the movement. I think that is kind of a big misconception that a lot of dance people think… you’re just in there with your instrument playing along to them. But it’s not really the case at all. It happens the opposite way.

Wayne McGregor discovered your project last year. He used your debut album as warm-up music during practice sessions, and after noticing the group’s reaction with the music, he contacted you. How did he describe this special ‘reaction’ of his group?

Adam: He just loved our first record. The dancers were moving in a way that he wasn’t expecting them to. He was using it before to warm-up, to get the body moving and they were taking it to this other level, and he basically just said he could’ve composed ATOMOS to this whole record, kind of.

Before recording your debut album, you’ve traveled around Europe to find the right instruments, locations and musicians. While recording ‘ATOMOS’, you’ve worked in Brussels, Berlin and Reykjavík. Was it easier to organize everything this time?

Adam: Two of these places are where we live, because we didn’t have too much time, we only had four months. Reykjavík was a little bit related to Ben Frost. He worked on a previous dance piece of Wayne’s and he’s a good friend of ours, and we wanted to try to get some other sounds with the little bit of time left. So we just needed to be practical, because we didn’t have too much time to mess around.

Dustin: It was really a lot to do. And also because we only made one record before and we really took our time with it, so we didn’t know if at the end of the four months we were going to make it. I mean we knew that we could have something for the dance piece, but we didn’t know if it was going to be something that we wanted to release. That was something that was just a little bit of luck and some hard work.

Adam: A happy accident.

How do you write the string arrangements? Do you play them as midi first or do you work with a score from the very beginning?

Adam: We are usually in the studio, just writing the parts. We do work with the string players during rehearsals and things such as this, but otherwise Dustin and I are doing it on our own.

Dustin: Sometimes we work a bit with some midi to get it more detailed, but also sometimes we just use another sounds and then we figure out a way to translate that into strings.

Adam: Yeah, such as translating a piano or a guitar line into strings.

Dustin: Actually ATOMOS II started with the piano piece, number IX is sort of a reference to the string arrangements…

Adam: There are three main variations that keep appearing throughout the dance piece. I don’t know how obvious it is, it’s pretty obvious to me.

Ever since you’ve formed AWVFTS, you’ve been challenging each other in a really inspiring way. For example, for the first record Adam wrote piano parts, while Dustin created soundscapes – which usually happens the other way round. How did all this evolve through the second record, what were the major individual challenges this time?

Dustin: On the first record Adam and I were doing everything, there is really not much strings on the album, and on this one the strings are sort of carrying the weight of the whole piece and Adam and I actually have taken a little bit of step back and that’s probably the biggest change. We are writing more for other people in a way and we are supporting that.

Adam: It’s kind of like this larger third voice, at least what we are hearing. It sounds like us to me, but I reckon it does sound a little bit different. At the same time there is this larger acoustic sound that I’m hearing that it wasn’t there on the first record, but it’s all subjective.

How did you choose the musicians? I guess you need to trust them…

Dustin: We always work with the same players. They understand. It’s taken a while to create a language with them and get used to how things move, because the movements are really slow and really big breaths and ends, they really feel it now. We decided pretty early on to use two cellos. It was something that we wanted to try.

Adam: We used to have different players, we did some recording in Berlin, we did some recordings in Brussels, but we have a core group, people that we’ve been playing with a lot lately.

Dustin, you’ve been working quite a lot on original movie scores and soundtracks these last years. Is this something you’d like to pursue? What are you working on currently?

Dustin: I just finished an Indian film called ‘Umrika’ that will probably premiere at Sundance. It’s a really beautiful film, it’s my first orchestra score that I’ve recorded in Budapest. I think right now I am going to start working on a new album but the film work is something that I like to do as well, it depends on the project. But right now I would like to focus on the new album.

String orchestra recording for ‘Umrika’ in Budapest (Photo: Kassandra Jensen)

Adam, what are the news around the new Stars of the Lid record? How about the SOTL documentary film? Last time we’ve heard anything about it was 5 years ago, sounds as if Terrence Malick would be working on it.

Adam: The film is in the toilet. It became a nightmare. One of the filmmakers lost his mind and started stalking us. Great trailers do not always translate into great films, as we obviously see here. As far as a new SOTL record, only the shadow knows…

How do you think that writing music for a dance piece and writing music for film compares to writing music for ‘yourselves’?

Dustin: Probably what both of us walked away from was that when we started we didn’t know if we’re just going to fall on our face or if we’re going to pull it off. The fact that I feel like we did pull it off, I think it just gives us this fantastic feeling. When something else comes along, it feels like a huge mountain that maybe is not so daunting but… this was a pretty big mountain to climb over, it was a lot of music to produce, and we also had to prepare this really complicated live show where we worked with the dancers. It was a lot to be thrown into and I think that maybe making an album does not seem so difficult anymore… It’s just a little bit more realistic what you can really do when you put your mind to it, so that’s always nice to feel… and in the end you are really happy with the results even though it was really crunched in time and to know that we can do that is nice to know.

Do you ever listen to your old records, if so do you enjoy them?

Adam: I don’t enjoy but it’s not so often that I hear something… But sometimes it can be nice, sometimes it can be really horrible.

Dustin: I think our first record was the first time that when it was on it didn’t bother me, like when somebody put it on or I heard it somewhere, that moment wasn’t like ‘arggh, I cannot listen to this anymore’. It was a record that sort of felt outside of me after I felt that it was nice to listen to it.

How come you never play ‘All Farewells Are Sudden’ live?

Adam: I don’t know, we never tried. There is nothing malicious about it though.

Dustin: Some pieces live better in the memory.

Whose music are you enjoying these days? Could you name a few artists that made a deep impression on you lately?

Dustin: I just discovered something actually. There is this string quartet that we’ve worked with in New York called ACME and one of the violists, Nadia Sirota got this new podcast called ‘Meet The Composer’. I’ve been listening to it and it’s really good. It’s nice because my head is kind of full with music, so it’s hard to absorb music sometimes when I’m working on it. I’ve been listening to that, because it’s nice, it’s just small excerpts of music and it’s talking to different composers about the process. There is a really good interview with Caroline Shaw who won the Pulitzer Prize last year, she was the youngest recipient ever. She was playing violin for us and it was like one of those shockwaves through the modern contemporary music world, because she never came out as a composer, she just submitted this piece randomly and won.


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