“You go to a lot of concerts in life,” Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie says, reflectively, speaking by telephone from his home in Brussels. “But you don’t meet that many people that you bond with, and create a musical project together, like we did.”
Wiltzie, a founder of the influential ambient-drone group Stars of the Lid, is recalling anew the serendipitous night in 2007 when, touring as a member of Sparklehorse, he was introduced to Dustin O’Halloran at a concert in Italy. O’Halloran, an American pianist, songwriter, and film composer, had been active in a California dream-pop band, Devics. Attracted to big sounds and sonorous spaces, the two connected instantly.
In 2011, the pair released the self-titled debut of a collaborative project, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, a mix of ambient music’s weightless drift and drone, crystalline piano, and the plush swell of orchestral strings, winds, and brass. The music had a narcotic beauty and a touch of gravitas: simple, wistful melodies wafting across mottled clouds of guitar and electronics. Any hint of preciousness was dispelled by the titles: “Minuet for a Cheap Piano Number Two,” “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears,” and so on.
“It feels a bit fleeting, these moments in life where really strange things happen on certain nights, and this was a particularly big night, I think, for both of us,” Wiltzie says, with O’Halloran listening via conference call from his Berlin home. “When I think about it now, everything that we’ve done since then — it’s these beautiful moments in life that kind of reach out and grab you.”
Included in “everything that we’ve done since then” are a follow-up EP (“Atomos VII”) and sophomore LP, “Atomos,” both released in 2014. But even though the duo had always intended to work together again, the impetus was unanticipated: a commission from Wayne McGregor, an innovative English choreographer — and the director responsible for Thom Yorke's artful writhing in Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” video — to score a full-length dance for his company, Random Dance.
“We had started messing around with new ideas a little bit before he approached us,” O’Halloran says. “We started to see if we could use some of those ideas, but Wayne’s concepts were bringing a nice bit of inspiration, so we just decided to put that aside and start from scratch. We really started from nothing and just created the whole score.”
That’s “score” in the notational sense, though A Winged Victory’s musical method remains something of a chimera. “The parts that Adam and I perform are not written out, because we are here to perform them,” O’Halloran says. “Adam, what he does — it’s not really scoreable.”
“Our string section, they need scores,” Wiltzie adds. “Neither of us were classically trained, per se, but we’ve learned how to notate music. It’s become a nice conduit into this world of classical music that we’re both big fans of, and it’s a big part of what we do.”
Confronted with the idea of writing for dancers, they played to type at first. “We were thinking that we needed to have something more rhythmical, more of a pulse,” Wiltzie says. “We forgot that he actually came to us because he was heavily influenced by our first record.” After the pair had come up with 20 minutes of music, McGregor invited them to see his dancers in action.
“It was actually quite enlightening to finally see them interact with the music,” Wiltzie says. “Maybe there were moments where we’d need to make something have kind of an arc, to fit into a general progress with the piece. But I was pleasantly surprised just how much he let us do our thing.”
Instead of ordering music in a specific style or tempo, McGregor — well known for employing bleeding-edge technology — discussed ideas about atoms, creation, infinite bigness and smallness, and demonstrated a 3-D software program with which he was modeling parts of the dance. “It was really inspiring, because he just had so much passion for this world that he was creating,” O’Halloran says. “It was all non-musical inspiration, basically, which is always the best kind.”
Wiltzie and O’Halloran worked quickly in response, pushing their own boundaries: thickening the sound of a string octet already dense with five cellists, intensifying the electronics. What resulted bears the duo’s distinctive fingerprint, adding a cumulative sweep that feels cinematic. (On the road, the duo brings three or more string players to reproduce those sounds faithfully live.)
Whatever its origin, “Atomos” shows that A Winged Victory for the Sullen has continued to evolve: likely a result of Wiltzie and O’Halloran insisting on collaborating in person despite the 400-mile distance between their homes.
“We think it benefits what we do for ourselves, rather than trading tapes through the mail,” Wiltzie says. “It’s worth it to hop on a plane and work in a studio together.”
“Honestly, I think that’s sort of the magic that happens with the way we work,” O’Halloran adds. “There’s things that happen when you’re in a room together, in the way you both hear things and focus. I don’t think the records could come out the same if we were just in our separate spaces — I don’t think we would have created this sound that is something new for both of us.”Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.