Dustin O'Halloran's Transparent Music - EMusician

Dustin O'Halloran's Transparent Music

'Setting the tone for a family's evolving emotions on Amazon's hit series
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Amazon’s original series Transparent explores the journey, the vulnerability, and sexual identity not only of lead character Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor)—who reveals herself in season one as a trans woman—but also of Maura’s former wife and three adult children. Maura’s transition is at the center of an evolving present-day Jewish family that remains strongly bonded, but full of questions.

Created and directed by Jill Solloway, the series has completed two seasons (you can watch every episode via Amazon Prime), and work is soon to begin on season three. Among the numerous awards the show has earned (Emmys, Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Director’s Guild, GLAAD Media Awards, etc.) is composer/musician Dustin O’Halloran’s Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music.

Before Transparent came into his life, O’Halloran was best known as a solo artist and film composer whose credits include Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning romance Like Crazy. He works mainly from his personal studio in Berlin, but also travels to L.A. where he works closely with other creative members of the Transparent team to create the show’s original score.

O’Halloran seems pleasantly surprised that the gentle piano-centered waltz he wrote as the show’s theme has been so well-received. “It’s nice that you can do something so restrained and it cuts through,” O’Halloran says. “I appreciate that. I’d like to see more restraint.”

How did Transparent come your way?

Jill Solloway has been a friend for a long time, and she loved the first two solo piano records that I had made. She used a little bit in the pilot episode, which I loved, and we talked about how, if it got picked up, maybe I could try scoring the whole thing.

When you came onboard, did the theme come first?

I needed to get into the show to really understand where it was going before I could work on the theme, and the one on the show is actually the second version I came up with. When I recorded it, I worried maybe it’s too withheld because the opening of shows usually has more of a big moment.

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O'Halloran's studio in Berlin contains his recording gear, and the pianos and keyboards that have become the signature sounds of Transparent. Below, season 2 of the series begins with a family wedding.The music in the show seems to be more about connections between different characters and generations of the family, from scene to scene. It’s different from some shows, where each character has individual theme music.

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When we were doing the first season, there was always this idea that we were making a five-hour film and not episodic television. Maybe with some television you would get more thematic with characters, but this is more about the overall arc of the story and the whole family.

Jill talks about the music as being this warm blanket that covers the entire family. Whatever directions or turmoil or confusion the story takes on, the family is in it together, and there’s a lot of love and support and strength, and the music represents that.

Can you describe the logistics of how you interact with the team and when the music is created?

Everything starts with the scripts, which I get pretty early on. There are always a couple scenes that are especially musical, and I’ll get a head start on those things that need a little more time to craft out, even before I get picture.

Then as we start getting picture, that starts to inform a little more where the music needs to go. Where we use the music tends to be decided in the editing process. I’ll create a lot of different music, and the editors will see what works, or when we should take music out.

The entire show is very instinctual in the way it’s directed and the way it’s acted, too. There’s a lot of careful planning, but Jill gives everybody a lot of room to be the artist they are, and I think that’s her strength as a director. She’s just trying to get the sensibility across, a feeling. She lets people go down paths, and then once it clicks for her, she doesn’t hesitate.

What’s your studio like? What instruments do you use on these pieces?

I live in Berlin, and my studio has been in Berlin for about eight years. I have a few pianos: really old, beautiful pianos that are becoming the sound of the show. They have a really strong identity, and I’m recording them in very particular ways—close-miked, and with felt and different preparations, and I get a really unique sound. Everything is done with real instruments.

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Could you describe the different sounds of the pianos, and when you might use one vs. the other?

When I need a more restrained sound, I have this old Sabel; it’s a Swiss piano from the ’30s. I’ll put felt inside and get really beautiful harmonics that are very soft. When there’s a little more energy and playfulness in a scene, I use another upright, an August Förster, also from the ’30s, that has a more upright classic, old-timey sound. And then there’s a Blüthner grand that gets used a lot when I need a rich low end.

The different pianos really bring a dimension and character to the show. If everything was recorded on the same piano, I think it would get old to hear that much piano in a score.

What are some examples of how you’ve used the different pianos in different scenes?

In season two, there’s a theme that comes through in the historical scenes [that show the Pfeffermans’ family in the early 1930s, before Maura’s mother and grandmother arrived in the U.S.]. When they’re traveling by boat, the music is the Blüthner, and it has a really deep, rich sound that carries a lot of weight to it. I’ll use that when I want to have more emotional weight to the sound.

There’s a theme that recurs in both seasons that happens when Sarah is alone in her father’s house. You see her just hanging around the house, looking at a book, emphasizing that she’s bored, and there’s a really light piano theme—that’s the Sabel with felt, and it has a really soft, homey feel to it.

Do you record your own music, or do you work with an engineer?

I do a lot of the recording myself. I have a great mixer, whose name is Maurizio Borgna. He has the studio next to mine, and occasionally he’ll help me do a little bit of recording, but mostly I do the recording and he does the mixing.

I record to Pro Tools, and I’ve got two AKG C12 mics that I found in Italy and brought them back to Berlin. They have a beautiful vintage sound. I’m using some Neve 1073 preamps, as well as some old Neumann 472s that are from the ’60s, and they sound great.

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I like getting into how things are recorded, how that effects the way you listen to it. You could play the same piece of music on a different piano, on a beautiful Steinway recorded in a studio, and it would sound good, but it might sound more interesting if you put felt and close-mic it with vintage mics, and you hear all of the mechanics. I think it’s interesting how the feel of the music changes, even the same piece of music.

Do you use any compression going in?

I use just a little bit, but I don’t usually like to hear compression on piano. I think it takes away a lot of the upper harmonics, and I don’t like to squash the sound. But sometimes when you do close miking, you’ll want a little bit—just make sure you don’t clip it. I really like a TubeTech compressor for that, because it does color the sound a bit, but it sounds very open. I’ll just set it so that it gives a little bit of gain and captures a bit of the transients that might be peaking a little.

Do you record all of the other instruments on your tracks as well?

We do everything there. The schedule is so fast that, if it doesn’t work in my studio, I have to figure out another way to make it happen. So I record the harmonium as well, vibraphone, electric guitar, bass, horns. I try to keep the palette minimal, and work with what I have so I can really play everything.

But there’s so much communication and collaboration when we’re creating this show. I’ll tell you a story that gives some insight into this process: In episode nine, there’s a beautiful Alice Bowman track that repeats. It’s called “Waiting,” and it plays in a scene in the forest where Nazis are burning books.

Alice recorded the song in a studio, and then they actually brought a piano into the scene and had her perform it live during the scene, too, along with some horn players who were playing on the set as well. Then they sent me all that music, and I added more horns, bass, harmonium, drums—a lot of other elements. So it’s a combination of my work, Alice recording in the studio, and music that was recorded on the set with just booms, all put together. It’s beautiful and it works so well because you really feel like the music is happening half in the scene and half out.