When Adam Wiltzie put the skids on ambient band Stars of the Lid back in 2007, fresh inspiration arrived almost immediately following a chance backstage meeting with prolific Emmy Award-winning composer Dustin O’Halloran. Combining Wiltzie’s ambient guitar drones and O’Halloran’s sparse piano, the duo recorded their eponymous debut album in a variety of large acoustic spaces in studios across Europe.
The duo then took their sound into a more electronic-oriented direction under the guidance of Wiltzie’s long-time sound engineer Francesco Donadello, releasing further ambient albums Atomos (2013) and The Undivided Five (2019). In-between, the collective have scored two movies (Iris and God’s Own Country) and more recently worked with video designer Leo Warner for a theatre production at the Manchester International Festival. Titled Invisible Cities, the original score has been condensed to create a richly expansive ambient album.
Did you pause Stars of the Lid because you wanted to spread your wings and collaborate?
“We’d have to go back to around 2007 for the last Stars of the Lid record. I was a little burned out having done this project since the early ’90s and didn’t consciously take a pause, I just felt like branching out and doing something different. I was playing with a band called Sparklehorse and the Winged Victory for the Sullen thing happened around the end of that tour. We were down in Bologna, Italy and our sound engineer brought Dustin O’Halloran to the show. We just clicked – it’s really easy to write music together.”
Like your second album Atomos, Invisible Cities was originally a commissioned score. In this case, a multimedia stage production…
“Last March we started mixing our album The Undivided Five in Berlin at the same time the job dropped from 59 Productions to do this soundtrack for the Manchester Festival. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. Dustin was off scoring a BBC TV show called A Christmas Carol and had to go deep into that, so I took the lead on Invisible Cities.”
Who are 59 Productions?
“They worked with Danny Boyle on the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and do these really bombastic theatrical shows mixed with video. The Manchester Festival arrives every two years, so we basically had to do the whole score in about three months to hit the premiere in the first week of July. We just blindly went forward with it.”
You worked with video designer Leo Warner. What did your early discussions revolve around in terms of bringing his vision to reality?
“It’s a theatre production mixed with dance production – a psychedelic 13th-century travelogue based on a novel by Italo Calvino. They rehearsed at the old Mayfield Train Depot in Manchester, which is the size of two football pitches split into four chunks. The set changes took so long because they had to create barriers with video projection. Because of how the set changes linked together we did almost two hours of music. The show was extremely complicated, but we had the easy part because we just had to do the music. It was supposed to go on tour after the premiere in Manchester, but then Covid hit so everything stopped.”
Writing two hours of music for such a wide ranging production sounds a big commitment
“If you look at the full arc of everything that went on I felt relieved I was only in charge of the music. I’ve never been so impressed with a director because Leo had to keep his cool with so much going on. There was almost 100 people working on the production but he had the ability not to micromanage people, and when you’re not being micro-managed it’s amazing how much more creative you can be. Ultimately, that’s what all artists want – you don’t want it to feel like a job. For us, there were obviously challenges in keeping the audience interested over two hours. The Atomos album you mentioned was strictly dance and music, but this one was much bigger. They hired a scriptwriter, so it was just like working on a film score. I was following that more than anything but had a little more freedom to work on sound design.”
Do you feel that the soundtrack/theatre production industry has become more willing to work with leftfield artists like yourself?
“There’s definitely been a shift in directors having a little more freedom to choose who they want to work with. With all the money that’s involved, productions are often independently funded away from the studio system so there’s freedom to create more variation. I’m not a classically trained film composer, and neither is Dustin, but we are finding that people are up for a little more experimentation. I’m not going to be hired to make Meet the Fockers 4 that’s for sure – I don’t have the happy thermometer [laughs]. I’m always happiest when I’m miserable. I listened to Brian Eno when I was a kid and my musical tastes haven’t changed much since then.”
The original stage show was 90 minutes and the album’s half that time. Did you have to create a more album-friendly format?
“Imagine the stage being a T-shape with the audience split into four sections with screens coming down for the set changes. I had to create all these mini symphonies for the set change breaks but felt we’d have to edit the music to suit people sitting on their couch at home listening to two sides of vinyl. After Covid hit was the perfect time to condense the music we’d recorded, mix and release it. It was fun going back in and trying to sculpt the music into a 45-minute format.”
Is it ‘easier’ to work on condensed pieces rather than lengthier, structureless ambient tracks?
“It’s something Dustin and I have been talking about for a few years now. I remember on the second Stars of the Lid record there’s a 20-minute long piece because we didn’t have anything to write to picture. It could have gone on longer but wouldn’t fit on the CD. Since we’ve gotten into scoring for film and TV a lot of the time you need to write for 30 seconds to a minute and we’ve got really good at that, but once you’re in that zone it’s extremely difficult to get out of. When we started writing The Undivided Five it took us about six months to rearrange our heads because we no longer needed to chop off a piece of music at two minutes. That’s definitely a headspace you need to get into because it doesn’t happen automatically.”
How do you get into that headspace?
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