A Winged Victory For The Sullen: Grand Gestures

Ambient kingpins A Winged Victory For The Sullen talk us through the making of their epic soundtrack for the acclaimed ‘Invisible Cities’ multimedia theatre production 

We’ve all been there – agreeing to something that seems simple enough, only to be hit by the awful realisation that we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. Anyone who has suffered this particular cold  and sudden shock will have some sympathy for the recent plight of A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

When I catch up with Adam Wiltzie (one half of the duo) at his home in Belgium, my gentle and standard opening question about what the interviewee is doing that day opens a world of unexpected angst.

“Er, doing other interviews, and we also just finished… I don’t know  if Dustin mentioned the Beethoven 250th anniversary thing?” asks Wiltzie, referring to Dustin O’Halloran, the band’s other half.

Actually, he didn’t, but I’m intrigued.

“Yesterday was Beethoven’s birthday. He would have been 250 years old. So the BBC asked us to do a reworking of his fifth symphony. The one where you think, ‘Oh no, not that one!’. It’s an amazing piece but you know, it’s so… well, it’s a hard one. We were chuffed and very honoured, but five minutes after we got the stems and the recordings, the feeling turned to sheer horror and ‘Oh my god!’. I love Beethoven, but it’s almost beyond famous. It’s very difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard it.”

Luckily for Wiltzie and O’Halloran, having the entire orchestra’s separate stems – recordings made from multiple track mixes – meant they could “really get in and carve it up”.

“We ended up doing something completely different with it, something  we were happy with. That said, I am a bit of a realist. At some point, it’ll probably end up on YouTube and I’m not looking forward to reading the comments. But it’s all part of the new world we live in. You can’t please everybody, that’s for sure.”

The pair already had some experience in tackling unfeasibly ambitious concepts – their new album, ‘Invisible Cities’. It’s based on their 90-minute score for a massive multimedia-theatre production, directed by Leo Warner – video designer for the London Olympics’ opening ceremony. Adapted from Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel of the same name and encompassing theatre, music, dance, architectural design and visuals, ‘Invisible Cities’ was staged in a space roughly equivalent to the size of two football pitches when it premiered at the Manchester International Festival in July 2019.

“The book is quite famous, although not exactly on the same level as Beethoven,” says Wiltzie. “In literary circles it’s fairly unique. It’s like this 13th-century psychedelic travelogue of two guys barrelling through the universe and discussing these cities, most of which don’t exist. I was aware of it before working on this project and Dustin has spent a lot of time in Italy, so he knows of Calvino, who’s renowned there. 

“Also, we have another connection with it – a good friend of ours, the composer Ludovico Einaudi. In terms of modern classical, he’s massive.  He sells out the O2 Arena two nights in a row. It was his father who actually published the novel in 1972.”

Wiltzie and O’Halloran are no strangers to creating film scores. Wiltzie’s include ‘American Woman’, ‘Salero’, ‘The Yellow Birds’ and ‘Whitney’, the first officially authorised documentary of Whitney Houston’s life and untimely death. His music has also featured on everything from ‘Transformers: Dark  Of The Moon’ and ‘Godzilla’ to hit TV shows ranging from ‘House MD’ and ‘Nip/Tuck’ to ‘Top Boy’.

O’Halloran, meanwhile, has scored Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’, Drake Doremus’ ‘Like Crazy’ and ‘Transparent’, which won him a Primetime Emmy Award. He has frequently collaborated with Volker Bertelmann  (aka Hauschka), most notably on ‘Lion’ and last year’s ‘Ammonite’.

Having had mixed experiences in the sometimes highly controlled environment of music for mainstream film, both Wiltzie and O’Halloran pay tribute to ‘Invisible Cities’ director Warner and his skill at bringing out the best in the diverse groups of creatives he assembles.

“He’s good on these large-scale productions,” says Wiltzie. “He knows how to do it right in the sense that, if you bring a load of people into a collaboration and you like their style and what they do, then let them do what they want without micromanaging them. Everyone can be creative together. It’s the way these productions work. There were almost 100 people involved in this thing. It was massive.”

Plans to tour ‘Invisible Cities’ to Kuwait and Hong Kong remain on ice.  But we can at least lose ourselves in its expansive, evocative soundtrack, where Wiltzie’s guitar sound, routed through a sonic maze of effects and processes, intersects with O’Halloran’s more orchestral visions. And it’s all been achieved without “having the listener screaming, ‘It’s Zimmertime’,” jokes Wiltzie. 

So how do they actively avoid the obvious cliches and the temptation to slip into patterns tried and tested by others?

“I don’t know,” admits Wiltzie. “I think you think you’re avoiding them.”

Ultimately, he feels it’s for the listener rather than the composer to judge. Yet, even if it turns out to be more by instinct than design, the duo are definitely doing something right. Since releasing their self-titled debut via Erased Tapes in 2011, A Winged Victory For The Sullen have become a cult favourite with listeners from both sides of the increasingly blurred line between experimental ambient and the new vanguard of contemporary classical composers.

After a second studio album for Erased Tapes, 2014’s ‘Atomos’, they signed to current home Ninja Tune, who released ‘The Undivided Five’ in 2019. ‘Invisible Cities’ is out on their own label, Artificial Pinearch Manufacturing, by agreement with Ninja. Along the way, they’ve also played the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms at the invitation of Radio 6 Music presenter Mary Anne Hobbs, and scored independent film ‘Iris’, directed by Jalil Lespert.

Both men grew up in the US – O’Halloran in Los Angeles and  Wiltzie in Austin, Texas – and started off in more traditional band formats. O’Halloran brought out a string of albums with dreampop outfit Dévics, while Wiltzie was a founder member of 1990s drone legends Stars Of The Lid.

“Stars Of The Lid were pretty established,” says O’Halloran, speaking from Reykjavick, where he’s now based. “They released a lot of records on Kranky, which has had a solid life as a label with its connections to Touch And Go and the Chicago scene. It was a big influence for a lot of American artists.”

A self-taught pianist from the age of seven, O’Halloran discovered composition through the giants of classical. His teenage years were spent deep into darkwave, Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins and 4AD, followed later by more avant-garde classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Arvo Pärt and Claude Debussy. He seems to find it unremarkable that two souls from disparate corners of the US should end up on the same musical journey,  finally meeting around a decade ago. 

“There’s always a global consciousness going on with music,” he insists. “It’s just like the rhythm of a particular moment.” 

It was in Italy rather than America that they first met. O’Halloran had gone out there to record ‘Lumiere’, a solo piano album for FatCat offshoot 130701, while Wiltzie was touring the country with Sparklehorse. Mutual friend Francesco Donadello, the engineer and “sound scientist” whom the duo count as their unofficial third member, suggested they hook up. With O’Halloran about to head off for Berlin, he invited Wiltzie to join him and  see what they could come up with. 

“We never had any intention of doing an album, we just thought about writing stuff I could use for ‘Lumiere’,” he admits. “But we had such a good time hanging out, and in the four days we spent together we mapped out the whole first Winged Victory record. The seeds were planted very quickly.  We were just like, ‘Let’s go for it’.”

It’s an alliance that has remained as easy and friction-free as it began. O’Halloran believes their complementary skill sets make the partnership tick. O’Halloran brings pianos and “a castle” of analogue synths, Wiltzie the guitar and effects – with the results always heavily processed in “cycles of building up and stripping back”.

“I don’t do what he does and he doesn’t do what I do,” says O’Halloran.  “So we’re not fighting to do the same thing, which is why I think it’s worked  for so long. We never end up where we think it’s going to end up, and we never know where it’s going.”

Another aspect of their success must lie in what O’Halloran calls their  “old school approach” to recording locations. Rather like the glory days of  the 1960s and 70s, when bands would decamp to an exotic chateau in the South of France or a manor house in the leafy English home counties to  create their masterpiece, getting away from their respective studios is  a crucial part of their practice.

“We’ve always travelled to different acoustic spaces,” he says. “We’ve tried to make the recording process as much of a journey through sound as it can be. We found we were adding reverb to everything, and I was like, ‘What if we don’t use reverb? What if we go to places where we have real acoustics?’. So we ended up exploring a lot of churches and finding really particular pianos. On the first album, we travelled to Italy to use  this handmade Fazioli piano. There was one studio, Black Mirror in Udine,  that had a Fazioli F-308 with this incredible bass.”

Other locations included a dilapidated 14th-century villa outside Ferrara.

“It had its heyday in the 1980s and 90s, when a lot of big artists went  there to work,” says O’Halloran. “The whole place was falling apart. It was really creepy, but it was cool. It was an experience. Off the top of my head,  ‘Invisible Cities’ was made in Berlin, Iceland, Belgium and Budapest. 

“When we make records, many locations seem to find their way into our music and that’s become part of our process. Getting out of your space and into these strange environments, the food you eat, the conversations you have when you’re out and about… they inspire you. You play differently.”

Who knows when Adam Wiltzie’s and Dustin O’Halloran’s wanderlust will be satisfied once more? Both men say they’re convinced their current locations are just about the safest places to be in a pandemic. But, rather like those heroes of the psychedelic 13th-century travelogue they’ve soundtracked, they’ll surely be back on the road visiting cities both visible  and invisible, as soon as is humanly possible.

‘Invisible Cities’ is released by Artificial Pinearch Manufacturing

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