Vermont Arts Council

Art in the Time of Covid: Danielle O’Hallisey

Musician Danielle O’Hallisey, a longtime Burlingtonian until recently, expresses herself in myriad ways. As a composer, she has produced grand, atmospheric audio pieces for the purpose of film and video. As a solo guitarist, she has played live performances on her classical seven-string Godin acoustic. And as a member of her ensemble Yellow Sky, Danielle is accompanied by violin, cello, and viola in original performances inspired by the literary works of Stephen King.

A graphic reading, "'The greatest thing we can be allowed to do in this life is to serve a higher purpose, and for me, music is that purpose.' — Danielle O'Hallisey"

Danielle draws from diverse external influences, ranging from jazz/fusion legend and personal mentor Larry Coryell to Icelandic neoclassical composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. This range of inspiration can be heard in her hybrid creations, which often straddle multiple genres and styles. She blends acoustic and electronic sounds, balancing classical guitars and orchestral instruments with synthesizers, pedals, and effects. She has been awarded grants from the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Community Fund to help support her many creative endeavors.

Due to a series of post-Covid health setbacks, Danielle left the Green Mountain State last fall after almost four decades to live in a retirement community in Southern California. She moved to Vermont in 1984 because of its reputation for being a haven for artists of any medium.

Danielle shared her thoughts on art in the time of Covid.

How has the pandemic challenged your creative practice and/or business?

I find it ironic that for the year before the pandemic I’d slowly been reducing my office hours and increasing time performing and composing music. Initially it felt like I’d been clever enough to ramp things up just as a window would open up—all that downtime, between episodes of Tiger King and so on—to dive in head-first and make music my full-time focus. As it turns out though… I had some health problems stemming from an early infection with the virus and subsequent foul-ups in the ER, where burned-out staff mistook a severe heart attack for a panic attack.

As a result, I’ve had to get very light on my toes and make continual adjustments to my approach to things. Last summer I played my most gigs in years, as I performed with local jazz bands and did a few solo shows. This was the sort of renaissance that I’d thought might be the silver lining of the pandemic experience… until I had another heart attack and had to pause gigging because of not being able to carry around an amp and guitar.

All this time alone, though, has had a net positive impact. I’ve realigned my goals and interests such that composition can be a full-time endeavor. And since I’ve taken early retirement and moved to lower-cost housing, I’m able to squeak by, financially. The purpose of music has re-revealed itself to me, and I’m finding it a healing spiritual practice that might make a few bucks or get me a bit of notice, but doesn’t have to. It’s the daily challenge of sitting down with the experiences resonating in my spirit and trying to transcribe those into music that matters, and that is where my focus lies.

Danielle performs an improvised piece live at Espresso Bueno in Barre, Vermont.

How have you found strength or support since the pandemic began?

There’s plenty of love and support in the world, and throughout my ordeal I’ve been able to make new friends and reconnect with old ones, sharing the experiences of a difficult time in a difficult world with those around me. Finding strength… has meant learning to accept my own vulnerability, learning to allow myself to be afraid and to hurt. I pray, meditate, and do my best to make peace with the past, facing each day’s challenges, opportunities, and lessons as they unfold (and accepting that, more often than not, those things are all to be found in the same events).

I won’t try to fool anyone into thinking that it’s been easy for me though. I’m not proud to say that there have been times that I considered ending it. But—as Buddhists, Christian mystics, Sufis and other wise people have said—the purpose of life is to die to oneself; to surrender the ego’s impression of this life in order to embrace its truths, that hide in plain sight. Strife is just one more tool in the effort to attain that goal. And—as Pablo Picasso, another of those wise people I mentioned, once said—“Art is a lie, that helps us to see the Truth.” We’re all making choices to see the path more clearly, or to close our eyes, every waking minute. Music is the lie that helps me to try to see…

How have you changed as an artist over the years?

In looking back over the years, I’m most amazed by what didn’t change. I taught guitar at the then-named Johnson State College in the late eighties, composing as more of a refuge than anything else. Little of my work was performed, and only by whatever ensemble I was able to put together for staff concerts. Vermont’s long winters cry out to us non‑sports‑enthusiasts to find a purpose during the long nights, and every time I picked up my guitar, music just seemed to spill out. Original music plumbing the depths of the darkness around me, or yearning for the brief light and warmth of summer. Capturing these moments has become my purpose in life.

What has changed is this: my attitude toward my relationship with capital-M Music. I have slowly come to realize that I’ve always had the gift to tap into something unimaginably large, but only when willing to accept the unimaginable littleness of who and what I am. I’m not talking about Humility per se, although that is part of it. What I’m referring to can be summed up by legendary guitarist John McLaughlin, speaking at a Boston concert I attended several years ago. John is known as an enigmatic genius who speaks little onstage, staring at his third eye while summoning music from the depths of his cosmic connection and letting his guitar do all the communication required. On this occasion, he walked up to the mic and (gasp!) spoke to the audience. Gesturing over his shoulder at his band (the 4th Dimension), he shared a stunned look and a profound realization. “Look at these people,” he urged. “These people have dedicated their lives to music!” And there it was, the thing I had forgotten; that the greatest thing we can be allowed to do in this life is to serve a higher purpose, and for me, Music is that purpose. Every time I’ve asked why Music wasn’t serving me better, I was shouting into the vacuum of my own personal abyss, one that is sadly shared by many people.

Danielle performs in 2016 with her classical ensemble Yellow Sky.

What are your plans or hopes for the future?

I apologize for the bluntness, but since I had my fifth heart attack in under two years only a week ago, I can’t say what will happen to me in these next years. Performances that were scheduled for 2020 are still being rescheduled, with the most notable item on my to-do list being the upcoming recording of a twelve-movement ode to an overlooked segment of society, Women of Aeronautics (funding for this recording was provided by the Vermont Arts Council with a Creation Grant). That is intended to be composited with the existing video designed to be shown behind Vermont’s own TURN Music during live performance, and later turned into a documentary.

In the past week I’ve started composing a very personal piece for another of Vermont’s fine musicians whom I miss dearly, and hope to be there to hear its premier, whenever that happens. I’ve enrolled in a six-month course for composers who want to work in film and television, called the Momentum program, starting in January of 2023. If I’m still here it will be a wonderful experience and might begin to fill the void left behind when I departed New England and left behind the Community of Sound, Z-Jaz, and the many other fine musicians I’d come to love. As a recent survivor of a Near-Death Experience, I’ve been asked by my childhood friend, author Rob A. Gentile, to work on a planned film about his NDE from his book Quarks of Light, providing music and perhaps a bit of collaboration on the enormous undertaking.

Someday, maybe soon, I will depart this body and will take with me the Love I’ve learned to nurture, and the understanding of the value of serving that which is bigger than ourselves. And those things will lead me back here, as they must. Maybe next time around I’ll start life in the Green Mountain State. A child could do far worse than grow up in these snowy mountains.

Visit Danielle’s website.
Find Danielle’s music on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube.
Listen to Danielle’s interview on Vermont Public Radio.