My first guest post this year features American composer and pianist Lola Perrin. Over the past few years, Lola, who is a popular composer and performer, has been engaged in the serious worldwide issue of climate change. More recently Lola has been incorporating climate change in her work and in her concerts, and in the following interview, hosted by independent curator and writer Rob La Frenais, she discusses her latest composition.
Rob La Frenais: I want to talk about your new suite – Music From Our Times, which you composed, inspired by many of the climate protests of last year. I noticed you’re playing Music From Our Times in Berlin. Does this represent a shift in your approach this year?
Lola Perrin: As I became more engaged in the climate emergency I’ve been integrating audience conversation into my piano suites and concerts to increase dialogue with guest speakers and audiences about action on global heating. This new suite still engages with the climate problem, but is without any talking, so yes – there is a shift. After months of activism within Extinction Rebellion I wanted to capture something about the humanity of the movement, from all the people I’d met and others I’d read about across the world. Even though there’s no talking, I still wanted an aspect of audience participation so I ask audience members to announce the titles of the pieces. At the premiere I made short comments from the piano before some of the piece – that’s the only speaking that takes place.
RLF: I heard Music From Our Times at Markson Pianos Concert Series in a church in London and I found it very emotional. Can you tell me about some of the emotions that were behind it?
LP: It was influenced by a year of becoming close to other activists within the movement who had initially been strangers, witnessing and sharing their extreme emotions around the climate and planetary emergency. So, I took the feelings that I was observing in others and also experiencing myself and wrote the music.
RLF: So let’s look at some of the titles for example, Ramón – otherwise known as We Are Rising. To me that was a very strong and, again, very emotive piece. Can you tell me something about what inspired that?
LP: I met Ramón through Extinction Rebellion and he comes from a very creative background. He is a performer, an artist and a full time activist. He’s somebody who puts himself forward to support you when you’re creating some kind of artistic response to the emergency – a response to go onto the streets that the public will also experience. He just seems to be representative to me of so many people who are activists now, who just come out of nowhere and and give unbelievable amounts of support for no personal gain, or recognition. They enable others to respond in ways that share this message deeper into society – that we are in such an emergency – and that we all need to help awaken each other. So for me Ramón is a sort of representation of the energy and ceaseless action we are seeing in some members of the human race, at this time in history, who have woken up to the reality that we just have to use whatever talent or ability we possess to drive forward change. What I did was to take his distinctive energy – as a representation of everybody’s energy – and I created a churning piece of music which has ceaseless energy and is designed to delight and also be a bit glamorous.
RLF: To me it is definitely a churning piece of work. When you composed Music From Our Times I got the sense that you composed it quite quickly and in quite an inspired way. Can you tell me something about your process of composition?
LP: I’m spending less time composing and more time using my music skills to be an activist. I miss composing, in the few times I write music now, the music tends to just flow out. I’m much more focussed. I don’t have to go through a lot of experimentation. When I went to write this suite it just came through me and I felt shocked by that. It was like the pieces were already formed and I just had to play them and then get my pencil out and write them down. It was something that I channelled – many composers have written about this – Stravinsky said he’d channelled the Rite of Spring. I had a similar experience when I wrote a soundtrack for a silent film – The Wind. I really was aware that this time this music just came to me like a form of possession.
RLP: I’m going to ask you about another one of these titles, Avoiding Apocalypse At All Costs. We’re sitting here with the Australian bushfires going out of control and reportedly half a billion animals being killed and basically a whole continent in crisis because of clear climate emergency. Tell me, was this a premonition when you wrote a title like this? I mean, we really are reaching the tipping point rather fast, it would seem.
LP: We also have babies being floated in boxes in Jakarta right now, being floated to safety by responders who are trying to walk while up to their necks in water. We also have Jeff Bezos of Amazon threatening to sack any of his employees who are environmental activists. So we have a major problem. We have such dissonance in our society and yes, we’re reaching the tipping point. We may be past it according to Australian scientist Dr Joëlle Gergis, who wrote about this in the Guardian a couple of days ago. When I composed Avoiding Apocalypse At All Costs, actually what was in my mind were the samba bands of Extinction Rebellion that have spread throughout the world. There are Extinction Rebellion samba bands in many countries now and they beat this rhythm like a death cry to spread the news of the apocalypse because, as we know, mainstream media is very reticent to tell the truth about our situation on Earth. The piece begins with a dark samba feel at the lowest notes of the piano so you can’t really define any of the tones, just get the sense of a dark, over-pedalled rhythm. This builds into an ostinato in the centre of the keyboard, a short insistent phrase that might seem to get louder, softer, louder, and so on – like we’re losing some kind of bearing. But a tune bursts through, all a little ironic.
RLF: Ice Retreat. Can you tell me what this one’s about?
LP: To me, one form of activism is the huge science project run by the British Antarctic Survey in the furthest reaches of Antarctica. It’s very difficult to get there, it takes a long time, and it has very harsh conditions so you can only be there for two months each year. The survey is mid-way through a five year study to examine the Thwaites ice sheet, to work out the extent of its collapse. If it completely collapses, Cambridge – where the British Antarctic Survey is based – will be underwater. In Ice Retreat I’m thinking about the scientists visiting Thwaites and imagining how they are feeling when witnessing new data, seeing how the majesty of the ice has its own life, and how that life is now receding. The piece is played slowly, slowly, there’s a constant rhythm within the left hand, reminiscent of Satie. The right hand alternates higher note arpeggiation with a descending motif that reduces itself into an amplifying, disturbing sound territory, it’s so slow and controlled but it’s out of our control; the colossal ice is simply melting, it’s retreating and there’s a whole process within that which is enormous and beyond us. At the premiere this piece drove my audience to tears, I actually started crying at the piano because I began to really feel that ice retreat and reversing that melt feels beyond anything we can do.
RLF: So Music From Our Times is going to have its European premiere next month in Berlin. How do you think how do you think it’s going to go down in Berlin?
LP: I hope they will like it – of course! It needs deep listening and German jazz audiences are really into that. I’m looking forward to going back to Kunstfabrik Schlot where I last performed my earlier piano suites over a decade ago. I’m also returning with a specially-made, new projection by activist filmmakers Phil Maxwell and Hazuan Hashim, and reviving our collaborative work I played last time at Schlot. The piano there is really excellent and I like this type of venue, it accommodates musicians like me who are not really in identifiable categories.
RLF: Last year there was a massive climate demonstration in Berlin by the Brandenburg Gate which I believe you were at. Did that experience influence Music From Our Times?
LP: There’s one piece which I think particularly relates to my Berlin experience of joining their climate march – Change can happen very fast. This is a kind of a modernist, sharp piece, there’s some surprising, short chord sequences and it’s a very quick sequence of ideas sort of jammed together, because what I mean by ‘change can happen very fast’ is that tipping points can be reached very suddenly – climate change is not linear – but also there’s another type of change that can be very fast, and by that I mean change within society. Yes, change can happen very fast, and let’s hope it’s the right one.
RLF: Announcing the Apollo programme, President Kennedy announced in 1961 the almost impossible task of landing on the Moon by the end of the decade, committing the US government to allocate 4 percent of it spending and employing 400,000 people on one single project. Do we need something like this to avert the climate catastrophe?
LP: Your analogy is great. The Apollo programme was initially dismissed as impossible; even prominent NASA scientists didn’t believe in it. But look what happened once we convinced ourselves that we could do it – we got to the Moon! Let’s learn from this, and other historical examples of seemingly insurmountable ideas becoming reality. Yes, we need an Apollo-like project, but in reverse. Rather than focus on how to leave Earth, we now need a decade-long worldwide project to keep us on the Earth.
Lola Perrin performs at Kunstfabrik Schlot, Berlin 4th February 2020:
Piano Suite XI ‘Music from our Times’ (Lola Perrin 2019)
Part 1 Avoiding apocalypse at all costs
Part 2 The writing’s on the wall (and Rebels put it up there in the night)
Part 3 Ice Retreat
Part 4 Woke Folk
Part 5 In memoriam
Part 6 Change can happen very fast
Part 7 Ramón – otherwise known as We Are Rising
Part 8 Love and Rage
Listen to a live recording from the premiere here:
Lola Perrin is published by Lola Perrin Sheet Music and distributed by Spartan Press
Find out more at http://www.lolaperrin.com
Lola is the founder of ClimateKeys. Find out more at http://www.climatekeys.com
Lola Perrin is also composer-in-residence at Markson Pianos.
Find out more about Rob La Frenais at http://www.roblafrenais.info
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.