From Minimalism to Latin grooves – The Perrin Siblings

Written by: Julian Maynard-Smith

There’s not a trace of sibling rivalry as Lola and Roland Perrin talk about how their very different approaches to composing and performing make for the perfect complement…

Lola and Roland Perrin share the same parents – and the same choice of instrument, the piano. They are also both composers as well as performers. But their musical approaches are markedly different, as their varied double bill at the Purcell Room on 15 March attests.

Lola’s delicate, meditative compositions, often built from deceptively simple motifs, have been compared with the works of composers and performers as diverse as Steve Reich and Keith Jarrett – ‘minimalism with emotion’, to paraphrase one of Lola’s own descriptions of her music. Her performances are often accompanied by contemplative and abstract video projections. Roland’s sound world is more extrovert, his Blue Planet Orchestra performing world grooves and witty arrangements that bring to life ‘what if?’ ideas such as ‘What if Scott Joplin had been Cuban?’ or ‘What if Beethoven had been Spanish?’

The evening will begin with Lola debuting a new solo piano work, The Silver Suite. She will then be joined by her brother for the world premiere of G-Mass, a work for two pianos that will feature a video projection by The Gray Circle, a London-based visual design company. “It will be the first time we’ve ever played a two-piano work together,” says Lola with a smile in her voice. “He’s my big brother and I’m in charge because I wrote the music!”

For the second half of the concert the roles are reversed, with Lola playing her brother’s music on one song. “I’ll be playing in his band and Roland will be playing the accordion. He’s normally at the piano one hundred percent of the time. It really is a double bill. My own work is very rooted in visual arts, some connection with something I’ve picked or something that’s picked me.”

Lola’s use of visual inspiration for her musical compositions began with Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning”, “… only because I was living on a similar-looking street and trying to put into music the relationship issues and feelings I was having. This painting has a row of shops at dawn, and you don’t see any people but you sense them. So I moved from house to house, writing different pieces about each house. Then I went and visited the photos of Ansel Adams and wrote a suite of nine pieces based on them.”

Silver Suite was also inspired by the work of an artist: Carsten Hoeller’s “Test Site”, the tubular, spiral slides currently on exhibition at Tate Modern. Perhaps surprisingly for a composer whose music is reflective and peaceful, the primary emotion that the exhibit inspired in Lola was anger. “I felt the frustration of the attendants controlling the crowds – annoyed that they were being put through this scrum.” Lola began wondering, “What are these slides about? And does he intend us to be angry and uncomfortable?”

Lola discussed her thoughts about the installation with a couple of artists, Julia Warr and Paul Hearn. “Paul thought it was about abandoning yourself to gravity, so I inverted that, because Hoeller’s work is all about inversion. So my first piece is called Abandon. The second piece, because one of the slides from a particular angle looks like a trumpet, is called Sound of Silver – it’s about letting yourself freely flow in the slide. For the third piece, I kept having this hymn coming back to me and I thought why? Julia said she imagined Test Site at night with candles, with a boy’s choir. For her, it’s something to do with birth, about futurism. With the left hand, I lifted it up so all the notes were playing within the range of a boy’s choir. And when I did that, a sound right from the future came out! Which is exactly what Julia was talking about. Maybe like Ligeti or Arvo Pärt – it’s very dissonant. The last piece is called Descent Into. Running through my mind, always, is Escher. Test Site is like an Escher because you go down, file up, go down, file up, so you’re in this kind of Escher experience. Our society is descending; we’re paying our leaders so that they can steal someone else’s country. So it’s a metaphor for going blindly down but thinking we have to have a party as we’re going down. So my piece is very ironic.”

Lola’s involvement with the video projections of The Gray Circle began after Thomas Gray attended one of Lola’s concerts, and decided to make some projections for Perpetual Motion, a suite of compositions featured on her latest CD, Fragile Light. Another person who was persuaded to create films for Lola after hearing her perform was the acclaimed Indian film director Mahesh Mathai, whose first feature was Bhopal Express, about the Union Carbide scandal. “He’s India’s best features editor, who threw in the towel to come to London,” explains Lola. “I was playing at Ray’s Jazz (music shop in Foyle’s bookshop) on an upright piano. I was thinking he’d do the Thomas Gray thing, but he went away and made an 18-minute film! I’m going to perform this after the Purcell Room in my next show – it’s called The Wind is Older Than the World.” This evocative, poetic title came from Lola’s younger son who, she believes, has inherited her grandfather’s literary leanings. “My grandfather was the first Jewish bus driver in New York; he wrote seven novels but couldn’t get published and burnt them before he died. My son is my muse.”

Another startling observation from Lola’s son occurred after the death of her mother, when he asked what had happened to the space she used to occupy. “That was the beginning of going down the route of Rachael Whiteread, the idea of containing a space.” Rachel Whiteread, the first woman to win the Turner Prize, is best known for her sculptures made from casts of spaces, of which the most famous is probably House, a concrete cast of the space inside a Victorian house. “Rachel Whiteread was in the Arctic at the time and I began writing thinking of the space inside an iceberg. I did a whole suite based on this idea of containing space. A lot of the work wouldn’t have existed without these artists.”

Compositions inspired by contained spaces include the suite Music from Fragile Light Spaces, which appears on Lola’s latest CD. “I made that CD because I had a booking with the lovely Serious. It was self-funded. I’m very pleased with it, and I got distribution for it. It’s a calling card, no marketing. Some of it’s been used on BBC3, but there’s no music budget; I’ve got no money from it but I get a credit. I want it to creep into the public consciousness.” Lola’s music also appears on XFM. “They get over 6.5 million listeners. It’s run from the States but it’s international. I’ve got a few gigs in Europe because of it. I have a particular sound and I’m very careful to stick to that sound. I have rules – if something’s going to break one of the rules, I reject it.”

When I ask Lola what those rules are, she replies, “I have to feel very moved to accept a musical idea. I have to feel convinced I wrote it myself. It’s got to be challenging, have some dissonance, a balance. Not repetition without emotion, which characterises minimalism. I like to stretch people’s imaginations but not make music that makes people feel they’re being hit over the head, or feel that it’s a competition like a football match, scoring a goal. There’s a lot of competition in bands; I couldn’t stand this.”

I ask Lola who her main influences are. “Probably Satie, because I remember the power of that simplicity and his life. He was eccentric but simple, and lived in one room because he said you can only be in one room at one time. I like his style. But the really big influences are the ECM (record label) composers. I had to stop listening to them, because I was dreaming about them. Eberhard Weber – I love him so much! I wrote a piece to mark his 65th birthday as I was going to be performing during the birthday celebrations, right near where he lives in Germany. In the piece I wrote, the left-hand part is him, and the right-hand part is me. It moves onto where I’m actually dancing with him. It’s called Light Trails. I also love Jan Garbarek, and Tutu (Miles Davis album) – it marks this bravery you get in Chagall. And Haydn. I’ve been very affected by his life, and the way he was isolated off in the countryside with his own orchestra. He didn’t really hear anyone else’s music, but he heard his own music every day.”

I ask Roland for his thoughts on the concert. “In terms of serious entertainment, its very different. I think it feels like a really good show, in that you’ve got Lola’s style of music with the film projections: sort of inward, and a lot of my stuff is very outward. Groove is very important to me,” he adds, stressing the importance of world music on his musical universe. “As a combination of styles, it works well, especially with her going first.

“It’s funny, but when I was a kid – Lola’s younger by almost three years – she was always way ahead of me in terms of passing grades and ability. And although I’m a very big classical music fan and I listen to it all the time, and I learnt a lot of what I do from classical music, I didn’t really click with music until I joined a blues/rock band at school. Something very quickly went off in my head and I knew music was what I wanted to do with my life. Although that led me to jazz, subsequently I did get back to classical music. She’s had kids, and that’s a detour and a pressure I haven’t had to deal with. It’s a much more solitary pursuit for her than it is for me. As a jazz composer, you have to absorb and capitalise on what the musicians you hire can do. Although she has written orchestral work and it’s really good, my music is more ensemble-oriented and her’s soloistic.”

Roland’s Blue Planet Orchestra blends Latin, Caribbean, African, jazz and European classical music. “You can have a kind of classical music that grooves. Normally with groove music, the construction is very simple, and if you’re a composer you’re an architect and what you’re interested in is creating themes and harmonies and developing them, and trying to construct almost a city in sound. And that’s the absolute joy of being a composer: telling a story, being like an architect.

“Classical musicians think that as soon as you can tap your feet to it, it’s lowbrow. But it’s very spiritual, very fundamental to being human. It’s a common currency – to most people now, music without groove doesn’t mean anything. If you do it well you don’t hear the construction. It’s not as if it’s anything intellectually challenging. The jazz thing of theme and solos? I’m completely bored with that unless it’s the Miles Davis Quintet.”

Roland is particularly unhappy when the integrity of a musical performance is destroyed by soloists descending to crowd-pleasing tactics – but argues that it is not only jazz performers that can be guilty of this. “There’s a parallel with 19th century opera. A lot of the lesser singers became stars and would mess around with the arias. People would clap and you’d lose the atmosphere. It was like the lunatics taking over the asylum, with solos taking over.”

So does Roland rein in his musicians in his compositional structures? “I’m pretty prescriptive, and the musicians I work with are happy to do that. My drummer is from Brazil, and my bass player is Cuban. We play a lot as a trio, so we’re able to gather ideas. For example we can play a standard and it will go in one direction and I’ll think, that’s a good idea for a composition. If you want to be a composer, you have to approach it in the same way a musician learns his instrument. You have to write and write and write. If you say I’m not going to do head-solos-head, you have a problem to solve, and you have to build up a compositional technique. There’s any number of brilliant jazz musicians who are lousy composers. Ellington and Monk didn’t set themselves up against Bud Powell and Art Tatum – they considered themselves composers.

“I’m onto something really special now. I’m giving people a beautiful present with beautiful wrapping paper, but substantial. But it’s difficult to find my niche. If I set myself up on a jazz stage, people might think, ‘Where’s your saxophone hero?’ But if I’m on a classical stage it’s, ‘Why are you using I-IV-V harmonies and not Schoenberg? Why’s it grooving?’ To open certain doors it’s a bit harder, but artistically I can live for another 200 years and not run out of ideas.”

One of Roland’s most intriguing ideas is creating a series of musical ‘what-if’ performances: for example, reworking Für Elise by imagining how it would have sounded had Beethoven been Spanish. “I‘ve gathered a lot of stylistic information, so I pretty much know and I’m able to practise Cuban, South African and Brazilian music, to the extent that I can use that language. So it’s really fun: if you have a piece of music in C major, what if you play it in C minor? And what if you apply the rules of Brazilian rhythm?” Reflecting on his musical answer to “What if Scott Joplin had been Cuban?” Roland observes, “The way that Scott Joplin works, the piano is not that far from the Cuban style in terms of how you’re hands are spaced, so you think, ‘there’s a connection here’. They both come from European classical music being adapted by black people. I never want to get into the ethnomusicality of it, but I can feel that there’s a connection.

“There’s a classical equivalent to the Real Book (a book of tune-plus-chords transcriptions for jazz musicians) but for classical music – just the themes with the chords.” This liberates Roland from the original ‘as written’ chord voicings. “I’ll play A minor as I want to. So you just make it your own.”

Roland has a new album, Suite Dreams, coming out on 15 March – the same day as the double-bill concert with Lola. “It’s not really a concept album, but there are things linking it together. It starts with a lullaby, and the next track is called Yellow Train – and that’s about a vision of an island that you could go to as an escape from the horrors of the modern world. It’s a tropical island with a train that goes around the island with only one train station. I think of it as defining what a train is for. We have so much stress and compulsion, with having to make a living. It’s just a happy yellow train, and you end up where you started. It’s also getting away from everything being goal-related, which turns off spirituality, the non-verbal feeling world.

“A newish addition to the band is my singer, who’s called V. I’m really happy with the way I’ve integrated her into the music. I’m also very happy with the development of the themes. For one stretto I rewrote a section from the previous part, and wrote a new melody over it: I did a version of a previous section in a different way. I don’t like collage. If you have a novel, when you reach chapter 8 you’re not going to introduce a new character. You don’t just keep introducing new ideas. I’ve also written a big chorus piece based on the poems of Bukowski; he said he liked Mahler because he had the courage to wander.”

By mixing minimalism with improvisation and video projections, and European classicism with Latin-American rhythms, it sounds like the Perrin Siblings share Bukowski’s and Mahler’s wanderlust.

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