All About Jazz JUNE 19, 2007 - by John Eyles


Born in New York (with Ukrainian and Hungarian roots), and educated in Switzerland, pianist Lola Perrin is now based in London. Following an early career producing soundtracks for television she went into a period of musical isolation until she launched her solo career in 2003. Ever since, she has attracted increasing attention across Europe as a performer and composer.

In the autumn of 2006, on a double bill with her brother Roland, she played at Spitz on the closing night of the London Jazz Festival, to rave reviews. Her music has affinities with jazz, classical and minimalism, and is mainly inspired by visual artists. Perrin collaborates frequently with film makers, and the results are a feature of her live performances.

Lola Perrin has released two albums to date, Perpetual Motion (Blue Planet, 2003) and Fragile Light (World Quarter Music, 2006). She is performing at the First International Conference on Minimalist Music at Bangor University in September 2007.

All About Jazz: You started learning the piano aged four, which was classical training. You've said you were a refugee from classical training...

Lola Perrin: I had a very good piano teacher. When I was about fourteen I wrote some music that unfortunately got lost. It probably wasn't any good but it would be really nice to see it now. I think I wrote about two pieces, very short. I got into university as a musicologist, and it just didn't work out at all. None of it, not one aspect of being at university worked out for me. That was at York. Socially it was a disaster. I got into a really big pickle with the department over my non-attendance. A very bad situation with an individual, which kind of forced me to leave the course. I could've gone back a year later, but I didn't want to.

I will never go back to York. In addition, I was really a misfit in the department - a lot of people have felt that about that particular university. And maybe studying music in general, a lot of people feel like misfits. It's not a good place to be because music is such a powerful emotion that if there's unhappiness around or just discontentment around, the process of studying it or doing it or being in it, you cannot put that side by side with the immense feeling that you get from listening to it or studying it, which can be very rewarding.

So the whole thing was very odd. While I was there I started writing again; that was when I started composing, and almost immediately I got a little band together with, as usual, non-music students. One of my very good friends, who was an English graduate, got us a really big commission from [Britain's] Channel 4, to make a Cutting Edge documentary about women in prison, quite a big budget. She was working on that for about a year. It seemed like a good way out for me, to slip away from the course.

AAJ: Was the first time you'd done that on the Cutting Edge thing?

LP: It was a collaborative thing. A lot of the music was not collaborative but the process was collaborative. I worked with some of the women who were featured in the drama documentary. I developed a couple of the music pieces with women who happened to be creative. The program was about how most women go to prison for things like non-payment of fines. This was a few years ago but it's still true...

AAJ: So what was the music like?

LP: It was very dynamic jazz, without performances being improvised. I did that and then I did four or five other soundtracks, some for that particular director, some for other directors. But I found the combination of trying to find the work and then actually doing the work [laughs] not very rewarding. My interest is not in production, it's not in post-production. I'm really glad I had that experience, but I did dislike it. I don't want to be confined. At the end of the day, I didn't think the music that I was doing was very good. I didn't really rate it. So I thought OK, I'll step back a bit and take the pressure off myself and really try and work out what kind of composer I am. And that took a long long long... long time.

AAJ: When you say it wasn't very good, was that because of the constraints, or the way you had to produce it? What was dissatisfying about it?

LP: The constraints. Having a timetable. Knowing that in three minutes, two and a half seconds you have to stop that particular emotion. Some composers do that and revel in it. I was discovering that I wasn't really into that at that time, although nowadays I think I want to do this work again, now I've developed my sound. It was hours and hours and hours of work, and then rewrites and then always going back to the first sound that the director had rejected, "Oh actually. I want that first idea you ever showed me."

I'm trying to write something like me, even though I don't know what "me" is. That's why there was a bit of conflict there.

AAJ: You say that the music was jazzish. So, in the run-up to going to university, what sort of things were your influences? What were you listening to?

LP: I was completely drowning in ECM. Loved it. Just ECM. Any ECM album. And also some Bill Evans. I'd overdose on those albums - Pat Metheny, Eberhard Weber, Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, some Chick Corea - actually, a lot of Chick Corea, really a lot - Gary Burton, people who started the ECM thing. Then ECM went a bit more spacey, but at the beginning it was much more dynamic. I had an over-emotional response to it, and I'm glad I did. It really got through to me, really moved me a lot.

AAJ: There was a very distinctive ECM sound and style.

LP: That's down to Manfred Eicher. He's got very particular recordings techniques. I'm not sure what's happening to the label now; I think it is still very distinctive. They're quite into electronica now, but there's always a dominant acoustic instrument within that, driving it. They just recorded Nik Bärtsch's Ronin; he's a Swiss-German pianist - I think they're all Swiss-German. They played at the London Jazz Festival at the Purcell Room and the Berlin Jazz Festival. I opened for them in Belgium. I was really knocked out by their show, although it's not completely my cup of tea.

The ECM road show was fantastic. There were sound people and lighting people hired by the label to do everything. You were looking at a rock show. Really incredible. You hear some funny things about ECM, that they pick up artists and record them but then they don't really do much to help them. But I don't know how true that is, as these people had an awful lot of support.

AAJ: I heard that from Kenny Wheeler; [LP: I love Kenny Wheeler!] he had quite a lot of albums out on ECM. He feels like he has been airbrushed out of history by ECM. He's really quite hurt by the way he's been treated by them...

LP: I heard that from a promoter, a very important promoter in Germany; she said, "Don't go to ECM. They might sign you, maybe, maybe not. But if they sign you, they'll drop you. Even if you've got about five albums, in between they'll just drop you." Also, someone at ECM said that Manfred Eicher is busy until 2017. How do they even know he'll be alive...

AAJ: OK. You decided that you were not a natural soundtrack writer at that time. So what happened next?

LP: I had a child and then when my child was three months old I made the decision then that I was really going to try and compose. I didn't care how many years it was going to take me. That was my mission. And I wrote my first piano suite pretty quickly. I thought that was all right. I was living in Balham, in a beautiful street, all the houses were designed by the same architect, in a big estate, and it was like an Edward Hopper painting. So it was about five in the morning, in the summer, the sun was up, it was very light and I was craning my neck out the window looking for the father of my kid to come home. I noticed that the street was very quiet and it just reminded me of the Hopper painting. So I basically took that emotion, feeling really... whatever I was feeling... you're in love with someone and you don't know if they've had an accident or what, you know... and I wrote the piano suite about the Hopper painting, but it was influenced by that experience.

Anyway, I knew that work was really good, but I didn't know what I could do with it. I had a cassette with eleven minutes of music on it. I carried on writing and was just fishing around...

AAJ: So this is fourteen years ago?

LP: Yes... and I carried on writing but none of it was any good. I didn't mind. I knew I'd get there, but I took a lot of heart from the work of Chagall because when he was seventy he ripped up a lot of his canvasses and you have to know when it's not working. Or even if it is working, be brave enough to start again and really push yourself. I didn't mind. One thing I did was to spend a year writing an opera which, again, wasn't good, but I did dedicate myself; I've still got it. At some point I'll probably pull it out and maybe try and rewrite it.

AAJ: What sort of proportion of what you write do you put out there, compared to how much you produce?

LP: For many years, I threw it all away, because it really wasn't very good. But I keep these notes - like anyone who is creative. What you can do is just pinch a few ideas... But there is a lot of very dodgy corny and horrible stuff. I had a period of writing songs, and somebody put a bit of money in to record them, but it was just rubbish.

AAJ: At what stage did you know that? After the recoding was done or...

LP: I tried to promote these songs and I agreed with everybody who wrote back to me saying, "Sorry, they're just no good." It hurt but it was true. But anything that's come along and taken me off the solo piano route has been further proof to me that solo piano really is what it's all about.

Then I separated from the father of the children and I needed an income, so I trained as a secretary. That's when I really felt liberated. One of the reasons I wanted to write these songs was to make money. I thought, "I'm trying to make money from music, and the music I'm writing to try and make money is crap anyway, so if I free myself... I'll just type for someone and make music at night." I was very lucky because I moved to London and there was an Eberhard Weber fan three doors up from where I lived.

Then I separated from the father of the children and I needed an income, so I trained as a secretary. That's when I really felt liberated. One of the reasons I wanted to write these songs was to make money. I thought, "I'm trying to make money from music, and the music I'm writing to try and make money is crap anyway, so if I free myself... I'll just type for someone and make music at night." I was very lucky because I moved to London and there was an Eberhard Weber fan three doors up from where I lived.

The Perpetual Motion piano suite was influenced by children feeling very free at the piano. It was when I had written that that a friend of mine mentioned Brian Eno, because he was looking for a lyricist and he knew I could write lyrics. I did but they weren't very good. So I worked with him for a couple of weeks. I didn't know his music, but obviously I knew his name. Anyway, at home I only ever played my own music; then, "Hang on a minute, did I write this?" And what I was doing was playing piano versions of songs that I was trying to write lyrics for, inadvertently.

So, I sent him loads of emails saying I'm accidentally playing your music on the piano, do you mind if I play your stuff on the piano, I don't know if it's OK to ask you this... He must have thought, "Who's this freak? What's the big deal?" He didn't really bother answering. Then finally I said that there's this one in particular, it's great and I want to release it on my CD, can I, and he just got back and said, "Yup, of course. You're a great player. It's an honor."

AAJ: Wow! And that was Forced To Choose.

LP: So, that's the story of that. But that is what made me realize that my stuff was OK.

AAJ: It is interesting that you say you were unfamiliar with his stuff, because Perpetual Motion sounds Eno-ish.

LP: I don't know. I have only really listened to the stuff that he wanted me to write lyrics for. I've got this really bad habit... in the early days, everything I tried to write sounded like Eberhard Weber. Everything. I just had to cut myself off.

AAJ: In this period you're not really listening to anything; you're playing your own stuff and composing your own stuff.

LP: Haydn did that. Haydn and Mozart lived at the same time, and Haydn is very different to Mozart. He was totally isolated; he lived in the countryside and he was given an orchestra, so he could really experiment. And he always said that his isolation was the reason he was very different to other composers. That was such an influence on me, that 101st symphony, in the countryside...

AAJ: You are compared to minimalism a great deal - Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman...

LP: Steve Reich is one composer that I can listen to. He is just a genius - and a nice guy as well. I haven't met him but I know one person, a violinist, who works for him. He is just a very good person to work for. I heard him in New York, just before I had my kids, and that was part of my decision that what I was doing was rubbish.

AAJ: Your stuff isn't minimalist, but it has obvious affinities with it.

LP: I like the idea of the repetition but I think it's minimalism with feeling. I think a lot of minimalism doesn't have so much feeling. I was playing in a tiny little festival in Walthamstow and I saw these films called East End 1 and East End 2 [see YouTube]; I tracked down the film makers afterwards. I couldn't believe these films. They document how the East End works, in photographs, really nice photos of people who live and work in the East End. And they used Michael Nyman's music, with his permission. It was music he'd written for Peter Greenaway, mainly. And the edits didn't work because the music wasn't written for the film. For me, it didn't work.

They came to my gig and we got on very well socially and artistically. One thing led to another, and they said they'd got an opening, and they'd invited Michael Nyman, they'd told him all about me and I should come and meet him. Wow! So I went and met him and he's a lovely guy, and he said he was recording the next week and invited me along to the session. Incredible - to watch Michael Nyman's musicians, who are just amazing. The music is very challenging; it is really something to see it. And he was very charming. He said he'd got a sound check at the Barbican and he invited me along, and he was going to tell David Jones [of promoter Serious] that I was ready.

So David said that Michael Nyman liked me, that I was ready and that he was going to book me for the Purcell Room. I'd been touring in Germany, so my show was completely ready. So really, I'm indebted to Michael Nyman. I don't think Serious would have picked me up if it wasn't for some heavyweight coming in and saying I was ready. Also, maybe he didn't feel I was a minimalist. Maybe if he'd thought I was a minimalist he'd have been a bit worried that I was going to come in and take his market. It's a very different market. It's been called post-minimalist.

AAJ: You're also compared to Debussy and Ravel. How do you feel about that?

LP: Debussy was born a hundred years before me. I think about that. And he's my man. The poor guy died just before the end of the First World War. He never got through. He was thrown out of music school; I don't know how he reacted to that, if he was upset. He was such a rebel. He set the scene for the minimalists, because he would do something [on the keyboard] and then he would just shift his hands up and do the same thing. You weren't supposed to do that; you were supposed to go from chord to chord to chord. He just shattered the whole thing. They couldn't deal with him. I don't think he minded.

AAJ: Images - let's get onto that. Did you play to images right from when you started in 2003? When did that come in?

LP: Thomas Gray was at an early concert of mine. We ended up having a conversation a couple of weeks later, and he said he was going to make some films that I could make soundtracks to. And I said, "Hmm. Really." It had never occurred to me. All along, because I'd tried to write film music and abandoned it, I was conscious of images a lot in my mind. Other people say this as well, that they write music to an invisible film in their mind.

I actually went to a boarding school in Switzerland, an English school, and I was more-or-less the only pianist, and they had a fantastic Steinway in a very large room with a huge window overlooking a valley. Why do you think I failed my A- levels? I just played the piano so much in this room with the most amazing view of clouds... and the clouds would clear and I'd see the valley. It was just incredible. And it is only really recently that I've realized that this is it again. I'm playing beneath this big screen and I'm looking up at it... It's so funny, because film makers come along and say they want to work with me and I've always said "yes" - although now I'm being much more selective because I can't dilute what I'm doing. Not with Thomas Gray, but the others, there are always clouds.

It's in me, this most incredible view that I had for those years, it's in me. It is the most incredible feeling. So, when Tom said that he'd do that, I was just overwhelmed. He was actually not that well known at the time. Then suddenly his career went through the roof and he was working on His Dark Materials, productions in five countries, because he got in with Stagecoach and suddenly people started booking him.

We have this project, which we are going to do, that involves filming in a place in Africa. Without a budget, he won't do it. It is something I want to get off the ground; to get investment. He's got a stage plan, a really amazing stage plan that's along the lines of Laurie Anderson but it's going to be totally different to anything. I'm going to try and make that happen this year. Those are some of the best projections I work with. But I can't keep using them. Every time I go to a new country, I do that piano suite but I can't keep using it here; if I go outside London, I'll do it. I won't do it again in London for a while.

AAJ: He did that to the music. Is that always how you work? With East End, you wrote to the film.

LP: That's the first time I've done that since I wrote for TV and I really enjoyed every minute of it. I did it in about two hours. Because I loved that film for years. Finally they said that they had to take Michael Nyman's music off that for copyright reasons; they couldn't afford to pay the publisher. And they asked if they could use my music, so I said that I'd better write it. I was looking forward to doing it so much. Then the day came that I'd put aside to do it, and it just came out. That's going to be my hit, that track. It's rekindled my interest in writing to picture and I'm now trying to get into film music because at last I think I have the ability to write well to picture.

AAJ: You call your music "rave music for butterflies," to avoid it being labeled. How do you think you sit with jazz? Is everything you do through-composed?

LP: Yes.

AAJ: You don't play from sheet music.

LP: It is sort of classical music, really. But it doesn't sound like it. It is classical jazz.

AAJ: It appeals to classical people who like jazz and jazz people who like classical... and beyond that. In a performance, is it always the same? Or are you working within a framework?

LP: It depends on the piece. Perpetual Motion is always the same. The new piece Magma, at last I feel I've written something I can be adventurous with, and I'm confident with. That's me developing as an artist. I could probably try it with Perpetual Motion but I don't. And The Wind Is Older Than The World has parts that are improvised. I think someone like my brother would say that it's not jazz... My brother says it's like Schumann, that I'm writing the way Schumann wrote.

AAJ: I'm struck by the extent to which you talk about visual stuff. But you've also said that you are trying to create an emotional state as well, which is not really visual, is it?

LP: With me, it's always a visual thing that will trigger it. This summer, I have set myself a task, to not work visually. Mahesh came along and was going to make a film to my music and we decided what music. Then I wrote the piece, and then he made the film, now I'm going to have to change the music according to the film, which he is now sort of abandoning... It is really quite a nice project. Magma is not about anything visual at all.

AAJ: Did that come out of an emotional state?

LP: That started off about the really amazing intense pleasures of lust but it changed into the sort of lust that you're undeserving of it that you want that person to fall ill. When the piece started, it was supposed to be a tribute to lust, but the sort of lust that is very disappointing. It turned into boiling, that lust is boiling. In Belgium, I told the audience about this and there wasn't a sound. So when I played in London, I didn't tell them about it.

AAJ: Future plans? What do the next couple of years hold?

LP: I'm about to write a new piano suite. I'm just getting into a nice state of depression that I need to be in.

AAJ: Is that always the case? Do you need to be depressed to write?

LP: No, no, no, no, no. I'm only joking. It is a great pleasure to write music but I've deliberately put myself on the spot here, because I have to set myself a challenge as I don't have anyone saying that to me. There is no-one - other than Boosey & Hawkes - saying that to me. No-one will ever ask me to do anything. So I found the artist Carsten Höller [the man who did the slides at Tate Modern] and I know I can write according to this artist, I'm very inspired by this artist's work. And that'll be a nice challenge for me. And I'm also writing a piece for two pianos, close to jazz, although I may not be a jazz musician. The other part will be played by my brother.

AAJ: That leads on to the question of how is it to be Roland's younger sister?

LP: Great. We don't compete. We've always been completely separate musically. We've worked together for the first time recently and we both like that. Luckily, even though our music is very different, we can play to the same audience. And it's really nice working with him. We're so mutually supportive. We both love each other's work. His friends love my work and my friends love his work. I don't know why it works; it must just be because we're related. We have decided that we're going to develop it.

Selected Discography: Lola Perrin, Perpetual Motion (Blue Planet, 2004) / Lola Perrin, Fragile Light (World Quarter Music, 2006)