Songs in the key of climate change: when Lucie met Lola

On Thursday 26 January composer pianist Lola Perrin brings Significantus, a keyboard conversation about climate change, to SOAS.  This is a piano performance with a talk by guest speaker Andrew Simms (political economist, founder of New Weather Institute and Guardian contributor), and also features a conversation with the audience. I caught up with Lola for a chat.

Lucie: Lola, for someone who hasn’t heard your music, how would you define what you do?

Lola: I’ve developed a particular compositional sound I call ‘imaginative’. It’s hard for a contemporary composer to find a descriptive label, but I think I’m in a tradition that came originally from Liszt and went through to Ravel who I feel very connected to, he’s so deeply, deeply imaginative. There are three cornerstone composers for me – there’s Keith Jarret, there’s Ravel and there’s Steve Reich – the harmonic language of those composers…


Lucie: I can hear Steve Reich certainly; your piano music has got these lovely gradual changes and nuances that I feel actually convey the gradually shifting and changing climate…

Lola: Yes, I think you’re talking about my fourth piano suite which was my first climate change composition – I was imagining the inside of an iceberg changing shape. At the time I was influenced by artist Rachel Whiteread and her method of capturing spaces.  She was in the Arctic to highlight climate change – it was around 2005 – and through this I began to turn my attention to global warming. I chose to imagine the shapes and spaces in the changing ice and allowed the imagined peaks and the troughs to dictate the shapes of the musical lines.


Lucie: Do you feel that the difficult conversation of global warming is best communicated through music?

Lola: I have the belief that talking about climate change issues needs to move into the centre of whatever our activities are. As I happen to be a gigging musician, I’ve put that conversation into the centre of my concerts. In terms of writing the music, what works for me is to go to the experts, listening to them and translating that into music. So, for this piece, I sourced three written texts to work from. One is by geographer Mark Maslin about our significance on this planet, how we are on the cusp of a new philosophical era where we now understand that every single one of our actions is significant. The second source is from Paul Allen of Zero Carbon Britain who says that if we don’t imagine a positive world, then we won’t create it, so we must engage with positive solutions and be imaginative. The third is from climate scientist Chris Rapley and is about looking at our planet from afar as if it’s a spaceship , and if it really was a spaceship would we tamper with the systems that are keeping us alive? I literally printed out the texts, put them on the piano and kept reading them to trigger the composition and narrative shape.


Lucie: So what’s unique about this upcoming concert is that it will be interspersed with conversation and dialogue from the audience…

Lola: It’s a composition in nine parts and the eighth part, around forty minutes, is spoken word. Andrew Simms will give a talk and then he will facilitate a conversation about our positive response to climate change.  It’s not a Q&A that’s tacked on at the end like an afterthought.  It’s a group discussion that’s very central to the work. The final music comes immediately after the audience discussion.  This structure symbolises my belief about placing the climate conversation within our activities.  We’ve made ourselves a little bit vulnerable, we have talked about something so difficult, some of us may have even broken the taboo of not being able to talk about climate change.  Many people equate talking about climate change with talking about death – so we have to work at finding ways to talk about it.


Lucie: And are you going to add a visual dimension to the performance as well? Your music is vivid and full of imagery…

Lola: I deliberately don’t want any images in this performance. I’ve performed the work six times so far with six different speakers.  Academics are accustomed to giving talks with PowerPoint, that’s how they show evidence of their findings. But in Significantus I don’t want images, and this makes the expert switch into a different mode of ‘okay I’m a human being here, talking about my work as if I’m observing and commenting on it, rather than presenting findings’. And a very interesting thing happens to the speaker.  Some say to me afterwards that it was refreshing to work differently and also connect their thinking in some way to the music.  I don’t want images because it’s a more intimate experience for the audience if it’s simply a speaker standing before them and speaking and this sets up less of a sense of a hierarchy for when we have the discussion.


Lucie: So it’s been performed several times – is the audience conversation very different each time?

Lola: Yes, it is different from place to place.  And it’s also a big learning curve for me – as you know as a musician, you’re terrified you are going to make a mistake – so far I have not always been able to mentally take in every part of the spoken word because I’ve been in music performance mode.  However, as I do more of these gigs, I become better at being able to handle all the content and get more of a grasp of what the room is saying. I have absolutely no agenda at all – all I want is for us to be discussing positive response to climate change: ‘this is an opportunity in society for ..? What can we amend in our society? How can we respond to this?  What can imagine that is better than what we have now?’ I’m looking forward to working with Andrew Simms who I first heard speak at Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. Andrew has the most amazing energy and is extremely entertaining – and I just thought he’d be a brilliant speaker in my project. He lives in London, and I have this philosophy that when a speaker agrees to work with me, I then try to get us a gig in their local area.


Lucie: It will be very interesting to receive responses to the music from the diverse community at SOAS…

Lola: I am so looking forward to it! Significantus also has given birth now to a much larger project called ClimateKeys happening this November. I’m sourcing 195 pianists and speakers across the globe to play this project during the same two weeks when 195 countries meet at COP23 (Meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). So, we will make 195 conversations all in different countries to raise public engagement with the climate talks and the issue of climate change. I want the classical piano world to engage their audiences in this conversation, it’s vitally important to have the conversation in the more conservative spaces.

Significantus: A Keyboard Conversation about Climate Change takes place at SOAS on 26 January.

Lucie Rose-Treacher is studying for a BA in Music from SOAS University of London.

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