One of the highlights of the Birds Eye View Film Festival each year is its Sounds & Silents strand, in which silent films are screened along with specially commissioned scores from female musicians. Yesterday I took the opportunity to watch Victor Sjöström's great 1928 film The Wind for the second time, and I was amazed once again by one of the true masterpieces of the era. It's a stunning film, blending thrilling, imaginative camerawork and bold imagery with a powerhouse of a central performance by Lillian Gish, to tell the gripping tale of a woman being driven mad by the elements. What made this screening even more memorable was the contribution of composer and pianist Lola Perrin, whose live performance of her excellent new score perfectly captured the high drama and fluctuating emotions of Sjöström's film. Earlier today, Lola Perrin kindly agreed to a few questions via email about The Wind and her other upcoming projects.
How was the experience of accompanying The Wind on Wednesday for you?
I always forget that I’m about to be tortured. I love composing, and I love playing the piano. Writing to an old silent film is a very special experience, I feel privileged to be in the situation where I have a direct relationship with talented dead people. It’s strange. There are moments when I cry during the composition, or when I’m practising; for me there’s a type of communication with something from the past that is deeply, deeply moving. However, the film starts and then I feel, "Oh no, I’m trapped now for an hour and a half." I can’t sneeze, stop, get a dry throat etc. You have to control your body so you can play without taking your hands away from the keys. It’s a form of self-inflicted torture for me, and something I always forget about until the show starts. This happened yesterday – the film I love started and I deeply regretted being there in that situation and a form of claustrophobia momentarily set in, but after a few minutes I got into it, and found some new music on the spot as well as the score I’d prepared. It was a good show for me in the end.
Before receiving the commission to write this score, how familiar were you with The Wind and with silent cinema in general?
I didn’t know the film. I’ve worked with the 1912 film War of Independence. This was made before panning, in other words this film is a really difficult experience for anyone who watches it. I did that show on a piano that should be at the bottom of the sea. The keys were so stiff I damaged my arm muscles, and that was just horrible, horrible torture for me. But the composition sowed the seeds for one of my piano suites so I am glad I’ve had that experience. Then I did Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet and The Seashell and the Clergyman at the Barbican cinema. Pure heaven. I loved every single minute of the preparations. In performance, the first film went very well. Then in the second, The Seashell, it became evident after a few minutes that the score I’d carefully prepared would have to be dumped as I was watching a very different edit to the film on the DVD they’d sent for me to work from. That was a surreal experience to go with the surreal film. I was out with the fairies for a while on stage – but it worked out OK, no one realised.
How do you approach the task of writing music to accompany a piece of film? What are the biggest challenges you face?
I just watch the screen and move my fingers on the keys. I connect pretty well with what I see and transfer the feelings I get from external triggers into music. I spend my life doing this.
When composing for a film, do you find yourself being inspired by the narrative, by the imagery, or by something else?
I think it’s the people, watching the people acting out a story, and also knowing the story of the making of the film. There are so many tales behind these old films, these tales drive me in my compositions, I feel inspired by knowing what the actors went through. And I find elements that mirror experiences I’ve had, so sometimes the music might be autobiographical – like in The Wind, there was so much there that I feel I’ve been through in my own life. I’m pretty sure this particular music just came to me; every time I sat down for the next composing session I didn’t have to re-write anything, I couldn’t get it down fast enough. It was like a form of channelling. I’ve never had that experience before. As I said before, this work on this particular film has deeply moved me, maybe even changed me.
I understand you were classically trained from childhood. When did you start to move away from classical playing and develop your own distinctive style?
I got into university to study music, but within a few months I’d started composing and then began to realise I felt quite uncomfortable being in a music department. I felt out of place and couldn’t connect my newfound love for music on the ECM record label with being on that music course. For that reason, and some others, I decided to leave the course. I did TV soundtracks on an Atari for a while but they weren’t very good in my opinion. With a sinking heart I realised I had years of work ahead before I could really find my voice, so I worked in admin and composed in private on a piano for over a decade until I felt I’d found my own unique style. In all that time I listened to as little music as I could get away with, as I was terrified of subconsciously copying other composers.
You seem to seek out an interesting range of artists to work with, including non-musicians like Hanif Kureishi. How do you choose your projects and collaborators?
On a whim and also luck. I wrote to a few writers when I was seeking to work with the written word as a device to create composition. Hanif is very open and a genuine artist, he responded and was encouraging towards me for a couple of years before we actually met and collaborated. As an artist, you know instantly I guess which path is the next one; you just feel you’re in your right skin. It’s instinctive.
Your next performance will be in the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, when you'll be accompanying a film by Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell and playing with a number of other artists. How did this show come together?
I felt it was time to go back to Southbank. Phil and Hazuan and I discussed a 45-minute film last year, and so I developed a programme around it. I’m starting with quiet solo piano works then building to a piano duet with my jazz specialist brother, pianist Roland Perrin, where he improvises to my minimalist patterns. After that it's my new band, Nimuch Ensemble, and a collaboration with writer and actor Jonathan Bonnici and electronics composer Alexis Kirke – joined by Kate Shortt on cello and Sarah Watts on bass clarinet. The project is called Intertitles I, inspired by my experiences with silent film intertitles. I’m working with different writers who are creating narration to punctuate episodes of music, the way intertitles punctuate episodes in a silent film. The effect is supposed be cinematic, without any visuals. Intertitles II is planned with Stockholm-based prose poet Rolf Hughes.
This will be the fourth time you've worked with Hashim and Maxwell. Has the way you work together changed over the years?
Yes, in this new film we thought we’d try to be closer together so they are more in the music process and I’m more in their filmmaking process. The film is called Going East, and it is like a portrait of humanity across from the East End of London all the way to Cambodia. It has beautiful, dramatic stills shot by Phil Maxwell and moving imagery by Phil and Hazuan Hashim, who edited it. We did a 15-minute version at the Forge last September, and then expanded it. It’s too soon for me to comment more, I’m currently preparing for the premiere. I knew I must stretch myself in the score as the filmmakers have done, so we decided to add in vocals and I’ve invited Natacha Atlas to sing on this. We’ve rehearsed and so far, so good. She is an amazing talent.
Looking further ahead, what other projects have you got lined up in the future?
I’m launching Lola Perrin’s Seven Fridays on April 8th, presented by Markson Pianos (all details at my website). This is a seven date concert series at St Mary Magdalene, NW1, where I will be performing my collection of piano suites written between 1992 -2009. Each of my piano suites are from different triggers, and we’ve invited guest speakers to introduce the concerts, taking their own inspiration from my triggers. We have scientists, artists, poets and Sue Hubbard is doing the final concert. Each concert coincides with the second edition of the piano suite being released as printed music books. I’m excited by this series; it’s hopefully giving me a real chance to get my work into the repertoire. I’ve just been asked by International Piano magazine to contribute a diary this year to their pages, a behind-the-scenes look at the concert series, the piano books and also at a new piano competition I’m launching in colleges around the world. I also have a lot of piano students, I give primary age children private piano lessons, something that has kept me going financially and been very rewarding as a composer – there’s nothing like witnessing the blossoming of a child’s creativity to drive you forward in your work.
Lola Perrin will be performing in the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 19th at 7:45pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, check the Southbank Centre website.