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Interview with ClimateKeys founder Lola Perrin

24 October 2017

ClimateKeys is coming to Cardiff on Friday the 10th of November. The organisers of the event aim to initiate a keyboard conversation on climate change – multiple conversations in fact – at the same time that the international community comes together for the climate conference in Bonn (COP23). I wanted to learn more about the event and its origins, and in this two-part blog I interview the founder of ClimateKeys, Lola Perrin, and one of the Cardiff organisers, Stuart Capstick. I ask them how and when they first became concerned in the issue, and what they hope to achieve through hosting a music encased climate conversation.

Lola Perrin is a composer and pianist who has published nine piano suites and has two CDs on general release. She founded ClimateKeys in which scores of pianists are performing with guest speakers to engage audiences in talking about climate change across the world. She has performed extensively in the UK, in Europe and in the USA and her works for solo and multiple pianos are performed by concert pianists internationally.  She works in live performance with a range of collaborators including authors, filmmakers, economists, scientists and other researchers.

What initiated your concern over climate change?

Lola: As a composer, I had been turning to art for ideas for new pieces, and I was really affected by the work of Rachel Whiteread – the way she captures spaces. In 2005, she was in the Arctic with lots of other artists to highlight global warming, and while she was there, I was at my piano in London thinking about what she was doing. I began to think about how the shapes within melting icebergs were changing. Imagining these peaks and troughs within the ice led me to compose my fourth piano suite called Music from Fragile Light Spaces, which you can listen to below.

It is not that I hadn’t thought about climate change before that. I was a mother of young children, and I knew that climate change was something out there that I was going to have to address at some point. The work by Rachel Whiteread drew me in and initiated my engagement with it and I began to explore it through those experiences. The sculpture by Issac Cordal in Berlin called “Politicians discussing global warming” was a real light bulb moment in my engagement. The first time I saw the image I made an immediate commitment to myself to only engage in climate change as a composer, and I decided I was going to fully engage in the issue after that.

How would you describe your perspective on climate change?

Lola: I’d describe climate change as a life-threatening problem, mainly hidden in plain sight and requiring outing through multiple methods (whatever we can think of), and also requiring nuts and bolts specific solutions for how to get from A (dirty power system) to Z (clean power system) within the next 30 years. I feel that a more just society (that any person with a beating heart should yearn for) will arise from the transition to a safe energy system.  However, in the short time we have, I believe that we need to focus on the emissions issue and on making our energy sources safe.

Has your perspective or understanding of the issue changed over time?

Lola: It’s not so much changed as clarified because I have spent so much time trying to understand it as a non-science expert. I made a commitment to myself to understand the problem in order to play a part in resolving it. I tried and failed to read academic science papers. I could never get much beyond the abstracts; that’s the easy part to understand. Then I found a large community of artists and scientists sharing their practices. This made a huge improvement in my understanding through engaging with this community which had sprung up around an organisation (sadly now ended) called Tipping Point. The idea behind Tipping Point was that artists and researchers engaged in climate change could meet and brainstorm during workshops and residential weekends and get ideas for new work or feedback on existing projects. I would not be doing the work I am now without the Tipping Point events.

Where did the idea for keyboard conversations come from?

Lola: Well, after seeing Isaac Cordal’s sculpture I went down the route of the apocalypse of climate breakdown, which triggered an intense, extended composition for two pianos. I had to go through this apocalyptic vision of climate breakdown, as many artists do, but after that I wanted to get to a more positive space. I started to think, how can I do something in music that is not simply wringing my hands about climate change? I decided to turn to the experts and listen to them.

First, I did this project where I used Skype and recorded interviews with 23 people dealing with climate change on the frontline e.g. in Costa Rica, Burkina Faso, and so on. I recorded their voices and I made this mood canvass, with the interviewees’ voices woven into a type of soundtrack that I then composed piano music from. I perform the live piano part to the voices coming out of loud speakers; it’s called Now You See It: for piano and an orchestra of words.

Afterwards I decided I needed to hear more specifically from experts about solutions rather than the mood from those witnessing climate change. I really wanted to know what experts think the solutions are, so I created my 9th piano suite, Significantus, with this in mind.  The music and structure came from three sources of words by Mark Maslin, Paul Allen and Chris Rapley.  The suite is specifically designed with a space within it for climate change experts to give a short talk, and for them to facilitate a genuine audience conversation, not a Q&A. With that in mind the conversation is not simply tacked on at the end but integrated within the piano suite. This is a symbol of my belief that talking about the response to climate change needs to move into the centre of whatever we do, so I put it at the centre of my concert.

What would you like to achieve by bringing music into the conversation on climate change?

Lola: George Marshall has suggested that two thirds of people asked when they last had a conversation about climate change, responded that they’d never had a conversation on climate change. He also believes that the single most powerful thing that an individual can do about climate change is to talk about it. My sole purpose is to trigger more conversations.  I feel (judging by what I do) that if a person attends a moving event, they will tell three people about it afterwards.  So far, I’ve performed this suite to 600 people and have potentially triggered almost 2,000 new conversations about climate change.

In order to create as many conversations as possible, I started to tell other pianists about what I was doing so that others would mimic my work. I got a good response and 55 pianists came forward.  So I founded ClimateKeys to coordinate all these participants around the world and that really has become my life over the past 10 months – encouraging and helping pianists and speakers to find each other and make concerts together. There are now over 100 climate change experts and pianists in twenty countries participating in the ClimateKeys project and we have 31 concerts happening this autumn to bring attention to COP23.

What’s your hope for the future of climate action?

Lola: I want fossil fuels to be outlawed. I want academics to engage more in solutions. Well, no, scrap all that…I want clear steps from the experts on how we get to zero carbon before mid-century. A clear programme of steps. We need a one-page chart that says these are the steps for our civilisation to take to become carbon neutral before 2050. And we need it stuck on trees, hung in libraries, available as phone apps and pinned on doors and walls.  In fact, I’ve started work on this chart.  If there’s anyone out there who wants to help, I hope they get in touch!

Read Part II: An interview with Stuart Capstick…