CoMA Stories: An Interview with Yshani Perinpanayagam

We spoke with multi-genre pianist and music director Yshani Perinpanayagam about her musical journey so far and the inspiration behind her work.

How did you first get into music? What has your musical journey been so far?

So, I got into music because when I was really, really little, I had this tiny piano/keyboard/glockenspiel type instrument. My dad taught me Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and apparently, I was just playing it over and over again with my 4th and 5th fingers. My parents could see this and could tell it was unusual and that I was really interested, so they decided to try to find me a piano teacher. I was only about 4 years old, so most piano teachers said no, but one was happy to take me on, and I never really let it go.

My dad was someone who could turn his hand to any instrument, but didn’t really have the practice drive. I have this in me, but I’m more competitive. So my dad would teach me little bits of things and I would run with them. There was piano, then flute, then composing, ocarinas and a bit of a drum kit at one point. I pursued piano because, in the classical music world there was, and perhaps still is, an attitude that you couldn’t be any good unless you specialised. So I picked a thing and admittedly, I am obsessed with the piano.

At the end of my piano performance Masters, the head of Keyboard Studies said he was pretty sure I was meant to work with other people. They funded me to do the accompanist course and that was kind of the beginning of me stretching back out into diversifying again. So I did some accompanying, chamber music and new music – would you believe that in my undergraduate I did one Bernstein piece and was then labelled the ‘new music pianist'(!). Then I got a couple of lucky breaks coming out of my degrees, including a rogue trial as company pianist at Rambert Dance, so it splintered from there.

What interested you in working with CoMA?

When I was about 15 or 16 I wrote a piano trio at junior RCM, and one of the groups to perform it was CoMA. So I knew CoMA existed, and of course it’s quite a striking name. That program was organised by RCMJD teacher Thalia Myers who was all about making contemporary music not just be the rock-hard stuff at the top, but spreading it downwards, for students and amateurs too. So CoMA was part of my upbringing, part of what contemporary music is for me. What I’ve always loved about CoMA is that everyone seems to have a really great contemporary music attitude; very adventurous and curious, searching for the things music should be about, sound, structure, shape, why are we doing this, what is it for. CoMA is a really easy match for me.

What was the inspiration for ‘Group Hug’?

At the time, I was writing a lot of groove-based pieces and crossing genres that way. The first idea I was playing around with was to write a piece called “Students Union” inspired by (Louis Andriessen’s) “Workers Union” and making an increasingly drunk version. But it just wasn’t working. Then I had the sudden idea of bees.

But, what was actually happening at the time was that I had been subjected to a racist attack at my work. I had been asked to write a lecture about the classical music canon and because it was lockdown times, it was videoed and a few months later, the video had been stolen from the internal area and put on a white supremacist Instagram page which called for me to be sent home and said I was white-hating. The institution I worked for didn’t protect me at all and the more I called them out, the more they shut me down.

So, I have always been obsessed with this one video I had seen about how Japanese honey bees react when a hornet comes into their hive and starts trashing everything. The bees have evolved a signal so they will unanimously jump on the hornet and because the hornet’s body temperature tolerance is a fraction of a degree lower than the bees, they basically cook the hornet and it dies. I was thinking about this question about the inspiration for Group Hug, and thought, oh I wonder where the violent idea came from of the little person triumphing over the big thing which is thrashing around, silencing all the little honey bees….hmmm! Now it seems super obvious! It seems like a no-brainer that I couldn’t write something fun and playful at that time and even when I went through playful, it became cataclysmic. As of today, it seems like the most obvious piece I could have written at that horrendous time in my life. It was the triumph I wanted to have, and I did have a load of allies, people who wanted to support me.

Synaesthesia Art of Yshani Perinpanayagam's 'Group Hug'

We’re excited to be celebrating South Asian Heritage Month. Can you tell us a little about your heritage? Has it influenced your work at all? 

I think purely by the fact that my heritage is all over my face, that influences the way I live in the world and affects how people receive my work. I grew up in this country at a time where there was a real sense of assimilation. A lot of the things I’m now realising are in me and are mine, I think my parents would say “they’re our things, you are British”. So it’s quite messy. In hindsight, I see things come out of me, like the kind of notes and modes I pick which are a bit like a raga, certain intervals I favour, and my love of rhythms and repeating complex patterns which are a bit like Carnatic music – these are all linked to my heritage.

And then obviously, my rage at how I am treated ends up in my pieces. I’ve written a couple of pieces which are like, “You will accept me DAMN YOU!” and other pieces like “Group Hug” which have come out of my South Asian heritage. My therapist was the one to clock that racism against me also feels like an attack on my parents (who are both now dead) because an attack on my brown is an attack on something I got wholly from them. So, it’s all quite messy and wasn’t safe for my parents to speak about. It was safer to give their child an unshakable sense of Englishness. When people tell me to go home, my first instinct is, well, I’m here at home, and my parents have given me that. My heritage is all in there, it’s not one strand of me, but sprinkled through me.

Yshani is currently working on a new commission for New Movement Collective (NMC), setting excerpts from John Cage’s love letters to Merce Cunningham. The new work will be presented in the second half of NMC’s performances in London this Autumn, with Yshani conducting Stravinsky’s Les Noces in the first half. Further details to follow!

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