Family Viols: Hille & Marthe Perl at Baroque at the Edge

Hille is nothing less than one of the world’s most inspirational and engaging gamba-players, but she is also a woman whose open-hearted personality communicates itself to audiences in a captivating way, and whose wide range of interests keeps her musicmaking fresh and alive. She is joined at LSO St Luke's on Saturday 11 January by her viol-playing daughter Marthe.


Together, Hille and Marthe will introduce us to the sound of electric viols (who knew?) in music ranging from baroque classics such as Marais, Ste-Colombe and Hume to 20th-century Poulenc, and from Irish folk to newer works by Martha Bishop, Paolo Pandolfo, Chris Dahlgren and Marthe Perl herself.

It looks like being an irresistible hour of music, and just the thing for a January night. As Gramophone magazine once put it: ‘when Hille Perl is involved, warmth and affection abound’.

Where did you grow up?

Hille: I was born in Bremen and grew up in a small town called Verden an der Aller until I was 15. Then I did some more growing up by moving to Berlin (West Berlin as it was then), where I went to a special school for musicians, worked in a circus and then in an exhibition for holographic art, which was quite new then. The rest of the time I practiced the viol.
Marthe: I grew up in Bremen, and when I was 14 we moved to the countryside, to Winkelsett, where Hille still lives.

When did you first hear or see a viola da gamba, and what attracted you to it?

Hille: When I was five years old and heard Wieland Kuijken in a concert in Bremen, together with Gustav Leonhardt on the harpsichord. I was attracted by the chordal playing and loved the deep and warm earthy sounds that came out of the body of the instrument.
Marthe: I think I might have heard the viol (from inside Hille’s belly) before I saw it. It was always there for me and it was a very natural thing in my life, because Hille played it so often and took it everywhere she went. But only when I started playing it myself at 15, together with two of my best friends, did I understand the real fun of making music.

'I think I might have heard the viol (from inside Hille’s belly) before I saw it!'

Where did you study?

Hille: My first really important teacher was Niklas Trüstedt in Berlin, he taught me openness and improvisation and how to experiment with contexts and sound. Then I studied in Hamburg, at first with Pere Ros and then with Ingrid Stampa, until she went into a convent. Then I moved to Bremen and studied with Jaap ter Linden at the newly founded Akademie für Alte Musik: a very inspiring time. And then I had postgrad studies with Sarah Cunningham, who also kept on being my adviser and mentor when I started to do my first solo CDs.

Marthe: In Bremen, with Hille and with her assistant Frauke Hess. Then I took a year abroad in Seville, Spain, where I studied with Ventura Rico. Back in Bremen I finished my studies with Josh Cheatham.

What musicians have inspired you?

Hille: Anybody who does not hesitate to step across borders, find different contexts and open spaces – as gambists we can certainly name Jordi Savall, but then there are hundreds of fabulous musicians who all have and keep inspiring me and the list would be too long. Here are a few: Sting, Michel Godard, Johann Sebastian Bach, Telemann, John Cage, Steve Vai – to only name a few that randomly pop up in my head!

Marthe: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Who are the best composers for viol, ancient or modern, and why?

Hille: Marin Marais certainly is one of the ones high up in the list, because he developed the technique of the instrument and also extended the genre he was moving in considerably. There are many, many more of course: Tobias Hume, Christopher Simpson, Johann Schenk... of the ones in the 21st century I want to name Paolo Pandolfo and Chris Dahlgren: both of them so intimate with how the instrument works that they can write totally idiomatically.

Marthe: That‘s very difficult to answer. If I had to decide, I would choose Forqueray, because in his pieces he demands the absolute extreme of both, player and instrument. He is so explicit and consistent in his indications, it seems as if Forqueray himself is almost sitting next to you, teaching you how to play his piece. And you can find so many aspects of life in his pieces: beauty, sadness, anger, despair, happiness, ease, energy, thoughtfulness....

When did you first think of using electric viols?
Hille: When I got tired of fighting too much feedback when trying to compete dynamically with electric guitars - and I really wanted to have the option of using effects. As a hobby I was playing in a band where we arranged and covered old rock hits: and to use these classics and take them further I needed an instrument that would be able to deal with electric guitars, bass and percussion.

Marthe: When we found out that they exist!

'I got tired of fighting too much feedback when trying to compete dynamically with electric guitars.'

You’ve included several works by living composers in your programme. How did you select them?

Hille: It is a great advantage to have living composers, because you can ask them about how to perform the pieces. Once a composer is dead, the pieces have turned into Early Music and you have to be very careful and study the context the pieces were written for. In a way it is the same process when you play pieces by people that have been dead for 300 years or for only three years.

Marthe: With each piece we select for our programmes we ask ourselves the same two questions, no matter when it was written or who wrote it: 1 – Do we like the piece? 2 – Does it fit into our concept?

You’ve entitled the programme ‘Born to Be Mild’. What are your reasons for that?

Hille: Even an electric viol is a mild and charming instrument. No Easy Rider stuff. ‘Tis a pun, really.

Marthe: Because we are such mild people ;)

Do you listen to any non-classical music, and if so, what?

Hille: Very rarely do I Iisten to classical music. When my ears are ready I listen to all kinds of music – there is such fabulous music in almost every genre. And very interesting mixtures of types of music. There is almost no genre I don't listen to occasionally.

Marthe: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and German singer-songwriter Sarah Lesch.

What do you do to relax?

Hille: Walk in the woods and take care of my garden – it’s a great pleasure to see vegetables and flowers grow. Simultaneously I can watch my sheep, geese, chickens, cats and dogs interact with each other – fabulous communication between different types of species.

Marthe: What really feels like a short holiday is when I can go into our little garden with the children, plant something, harvest something.... Or when we all watch a nice movie together as a family, on the couch with popcorn and snacks.

Do you play any other instruments?

Hille: Not really. I always wanted to play Spanish bagpipes, but I had to give up, as the dog hated it so much.

Marthe: Not really, from time to time I try to play the cello a little bit.

'I always wanted to play Spanish bagpipes, but I had to give up, as the dog hated it so much.'

Can you tell us something else about yourself that you think we might like to know?
Hille: Music is a very eco-friendly and sustaining art: it is happifying and you don't even have to take it home. People should go to concerts all the time, to improve and unite the world.

Marthe: I’m really looking forward a lot to playing in London soon and meeting all of you!

Hille and Marthe Perl's concert is at LSO St Luke’s on Saturday 11 January at 9.30pm.
Tickets £15 (£8 students, £5 under-18s).