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First Person: Electra Perivolaris on composing for BBC Radio 3's 'Seven Ages of Woman' project | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Electra Perivolaris on composing for BBC Radio 3's 'Seven Ages of Woman' project

First Person: Electra Perivolaris on composing for BBC Radio 3's 'Seven Ages of Woman' project

On setting a Heather Dohollau poem to music for International Women's Day 2020

23-yearold Scottish based composer Electra Perivolaris

My brief for this exciting and empowering project was to compose a new choral piece for the BBC Singers, to form one movement of a composite work, bringing together seven female composers spanning the generations of womanhood.

The project offered the possibility of examining what it means to be a woman living at this time, as well as the chance of viewing the world through the eyes of seven unique women, each presenting an alternative vision of life in 2020 from a female perspective, largely absent from classical composition until very recently.

The project was also personally significant, since the first piece of music I ever wrote, as a 16 year-old schoolgirl, was workshopped by the BBC Singers in a BBC Proms Inspire scheme event led by Judith Weir back in 2013. It was this experience that gave me the courage to pursue a career in composition, inspiring me to continue writing music. Returning to work with the BBC Singers after so many years and so much personal change was particularly special and I saw this as an opportunity to reflect and express through my music the experience of growing up, becoming a young composer, as well as a woman engaged with the contemporary issues of our society. Working alongside my fellow composers - Helena Paish, Samantha Fernando, Emily Hall, Deirdre Gribbin, Cecilia McDowall and Rhian Samuel (all seven pictured below) - added another layer of inspiration to this project. In addition, the vital support of BBC Radio 3 Assistant Producer Lizzie Ibrahim, who created the whole idea for Seven Ages of Woman, was invaluable in allowing me to develop the vision underlying my movement of the work. Seven Ages of Woman composersWhen Lizzie (pictured below with her production team) described this project on the phone to me the huge breadth of possibilities was clear. I was excited to combine my musical language with my love of poetry and creative writing, and with my interest in championing the work of other female artists and creators. All of these informed the choice of my text. I am profoundly indebted to Dr Clémence O’Connor of Aberdeen University. It was through her that I discovered the work of Heather Dohollau, a Welsh/Breton poet who died in 2013; my gratitude to Dr O'Connor and to poet and translator David Wheatley, also of Aberdeen University, for permission to use his translation of "For Ilaria del Carretto".

It was a statement by Dohollau which first drew me to her work, in which she paraphrases the philosopher Wittgenstein, declaring that "since the body tends to rise to the surface of the water, one should resist and swim to the bottom". Dohollau remains a relatively unknown figure but I strongly believe that the message in this quotation is internationally important. For me, the statement embodies female independence, the need to seek out creatively personal challenges and to look at issues deeply, especially in a modern culture which sometimes seems centred around superficial representation. Production team for 'Seven Ages of Woman'Thoughts related to the unfortunate phenomenon of fake news and the ways in which young women are expected to portray themselves in social media, as a gleaming surface or a plastic model of superficiality, helped me to plan my piece and to map out the multi-layered, complex vocal textures that I would create, inviting the listener to explore each musical line in a texture where the surface layer is often indiscernible. I chose to set Dohollau’s poem "For Ilaria Del Carretto" inspired by the statue of the Italian noblewoman, who died in the 15th century at the age of 26 during childbirth (Jacopo della Quercia's monument in Lucca Cathedral pictured below) . In the poem, Dohollau gazes down at the statue of Del Carretto, noticing that there is a restlessness even in the stone carving of the dead woman, wakeful where she should be resting in deep sleep, giving the last line of the poemand my piece its title, Eternal Waking. The idea of a young woman in her twenties being in that state' resonated with me, especially in this age of technological advances.

I would create a piece focused on depth of emotion, the relentlessness of present day culture, where we are bombarded by constant notifications, messages and updates, and the unease and unrest which eventually leads to protest, whether this takes the form of campaigning publicly for a universal cause, such as the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, or is shown through protesting individually, and possibly quietly but no less powerfully, through your actions or unwillingness to conform. Poetry by an author who could make such a strong statement and stimulate all these ideas in me could help me to express some of my own experience of being a young woman of 23 in present day society. Ilaria del CarrettoThere was something in Dohollau’s "water" quotation that was liberating for me as a female artist, the idea that one should challenge the information, images or ideas with which one is presented. This gave me a sense of courage and inspired me to compose a piece that could express some of the complexity of my own experiences of young womanhood, in defiance of any notions projected by social media or any other form about how one should be as a young woman, or as any kind of human being.

The final line of the poem I chose to set, "a sweet repose, in an eternal waking", summarised my thoughts surrounding Dohollau’s water statement, suggesting that the ways in which women are depicted, often with a highly polished exterior, sometimes hides an unrest within. The fact that the eponymous Ilaria Del Carretto lived when she did suggests the universality of emotional states of unrest shared with her by women today, whether caused by the social restrictions placed on women in the 1400s or the unrealistic expectations placed on them by the double bind of maternity and career, or impossible body types projected by social media.

In my work, the soprano soloist embodies Del Carretto as she moves between wakeful states, often depicted through pulsating, powerful folk-like melodic lines, dream states, in which she forms a single layer amongst complex interweaving choral textures and states of deep sleep, in which she is sometimes obscured and overwhelmed by the rest of the choir. The piece is centred around complex layers, and only to listen to the surface layer or one voice is to miss the complete picture (the BBC Singers and conductor Grace Rossiter pictured below). BBC Singers and Sophie JeanninWith Eternal Waking, I felt I could communicate my own experience of the world as chaotic and complex. But there can still be moments of simplicity, clarity and beauty amongst the confusion. Just as in Eternal Waking the soloist emerges out of the block of interweaving vocal lines at the end of the piece, undetectable amongst them at first but becoming more and more audible, her voice being heard and giving purpose to the sounds, I believe that each individual voice is vital in a society like ours, and that challenging what we are presented with and looking beneath the surface, whether this is in the representation of a particular gender or societal group or in the information that is presented to us as fact, is vital to our mental health and sense of empowerment.

It is through acts of creativity that we can make sense of contemporary society together, and by speaking to one another we can achieve clarity and understanding can emerge, whether we speak to one another with a compositional or musical voice, a speaking voice or any other form of language or communication. Composing Eternal Waking for these very specific circumstances has enabled me to communicate some of the experience of my generation of young women, through my own compositional voice and I hope that it will begin dialogues and conversations, resonating with many people of different backgrounds.

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