Ones to watch in 2022: Electra Perivolaris, composer

Inspired by the landscapes and musical traditions of her home on the Isle of Arran, and those of her father’s native Greece, composer Electra Perivolaris is about to have an extremely busy year. Interview by David Kettle

Electra Perivolaris
Electra Perivolaris

“I don’t think I was even aware that there were any women composers. We didn’t study any in school.” Electra Perivolaris is remembering the surprise she felt during one of her first compositional encounters, with eminent British composer Judith Weir – who would prove an inspiration in many ways. Weir was working on Perivolaris’s piece Obon Lantern Festival, which the 16-year-old had written for her school choir, and which had been accepted for a workshop with the BBC Singers as part of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers project. “It was a formative experience,” Perivolaris remembers. “Seeing a strong female role model like Judith Weir was a real turning point, and I began to see that composing was maybe what I wanted to do.”

It’s been almost a decade since then, and during that time Perivolaris has emerged as one of Scotland’s most exciting young composers. She’s completed studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Royal Academy of Music, and she’s now busy working on several commissions. She’s composed for the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Aurora Orchestra, and has written two pieces for Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. In the immediate future, her new work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Blurred Lines of Archipelagos, is due to be unveiled in an online performance in February, and she’s also one of the participants in the RSNO’s Composers’ Hub for 2022. It’s clear where the widespread interest in Perivolaris’s music comes from: it’s deeply lyrical and engaging, immediately approachable yet rewardingly complex, with a disarming directness and a suppleness to its emotional expression.

After completing her studies in London, she’s now back in Scotland, on the Isle of Arran. “I moved to the island in my late teens,” she explains. “We lived in lots of different places while I was growing up. I’m half Greek and half Scottish: my dad’s side of the family is from the Aegean island of Chios, and my mum’s side comes from the west coast of Scotland. So we’ve always had a strong connection to Scotland.”

In line with her wide-ranging travels, Perivolaris feels that a sense of place is crucial to her music. “Some of the main inspirations behind my work are the landscapes of Arran,” she explains, “and the feelings I have when confronted by the ancient, vast landscape here.” Where does she think this sensitivity to place comes from? “My dual heritage has definitely had an impact. I grew up listening to Greek folk music, Byzantine music, Scottish traditional music and lots more, and those have all woven their way into the way I write and hear music. And of course all those musics were heavily linked with the land, and existed within the landscapes and communities who lived in those places.”

Both Scottish and Greek influences feed into The Blurred Lines of Archipelagos. It’s been created as part of the SCO’s New Voices project, in which three young female composers – Perivolaris, Georgina MacDonell Finlayson and Gillian Walker – have been mentored by Scottish storyteller Janis Mackay and composer Anna Clyne to create a new piece linking music and narrative. Perivolaris’s is a very personal tale, based around memories of being in Shetland as a young child, long car journeys to be able to phone her ailing grandfather on Chios, as well as the Scottish legend of the selkie and the Greek myth of Pandora.

It’s not Perivolaris’s first time collaborating with the SCO. As an RCS undergraduate she trained as a workshop leader with SCO Connect, the orchestra’s community and outreach arm. “I went into primary and secondary schools in Glasgow with some SCO musicians – it was the first time I’d done anything like that. And it showed me that was something I wanted to do too.” She’s now travelling the UK as part of a Royal Academy of Music fellowship. “I’m working with Open Academy, the RAM’s community and participation department, leading composition and creative music workshops in schools, nurseries, with people living with dementia. In our current times of lockdowns and distancing, and in our current political climate, I think we need those conversations and connections more than ever.”

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Looking further ahead into 2022, Perivolaris is working on a new orchestral piece as part of the RSNO’s Composers’ Hub during the first half of the year. She’s also written a new piece for Glasgow-based guitarist Sasha Savaloni, due for an imminent premiere. “He’s commissioned a set of new guitar pieces that each reimagine a song by Schubert.” And following a 2018 commission from Aberdeen’s sound festival, she returns in October with a new piece for oboe, bassoon, horn, viola and double bass, rounding up the festival’s five-year focus on ‘endangered’ instruments.

Despite her wide-ranging travels, Perivolaris feels like Arran is home, and the island might even provide a focus for further study. “I’d like to do a PhD in the near future,” she says, “to research in more depth the links between landscape and composition, and the sense of ecology and the natural world, and how they influence my music.”

Electra Perivolaris’s The Blurred Lines of Archipelagos is premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in an online performance on 7 February, www.sco.org.uk

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