Piers Hellawell's work has been commissioned and performed around the world, featureing special collaborations with a number of leading artists.
Large projects since his 1999 Proms debut (Inside Story) have included Cors de chasse, a double concerto commissioned for Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet) and Jonas Bylund (trombone) by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Degrees of Separation, the commissioned work for the opening of The Sage Gateshead. Dogs and Wolves, a commission for the BBC Scottish SO's first series in City Halls, was premiered in 2006 and recorded, on the CD of the same name, the following year. In June 2010 a new piano work, Piani Latebre was premiered by William Howard at the Spitalfields Festival.
Hellawell's works are represented on CD on the ECM New Series, NMC and Metier labels, as well as on three critically acclaimed discs of his music from the Metronome label. May 2012 saw the issue of 'Airs, Waters', Hellawell's first recording on the Delphian label, hailed by The Independent as "...a large-scale palette applied with the most delicate of brushork", and by The Scotsman as "gorgeously impassioned work.... a rich kaleidoscope of inspired creativity". 2011 saw work on Isabella's Banquet, premiered by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland and Paul Hillier in 2012, and Syzygy, a joint commission for the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Stockholm Chamber Brass in 2013, for which the composer was awarded a Leverhulme Fellowship in 2010. In April 2013 Hellawell won one of 20 PRS for Music Foundation Biennial commissions, to work with improvising trio Bourne Davis Kane.
Piers is Professor of Composition at the Queen's University of Belfast; his music is published by Edition Peters (London) Ltd.
Interview with Piers:
How did you get into composing?
I cannot remember a time when it did not seem the only thing to do. This makes it annoying that, for all that, it seems not to get any easier, but then I don’t think it’s meant to be easy, because with each piece you should NOT have done it before… you’re not working a production line, so each piece should be the first/only one of its kind. I began pounding away at the piano rather than on the page – I think most classical composers as kids express the natural urge toward putting music together in the spontaneous medium of sound, and later have to learn the difficult business of writing it down. I’m still working on that
Do you have a particular place you enjoy writing most?
For all my professional life I have done the bulk of my work at home in the North of Scotland, rather than in the city where I teach as a professor of composition. This division works quite well for me: I’m composing regularly enough to inform my guidance to the students, but not regularly enough to have to keep breaking off to return to the university – which would frustrate both processes. When I’m working on a piece, it’s a mixed process of computer screen, scribbled page with piano work and, as important as these, outdoor problem-solving when wandering around in my local landscape.
What's the most unusual thing you've ever been asked to write?
I suppose a piece requested by Evelyn Glennie for percussion with a group of handbell ringers, which was never performed, was the most unusual. More seriously, my current project, a PRS Biennial for New Music commission for the free improvisation trio Bourne Davis Kane, is by a long way the strangest project in my experience! I knew the group’s live and recorded work well and have been a ‘fan’ for a long while, yet I found I was wrong in nearly all my assumptions about how they work. Classical composers (and players, I think) approach improvisation as a ‘loosened’ version of the notated page, like a fit of vagueness dissolving a specific framework. But BDK, it turns out, are happy with completely notated work and learn it note–for-note; but once freedom kicks in, they mean free, and for example want no piece to take the same route twice. When I tried to get them to do a string of loosely notated sections, but linked in a fixed order, they hated it! I live and learn. The premiere’s not till next month…
If you had no constraints of time and money, what would you compose next, and where would you go to write it?
I’d probably go home to the islands as usual… just that it’s proven to work for me there: it feels worth writing, which it doesn’t really in the city. But there are places I know in Italy and Sweden that I also suspect would work well! Constraints of time and money matter less to me than enthusiastic participation of people, though once you have them you want time and money as well! If I were just drawing up my own, enthusiastically peopled and funded project, it would be a concertante type work for Fenella Humphreys (violin) with the John Wilson Orchestra, which draws on so many of our greatest players. I’d have some fun with their big band section, but possibly not at the same time as the violin solo…. It’s over 20 years since I did anything for violin on its own with orchestra. My last one was for violin and viola, for the Proms.
If you could meet any composer from any point in history, who would it be, where would you take them, and what would you ask them?!?
I’ve always assumed the answer to this question would be Mozart, which is not very original of me. I think he might have had more self-knowledge than Bach, who surely had such humility that he thought he was just a serving kapellmeister like any other. Beethoven would run Mozart a close second, since the mythology accruing around him, too, has all but obscured any clear view of his daily life and suffering; in particular with the ‘heroic’ Beethoven myth we have really lost sight of what must have been an immensely human reality.