Piers Hellawell on Piers Hellawell

Piers Hellawell (b. 1956)

Piers Hellawell was born in England and studied with James Wood and Nicholas Maw. At the age of twenty-four he was appointed composer-in-residence at Queen's University, Belfast, where he is now Professor of Composition.

I tend to be associated with the two places I call home, Belfast in the North of Ireland and the Western Isles in Scotland, but in fact I grew up in England, where nowadays I manage to feel both at home and a stranger. Despite the fondness nowadays for making explicit links between composers and their places, I actually think a bit of alienation, a 'sense of not belonging', is useful for an artist - being an outsider. I make a habit of not fitting in. I have taught composition in Queen's University for over 25 years now, and do feel some satisfaction that composing is a leading specialism for us, for students from undergraduate year one right through to the adult PhD community.

My composing life has centred around chamber and orchestral work in traditional media; I have not felt the need to inform my sound world with contemporary technology, not only because I can barely wire a plug but also because the challenge of creating freshness from familiar instrumental resources is still so alive to me. My professional composing in the 1980s began with a strong dissatisfaction at what I felt were the assumptions of my composing generation: lots of single-movement spans, the twelve pitches all piled up in ever-more-complex knots of notes, scrapyards-full of percussion scattered over every texture...

I sought escape in multi-movement works like Sound Carvings from Rano Raraku and in a personal harmonic language of modal areas derived from blues harmonies, which came out first in Truth or Consequences and The Still Dancers. Coming to Belfast I got involved in traditional music, the local brew, but also played Balinese gamelan, which did release some of my uptight pretensions (only some). Since then some of the complexities have crept back, but my main aim remains clarity - trying to unfold a sound story that makes sense, within a musical idiom that is still exploratory. A thread for me over many years has been to reorientate the concerto principle: I've done three double concerti (for recorder and percussion, Evelyn Glennie and Michala Petri; for strings, Philip Dukes and Clio Gould; and for brass, Håkan Hardenberger and Jonas Bylund) which seek to break down the separation of solo and orchestral identities. Agricolas, for clarinet, is very much part of this, with the clarinet a partner in various sorts of crime...

Taking up saxophone in 2002 finally brought me back to performing music, at least in a humble context in a big band. Anything like that informs what you write, but only very indirectly. Away from music, but also somehow related, are a passion for languages - I am a Scots Gaelic speaker, and am always working on a European language - and for photography; trying to make my photographs less ordinary is a constant challenge, and a counter-irritant to the struggle with musical imagery.

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