Classical music: Good composers don't lie

When his music is played at the Proms, Piers Hellawell hopes we'll just listen.
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A YEAR or two ago, the island of Harris hosted a concert which included Piers Hellawell's Sound-Carvings from the Water's Edge. Hellawell is a composer who rejoices in the glory of existence. "If pushed to define what my music's about," he says, "then it's that it is written to celebrate the life-force. There's a lot of anger about in modern music, but I aim to affirm life and energy."

Yet, on that day in the Outer Hebrides, someone in the audience interpreted his work differently. Afterwards, a man came up to him, a stranger with burning eyes and a fanatical, clerical air. "He grabbed me by the hand, stared searchingly into my face and boomed: `The world is full of sin and misery - and you have understood that perfectly'."

The composer of this chameleon work laughs, now, remembering. But the incident illustrates an important point. You can't own music. As he puts it: "Music is like a bird. You have to open the window and set it free, and then it has its own, inscrutable existence. Anyone can make of it what they will."

Hellawell is Reader in Composition at Queen's University, Belfast. When not teaching, he lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter in a sturdy 19th-century manse beside a tidal inlet on Harris, surrounded by a dauntingly bleak and craggy wilderness. Here, howling storms can rage for weeks on end, but days of sudden, sunlit calm reveal sublime and soaring beauty. And, though he loves Belfast, it is here that most of his music is written. Though born in Derbyshire and given a conventional English upbringing, the Celtic fringe feels like home.

Now 43, he is a big man with bags of charm and a benign, slightly shambolic air. Garrulous and articulate, he is modestly reluctant to talk about himself. He admits that he always wanted to be a composer, that he listened to nothing but Mozart as a nine-year-old and that his earliest audio- memory is of traditional jazz - but he'd far rather discuss contemporary music. All right then: why is it often so damn difficult?

His answer begins with a definition of art as a balance between expectation and surprise. "When music leans too heavily towards expectation, it becomes tiresomely predictable - advertising jingles, things like that. But in the middle of this century the pendulum swung towards modernism, producing music that offered more surprise than reassurance. A lot of things people expected were no longer there: it was very demanding for a listener."

His point is that the pendulum has swung back again. "People who have what Evelyn Glennie likes to call a "squeaky gate" view of contemporary music are actually judging something from quite a long time ago. It won't do to say that it's all a con trick and doesn't communicate: only that bad music doesn't. Good composers don't lie. Trust your judgement. If you can't make anything of a piece, it's possible that it's rubbish. But it might take some effort to understand it. Nothing that is any good gives itself up all at once." Is there a melody? "Well, yes. Not tonal melody, supported by conventional 18th-century harmonies, but you can certainly find melody in my new piece."

Hellawell will present this latest work at the Proms on 3 August. Commissioned by the BBC, it is a double concerto for violin and viola called Inside Story. The title refers to the composer's belief that sometimes we should be content just to listen, without worrying about what the piece is "about". "I wrote it for specific players - Clio Gould and Philip Dukes, who are two of the very best in the business and to some extent they are my inspiration. But the piece is about just what happens within it."

He sees the Proms as a bastion of excellence and is delighted to be broadcast on Radio 3, which he considers the finest source of free musical education in the world. Yet a significant proportion of his audience that night will have come to hear the Enigma Variations and might not like Inside Story. He is realistic about this: "Composers often long to be loved by everyone, and it can dog them. In fact, living with this desire is like sharing a small kitchen with a Newfoundland. Artists would save themselves a lot of suffering if they accepted that not everyone will like what they do." For now, the main thing is that we listen, and that we give it a chance.

Next Tuesday's Prom will be broadcast live on Radio 3 at 7.30pm and repeated on 6 Aug, at 2pm