Review/Article China concerts


Beijing. March 1991
Cultural Exchange David Hellewell Concert. 10th September 1990
Music Hall, Central Conservatory of Music. Chinese Musical Creation Committee. Central Broadcasting Orchestra.
People's Music Publishers.

David Hellewell's appearance was warmly welcomed by the musical audience in the capital. It was an extraordinary concert. As was explained by the programme notes, this musical language has evolved by a mixture of characteristics of classical music, jazz, rock, Latin-American, baroque and popular music. In other words it is not a serious nor a popular music, but a combination of the two: it is the popularisation of serious music, and also the classicalisation of popular music. What should we call such a music? It seems as though there is no existing term. Hellewell himself originally called it "Mister D" Music ('D' = David), but he later changed this to 'Multi-Dimensional' Music.

The creativity of Mr Hellewell has not always been like this: earlier, he was an avant garde composer for more than twenty years, but now says: "avant garde music excludes all of the things I like: melody, harmony, rhythm, rock, jazz, classical music, medieval music, etc." He thinks that after Stravinsky's Rite of Spring no good avant garde music has been created, so the audience for avant garde music has deteriorated; many composers also do not like it. On the other hand, popular music has developed very quickly. London Royal Music Conservatories and others now have jazz classes. A significant fact is that Hellewell is also a very experienced jazz music teacher. When he was young he played 'Boogie woogie' piano, blues and jazz. From the '70s he has diversified his compositions into a new direction.

Six compositions were performed at the concert: Spring Rock Sonata for violin and piano, a piano trio and quartet of chamber music, and there were piano concertos and a trumpet concerto- large-scale orchestral works. His compositions embody different degrees and combinations of popular and serious music. In these there is a typical sound projection of popular music such as the cutting jazz rhythms, the blues scale, and the heavy drive of rock; for example in the beginning of the performance the music started with the powerful heat of dissonance; it also has the effect we often hear in serious music, such as the grandeur of a large orchestra, the clear harmonic organisation, the contrast of colour and intensity in orchestration, and triple or even more frequent changes of rhythm. For example, the piano quartet Space/Time Phantasia has three large sections, every section comprises many smaller sections, the subtitles include different types of components such as plainsong and pathos, rock, disco, baroque music, blues, popular music, marches, dance music, passacaglia, etc. Also, in front of the many subtitles are adjectives to explain and express the time and space concept, such as Space Blues, Supersonic Blues, Rocket Blues, etc. However, the characteristics of the composition are unified (no matter what the titles), it doesn't have the 'madness' of rock music, nor the elegance of classical music, nor the strangeness of avant garde music; it seems that Mr Hellewell mixes these different colours on his palette and creates a new sound: dynamic, vivid and full of life.

During the last two decades Western composers have had differing views on how to make serious music popular, just as there are many styles of modern music and many types of popular music. Many compositions of American composer John Williams are based on traditional music, he absorbs avant garde and popular music styles and makes it accessible to audiences, especially in the film music he created after the mid-70s, which is well-liked by audiences.

As early as the late-50s the composer Gunther Schuller invented the term 'Third-Stream Music' to describe the combination of art music and jazz; at that time he thought that the best of each idiom could be combined. Art music can learn from the rich rhythm and particular melody of jazz. Jazz can also benefit from the large scale of classical music and its complex symphonic system. Later on, third-stream thought was developed in the compositions of Ron Black and Larry Austin.

For some jazz musicians who have had some professional training in formal composition (e.g. Dave Brubeck, who was a student of Milhaud and Globoka) the performance of their jazz, in fact, is already very close to serious music. There are also some composers who, in order to retain the characteristics of jazz, (ie. retaining the dynamism of the music), combine and perform jazz with a symphony orchestra, but without asking the orchestra to imitate the jazz sound - e.g.. William Russo's "Three Small Blues' with orchestra.

Hellewell has his own characteristics. If we say that this kind of past music combined jazz and classical music, Hellewell has also included avant garde as well as popular music such as Rock, Soul, Disco, Punk, and so on. According to him he combines things which were never combined before; it is not 'imitation' but rediscovery. He extends and develops simple forms because he wants to transform these into serious compositions without losing the original freshness and life. Obviously this is not an easy matter. The most difficult thing, Mr Hellewell told us, is how to catch the complicated, precise rhythms and characteristics of live popular music in performance, and to record these in musical notation. These techniques, he said, he acquired from his avant garde compositions and experience.

There is no doubt that Hellewell's work is very significant. It tells us that the road of music is very broad. As in earlier days, with Scott Joplin's Ragtime piano music and Paul Whiteman's 'Symphonic Swing', Hellewell's compositions have also elevated popular music and help to make serious music more accessible.

Zhong Zi Lin