Weaver of Grass
This quintet for piano and strings (one of each instrument) was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble of London to mark their 20th Anniversary, and was premiered by them at the 2003 Brighton Festival. It was funded by the Schubert Ensemble Trust, the Brighton Festival and the Steel Foundation.

This title refers to the amazing story of Angus McPhee of South Uist who, through many years of mental illness, made sense of his life by making things out of grass – not decorative items but household objects such as hats, clothes and even shoes. For me these remarkable but transient artefacts, more than anything of the avant-garde, raise questions about the purpose of art, being deeply rooted in collective memory while not actually functional (with the possible exception of the hats). They are more like cousins once-removed of art – and at the same time emblems of everyday life. Meanwhile the bending of natural materials into artificial, recognisable forms seems to me a kind of composition process.

The work forms a continuous sequence but is in fact a quilt of smaller panels - a collection of related artefacts rather like the grass weavings. Whereas my recent works tend to be written like stories, where the search for a beginning is followed by a straight narrative, this one was written as a series of fragments, finally put together in a chosen pattern, more in the spirit of my ‘sound carvings’ principle of earlier instrumental works. My first idea for an opening, for example, ended up in the middle, and it leads into a set of short variants on a kind of chant - a sequence which forms the work’s second half. The exuberant coda is in fact a transformation of the work’s mysterious opening.

c Piers Hellawell 2003