One of the most revered composers of our time, South African-born Kevin Volans is also the most celebrated ‘classical’ composer Africa has ever produced. Audiences thrill to his music on many counts: its springy rhythms leap and dance, its melodic shapes dazzle and beguile, its textures seem shot through with light, its sonorities are fresh and incandescent as if charged with inner energy. And he brings to the world a unique, Modernist ‘classical’ idiom originally founded on the indigenous music of Africa.
By the early 1980s Volans’s music was already our finest example of an egalitarian encounter between Western ‘classical’ music and African music – an encounter so radical that, in the final artifact, both participating idioms are changed. Not long after completing his studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Volans developed startlingly original ways of incorporating into contemporary composition many of Africa’s endogenous musical techniques—such as cyclicity, multiple or ambiguous downbeats, cross-patterns, melody produced through the use of interlocking techniques, irregular note-groupings, timbral layering, and forms that avoid narrative, development and teleology. For him, such techniques were inseparable from another of the ways African music differed from music in the West, and another of its deep attractions: the way it achieved what we might call ‘transcendence’. He noted that where Western music sought to take you away from the present, to transport you ‘elsewhere’, in African music ‘transcendence’ came through inhabiting the here and now.
In comparison to his earlier works, Volans’s more recent pieces have a relationship to Africa that is more mediated, less direct. His kinship with African music is nowadays a matter less of a work’s surface than of its inner structure and concept. But many of the marvels of these later works would not be possible without the techniques he learnt and adapted from African music. For example, he has made highly original adaptations of what African musicologists sometimes call ‘inherent patterns’ or ‘kaleidophony’. These are meaningful acoustic groupings that seem to arise accidentally: no single performer plays them. Instead, they suddenly emerge when different patterns, played by different players, interlock in such a way that the ear of a discerning listener hears unexpected new configurations inside the constellations of notes.
One thinks, for example, of his Cicada, a big piece for two pianos, in which cyclicity and inherent patterns combine to produce perhaps the most astonishing adaptation of African kaleidophony in the concert repertoire. Here, each reiteration of the cycle allows not only a re-hearing: it also invites one to listen to each complexly beautiful fragment from new angles, and to discover a changing, dynamic whirl of inner melodies. What remains constant is an utterly original fusion of African and Western aesthetics.
Or one might think of the quite different case of his String Quartet No. 6, where the quartet interlocks with a pre-recorded image of itself on tape, sometimes reacting, sometimes leading, its different articulations and gestures opposing or alternating with one other (open string chords and stopped ones, con vibrato and senza vibrato, louder and softer, expansion and contraction). Besides—as in so much of the music of Africa—texture, colour, and the subtle changes wrought upon them are at the very heart of the work. The result is extraordinary: a work of deeply moving oscillations, great ebbs and flows, long antiphonal resonances—as though the whole world were breathing together, slowly, in harmony.
As aspect of the evolution of Volans’s music over the decades is that he has pioneered a vast array of ways to reimagine compositional techniques and procedures, most of them rooted, even if not always obviously, in his foundational African commitments. So, for instance, he has made use of the idea of a piece as a journey through a landscape rather than as a traditional narrative, of ‘dream mode’ as a structuring principle, of ‘formlessness’ where the material of the work is allowed to determine its own development, of an expansion of African interlocking techniques into large-scale structures, and of a stripping of the compositional material down to essentials in a quest for ‘quality over quantity’. Yet, for all that, he insists that his work is anti-conceptual; he maintains that he always starts from an image—usually a musical one. Indeed, the new works on tonight’s programme originally sprang from an image of ‘flutes, with their notes falling like rain.’
In sum, Volans has developed Western musical techniques in ways that subvert conventional and reified modes of being, doing, becoming, belonging, and identifying. His music invites listeners to discover new ways of ‘tuning in’; it leads them towards new aesthetic and affective destinations, helping them discover more encompassing, more cosmopolitan, sorts of identity. In a world obsessed with erecting real and metaphorical walls between its peoples, the strikingly original music of Kevin Volans has a critical countervailing importance that is impossible to overstate.
by Christopher Ballantine
The premiere of Piano Concerto No. 4 was performed Friday 11 November 2016 at CBSO Centre, with Barry Douglas as soloist, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson.
Kevin Volans was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel in Cologne. He now is an Irish citizen and lives in Co. Cork.
In the mid-seventies his work was associated with the New Simplicity – the beginnings of Post-Modernism in Germany. In 1979 after several research trips to South Africa, he began a series of pieces based on African composition techniques, which occupied him for the next 10 years.
After a productive collaboration with the Kronos quartet in the 1980s his work, principally in the field of chamber and orchestral music, has been regularly performed worldwide. The Kronos discs, White Man Sleeps and Pieces of Africa broke all records for string quartet disc sales.
In 1999 the South Bank in London hosted a 50th birthday celebration of his work and for his 60th the Wigmore Hall in London organized a “Kevin Volans Day” of concerts. He has been the featured composer in several European festivals of contemporary music.
In the last decade he has turned his attention to writing for orchestra and as well as collaborating with visual artists.