A selection of quotes from reviews of the work of Kevin Volans over the last 30 years
”The result is a music of fresh vigorous invention…endlessly inventive in the effects they obtain from the same limited ensemble and communicating enormous energy.”
Andrew Clements – The Financial Times 1982 (White Man Sleeps, harpsichord version/Mbira/Matepe)
“What Volans achieves here is a supreme simplicity that is also eclectic, dignified and profound…”
Christine Lucia – The Daily News Durban 1984 (Journal/Walking Song)
”The four dances were ravishingly and radiantly simple, dynamic of rhythm, assuaging of utterance.”
Paul Driver – Financial Times 1986 (White Man Sleeps Versions 1 and 2)
”I lay back and could not believe my ears… It was music I had never heard before or could have imagined. It derived from nothing and no one. It had arrived. It was free and alive… I believe this to be devotional music of the highest order. For me, Kevin is one of the more inventive composers since Stravinsky.”
Bruce Chatwin — New York Review of Books and The Times, 1989
”…in The Songlines Volans’s music transports us, in an almost cathartic way, to the intimate, internal world of our own imagination…”
Bunita Marcus – Elle magazine New York, 1989 (String Quartet no. 3)
”I have played no record more often, or with greater joy, the whole year.”
Max Loppert – Financial Times Records of the year December 1990
(Cover Him with Grass CD)
”Kevin Volans, a composer of compelling originality, never allows his listener’s attention to wander … his sophisticated score simply leaps to life and holds its audience willingly rapt from start to finish…”
Alexander Waugh – Evening Standard, July 1993
”… to create a silence that means something is one of the highest skills in music, and Kevin Volans is one of its virtuosos.”
The Independent, May 1995
“…Volans can create a sound that is arrestingly beautiful and sustain interest in the way it is developed for the whole of the piece … a rare combination of directness and sophistication.”
Martyn Harry – Gramophone January 1998 (Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments CD)
“By refusing to repeat himself or anyone else, Volans remains one of the planet’s most distinctive and unpredictable voices.”
Kyle Gann – Village Voice New York, February 1998
”When it comes to composers, only a few today could be called true originals, and Kevin Volans is one of them.”
John Allison – The Times, London, 20 July 1999 (50th Birthday Concert, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London)
”What sustains it all is freshness and verve. There’s a rhythmic exuberance and total lack of predictability…The perspectives always change in these works; you constantly want to discover what happens next.”
Andrew Clements – The Guardian, London, 17 July 1999
”…behind this [Volans’s] eye resides what we now have to think of as one of the most remarkable musical minds of our time.”
Christopher Ballantine – International Record Review May 2000 (Cicada for 2 pianos)
“Volans is a composer of staggering gifts. He has the courage to abandon familiar sound worlds and the skill entirely to convince…”
Annette Morreau – Independent, London, 2 April 2001
”…When I suggested last week that Morton Feldman’s beautifully unassertive music might point to the music of the future, 1 did not expect confirmation within a matter of days.”
Paul Driver – The Sunday Times, London, 17 February 2002
(Concerto for Double Orchestra)
“The difficulty of reviewing quartets by Kevin Volans is that it’s hard to drag yourself away from the music and start writing about it. I have not so far managed to play any recording (there are several) of his First Quartet White Man Sleeps, without repeating at least its entrancing fourth movement.”
Michael Oliver – Gramophone, May 2002
“…a score designed to inspire delight and awe — awe at the superhuman exertions of the pianist, delight at the clarity and exuberance of the music.”
Joshua Kosman – The San Francisco Chronicle, 17 November 2006
(2nd Piano Concerto)
“…pieces such as the riveting percussion solo Asanga, played by Jonny Axelsson with a kind of calm fury, and the two string quartets that made Volans’s name. After 20 years, they’re as fresh as a new dawn. The heart-stopping beginning of the Second Quartet, where the viola sends out an impassioned cry against the dry plucking of the other instruments, is one of those revelatory moments that enlarges our idea of what music can do, and why it matters.”
Ivan Hewitt – Telegraph Nov. 2009 (Kevin Volans Day, Wigmore Hall, London)
“The Smith Quartet’s soulful performance of Hunting: Gathering (1987) underlined the shredded romanticism in Volans’s post-minimalist masterpiece, with echoes of Janácek in its bold, sad figures. I mean no disrespect to other percussionists when I say that Axelsson is the most extraordinary drummer I have seen, or to other composers when I say that She who Sleeps with a Small Blanket (1985) and Asanga (1998) are the most extraordinary works: ferocious, lyrical and human.”
Anna Picard – Independent on Sunday, London (Kevin Volans Day, Wigmore Hall, London)
“…So what was there, and what was the piece? It’s almost impossible to encapsulate in words the bewitching and beguiling stillness of the span of this exquisite 20-minute creation.”
Michael Tumelty – Glasgow Herald, August 2010 (Symphony: Daar Kom die Alibama)
“The world premiere of Kevin Volans’ Third Piano Concerto is dazzling in its head-over-heels exuberance.”
Geoffrey Norris – Daily Telegraph, 23 August 2011
A selection of full reviews of the work of Kevin Volans.
Martin Adams – The Irish Times
7 November 2012
Crash Ensemble, cond. Alan Pierson, Project Arts Centre, Dublin
The Symphony, says Volans, is called a symphony by way of reference “to the original meaning of ‘sounding together’”. You could think of it as a long, hand-knitted scarf, the knitter not following any pre-ordained plan, but choosing patterns on the spur of the moment as they seem apt.
It’s a piece that seems to hover or drift slowly. The magic of it lies not only in the way Volans charms the ear with the often gorgeous orchestration of his material, but also in the subtlety of his transitions. Or, you might well say, the effective elision of the sense of transition – the morphing of musical states is as big an attraction as the musical states themselves.
Geoffrey Norris, Daily Telegraph
Piano Concerto no. 3/BBC Proms 2011, Albert Hall, London
4 stars, 23 August 2011
The main focus in this concert was on a new score by the South African-born composer, Kevin Volans, who for a long time has been resident in the Republic of Ireland. His Third Piano Concerto was written for Barry Douglas, who here gave its world premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard within a programme of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” overture, Brahms’s First Symphony and Liszt’s sombre funeral ode “La notte”.
Little had filtered out in advance about the nature of Volans’s new piece, so perhaps the chief guide as to what it might be like stemmed from the Second Piano Concerto of 2006, a positive earthquake of a piece with technical complexities way off the Richter scale.
This new one is certainly not plain-sailing, either for the pianist or for the orchestra, or indeed for the conductor in coordinating it all. But for the listener it is dazzling in its head-over-heels exuberance.
Time-honoured facets such as the pre-eminence of the solo instrument and the super-Lisztian virtuosity place the work in a kind of concerto tradition, but, being by Volans, there are personal twists that defy pigeon-holing. The music is conceived along stream-of-consciousness lines, ideas tumbling out and being chewed over before other thoughts come to mind in rapid exchanges between orchestra and piano.
The semblance of amorphousness is avoided through the music’s sheer propulsive drive, the surprise silences and pauses for breath. The effect is akin to an animated conversation, orchestra and piano teasingly throwing down syncopated challenges as to who can most cunningly pre-empt and cap the other.
Nick Kimberly – Evening Standard
23 August, 4 stars
Composers don’t often get the chance to write a piano concerto these days but Kevin Volans has written three, the latest of which had its first performance last night.
As with much of Volans’s music, ideas don’t so much develop as explode into action. Here, pianist Barry Douglas tapped out a disconcertingly simple idea before percussion and brass had their say.
The strings tried to muscle in while Douglas repeated the initial phrase obsessively and with barely a change.
Out of this emerged an intricate conversation of overlapping ideas, within which individual moments seemed an echo of music we already knew while others seemed startlingly fresh. Douglas and the BBC Symphony Orchestra soloist refused to cohere into a single entity, their separate rhythmic impulses always fragmentary, always at odds. At times Douglas sounded like a broken music box, at others like a demented virtuoso playing as many notes as possible as fast as possible.
Soloist and conductor Thomas Dausgaard maintained intermittent but close eye contact, essential in such a dense piece. Although Douglas had the score on his piano, he didn’t seem to need it: a tribute to his skill, and to his dedication to a knotty work that positively demands to be heard again.
George Rafael – The Journal of Music in Ireland
Kevin Volans: Piano Concerto No. 3. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Barry Douglas (piano), Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August 2011
Free of Baggage Who is Kevin Volans? George Rafael goes looking for an answer after hearing the composer’s latest piano concerto at the BBC Proms.
No one writes piano concerti anymore, at least not on the grand nineteenth-century Romantic scale. Rachmaninov was the last to do so between the wars, beating against the tide of High Modernism. Any essay in that direction now would smack of irony, of post-modern pastiche.
Kevin Volans is no glib pasticheur. His Piano Concerto No. 3 (his fourth, actually) is an ‘aspiration’ to that bygone era, and in particular to the idol of his youth, Franz Liszt, whose bicentenary is this year. One forgets that before Volans was invited to Darmstadt in the early Seventies to study under Stockhausen, he began his career as a pianist specialising in the Romantic repertory. Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov, not to mention Morton Feldman and the Abstract Expressionist painters, are as much a part of his makeup as the sound world of his native South Africa.
But Volans is sui generis. This BBC Proms commission (I heard it on BBC Radio 3 due to a scheduling mishap), written for Barry Douglas, displays the composer’s uniquely mercurial traits. A one-movement score for two pianos and small orchestra lasting under twenty minutes, this is more a raucous, moody riff on the Hungarian than a concerto per se, or rather his essence: the experimentalism, the atonality, and the dynamics which revolutionised the art of piano performance and interpretation. (Volans defines Liszt as ‘the Father of Modernism’.) Characterised by a solo voice sharp and blunt by turns, a contentious string section, quicksilver passages from the second piano, and interspersed with odd, premonitory silences and drum rolls, the effect is strangely reminiscent of the call and response pattern found in the Blues.
However, this prickly, under-the-skin reminder of where the Blues ultimately came from appears to be more by the way, a welling-up of influences myriad and contradictory absorbed over the years, than intentional. The sources at play in the music of Volans seem, or are made to seem, natural and unforced, as if they came to him, a receptive vessel, and not he to them. This isn’t a matter of being naïve or passive, but of being open-minded, socially as well as artistically, of going with the flow.
Who then is Kevin Volans? Is he the South African who discovered he wasn’t European in Germany or the Germany-returned South African who discovered he wasn’t African? And since 1994, of course, he has been an Irish citizen. Caught between these worlds, neither here nor there, Volans is a free man, free to compose whatever he wants as his friend, the late Bruce Chatwin, first suggested, free of ‘baggage’ as Volans himself put it, another of his ‘aspirations’.
Fiona Maddocks – The Observer
Sunday, 28 August 2011
…They [The BBC Symphony Orchestra] had every right to feel on top of their game, having just given the world premiere of Kevin Volans’s stimulating and vivid Piano Concerto No 3, with Barry Douglas as the perceptive soloist. Volans (b 1949) is always interesting, and a one-off. His music is apparently episodic and repetitive yet with an indefinable, turbulent sense of development.
Andrew Clements – The Guardian
Tuesday, 23 August 2011, 4 stars
Kevin Volans’s new piano concerto, his third, comes without any suggestive title and no extra-musical associations, other than being written specially for Barry Douglas, who was the soloist in the premiere with Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s a single movement, lasting about 20 minutes, which unrolls as a kind of frieze, episode by episode, with just enough cross-references to give the whole a sense of unity, and broadly outlining an A-B-A shape, with the central part more introspective than the outer ones.
The piano writing is challenging and effective, full of intricately worked rhythmic patterns and clumping chords, and Douglas played it with great brilliance and precision. The orchestra sometimes counterpoints the glittering solo detail with feisty wind, provides veiled chordal backgrounds to its unfolding lines, or gets entangled in complex chordal textures that constantly realign themselves in a way that recalls late Morton Feldman, though Feldman’s music never has the slightly confrontational edge that some of Volans’ exchanges imply. Altogether it’s a strikingly attractive and engaging piece.
Dausgaard had taken over this concert from Jiří Bělohlávek, who is ill
Michael Tumelty – Glasgow Herald
30 August 2010, 4 stars
Symphony: Daar Kom die Alibama Usher Hall Edinburgh Festival, August 2010
On reflection, having heard the world premiere last night of Kevin Volans’s symphony, Here Comes the Alabama, if the composer made one tactical error it was in calling his new work a symphony. It was probably the most anti-symphonic symphony I have heard. It was neither pictorial nor descriptive. There was no narrative, no drama and no tension.
So what was there, and what was the piece? It’s almost impossible to encapsulate in words the bewitching and beguiling stillness of the span of this exquisite 20-minute creation.
It was like an abstract reflection. It was like a thought that lingered. There was a whirring sound to the music, a ticking and a gentle pulsing. It seemed to revolve, like a mobile. It shimmered; it was evocative but not impressionistic.
Conductor Robin Ticciati and the SCO did a splendid job bringing it into gentle life. And in the context of a programme that emphasised the starkly original, with Rebel’s Les Elemens, the hormonally exuberant, in Bizet’s Symphony in C, and the quirky, in Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Volans’s symphony sat comfortably: an oasis of calm.
With support from Donald and Louise MacDonald
Andrew Clements – The Guardian, London
Robin Ticciati/SCO: Daar Kom die Alibama, Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Sunday, 29 August 2010, 4 stars
Though he now lives in Ireland, Kevin Volans was born in South Africa, and first established himself internationally with a series of works – most famously the string quartet White Man Sleeps – that made use of the indigenous music of his homeland. For his new piece – composed for Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and that rare thing, an orchestral work commissioned by the Edinburgh international festival – Volans has invoked his African origins again, though from a very different perspective.
The one-movement symphony – using the term, Volans says, in its original meaning of “sounding together” – carries the title of a popular Afrikaans song written in the 1860s by the Malay community to celebrate the arrival in Cape Town of a warship from the Confederate side in the American civil war. Volans doesn’t quote the song, but uses it as a link to what he calls a “meditation on the sea and the role of ships and their cargoes in our history”.
That purpose is hardly made explicit in the 20-minute work either, though. Daar Kom die Alibama is perfectly convincing as an elegantly shaped, often strikingly beautiful and abstract orchestral canvas, with an array of discrete, non-developing musical elements arranged in Feldmanesque style as if parts of a patchwork quilt. The modestly sized orchestra (double wind, no percussion) is used economically; there’s a mysterious dark pulsing centre, a single fierce climax, and a lingering, slow final fade.
Ticciati and the SCO gave the score a beautifully precise premiere, even if the Usher Hall’s treacherously imprecise acoustics (absurdly left untouched in the recent refurbishments) played havoc with the balance in some of Volans’s most carefully calculated textures.
Ivan Hewett – The Telegraph
Wigmore Hall – Kevin Volans Day
2 November 2009, 4 star
Kevin Volans’s music continues to be fascinating, but it’s the quartets that made his name which really shine.
Twenty years ago the South African composer Kevin Volans struck gold with – of all things – a couple of string quartets. They had strange names, suggestive of far-off, wild regions where “classical music” never ventures: White Man Sleeps and Hunting: Gathering.
A different kind of composer would have turned this lucky stroke into a career choice, and turned himself into a “brand”. Not Kevin Volans. As this two-part portrait of his music reminded us, there’s something rooted even more deeply in Volans than the South African folk-music he heard during his childhood in the 1950s. He’s a severe minimalist composer, who works by paring away. Over the years style, history, even form, have been banished. In his programme note to the String Quartet No 9, Shiva Dances, Volans speaks admiringly of the ancient Japanese notion of “voluntary poverty”, where what matters are tiny details incised on a handful of unremarkable objects.
In this quartet, it was barely even a handful; just a repeated hollow chord, endlessly recoloured in different shades of grey. Wisps of melody drifted across the landscape, and sudden flurries of quick notes, like gusts of wind. By the end even those enticements had been withdrawn, and the music retreated to bare chords, interspersed with silences.
What’s the point, you may ask? If played with exquisite care – as it was here by the Smith Quartet – there is a kind of richness in this music, a rapt concentration. I glimpsed it, too, in the brand-new piece viola: piano. The violist Garth Knox made each note luminous and weighty, and Volans played the agile flourishes of the piano part himself with admirably fleet fingers.
However, the shade of that great master of slow musical minimalism Morton Feldman did lie heavy on the music (proving that, even in this thin air, “style” is impossible to banish entirely). And in the end, it was the pieces that retained a human presence that gave the most pleasure: pieces such as the riveting percussion solo Asanga, played by Jonny Axelsson with a kind of calm fury, and the two string quartets that made Volans’s name. After 20 years, they’re as fresh as a new dawn. The heart-stopping beginning of the Second Quartet, where the viola sends out an impassioned cry against the dry plucking of the other instruments, is one of those revelatory moments that enlarges our idea of what music can do, and why it matters.
Andrew Clements – The Guardian
Kevin Volans Day, Wigmore Hall, London
Monday, 2 November 2009
Slowly but surely, contemporary music is infiltrating the Wigmore Hall programmes. Today was devoted to the music of Kevin Volans, born in South Africa and now living in Ireland. As well as a pair of concerts featuring the percussionist Jonny Axelsson and the Smith Quartet, there was a documentary film and a public interview with the 60-year-old composer.
Axelsson surveyed Volans’s three works for solo percussion, making light of their myriad rhythmic complexities, and the Smiths offered three of his 10 string quartets – including the work that established the composer internationally, White Man Sleeps. With its use of music from a variety of African traditions, never employed anecdotally but always filtered through Volans’s own musical personality, it remains wonderfully fresh and original. More than 20 years on, however, that rhythmic richness and exuberance seem less characteristic of Volans’s aesthetic than the later abstract works, which reveal his debt not only to the American experimental composers of the 1950s (especially Morton Feldman) but to the visual artists of that period as well.
The ninth string quartet, Shiva Dances, reflects Volans’s interest in minimal painting and architecture. Its thematic material is pared down almost to a single chord, yet the intensity of expression extracted across 25 minutes is compelling, with the tiniest change of emphasis or inflection assuming massive significance.
The same musical world is inhabited by the new work viola:piano, which was commissioned by the Wigmore Hall, and premiered by the composer himself with the violist Garth Knox. The two instruments go their separate ways, each strictly rationing their own musical resources and only interacting towards the end. It’s spare, frugal music, perfectly calculated; Volans’s sensibility is a very distinctive, rather special one.
Paul Driver – The Times
8 November 2009
Paul Driver […] hails a modern master
A cosmopolitan composer the group tends not to programme is Kevin Volans, who is linked to their American rivals, the more demotic Kronos Quartet. Volans was born and bred in South Africa, but is now an Irish citizen living in Dublin. His 60th birthday was marked at Wigmore Hall with a Saturday of events: two concerts, a conversation and a film. In the 1970s, he was an assistant of that apostle of modernism Stockhausen, but his career developed in such a way that he is often taken for a minimalist. This, as he said in the conversation with Annette Morreau, is something he resents. Indeed, the African-influenced, “hand-crafted”, repetitive patterning of his String Quartet No 1, White Man Sleeps (1986), creates an expressive world very different from the quasitechnological processes of a Steve Reich. In this felicitous account by the Smith Quartet, the work’s originality was manifest.
Volans turns his folk materials into unprecedented string-quartet textures with an élan that struck me as Bartokian, although he never sounds like him. He does owe a debt to Morton Feldman, that pioneer of prolonged stasis. This is shown in his ninth quartet, Shiva Dances (2004), a 25-minute meditation on virtually a single chord, and the beguiling new viola:piano, a premiere of which was given by the fine violist Garth Knox and an agile, octave-leaping Volans himself.
Anna Picard – Independent on Sunday
Smith Quartet/Axelsson, Wigmore Hall, London
London Sinfonietta/Bang on a Can/Reich, Royal Festival Hall
Sunday, 8 November 2009
…tributes to Keith Volans, Steve Reich and Sibelius
Last Saturday saw an angst-inducing clash of events celebrating two of the most distinctive living composers. At the Wigmore Hall, Jonny Axelsson and the Smith Quartet gave the first of two concerts marking the 60th birthday of Kevin Volans. The Smith Quartet’s soulful performance of Hunting: Gathering (1987) underlined the shredded romanticism in Volans’s post-minimalist masterpiece, with echoes of Janácek in its bold, sad figures. I mean no disrespect to other percussionists when I say that Axelsson is the most extraordinary drummer I have seen, or to other composers when I say that She who Sleeps with a Small Blanket (1985) and Asanga (1998) are the most extraordinary works: ferocious, lyrical and human.
John Allison – The Sunday Telegraph
25 October 2009
Echoes of Africa Wigmore Hall is getting ready to celebrate one of today’s top composers
‘It’s ironic,’ says the composer Kevin Volans. ‘In my new work for viola and piano, I have one of the three greatest viola players on the planet, and I’ve given him a relatively easy part. Yet I’ve set myself a terrible task with excessively difficult piano writing, probably the most difficult I’ve ever composed. We’re premiering it at the Wigmore Hall, and it will be my first appearance there, so I’ve been practising every day since the beginning of July. I’ve had to stop composing.’
Volans is talking about the new piece viola:piano, which he and Garth Knox will perform next Saturday in the final part of the Wigmore Hall’s Kevin Volans Day, London’s main celebration of the composer’s 60th birthday.
The new score will give a snapshot of the composer’s present style, and just about everything on the wide-ranging programmes should confirm him as one of the world’s most unpredictable yet distinctive composers. The South African-born, Irish-domiciled Volans is that rare thing in music today, a true original.
Volans’s work has always been shaped by the twin impulses of Africa and virtuosity, though the manifestation of these impulses has never stayed the same.
The young musician who made his debut in Johannesburg playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto became a composition student of the radical Cologne school, while enjoying a parallel career broadcasting some of the most challenging piano repertory on West German radio; but it is only recently that Volans, who still practises Rachmaninov’s Études Tableaux ’just for fun’, consciously took the tradition of the virtuoso concerto into his music. The result: Atlantic Crossing written for Marc-André Hamelin and the San Francisco Symphony in 2006.
’In my previous concertos, I avoided all those 19th-century ideas, and by giving in to them I produced what in some ways is my most conservative piece. But it’s also quite experimental. Having Hamelin was an inspiration, though he said “Don’t think because you’re writing for me it has to be difficult!”. Let’s be honest, if you have a Lamborghini you just can’t drive around at 5mph. The piece is spectacularly difficult, but Marc-André just ate it up.’
One of very few composers to have studied with both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel, Volans flourished, especially under Stockhausen, but moved away from his brand of modernism.
’Serialism balances everything out. What I love about African music and African textiles are the odd, unexpected things that occur. I start with something and let it grow and develop, as opposed to the architectural process of Stockhausen, where you actually plan the whole structure before you write a note.’
Given Volans’s colonial upbringing in Pietermaritzburg, and lack of exposure to African music even while studying in Johannesburg, it was only when he went to Europe that he realised what he’d left behind.
’The first thing I missed was the sound of Zulu being spoken on the streets. Ironically, it was the wealthy West German radio stations that sponsored me to make field trips home.’
Setting out to Africanise Western music, rather than Westernising African music, Volans made his name by tuning harpsichords to African scales and evoking such sounds as the mbira in his percussive instrumentation.
Even by the time the revised version of White Man Sleeps – originally written in 1982 and intended as something of a political statement – gained the composer cult success as the main work on the Kronos Quartet’s best-selling 1992 album Pieces of Africa, Volans was already moving away from such a literal African style.
But Africa is still there in the composer and his music, patterned by the repetition and contrast of short motifs. ’Patterning is the whole thing about Africa. It’s there in the landscape, in amazing cirrus clouds that go on for a hundred miles, in the patterns of migrating animals and flocks of flamingos. Africa is the continent of patterning, because it has had the least human intervention. My propensity for all this, and for blocks of colour, is, I think, very African.’
Joshua Kosman – The San Francisco Chronicle
Kevin Volans Day, October 31, Wigmore Hall, London. Piano Concerto no. 2 Altlantic Crossing (2006)
17 November 2006
Players rise to challenge of daunting piano concerto
There’s no such thing as an easy piano concerto, but even among the tough nuts there are gradations. Kevin Volans’ splashy, ferocious “Atlantic Crossing,” which had its exciting world premiere at Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, takes a proud stand right out there on the frontier of difficulty.
Written on a commission from the San Francisco Symphony, Volans’ 25-minute concerto is a breathless orgy of crashing chords, jagged rhythms and tumultuous orchestral textures, punctuated here and there by brief interludes of serenity. The soloist is at work almost without pause, and the demands on the orchestra are no less grueling.
But if Atlantic Crossing is a killer for the performers, it’s a wonderfully accessible feast for the audience. Melding the emotional transparency of the Romantic concerto tradition with the varied repetitions of post-minimalism, Volans writes with the listener uppermost in mind, and the results are thrilling.
Wednesday’s soloist was pianist Marc-Andr Hamelin, making a welcome Symphony debut in a score worthy of his prodigious talents. Michael Tilson Thomas led the Symphony in an athletic, crisply controlled performance.
And all of it was in the service of a score designed to inspire delight and awe – awe at the superhuman exertions of the pianist, delight at the clarity and exuberance of the music.
The predominant feature of Atlantic Crossing is its rhythmic explosiveness, with an arsenal of bongos, congas and tom-toms keeping up a steady Latin-tinged backbeat. Jack Van Geem and James Lee Wyatt III were the hard-working percussionists, co-soloists in all but name.
The pianist, meanwhile, labored to raise the rhythmic temperature with page after page of huge, bristling chords. They crashed high and low with the feverish intensity of one of Messiaen’s ecstatic outbursts, and Hamelin dispatched these passages with utmost precision and an almost otherworldly air of calm.
But Volans reaches further back for his models as well. The opening of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto — tolling chords rising in counterpart to orchestral melody — lurks everywhere in “Atlantic Crossing,” either explicitly or by implication. In one particularly beautiful central section Volans rebukes Tchaikovsky by writing piano chords with a fascinating rhythmic profile, something the older composer had neglected to do.
Occasionally, Volans varies things with a stretch of rhapsodic writing for strings and brass, allowing the pianist a breather by asking for no more than single notes in succession. Hamelin showed his mettle even here, shaping those simple melodies with limpid grace.
There’s no avoiding the sense that Atlantic Crossing is often a little denser than it needs to be to make its full impact (“too many notes,” as the Emperor Joseph II may have said to Mozart).
But what’s most exciting about this score is how deftly Volans manages repetition to keep the overall rhetoric comprehensible. Musical ideas arrive and stick around until they’re firmly in our ears (but no longer); because we understand the baseline, the rhythmic and harmonic variations then register all the more intriguingly.
In the end, I suppose the music’s daunting difficulty may make it hard for Atlantic Crossing to get the wider exposure it deserves. Are there other pianists out there willing to take on Volans’ challenges, let alone go toe-to-toe with Hamelin’s fearsome example? We shall see
Susan Guralnik – Publicity, Distributed Labels, harmonia mundi usa
Review of Hamelin / SFS performance
’an exciting and important new orchestral statement’
Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin doesn’t look like a guy who could burn down the house, and for that matter, neither does the composer, yet their collaboration produced a very exciting debut and a fascinating look at what is happening on the international music scene.
Some listeners heard a variety of influences ranging from Tchaikovsky to Messiaen, and I, too, found snippets that included the Bernstein of West Side Story and even some Liszt. Whatever the impetus, Volans has forged a piece that is unique, and he has found the ideal interpreter in Hamelin.
Following the arc of Atlantic Crossing proved surprisingly easy, but I hope to hear it again to really get a grip on the composer’s audacious demands. The soloist didn’t appear daunted by the blinding flurry of notes, the monumental chords or frightening technical challenges. His performance made the near half-hour workout seem well within his grasp (and ours). The Shostakovich could easily have overpowered this premiere, but it didn’t manage to erase the memory of an exciting and
important new orchestral statement.
Michael Dervan – The Irish Times
Joining Up the Dots (2006)
Crash sounded at their best in Kevin Volans’s new Joining Up the Dots for two pianos and strings, a piece which suggests a time-stretched exploration of chordal material, exposing unexpected cracks and shimmers, like a microscopically close-up photograph of a piece of rock.
Andrew Johnstone – The Irish Times
Lipkind RTE NSO/Houlihan, Cello Concerto (rev. 2005)
2 February 2005
It’s natural that the concerts in RTE’s Horizons series which give Irish composers the opportunity to present selections of their own and others’ works, should typically include items of an experimental nature. This week, however, the music chosen by Kevin Volans gave a strong impression of having moved beyond mere experimentation.
To be sure, his Strip-Weave and Andrew Hamilton’s MAP are examples of post-modern concept art – pieces that take an extra-musical idea as a starting point. But their imagination, technique and self-criticism that then take over yield results that are a far cry from the routine, cut-and-paste minimimalist essay.
Volans, whose music is strongly indebted to field work in Africa, combines mantra-like native rhythms with the sometimes random effect of certain native fabrics. Both pieces make extensive use of repetition and restricted use of chromaticism. They are neither overtly challenging nor overtly flattering, yet each engages with itself in such a way that it’s impossible not to be engaged by it.
Under a completely dependable Robert Houlihan, the NSO matched the sureness and freshness of the music with sure,fresh execution.
It’s a measure of Volans’s success that his Cello Concerto originally composed in 1997 has been so enthusiastically taken up by a soloist of the calibre of Gavriel Lipkind. This was the first performance of a revised version which, at Lipkind’s request, is even more relentless and uncompromising.
If the score doesn’t always give the orchestra interesting things to do, the same cannot be said of the jaw-dropping cello part. Lipkind played it from memory with the unbridled panache of a rock artist.
Andrew Clements – The Guardian
11 February 2002
Concerto for Double Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra 1 Swensen, Barbican Hall, London
…Volans has said that he set out to write a piece that was empty of content, an analogue to minimalist art (the concerto’s starting point was an exhibition by the sculptor Rebecca Horn). Essentially the 20‑minute work is built from a single four‑note chord, chosen for its neutrality and derived from the open strings of a violin. The 90‑piece orchestra is divided into two almost identical ensembles, placed either side of the conductor. The frugal material, constantly varied in its colour, voicing and articulation, and just occasionally given a chromatic twist, is passed between them.
It is music of extreme refinement and detail, and it unfolds at a rapid tempo, even though that speed only becomes obvious occasionally, when repeated pulsings erupt through the texture. There are some remarkable passages: luminous chords surrounded by fluttering attacks, sonorous progressions unfolded over held horn notes, repetitions tossed from one side to the other. The overall form seems intuitive, though the return of the opening gestures just before the end does hint at a kind of closure.
If there are any models for the concerto, they would be found in the music Morton Feldman and LaMonte Young produced in the early 1960s, though Volans’s raw material is more fundamental than theirs ever was. What his piece does share with those composers is the need to be performed as precisely as possible. This premiere, conducted by Joseph Swensen, ironed out the dynamics so that triple fortes and triple pianissimos sounded scarcely different, fudged some phrasing details, and hardly separated the two halves of the orchestra, so that the crucial sense of chords being passed from one side to the other barely registered. It deserved far better.
Paul Driver – The Sunday Times
17 February 2002
Concerto for Double Orchestra (2002)
When I suggested last week that Morton Feldman’s beautifully unassertive music might point to the music of the future, 1 did not expect confirmation within a matter of days. But in the same Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave its portrait concert of the American composer, they promptly premiered Kevin Volans’s highly unusual Concerto for Double Orchestra, completed to a BBC commission last year…
Now, however, he seems to have espoused Feldman’s painterly aesthetic of quiet abstraction and matt surfaces.
“The music of the 20th century is so cluttered and busy,“ he says. ”I wanted to write something that is full of empty spaces and that allows the listener time to move about in.“ resulting piece, apparently sketched in a day, has a starkness that is breathtaking. A single chord, based on open fifths (the archetypal sound of string‑instrument tuning), is stretched out for 20 minutes, with the minimum of chromatic inflection, to become a piece in its own right. The locus of musical interest is moved from pitch, melody and harmony to rhythmic and dynamic articulation and to texture, the latter being affected by the use of parallel orchestras between which the bare rnaterial is sometimes bounced in medieval ”hocketing” (hiccuping) fashion.
The chord has a Stravinskyan bite that helps engage attention; and it is true that history furnishes various “inventions on one note” and static excursions such as the third (Farben) of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, with its “tone‑colour melody”, or Stockhausen’s single‑pitch‑dominated orchestral Inori, by way of a precedent for Volans’s reductiveness; but not even Feldman attempted so audacious an “emptying‑out” of content as this. If the less‑than- convinced‑sounding account under Joseph Swensen was anything to go by, the piece is as challenging to the players as to the listener. But, as with Feldman, the asceticism on offer is not a minimalist stunt but a genuinely spiritual investigation.
Martyn Harry – Gramophone
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments CD
…Volans can create a sound that is arrestingly beautiful and sustain interest in the way it is developed for the whole of the piece … a rare combination of directness and sophistication.
Andrew Clements – The Guardian
4th and 5th Quartets, & Movement for String Quartet, Duke Quartet
… For the listener the starting points are irrelevant; Volans’s handling of the medium is so adroit and his control of texture and rhythm so well balanced that the music defines its own space….
… to create a silence that means something is one of the highest skills in music, and Kevin Volans is one of its virtuosos.
Christoph Schlüren – Frankfurter Rundschau
(Volans) has transcended the African elements which influenced his work from the time he studied in Cologne. He doesn’t quote from an existing source of folklore, rather he has recreated his own individual, cosmopolitan folklore.
Andrew Clements – The Guardian
2nd and 3rd Quartets, Balanescu Quartet CD
For want of a better definition Volans’s music could be described as minimalist – it is consistently buoyed up by its pulsing vitality and its bracing cross rhythms.
Kevin Volans (is) … one of the most distinctive creative voices of his generation.
Bunita Marcus – Elle magazine, New York
…in ’The Songlines Volans’s music transports us, in an almost cathartic way, to the intimate, internal world of our own imagination…
John Percival – The Times
Wanting to tell Stories
…his instrumental scores present their emotional content to the listener in a non-specific way, innocent of any message you could put into words. That remains true of the new piece……… richly textured, varied and evocative as it is.
Michael Blake – Tempo
The Man with Footsoles of Wind
I have no hesitation in saying that Kevin Volans’s first opera is undoubtedly the major British operatic event of 1993 to date….
Max Loppert – Opera
Kevin Volans … is a South African who has achieved international fame beyond the norm for living composers of so-called serious music, by means of a clutch of chamber works in which he purveys a beautifully fresh, distinctive musical idiom….
Andrew Porter – The Observer
I was gripped, stirred, and keep thinking about the opera.
Alexander Waugh – Evening Standard
Kevin Volans, a composer of compelling originality, never allows his listener’s attention to wander … his sophisticated score simply leaps to life and holds its audience willingly rapt from start to finish….
Kyle Gann – Village Voice
Cover Him with Grass CD
“South African Volans has been the Kronos Quartet’s best discovery. Volans brings European polish to an African aesthetic without maiming the latter. It’s hard to convey how invigorating this music is…”
Max Loppert – Financial Times Records of the year
I have played no record more often, or with greater joy, the whole year.
Robert Maycock – The Independent Records of the year
Among contemporary composers, Kevin Volans with White Man Sleeps (Smith Quartet, Landor Barcelona) has provided lively listening and evidence of a mind beyond the Western cultural ghetto.
J.M. – Gramophone
… the piece (White Man Sleeps) is full of infectious energy (firmly rooted in steady pulsation, although there the connection with minimalism ends) and a stream of deliciously limpid tunes. Those with a less sweet tooth may find the rawness of the original instrumentation even more addictive…. Altogether a stunning record, and warmly recommended.
Kenneth Young – The Buffalo News
She Who Sleeps with a Small Blanket
… compendium of rhythmic and dynamic complexity, but so instinctively musical in its pacing and contrast that it speaks powerfully to the emotions.
Hugh Canning – The Guardian
…this remarkable and exhilarating score … worked in abstract terms with a complete exposition of conventional drumming technique.
Robert Everett-Green – The Globe and Mail Toronto
Hunting:Gathering … has a very attractive surface quality, polyrhythmic and sometimes extraordinarily beautiful. There is an episode near the end of the first section that uses very short chordal bows in cello and viola to achieve the most subtle counterpoint imaginable – you’re not even sure you’re really hearing it.
If Volans’ String Quartet No 2, Hunting:Gathering calls the Janacek quartets to mind, that is because it is equally original, and just as daring and quirky. From the flexible freedom of the opening viola solo to the elegaic last movement, it is like a series of musical mirages….”
David Wright – The Musical Times
Kneeling Dance, Piano Circus CD
… There is something fresh and unjaded about his instrumental pieces, and its patterened displacement produces results which are never quite predictable.
Jonathan Webster – CD Review
The music has a hypnotic richness as it shortens, extends, reverses and intensifies.
Paul Driver – Financial Times
White Man Sleeps Versions 1 and 2
The four dances were ravishingly and radiantly simple, dynamic of rhythm, assuaging of utterance.
P.W.D. – The Daily Telegraph
These are remarkably ingenious, but also considerably affecting.
Christine Lucia – The Daily News, Durban
What Volans achieves here is a supreme simplicity that is also eclectic, dignified and profound….
Andrew Clements – The Financial Times
The result is a music of fresh vigorous invention…endlessly inventive in the effects they obtain from the same limited ensemble and communicating enormous energy.
Bruce Chatwin – New York Review of Books and The Times
I lay back and could not believe my ears.…. It was music I had never heard before or could have imagined. It derived from nothing and no one. It had arrived. It was free and alive… I believe this to be devotional music of the highest order. For me, Kevin is one of the more inventive composers since Stravinsky.
Chrisopher Ballantine – International Record Review, May 2000
The question whether it is still possible to write great piano music is one that Kevin Volans has answered, magnificently in the affirmative, in Cicada … In Cicada, each reiteration of a cycle allows not only a rehearing: it also invites one to listen to each complexly beautiful fragment from a new angle, so putting into play a changing, dynamic whirl of inner melodies. Other listeners will hear these differently; each time I listen to Cicada I hear a different piece. Cicada is surely one of Volans’s finest and most extravagantly beautiful works…
Annette Morreau – Independent London
2 April 2001
6th String Quartet
Volans is a writer of staggering gifts. He has the courage to abandon familiar sound worlds and the skill to convince. From its score, this 24 minute piece appears little more than a sequence of slow, sustained chords passed between two quartets – with one vital instruction that vibrato should only be used when marked.
But this is to belie the effect: a “rocking” motion is established as the chordal texture is thickened or thinned, articulated only by the subtlest of dynamic change. The ear strains to distinguish the source, the sound balance so equal, the play of psychoacoustics magical, peaceful, settling… Volans’ sixth is one of the most beautiful and haunting works I have heard for a very long time.
Andrew Clements — The Guardian
1st. 2nd and 6th String Quartet CD
Volans: String Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 6 DukeQuartet (Black Box) ****
Classical CD of the week
22 March 2002
A rich emptiness: Andrew Clements on a striking change of voice
Anyone who already knew Kevin Volans’s early works, and then tuned in to the Radio 3 broadcast of the premiere of his Concerto for Double Orchestra last month, might have found the world of the new work bafflingly different from the music that they admired. The exuberance of those familiar pieces had been pared down to its essentials, to a language that deliberately limited its harmonic world to little more than a single chord, and that relied upon the slightest changes in emphasis and colouring to make its effects.
It might have seemed an almost shocking change of direction, and on this very well-performed CD that more austere approach to composition, represented by the Sixth Quartet, is brought into sharp contrast with the rhythmic and melodic exuberance of his music of the 1980s, epitomised by the his first and second quartets.
It was Volans’s String Quartet No 1, White Man Sleeps (1985) that established him as a distinctive voice, and he consolidated that reputation in its successor, Hunting Gathering, two years later. The two works have become his most widely performed scores, and have been recorded several times. In the early 1980s, Volans worked with musical material he collected in his native southern Africa, using the tuning systems and rhythms of them indigenous musics not in an anecdotal way, but in order to extend his own western art-music style.
White Man Sleeps was originally composed for an ensemble of two specially tuned harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion, in an attempt to rid the sound-world of its high-art trappings. But the Kronos Quartet asked him to make a quartet version of the score, and eventually he obliged, reworking the material in equal temperament, and creating what is one of the most original string quartets of the late 20th century. It is music that seems part of the great tradition yet detached from it, and full of intricate polyrhythms. Hunting:Gathering continues in the same vein and is almost equally impressive; it pulls in many more kinds of African material, as well as buried references to western classical composers.
Yet Volans never wavered in his admiration for the American experimental composers of the 1960s, such as Feldman and LaMonte Young, and their equivalents in the visual arts. It is those influences that have emerged so forcefully in the recent concerto and the extraordinary Sixth Quartet, composed in 2000.
It is a piece for double quartet, or for one quartet with a prerecorded tape. Volans describes it as an attempt at “emptiness”, the musical equivalent of a blank canvas – a work without gesture or historical reference. What he has achieved is very striking, a piece of slowly meshing, slowly changing chords, absolutely lacking in rhetoric, and that draws the listener into its 26 minutes with total assurance.
Andrew McGregor – presenter of CD Review on Radio 3
Reviewer: John Armstrong
Kevin Volans is the South African composer whose music gained a much wider audience when the Kronos Quartet asked him to re-write his early 80’s opus White Man Sleeps for string quartet. Volans had his doubts: this after all was his attempt to cross-fertilise the musical traditions of western Europe with African tradition, without falling into the trap of producing a classical piece plus ‘local colour’ …the essence of airport art, as Volans himself puts it.
Western instruments, yes, but the modern grand piano and symphony orchestra were too standardised, inflexible and bland for Volans, who found what he wanted in early instruments: harpsichord for its percussive quality and the ease with which you could get it to adopt the unfamiliar tunings of African music; plus viola da gamba for its ‘whooping, nasal’ sound. So how was a standard string quartet going to compete with that?
Well, despite his misgivings, Volans pursued the idea, using as many open strings as possible to get close to the strange timbre he was after … anyway, he must have realised that Kronos is far from a standard string quartet! They took the piece far-and-wide, recorded it, and it wasn’t long before a commission came in for a second quartet for Kronos: Hunting: Gathering. It’s more fragmentary, but just as dependent on scraps of African music, mbira tunes from Zimbabwe, lesiba music from Lesotho, and the Hamar of Ethiopia.
But if you thought only the Kronos could do justice to this music, think again: the Duke Quartet draw you right inside the strangely compelling world of Volans’s synthesis, without you ever feeling conscious of artifice. This feels like improvisation, so naturally have they found the heart of the scores and the recording is excellent as well, close without suffocating the listener or the music, detail with air around it.
But for me its the new piece that’s the highlight, Volans’s String Quartet No. 6 from 2000. Nothing African about it — this one’s inspired by the minimalists of the 20th century, a deliberate step away from the business of mainstream classical music, whether by Stravinsky, Stockhausen, or Steve Reich. “I have become increasingly interested in eliminating subject matter in my music as far as possible. My ideal would be the equivalent of the blank canvas”.
Well, it isn’t, not quite … but the texture that unrolls before your ears over almost 25 minutes is clean, uncluttered, calm and chordal … it’s actually a piece for two string quartets, so we hear the dedicatees, the Dukes, multi-tracked.
I’m not going to do the usual thing of searching for comparisons, saying Volans’s 6th Quartet is like composer X, with a dash of Y, spiced with a generous pinch of z. It’s not fair … but you should hear this. Despite being in a busy office when I first listened, it transported me almost immediately (on headphones!) somewhere else, where my pulse slowed and my mind emptied of the trivial tasks that had been bothering me moments before. I was really sorry when it ended; Volans says he wanted to make it last 55 minutes, but the commissioners wouldn’t let him. He was right, they were wrong.
Michael Oliver – Gramophone May
The difficulty of reviewing quartets by Kevin Volans is that it’s hard to drag yourself away from the music and start writing about it. I have not so far managed to play any recording (there are several) of his First Quartet White Man Sleeps, without repeating at least its entrancing fourth movement. Building from the very simplest (but never ‘minimal’) material it builds to a lulling, rocking melody of great (but still very simple) beauty; I know of little in recent music that conveys such quiet, joyous contentment.
The Second Quartet, Hunting:Gathering, insists on repeated hearings to try and work out why a seemingly disparate collage of ideas should have such a satisfying momentum and, at its end, such a sense of arrival. The recent Sixth Quartet, though a harder nut (the composer describes it as an attempt to ‘eliminate subject matter’ from his music, his ideal being the white-on white paintings of Malevich) draws one back to find out how on earth such ‘emptiness’ – pairs of simple chords reflecting on each other, long silences, rudimentary five-note ‘melodies’ – so absorbs the attention…
If the Duke’s recordings of the Fourth (The Ramanujan Notebooks) and Fifth (Dancers on a Plane) Quartets (once available on Collins Classics) could be re-issued and if they were allowed or persuaded to record the Third, The Songlines, a wholly original and uncommonly fascinating quartet cycle would be revealed.
Pat O’Kelly – The Irish Independent
April 09 (Free State: Kevin Volans, April 09)
Crash Ensemble, bastion of contemporary music… Muted ripples blossom delicately like some exotic plant. Pizzicato cello sets the pulse while imperceptible tempo alterations create a hypnotic atmosphere…. Come what may, Crash Ensemble is unflappable in execution.
Garrett Sholdice — The Journal of Music
June/July 09 (Free State: Kevin Volans, April 09)
Volans’ Nine beginnings was performed by the composer himself and John Godfrey. A stillness was created through a constant interweaving, interpolating and juxtaposing of materials arising out of a melodic fragment.
Trumpet, vibe, cello, piano was composed by Volans especially for the occasion. Crash Ensemble negotiated its demanding score with grace: it was a pleasure to be reminded of what pianissimo actually sounds like. Here the initial orchestration was the object – muted trumpet, a halo of vibraphone resonance, Feldman-like piano arpeggios and gentle cello pizzicato.
The evening was an apposite tribute to Kevin Volans; in its very many breathtaking moments, it was a reminder, as a fellow audience member remarked, that, in our lives, we need daily beauty.