Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 26 July 1949, Pietermaritzburg, SA) Composer. His parents ran a dry-cleaning business; his mother bought a piano when he was ten; at 14 he was playing Liszt piano concerti. He graduated '72 from U of Witwatersrand, studied in Aberdeen, lived in Cologne studying with Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel (music theatre) and Aloys Kontasky (piano); he became a freelance composer while also writing programmes for German radio. He taught at the U. of Natal '82-4, moved back to Paris, then to Ireland, where he was composer-in-residence at Queen's U. Belfast '86-9, then at Princeton New Jersey '92. In '84 and '86 he had been on the board of professors of the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music, in '88 on the jury of a computer-music conference in Cologne; he and colleagues had collected street sounds and street music, and Volans had made recording trips to South Africa. 

Volans was disturbed to realize that he was neither European nor African, then knew that this set him free to write anything he liked. European serial music seemed dead, and the street music itself more interesting than any theories about it. It was African music that he loved best of all: 'It is a music of being not becoming. It does not aim at transporting the listener, but reinforces and intensifies the here and now.' The self-invented travel writer Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines '87, about the world's labyrinth of invisible prehistoric pathways, which Australian Aboriginals call the Footprints of the Ancestors; Volans wrote to him from Belfast and sent him a tape. Chatwin was suffering from malaria (so he said; he died within a few months of AIDS, but kept his personal mystery going until the end): 'It was a dazzling, frosty day and my bedroom ... was slatted with sunlight. I was boiling hot. I lay back and could not believe my ears. I was listening to ''White Man Sleeps'' ... it was a 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 heard the sounds of thorn-scrub Africa, the insects and the swish of wind through grass. But there was nothing that would have been foreign to Debussy or Ravel.'

'White Man Sleeps' '82 was written with African tuning for two harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion. It became Volans's first string quartet '86 when he reworked it for a Kronos Quartet performance at the ICA in London; he had to use Western tuning (equal temperament), but thought that this masked the source materials and made his musical intentions clearer. Both versions were available on the beautiful Cover Him With Grass: In Memoriam Bruce Chatwin on Lander: the Smith Quartet were recorded in London, 'She Who Sleeps With Small Blanket' '85 (percussion solo by Robyn Schulkowsky) in Belfast, 'Mbira' '80 (for two harpsichords and percussion) and the original version of 'White Man Sleeps' recorded by WDR (West German Radio). His second string quartet 'Hunting: Gathering' '87 became a CD single by the Kronos Quartet, who also included two parts of 'White Man Sleeps' on one of their albums, then all five movements on Pieces Of Africa (string quartet version, though the album says 'original, unrevised version'). The second and third quartets (the third called 'The Songlines', dedicated to Chatwin), were recorded by the Balanescu Quartet on Argo, the fourth 'The Ramanujan Notebooks' '90-4 and fifth 'Dancers On A Plane' '93 by the Duke Quartet on Collins Classics. The first movement of the fourth quartet was adapted from contributions to Shobana Jeyasingh's dance opera 'Correspondences', about the mathematician S. Ramanujan (1887-1920), the second from his orchestral piece 'One Hundred Frames', and is dedicated to Elizabeth Chatwin. Among Volans's other works is an opera, The Man With Footsoles Of Wind.

He became an Irish citizen in 1994. In 1999 the South Bank in London hosted a 50th birthday celebration of his work, and for his 60th birthday the Wigmore Hall in London organized a Kevin Volans Day of concerts. His trio concerto, a concerto for piano and winds and a symphony ('Dar Kom Die Alibama') played by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the Storioni Trio and Isabelle O'Connell (piano) were released on the RTÉ label in 2015; Gavin Maloney and Alan Buribayev were the conductors. (Raidió Teilifís Éireann is the Irish public broadcasting network.)