From Chicago to London to Outer Mongolia, Kevin Volans’ classical compositions reach beyond creed, culture or established form. Emanating from a desire for freedom, they orbit the world.
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (570BC – 495BC) proposed that the Sun, Moon and all the planets emit their own unique, orbital sounds – known as the music of the spheres.
The story goes that the human soul could once hear these sounds, but that as the quality of life on Earth faded so too did the music. What remained is the hope that one day, when our humanity has been restored, we will awaken once more to the rhythm of our souls.
Beyond this realm
On hearing a Volans piano concerto, the possibility exists that one or two amongst us never stopped hearing the music of the spheres. As a composer he draws inspiration from the widest orbit: from Liszt, Chopin, Stockhausen, the music of Africa, the abstract expressionist painters, Japanese minimalism … but his music also goes beyond this to a realm that liberates him from being typecast in any creed, culture or established form.
“My ultimate goal is freedom; freedom from style, form and content; freedom from fear. I aspire to fearlessness,” Volans explains during a visit to Johannesburg to rehearse with two acclaimed South Africa musicians with whom he has collaborated for many years: concert pianist Jill Richards and violinist Waldo Alexander. They are rehearsing for a violin, viola and piano album to be recorded in Berlin later this year.
Fearlessness, Volans explains, “means trying to do what you know to be correct for you without being pressurised into producing work of a particular style, or according to what a particular audience might expect, or what a producer thinks will make the most money.”
It is not easily achieved.
For example, when you are composing for giant venues like the Royal Albert Hall, “because of the size of the venue your natural inclination is to write something loud and large so that it won’t be overwhelmed, but this is a bad mistake – a result of anxiety. The reality is that you can just as well write something soft and delicate and it will be well heard,” Volans explains.
100 performances and concerts each year
He has as many as 100 performances and concerts all over the world each year – as far afield as Ulan Bator, Durban, Stockholm, Mexico City, Perth, Vancouver, New York… A recent YouTube search for videos of his music came up with about 6 700 results.
All this from the boy who grew up in Pietermaritzburg, started composing at the age of 13 and discovered freedom and musical direction, when, in 1968, he enrolled at Wits.
A certain Mr Edgar Heap
The story of his success cannot be told without attributing a certain Mr Edgar Heap at Maritzburg College, as Volans explains:
“Mr Heap was my music teacher. He was a wonderful man of about 85 and he smelled of tea and snuff. I had taken piano lessons from the age of ten but it was through Mr Heap that I got really excited about music. Each week he would give me a new piece to play and each week I got carried away with it. I started with Chopin and after a while I was playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor.”
Mr Heap encouraged him to study music but Volans’ parents wanted him to study mathematics and science. “I tried their route but I knew it was not for me. I knew I had to study music. There was no music department at what was then the University of Natal, and it was therefore my good fortune to enroll for a music degree at Wits.”
A new sense of freedom at Wits
At Wits he discovered a new sense of freedom. “It was entirely liberating. I could go everywhere and anywhere whenever I wanted without anyone controlling my movements. I lived in residence and had friends all over – in Hillbrow, in the centre of the city – and I walked everywhere.
“Creatively it was also incredibly inspiring. There were classical music performances at the Wits Concert Hall, the City Hall and the SABC on a regular basis, and as students we were often given free entrance. Back then Johannesburg had the greatest concert artists coming to perform here, on invitation by the extremely well supported Johannesburg Music Society and Musica Viva.”
By the end of the 1970s neither of these music societies existed. One of the organisers told Volans that it was the brain drain from South Africa in the 1970s, particularly of Jewish South Africans, that led to their demise.
More interested in composing
During his time at Wits, Volans, who was proving to be a gifted concert pianist, realised he was more interested in composing, inspired by his final year supervisor, the brilliant Dr June Schneider.
“She encouraged me to write my thesis on modernist Karlheinz Stockhausen, who, in 1970, in terms of audience attendance figures was the world’s most successful composer of all time, as well as a leader of the avant-garde,” Volans recalls.
“When I first heard Stockhausen’s piano pieces, I was fascinated. They were beautiful – it was abstract impressionism but without the introspection of pre-war expressionism, which I found too turgid. For me, in a visual sense, Stockhausen’s music was very similar to the art of Jackson Pollock.”
Stockhausen was one of the artists invited to appear in Johannesburg, and Volans met him for the first time at the SABC. He met him again at the International Summer School in Darmstadt in Germany, which Volans had been invited to attend. Here, he gave Stockhausen his Wits thesis and was subsequently invited to audition for Stockhausen’s composition class at the Musichochschule in Cologne – the largest music school in Europe.
“It was fantastically exciting and daunting at the same time as there were only five people accepted into Stockhausen’s class and I had no return ticket.”
With his fate in the stars, the spheres smiled kindly on Volans who was not only accepted into the class, but in 1975 he was appointed as Stockhausen’s teaching assistant.
The best times of your life
“It was an incredibly rich time but also a hard time. I was penniless, living in a two-roomed flat with no heating, bathroom or furniture (it took me two years to save up for a cupboard), but I made wonderful friends and had such inspiring experiences. Those are always the best times of your life,” he recalls.
After three years Volans went freelance, as he was already regularly composing for concerts. He also studied piano, music theatre and electronic music, inspired once again by Stockhausen, who was one of the world’s first electronic composers.
Constantly experimenting with sound
Volans is constantly experimenting with sound. He resists the temptation to rely on past glories to carry him forward.
“His music is free of baggage” is how his friend, the late English novelist and travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, described Volans’ music.
At times a rigorously minimalist composer he seeks the elusive mastery of the ancient Japanese notion of ‘voluntary poverty’ where a note here or a pebble there is placed with such subtle thought that it appears to be incidental.
And just when he appears to have settled on a thought, he darts off into the unexpected, inspired by his worldview that hovers between his global persona, his home in Ireland and his African roots.
What I love about African music
“What I love about African music and African textiles are the odd, unexpected things that occur,” he explains. “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.”
His focus on Africa was sparked in the mid-1970s when he produced shows on African music for leading West German radio stations.
In 1976 – 1977 he spent time in South Africa, putting together collections of African music, including Zulu guitar and concertina music, and the music of Zulu Princess Magogo Ka Dinuzulu – one of South Africa’s most important traditional composers, an exceptional singer, music teacher and political activist.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Johnny Clegg, Sipho Mchunu
He also bought the records of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and played them on German radio. “The German producers loved their music and they also loved Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. Both groups were invited to perform in Germany and we had great times together.”
During his trip to South Africa, Volans also recorded natural sounds to create soundscapes: “My aim was to record African soundscapes that were as pure as possible – no aeroplanes or traffic – just the sounds of birds, insects, wind, thunder – the sounds of the bushveld world we evolved in.”
He showcased these soundscapes in London in 1982, the same year he wrote ‘White Man Sleeps’, a celebration of African music and a political statement of the time.
White Man Sleeps
Such was the success of ‘White Man Sleeps’ that the record company that produced the eponymous album immediately wanted him to get started on another, all in the same style. Volans was told it would have a major impact on his career.
“I had to take a deep breath and say: ‘I hate to inform you that I am not doing that. My work is more important than my career.”
Fight against the money counters
The record company was livid, he recalls. “The music industry is unbelievably powerful. They think they own you and they pay publicists to have this or that name on the front page of every newspaper possible. But it doesn’t mean you are getting the best that is available. In many situations you are getting what the accountants have decided will sell.
They are our enemy. If you want to maintain the quality of your art, you have to fight against the money counters.”
Refusing to succumb to industry pressure, Volans counts himself fortunate to have strong supporters like the BBC, who give him the freedom to do as he feels.
The Mountain that Left
His latest BBC composition is a huge 30-minute piece for the BBC Singers called ‘The Mountain that Left’. It’s for their 90th birthday celebration in London and at the same time it celebrates 20 years of democracy in South Africa. It’s written in 35 parts: 24 voices plus a solo for South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza and ten players from the BBC symphony. The ending of the piece is a tribute to Mandela.
It took Volans six months to write and it will be premiered in the Barbican in London on the 24th September this year.
At his level he gets to perform with the best, including classical pianists Marc-André Hamelin – one of the five super-virtuosos in the world – and Ireland’s most famous musician, Barry Douglas; conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas and dancers like prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem.
He collaborates with world-renowned artists, including William Kentridge and Jürgen Partenheimer. At a recent Partenheimer exhibition in the Bonn Museum of Modern Art, Volans created a large form of soundscape with live performances of interlinked pieces, where different ensembles played at different, computer-controlled speeds, simultaneously, in various parts of the museum.
Preferring to work seven days a week
No sooner has he completed one epic work than he is onto the next. The man hardly rests, preferring to work seven days a week:
“I keep balanced by working,” he explains. “For me working is very relaxing, it’s a kind of mediation. I can do five hours at a stretch without noticing the time. Sometimes I get to the end of a piece, not knowing what was at the beginning.”