Arts: Celebrating abstraction

Some of the world's best musicians will help mark composer Kevin Volans' 50th birthday. By Nadine Meisner
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The Independent Culture
Kevin Volans is celebrating his half-century on 14 July, although the real date is 12 days later. As a successful composer, his birthday bash is a little more public than most, and Desert Steps brings together friends and admirers to honour his music in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Solo percussionist Robyn Schulkowskyarrives from Berlin; the cellist Joan Jeanrenaud of the Kronos Quartet arrives from San Francisco; the pianists Jill Richards and Mathilda Hornsveld arrive from South Africa; and the Duke Quartet - well, the Duke Quartet are based in London.

He seems to havefriends all over the world, and you can understand why. He is jovial, relaxed and splendidly talkative. Bruce Chatwin was a friend and wrote an essay on him, published posthumously in What Am I Doing Here (1989). They wrote an opera together, The Man With Footsoles of Wind (1993). Choreographers are his friends, becausehe does not disdain dance as musical pollution. The choreographer Jonathan Burrows has worked on four dance pieces with Volans and is overseeing the QEH evening. He will also create and dance a duet for it, with Akram Khan.

Their music is Volans's Concerto for solo cello, an adaptation of an existing score. "Normally, when I'm writing for Jonathan, I have a clear idea of what is required to support the dance, whereas this is written without any regard for dance. So it is going to be quite a challenge to him." When they collaborate on a piece, they work independently, but are sufficiently aware of each other's mind-set to be travelling in a similar aesthetic direction. "I know," Volans continues, "that Jonathan likes a lot silence - holes in the music, as it were - and he likes the music to be fairly neutral in its imagery. This piece isn't any of that! It has a very precise character and is non-stop."

Volans lives in Ireland but was born in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. He returns often, especially during the South African summer. Some of his music's titles attest to his attachment: Kwazulu Summer Landscape; Cover Him with Grass; White Man Sleeps . A pianist, he studied music at Wits University in Johannesburg. From 1973 to 1981 he was a pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne and became his assistant.. During the 70s he also undertook trips to Africa, to make recordings of natural sounds and traditional African music, which he then incorporated into his own pieces.These days he mostly doesn't use field recordings. But he has absorbed some of the premises of African musicas an integral part of the fabric. He often employs egalitarian, interlocking structures, influenced by African music's non-hierarchical approach. "For example, I wrote a piano concerto where the piano part would literally make no sense without the orchestra and vice versa," he says. This is foreign to Western music which offsets foreground with background, melody with accompaniment, soloists with orchestra. "In African music you get pipe ensembles where each player has only one note. Each has to play their note and the combined patterns make up the melodic structure. It means that each person is equally important, but equally different, because nobody plays at the same time as anyone else."

Another notion he has found interesting is that African music contains repeat patterns, but does not concern itself with time, so that it is like a waterfall, a continuous patterned flow. "In Western music you feel that after four repeats it's time to do something different. Whereas African music is conceived as a natural event: it doesn't have that directed sense of form and time, proportions don't exist."

So howwould he classify himself? He calls himself "totally post-serial", the next generation after Stockhausen and Boulez. He also thinks of himself as a structuralist. "This is the opposite of expressionist. I don't build up to big loud climaxes, I don't write rhetorically. It's abstract." And yet, a score like Wild Air, recently composed for Siobhan Davies's full-evening dance piece, also has an eerie beauty, gaps of silence separating segments of syncopated staccato, a slow cello melody stretching high and thin.

Probably it is this ability to be both abstract and evocative that attracts choreographers like Davies and Burrows, oblique poets who hint at tantalising mysteries. He first entered dance in 1988, when Siobhan Davies used White Man Sleeps for her new company's debut piece. "I expected them to dance to the music, so it came as a shock to find that, when the music was bouncing around, they were standing doing nothing and, when the music was quiet and still, they were running backwards and forwards," he laughs. "It took me a while to understand that contemporary dance is about a counterpoint between the music and choreography, and in fact it is dull when people Mickey-Mouse the music."

He has a problem with dance critics. "Most of them have very conservative tastes in music. I am always stunned when I get irate remarks about difficult scrapings and muddy music, and I had been cringing with embarrassment that I had allowed it to go so far into easy listening!"By contrast, choreographers are adventurous in their musical choices. And composing for dance means that your music gets heard. "So much music in concerts is one-off, whereas with dance you might have four nights at Sadler's Wells." But lack of exposure is not something Volans needs to worry about; he is instead over-worked. He will write a score for the choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, but he needs to slow down for a while. He wants to rethink everything; there are a lot of things he wants to explore in his work. At 50, he is entitled to his mid-life crisis.

Vivat Volans is on at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) on 14 July

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