Kevin Volans

Kevin Volans


• Born 1949


As a white man born in South Africa in 1949, trained largely in Europe in the 1970s, and eventually patriated in Ireland in the 1980s, Kevin Volans has often confronted in his music the issue of identity. "Like many white South Africans of my generation, I was brought up to think I was European," Volans wrote in 1986. "I went to live in Europe and found this was not true. I returned to Africa and was disappointed to find I could not really regard myself as African." It is this struggle with identity, however, that has contributed to his popular success as a composer. As multiculturalism spread into the mainstream consciousness via the world music boom during the last two decades of the twentieth century, Volans' mixture of African and European music styles (or often, stylizations) found resonance with classical music consumers eager to embrace the sounds of a "global community."

Volans received his initial musical education in South Africa, where he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, before leaving for Europe to undertake graduate studies. Volans spent the better part of a decade in Europe, studying composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen and music theater with Mauricio Kagel. During the late 1970s, Volans returned to South Africa several times to conduct field recordings and he returned again from 1981 to 1985 to take a teaching position and complete a doctoral degree at the University of Natal before returning to Europe. Having established himself as an important figure in the Neue Einfachkeit (New Simplicity) movement during the 1970s and early 1980s, Volans became increasingly interested in traditional African musics during his extended return to South Africa in the 1980s. A series of "African paraphrase" pieces (a term he invented but would later reject) reflected his interest in native African styles. The first of these, Mbira and Matepe (both from 1980) realized borrowed African musical ideas through four-hand harpsichord arrangements in an effort to "set up an African colonization of Western music and instruments." Another piece, White Man Sleeps (1982), augmented the harpsichord duo with a bass viol and percussion. The work, which drew on the sounds of Venda panpipes, San bow music, and Bosotho concertina playing, later met with remarkable popular acclaim when an arrangement for string quartet was released by the Kronos Quartet in 1987; subsequent projects with Kronos, Hunting and Gathering (1987) and The Songlines (1988), met with similar success. Volans began to distance himself in the 1990s from the kind of explicit multiculturalism that had brought him such broad recognition and most of his works from the last decade of the twentieth century, such as his piano concerto One Hundred Frames (1991) and his opera Man With Footsoles of the Wind (1993), avoided dealing with issues of "Africanism" in any overt musical way. The 1990s also found Volans devoting considerable attention to collaborations with choreographers and dance groups, resulting in such projects as Chevron (1990), Wanting to Tell Stories (1993), Blue, Yellow (1995), and Duetti (1995).