“The only subject in music and art that interests me is freedom”, Kevin Volans has said, “freedom from style, freedom from dogma, freedom from guilt. However freedom doesn’t lie in ignorance – that would be merely primitive. There is a spectrum that runs from primitive forms through complex form to chaos. Complex forms arise on the edge of chaos.” Poised throughout his career as a composer between his southern African background and his European training, Volans has been able to exercise the stylistic freedom he craves in a series of strikingly original works which, have guiltlessly incorporated elements from both halves of his cultural inheritance without ever having to ally themselves with either.
It has been a development on a knife-edge – one step too far into the African experience and the music would have become anecdotal; one step the other way and the dogma of the post-serial avant-garde might have snuffed out his own expressive world. But he has been able to maintain the balancing act in everything he has written, whether the source material is explicitly African – as it was in his String Quartet No.1, White man Sleeps, which first brought his distinctive musical voice to an international audience – or whether the music is entirely Volans’ own, as it is in the new Concerto for Piano and Wind, which was first performed by Peter Donohoe and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble in Rotterdam.
Characteristically, though, principles of African music permeate many aspects of the concerto, especially the way in which the orchestra and the piano relate to each other and the tempo relationships within the work. The traditional concerto opposition between a soloist and the accompanying ensemble is abolished; the two elements are interlocked in a complementary way that makes the one totally meaningless without the other, while the echo effects that are so strong in southern African music, one part a quaver ahead or behind the other, are used here to generate the inner tension in the music, as the piano and the ensemble constantly move in and out of phase. The tempo relationships between the section of the work are geared through a constant ratio of 4:3, and that same principle extends down to the organisation of pulse and rhythm within each section. In the opening bars of the Concerto, for instance, the basic metre of three crotchets in a bar is cross-cut by the wind figures which are constructed out of groups of four dotted quavers. The metre changes to three minims in a bar when the piano enters playing in groups of four, while the ensemble then unfolds a line in strict minims.
The effect of this rhythmic complementarity is also to exclude from the Concerto any of the traditional Western art-music notions of foreground and background. The music is, as Volans puts it, “antihierarchical” – everything is foreground: that is a characteristic of African music too, but it also links Volans’ approach with artists of the post 1945 American avant-garde, with the painters Jasper John, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and especially the composer Morton Feldman. So although Volans’ harmonic thinking in this work is relatively traditional – a consequence of writing for the piano, and needing to heed its particular patterns of resonance – the effect is anything but conventional in the way in which the music defines itself, and the way in which it unerringly follows the desperately thin dividing line between chaos and banality.
© Andrew Clements