Meet the Artist – Kevin Volans, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I began learning to play the piano at 10. I fell in love with the concertos of Liszt and Rachmaninoff and decided to write one of my own – at about age 12. (My family were consistently opposed to music as a career, and indifferent to music generally).

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My biggest influence was from Stockhausen, my teacher for 3 ½ years, especially his professionalism and architectural approach to music. He began work on a piece in a similar way to that of an architect designing a skyscraper. Hugely logical, practical, always with an eye on the big picture, and no fuzzy thinking whatsoever. No detail in a Stockhausen piece was vague or left to chance.

The second big influence was African textiles (and later African music), which showed me possibilities that were outside the remit of serial composition.

And the third and possibly the most long-lasting influence was Morton Feldman, whose anti-conceptualism was in direct opposition to Stockhausen’s conceptualism, and very similar to what I had observed and delighted in in African music and art.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

The greatest challenge and frustration for any artist is probably dealing with arts administrators (of all kinds) who have a different agenda, work ethic and time-scale.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Difficult to say. It depends on the commission. The greatest pleasure perhaps is writing for performers one knows and admires.

Some instruments present a special challenge. The most difficult commission I’ve accepted is a recent concerto for Uilleann (Irish) pipes and large orchestra. The pipes presented many unexpected challenges, not least of which is that the instrument and its traditional music is something of a national treasure (and therefore has to be treated fairly gently) and that traditional players do not normally read notation. And it has a very limited dynamic and pitch range. Writing a piano concerto, say, by comparison is a piece of cake.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Possibly the only advantage of a career in music is that one gets to work with great musicians. I find great musicians give you 120% of what you write – they discover things you didn’t know were in your own work or you didn’t even know were possible. Poor musicians give 80% (and are often quite happy with that!). The most satisfying part of the composition process is the rehearsal period – it’s during the rehearsals that the piece is completed. Musicians or ensembles who are prepared to work (at some length) with the composers are the ones who nearly always produce the best results. I have no time, nor respect, for musicians who fancy themselves as sight-readers. Sight-reading skill for me is not an indication of musicianship nor is it music-making. It’s a primary tool – nothing more.

Of which works are you most proud?

Difficult again… Proud? I don’t know. I like what I achieved, maybe, in my 1st (White Man Sleeps), 2nd (Hunting:Gathering), 9th (Shiva Dances) and 12th String Quartets, I enjoyed playing Cicada for 2 pianos, and I’m fond of violin:piano and some of my newest pieces which haven’t been performed yet, like 7 Bass Winds, and a new clarinet trio (called clarinet:violin:piano (and CPE), which I think marks a departure.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I have devoted most of my work to non-conceptual, or, if you like, existential composition: writing with no pre-planning, no concepts, and allowing the material (rather than an ‘idea’) dictate where the music goes.

How do you work?

I sit down and write (at the computer) usually very early in the morning, until I am tired and lose focus. I never work in the evening. Starting just before sunrise can mean (in summer) that you get 5 hours’ work done before any interruptions.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Huge question, huge answer. Depends what you mean, too – people I’ve worked with or not? My list of musicians I’ve worked with and with whom I love working is too long.

So my bucket list of whom I would like to work with begins with pianist: Mikhail Pletnev; violinist: Patricia Kopatchinskaja; orchestra: Berlin Philharmonic …

Favourite pianists from the past – I have a weakness for virtuosos: Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, Josef Lhevinne, David Saperton (strangely unknown), Moritz Rosenthal…

Composers: 20th Century, Stravinsky, (Ravel), Stockhausen, Feldman

19th: Chopin Liszt Debussy 18th Beethoven of course, Mozart of course, CPE Bach, 17th Bach, Sainte Colombe, etc etc etc.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Doing a satisfying piece of work.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The more you work, the easier it gets.

The more you know, the better your work.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

At home, working (or in the sun, maybe).

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with the one you love and both being in perfect health.

What is your most treasured possession?

Possession? Can one possess a dog?

What do you enjoy doing most?

Sleeping, eating, in that order.

What is your present state of mind?

Happy.


Kevin Volans was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. He now is an Irish citizen.

In 1979 after research trips to South Africa, he began a series of pieces based on African composition techniques, which occupied him for the next 10 years.

After a productive collaboration with the Kronos quartet in the 1980s his work, principally in the field of chamber and orchestral music, has been regularly performed worldwide.

In 1997 the BBC Music Magazine listed him as one of the 50 most important living composers and he was described by the Village Voice as “one of the most original and unpredictable voices on the planet”.

Latterly, he has turned his attention to writing for orchestra and as well as collaborating with visual artists. Principal performances in the last years include the Berliner Musikfest, Vienna State Opera, Lincoln Center New York, Conzertgebouw Amsterdam, Pompidou Centre Paris and the BBC Proms.

kevinvolans.com