sa Sound Arts vol. 6

XEBEC SoundCulture Membership Magazine

Beyond Stockhausen
Kevin Volans
(lecturer of psychology and contemporary music)

After studying with STOCKHAUSEN, Kevin VOLANS broke from the composer and attempted to stake out new musical territory. FUJISHIMA Yutaka discusses his meeting with Volans, and shares some thoughts on his electronic sounds. The delicacy one senses in his compositions is not merely an attempt to pursue self-identity, but arises from Volans' desire for perfection in his work.

In the fourth part of this series, the author deals with Volans as the composer who completely changed his conception of electronic music.

Volans Image 1

Stockhausen at Expo '70

I first heard Stockhausen's live electronic music at Expo '70 in Osaka; the German pavilion was built especially for it. At the time, Stockhausen, the composer of numerous live electronic and multi-channel compositions, had advocated the construction of halls for electronic music. The spherical pavilion at the Expo was the result of this. When I entered the building, I found Stockhausen seated in front of a mixing board positioned higher than the audience. I no longer remember in detail the music he played, but what impressed me was the way the sound moved in space, the voice of the soprano coming from such a high place (*1), and Stockhausen and the players bowing to the audience from an even higher position.


Anyone with an interest in contemporary music is probably familiar with the summer seminar at the Kranichstein Institute in Darmstadt, a small town located south of Frankfurt, Germany. Following the Second World War, the European serialist movement originated here, and BOULEZ and Stockhausen, the future leaders of European avant-garde music, both emerged from here (*2). During the sixties and seventies, many talented composers gathered in Cologne to study under Stockhausen. They studied serialism, and in the eighties, tried to go beyond it. From this, it can be understood that movements such as Darmstadt that are based on absolutist notions, systems, and order tend to fall apart. Once again, the relationship between the existence of the individual and society has begun to be reexamined. The book, Summer Gardeners: Conversations with Composers (1984) by Kevin Volans, a South African composer now living in Dublin, Ireland makes this especially clear. Recognizing a common trend among composers in their thirties at the time (*3) the book was written, Volans noted, "...most were trained in serial and twelve - note technique, but are now working in more tonal styles (for want of a better description)." Why have they chosen to use tonal styles? I got one answer to that question in the conversations I had with Volans during my stay at his house in a small village in Co. Donegal in the north of Ireland, where he was living at the time. (*4)

Comversations with Kevin Volans

From 1972 to 1981, Volans lived in Cologne, where he was a pupil of Stockhausen and a teaching assistant to him. In 1984, he was invited to be a professor at the International Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt. It is fitting that he has tried to go beyond Stockhausen. When I first encountered his music in San Francisco, I knew nothing about his past. In the spring of 1987, while visiting the West Coast to see some sound sculptures, I saw a concert by the Kronos Quartet, who played a piece by Volans as their encore. I was so excited by what I heard that I called Peter GARLAND to find out how I could get ahold of the sheet music. Garland was kind enough to give me Volans' address and that was the beginning of our correspondence. (*5) During a conversation with him in Ireland, Volans took a cassette tape from the bookshelf. It contained the sounds of insects recorded in the African desert. After explaining that the A side had been recorded in the field and the B side had been made with electronic sounds at an electronic studio in Cologne, he asked for my opinion. I was quite at a loss for an answer. So he began to explain why he had made the sounds, "These were recorded on a field trip I made to Africa for a WDR (West German Radio) program. I was Stockhausen's teaching assistant and I wasn't quite sure what my music was. Thankfully, this job took me back to Africa, the place I had been born and grew up. Suddenly, I realized very clearly that I had been raised within these African sounds. Of course, I am white, but I was born in South Africa and grew up there." Volans' own identity was hidden behind that electronic sound. I had never thought of electronic sound and electronic music as an expression of one's own history. On the contrary, I had always regarded technology as an attempt to achieve a universality surpassing individuality. It seems odd to me now that I could have thought that way. To someone like me, who believed deeply that electronic music was born of the pursuit for objectivity in art (absolute serialism, for instance, had tried to exclude individual personality through rigid structures), Volans' words came as quite a shock.

The Performance of Volans' Works

How does Volans feel about the Kronos Quartet's performances of his works? With the support of the Goethe Institute in Kyoto, in 1989 I invited Robyn SCHULKOWSKY to play the Volans composition, "She Who Sleeps With a Small Blanket"(1985). (*6) Listening to her bold, wild playing, I wondered if European people might not become angry at the instinctive quality of this piece. Smith Quartet
Through my contact with Volans, I realized that he placed great confidence in her playing. After listening to the sounds of insects from the African desert, I was certain this was a good thing. But what of the Kronos Quartet? Their playing struck me as being perhaps too sophisticated. Contrary to my expectations, the only thing that Volans himself expressed was a technical dissatisfaction with the first violinist. To him, it seems to be important to maintain a balance between instinctive power and elegant technique. I appreciate his unique talent in creating well- balanced compositions without going in reckless pursuit of his own identity. Volans' music and the electronic insects' voice possess a delicate sensibility .

Beyond Modernism

For Volans and other composers of the eighties, it is important to express the existence of the individual rather than universality. Accordingly, the issue in avant-garde music of making a conscious approach to melody and tonality, or unconsciously avoiding it, is of no consequence. It is more important to develop one language to express one's self rather than one language to unify the world. Yet, Volans' journey toward a self-expressive language seems to have been filled with distress. Volans' electronic sounds make up anti- modernistic works that are filled with his identity crises. This delicate nature of the electronic insects' voices was what I was after in the "Computer Plus Strings Electric" concert I directed in 1994 at Xebec Hall in Kobe, Japan.

: It reminded me of the voices singing, "Ho-jo-to-ho!" from the top of the precipice in the first scene of the third act of WAGNER's opera, Die Walküre.
: For more on the development of these two composers during the sixties and seventies, see "Serialism Continued," the tenth chapter of Paul GRIFFITHS' A Concise History of Modern Music (1978). His criticism of composers such as Boulez, Milton BABBITT, and Stockhausen seems very British to me.
: The composers discussed in this book include Clarence BARLOW, Gerald BARRY , Jose EVANGELISTA, Morton FELDMAN, Peter Garland, Tom JOHNSON, John McGUIRE, Chris NEWMAN, John REA, Howard SKEMPTON, and Walter ZIMMERMANN.
: I arranged to meet Volans in the terminal for departing flights to Belfast at Heathrow Airport. In contrast to my sweater, Volans, in a tie, seemed a bit embarrassed about his neatness. He explained that this was to avoid any trouble that might stem from his nationality--South African. From Belfast we took his 2CV along the national highway from Northern Ireland to the north of Ireland, where we were often stopped for police inspections. For several days , we continued to talk everywhere: in front of the fireplace, and as we walked in a grove, across a very wild golf course, and along the seashore.
: His scores are now published by Chester Music Ltd. (Tel: 0171-434-0066; fax: 0171-287-6329.)
: The best CD of Volans' compositions, White Man Sleeps (Untitled Recordings: CD 88034), includes one of her performances.

The contents of this issue:
Ocean of Sound
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