An Interview with Kevin Volans

CMC Composer of the Month February 2007

Kevin Volans talks to Jonathan Grimes about his recent piano concerto, his upcoming collaboration with visual artist Jürgen Partenheimer, and the status of classical music in South Africa.

Jonathan Grimes: Kevin, you are just back from San Francisco where your piano concerto was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. How did that performance go?

Kevin Volans: It went really well. There were four performances in a row, which meant that the fourth performance was actually a lot better than the premiere. That was great, I don't know why we never get these opportunities here. The other extraordinary thing was the hall -- it's big with many tiers and was about 90% full. The audience was amazing -- really committed -- and I was amazed at the price of the seats: the top price was $114. So it proves that audiences for contemporary music can be created.

JG: Do they regularly repeat concerts over a number of nights?

KV: Yes, every concert is repeated for several nights. The second day is a matinee. It was really full with older people. They come from miles around, literally arriving by the busload. I thought it was really charming and heart warming -- it was great to have this really enthusiastic older audience. I'm absolutely convinced that if people don't ever hear new music they don't come. When I was in Cologne in the seventies concerts of medieval music would be sold out because there were regular broadcasts of medieval music. The same went for folk music -- they were always sold out. I think availability of new music creates an audience. If it's put on once in a blue moon people don't go, so it's really a self-fulfilling prophecy. Orchestra managers or administrators insist that nobody likes contemporary music; nobody will like contemporary music because they don't put it on.

JG: This isn't your first piano concerto. How many others have you written?

KV: This is the second traditional one. The first thing I wrote was a piano concerto when I was 12, but I never finished it.

JG: Were you pleased with the work yourself?

KV: Yes, I felt I achieved what I set out to achieve. I decided with this piece to really take on the glamorous romantic piano concerto, which meant doing things which I've never done before; stringing the material together in a kind of narrative form. I actually started with the end of the piece, the material at the end of the piece really represents me today so to speak, and the rest of the piece is a kind of historic extrapolation of that. I borrowed a chord from the ChopinÉtudes and there are gestures from Tchaikovsky and Liszt, and then there's a whole section which is reminiscent of Ravel I think. I did that quite consciously, but I didn't realise that all the references were actually in chronological order! I felt that one of the easiest ways of writing is to ignore the huge tradition of the piano concerto. This time I thought I'd take it on. Some of my students have practically disowned me for it! But I'm absolutely happy with what I did because that's what I wanted to do. I haven't just become conservative; I deliberately referred to the past in many different ways.

JG: Presumably you wrote that work with the performer, Marc-Andre Hamelin, in mind?

KV: He asked me not to take his virtuoso abilities into account. So I didn't deliberately make it hard for him. Of course the problem is if you have a Lamborghini you really can't drive around at 5 miles an hour all the time. You've got to let rip. I did it really a bit too much. So he spent the 10 days that we were there working on a whole book of suggestions for simplifying the piano part, which he gave me at the end as his present to me -- on how to get the same effect but make it easier.

JG: You grew up in South Africa. What do you remember of your early music education there?

'I think availability of new music creates an audience. If it's put on once in a blue moon people don't go, so it's really a self-fulfilling prophecy.'

KV: I started at 10, which is not really very early. My mother bought a piano and she could play by ear. My older brother started learning so I asked if I could learn. I had quite a catastrophic piano teacher for the first 2 years, but I just fell in love with it, so I was teaching myself. Then after 2 years I went to high school and got a fabulous old man for a teacher, he was 85, called Mr Heap, who took snuff and drank tea all the time. He gave me a new piece every week and that just really captured my imagination. I couldn't wait for Friday to get my new piece. So then I started buying all the big piano concertos and tried to play them, badly of course.

JG: Were you composing at that time?

KV: I started at the same time [as learning the piano] at about 12. Again, I started with a big romantic piano concerto but it never got finished.

JG: Were there many opportunities to access new music or to hear new music in South Africa?

KV: Not until I went to university. My family were not interested in music, they spent most of their time trying to get me to shut up. We did have a fantastic art teacher at school and by 13 I was really hooked on abstract expression and was doing a lot of painting all the way through school. So when I finally heard contemporary music, like Stockhausen, it made perfect sense to me. I think Stockhausen is a classical composer, in a sense [his music] is all balanced and notespressivo. He came to South Africa in 1970 and lectured and I met him and wrote a dissertation on his piano pieces in '71. I gave it to him and he invited me to come and study with him.

JG: So you studied with him all in all for 3 years or more, and then you became his assistant part time. What influence did Stockhausen have on your compositional development at that time?

KV: Enormous. I went to study engineering and then switched to architecture. So architecture was very important for me. What Stockhausen did was completely professional. I suddenly realised that composing could be a professional activity. He had a studio, he had a team, he had assistants. It was organised like an architectural studio. Architecture for me was a revelation; it was exactly the opposite of school. You really are thrown into the professional world and you've got to take responsibility for yourself and produce designs overnight. Composition at university was taught in a totally amateur way. It was all improvised, whereas with Stockhausen everything would be logically thought out and planned and built up in layers. It was a complete revelation for me that a large piece of music could be planned and executed over a period of 9 months or 12 months. It's not just a question of sitting around waiting for inspiration but actually building up from an idea, making choices, selecting stuff and so on. So that was a huge influence. And the second one I suppose was the sense of timing. I think Stockhausen's timing is impeccable. Stockhausen's class didn't write pieces of music, we wrote works; we were terribly pretentious. But actually that is very good as training for young composers. You don't build up from writing a piece for flute and piano for 5 minutes and then try to make it bigger -- we were encouraged right from the beginning to emulate the master as it were.

JG: So it's the whole profession around composing as well as the actual technique and application.

KV: Yes, it really is the attitude. What you're doing is serious work and you can't just write the first thing that comes into your head, or if you do you have to look at it very carefully, examine its potential and go from there. I think a lot of composition is taught on the basis that it can't be taught -- it can only be learnt and the students are left to fumble around until they eventually develop a technique. I think that's completely wrong.

'I suddenly realised that composing could be a professional activity.'

JG: You met Morton Feldman, and you subsequently both became friends. Presumably meeting him was also a big influence on your development.

KV: Well yes, because he managed to get me over the whole Stockhausen thing in a way. He completely undermined everything that Stockhausen said. I think Feldman was the most subtle and sophisticated thinker in contemporary music that I've come across. Feldman said that timing is to do with an anxiety about change and doing the right change at the right moment. Of course, when writing those very long pieces after an hour and a half you have no idea where you are in a piece. He really went way beyond the others, just in that alone. Also he felt that music was not like architecture. He was interested in music really as its own art form and the subtlety that that implied. I think in real terms he was right, that Stockhausen and to a certain extent Boulez felt that you could push music around and organise it. And you can, I think it's a very good thing for a young composer to do, but if you want to go to another level you have to drop all of that and work on a much more subconscious level. That was one big influence. Also, my generation had been involved with what was then labelled the New Simplicity in '75 and Feldman felt that we should absolutely look at modernism again more seriously. He certainly pulled me up short when I got involved in this African crossover stuff in 1980, but I realised because of the immediate success of those pieces that I could become the person who does that. You discover your niche and you corner that part of the market. He felt that if you didn't take on the mainstream you wouldn't develop. I decided to take him seriously and drop the whole African thing and started looking elsewhere.

JG: Was it difficult for you to make those changes in direction?

KV: Personally it wasn't at all but in terms of response it was extremely difficult. The serialism of the 50's and 60's was intellectually rigorous and it had this wonderful energy to it, but by the 70's it was all degenerating into a kind of watered down style. We got so sick of going to concerts where somebody would talk for 15 minutes to explain the piece that turned out to be 8 minutes long. It was a sort of pseudo intellectual thing. We found that serialism had actually run out of steam and was turning into a corpse in front of our very eyes. We felt that if you had to sit in a concert and have a 15-minute explanation for a piece -- and the music could not speak for itself -- then we were doing something wrong. So we didn't wilfully get rid of modernism, but we did try to get rid of the idea of the style police -- that the only way to be modern is to write your next style of serialism. Funny enough though, we never got rid of the style police, they're still with us. Even my students, they felt the style of my piano concerto was wrong and I think it's got nothing to do with style. It's deliberately referencing the past and it was to do an experiment, taking what I thought was contemporary and extrapolating it into the past. Today in Germany everything is judged by a style on the most superficial level. If you write tonally, in any way shape or form, you are still regarded as an idiot. So the whole of the younger generation of composers coming out of Germany are producing what I would call early 70's music, but which sounds terrible.

JG: You've been living in Dublin since the 1980s.

KV: In Ireland since 1986, 20 years. I was in Dublin first and then I went to Belfast, then Donegal.

JG: What made you decide to settle in Ireland?

KV: Well it was a combination of factors. I had been in Germany for nearly 10 years and then I went back to South Africa and realised immediately that it was a mistake. I wanted to come back to Europe but I really didn't want to go back to Germany. I'd had enough of living in a foreign language country. That only left Britain, Ireland and the United States. I had very good contacts here. Gerald [Barry]had been a student with me in Cologne, we lived in the same building, and I'd played concerts here in the '70's. The thing that attracted me was the language -- English as spoken in Ireland -- and the vivacity of the people. Everyone was alive; there was a light on behind the eyes. Even some of the Irish turns of phrase, I loved all of that.

JG: Can you still see that or has that changed?

KV: No, it is still there but it's changed enormously in Dublin. I think it's there in the country still. I love the countryside but it's impossible to live in the country and do the kind of work that I do.

JG: And in terms of the new music scene here, presumably you have seen some great changes.

KV: Well particularly with the younger generation. I think the younger generation took us all a bit by surprise. There suddenly was this burst of young composers, who are now about 30.

JG: I have spoken to many of them and they really enthuse about the positive effect that you've had on their musical development. How important is that element to you and does it impact on your own composing?

'We never got rid of thestyle police, they're still with us'

KV: It's very important to me because besides being a way of making friends, there is a lot to learn in contemporary music. It is alarming when I go to somewhere like Germany and find people living in blissful ignorance of what happened 30 years ago, so they're reinventing the wheel. I had really great teachers and I was fortunate. I was studying with Stockhausen when he was interested in teaching and Richard Toop of course, and then Feldman was really interesting. And you want to pass these ideas on and continue the debate. From that point of view I really like it. But the real truth is that by looking at other people's work, for every idea you might pass out you get 10 ideas yourself. It also prevents you from getting too isolated and too self involved. I saw it happening with Stockhausen. He would literally never listen to any music apart from his own, and he had no idea what was actually going on around him. This is very dangerous territory because it leads to delusion quite rapidly. I want to know what other people are doing. Also, I get forced to listen to music that I wouldn't have dreamt of listening to before. Some of the people I still have contact with work exclusively on computer and come from the underground electronic improv scene and knows everything about who's really hot in Japan and so on, and who then make me all these discs to listen to. It's just great and I've made wonderful friends as a result of that.

JG: You've had a number of your works performed by the Crash Ensemble. You've written a new piece for them, which will be performed in February as part of the RTÉ Living Music Festival. Can you tell me a bit about this piece?

KV: Not really, except to tell you that I have no idea where it came from. It's extremely quiet, slow moving, two pianos and a string quintet, they play tremolo nearly all the time. It just appeared. I sat down to write it with some very clear ideas of what I was going to write and nothing like it ended up on paper. But I decided to let it happen, I was very curious.

JG: Is inspiration a concept that you believe in when it comes to composing?

KV: What certainly inspires me is contemporary art. I don't even have to look at it, I just have to walk through the museum and ideas clarify. The secret of composition is to get your mind into the right state, to get into a state of calm and clarity. If you don't approach the material with that attitude you're just going to end up with huge problems. I think that the right state of mind is almost like an REM state -- the music writes itself very easily and clearly. If you interfere with the conscious mind too much you won't get that.

JG: I remember you saying for one particular piece that you wrote it within a number of days.

KV: Yes, I wrote a concerto for double orchestra in one day and the 6th string quartet also in one day. And that was when I was just totally focused. With a number of pieces I've actually got to the end of the piece and have not known what the beginning is. Once I've got the opening bar I can basically write the piece but the opening bar has to have potential. Then I have to get in the right frame of mind and just write it. But not everything works like that. With the piano concerto, where I wanted lots of different ideas, I couldn't do that. And if you're writing lots and lots of notes you obviously can't write a big piece in a day. You literally can't type them in that fast.

JG: Do you compose all the time or do you take breaks after a particularly large piece?

KV: Well I'm trying to get a break now but generally it's a treadmill. I have turned out on average at least an hour's music a year over the last 10 years, and they're orchestral works. It's mountains of work. The piano concerto took 4 months to write. I wrote it in short score so they could get the piano part early and then orchestrated it over a month. Then there was 3 or so months of editing, getting the parts correct and printing and binding -- an enormous amount of work. I thought I could take a break when I'd finished that but I was wrong. Now I've come back from San Francisco and I'm actually ahead on my commissions. But I really have to revise the whole piano score, all the dynamics and I cut out some of the brass, and that means redoing the entire score and the parts. That's about another month's work.

JG: You mentioned your string quartets earlier. You've written 11 is it, so far?

KV: It's 10. I might write an 11th for the Smith [Quartet].

'The secret of composition is to get your mind into the right state, to get into a state of calm and clarity.'

JG: Your first quartet, White Man Sleeps, was the quartet that really brought your music to prominence. This medium is obviously something that you find very comfortable writing for.

KV: Yes, it's easy I think. The string quartet has taken a few hundred years to develop, for the instruments to be perfected and that grouping is very well balanced. So you can write anything for the string quartet and it always sounds good. Feldman used to say that it's a fake medium -- everything sounds good. But it's a bit like working in black and white actually. Although there's lots of colour in the string quartet you know that if you don't even exploit it, it will still sound good. It's quite hard to make a bad sound with a string quartet. The fact is that I don't play a stringed instrument and I'm not worried about Beethoven looking over my shoulder. I'm always able to approach it in a very fresh kind of a way. This is why that piece worked.

JG: I remember hearing your 6th Quartet, which you've already mentioned, for the first time and was genuinely moved and struck by the sense of time being almost suspended. Was that your intention or one of your intentions when writing the piece?

KV: It was, yes. I got the idea for the piece at a health spa place where you have one or two massages a day. It's got to do with breathing and the whole rhythm of that piece is like breathing and meditation and. There was a commission for the City of London Music Society's lunchtime concerts. A massage is an hour but you get 55 minutes. I really wanted to write a piece that was therapeutic for 55 minutes, and they wouldn't let me. They said they wanted something else on the program. I really was very annoyed. When you write the piece you've got to write in one go, in one sitting, especially something like that. So I can't recapture that state of mind and extend the piece now, but it's 26 minutes so it was half [of what I wanted to write].

JG: Half a massage?

KV: I don't want to make it sound trivial but I really wanted the piece to work on people psychologically or spiritually, like a kind of mental massage. It's not just for them but for me too, I also wanted music so I could play it during my massage, instead of some of the dreadful tapes that they would put on. I had to always ask for them to turn it off because I would get so tense with the music. And you can't have even Mozart -- you're listening to the performance and thinking how badly they were playing. So I thought I needed something for myself.

JG: You have a big collaborative project coming up with the German visual artist Jürgen Partenheimer. Tell me about this project.

KV: Well that's something that came out of the blue. It's looking very exciting. He's very well known in Germany but not so much outside, so the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham is putting on a big retrospective. The Ikon Gallery likes to have their big shows to spread out into the city or to go into other media and Jürgen wanted to do sound. The gallery is just across the way from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Hall and he's also putting things in a Victorian tower. When I was asked I got this idea of having three ensembles playing in three spaces in the museum so you can hear all three ensembles but with different degrees of loudness. So they play independently but it would nevertheless have to work even if they got really out of sync. And there would be an electronic element which could travel through the space. It's also being done in Barnet, a beautiful new museum there. It's got beautiful acoustics and a beautiful space. So we will have three ensembles but they will be much more spread out and I'll have the sound travelling through the spaces. The idea is to also perform it as a concert piece, so you get a concert version and then at least one performance in the museum and then taped versions for when the players are not there. So it's very complex because I have to write three 30-minute pieces and then do a lot of research on electronics -- I'm aiming for wireless, radio-controlled speakers. I have to write it in 2007, and it's [taking place in] March and October 2008. Then it's going to be linked in with the Beethoven festival in Bonn.

JG: In an interview in New Music News, almost ten years ago, you said that South Africa was ironically one of the few places where your music was not performed.

'People have just literally walked out of the townships with million dollar voices and who have taken to opera like ducks to water. This is what is so amazing and wonderful about the new South Africa.'

KV: I was blacklisted, yes. I've been rediscovered, gradually, which is great. It's so nice to have performances there again. The country is in enormous transition and the government has just axed all of the orchestras bar one. Classical music is totally under threat. The only way people can make a living is with these soirées that they have and the only way they can get an audience is promising great wine. Contemporary music is even more marginalised but I think things are changing slowly because there's a whole new generation of fabulous opera singers, just emerged. People who have just literally walked out of the townships with million dollar voices and who have taken to opera like ducks to water. So I've been sponsoring a couple, like one who is the star of the Royal Academy. Her name is Pumeza Matshikiza and she grew up in one of the worst townships, in a shack (her own words) made of tin and cardboard, sleeping on a mud floor. She was a new South African. This is what is so amazing and wonderful about the new South Africa. She went to the bank and said, "I want to study music". In the past she wouldn't even get into the university. But now they would give her a bank loan on the basis of nothing, no assets. She went to university and started studying and now she's an opera star. She's on all the posters in London and singing La Traviata. So it's very exciting. Traditional music in South Africa is vocal, so everybody sings, from childhood onwards, all the time. So there are so many great voices. There's a whole new future for classical music in South Africa and there's a new opera school in Durban, of which I'm a patron. I get overwhelmed every time I go there. I have to sit and hide in the back, I just start crying.

Kevin Volans was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 23 November 2006.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.