If you thought only the Kronos could do justice to this music, think again: the Duke...
John Armstrong 2002
Kevin Volans is the South African composer whose music gained a much wider audience when the Kronos Quartet asked him to re-write his early 80's opus White Man Sleeps for string quartet. Volans had his doubts: this after all was his attempt to cross-fertilise the musical traditions of western Europe with African tradition, without falling into the trap of producing a classical piece plus 'local colour' . . .the essence of airport art, as Volans himself puts it.
Western instruments, yes, but the modern grand piano and symphony orchestra were too standardised, inflexible and bland for Volans, who found what he wanted in early instruments: harpsichord for its percussive quality and the ease with which you could get it to adopt the unfamiliar tunings of African music; plus viola da gamba for its 'whooping, nasal' sound. So how was a standard string quartet going to compete with that?
Well, despite his misgivings, Volans pursued the idea, using as many open strings as possible to get close to the strange timbre he was after . . . anyway, he must have realised that Kronos is far from a standard string quartet! They took the piece far-and-wide, recorded it, and it wasn't long before a commission came in for a second quartet for Kronos: Hunting: Gathering. It's more fragmentary, but just as dependent on scraps of African music, mbira tunes from Zimbabwe, lesiba music from Lesotho, and the Hamar of Ethiopia.
But if you thought only the Kronos could do justice to this music, think again: the Duke Quartet draw you right inside the strangely compelling world of Volans's synthesis, without you ever feeling conscious of artifice. This feels like improvisation, so naturally have they found the heart of the scores and the recording is excellent as well, close without suffocating the listener or the music, detail with air around it.
But for me its the new piece that's the highlight, Volans's String Quartet No. 6 from 2000. Nothing African about it - this one's inspired by the minimalists of the 20th century, a deliberate step away from the business of mainstream classical music, whether by Stravinsky, Stockhausen, or Steve Reich. "I have become increasingly interested in eliminating subject matter in my music as far as possible. My ideal would be the equivalent of the blank canvas".
Well, it isn't, not quite. . . but the texture that unrolls before your ears over almost 25 minutes is clean, uncluttered, calm and chordal . . .it's actually a piece for two string quartets, so we hear the dedicatees, the Dukes, multi-tracked.
I'm not going to do the usual thing of searching for comparisons, saying Volans's 6th Quartet is like composer X, with a dash of Y, spiced with a generous pinch of z. It's not fair. . . but you should hear this. Despite being in a busy office when I first listened, it transported me almost immediately (on headphones!) somewhere else, where my pulse slowed and my mind emptied of the trivial tasks that had been bothering me moments before. I was really sorry when it ended; Volans says he wanted to make it last 55 minutes, but the commissioners wouldn't let him. He was right, they were wrong.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3