The South African born composer Kevin Volans came to
string quartet writing relatively late, completing his Quartet No. 1
in 1982. The title, 'White Man Sleeps', reveals his African origins,
as does the title 'Hunting Gathering' of the Quartet No 2, composed
five years later. By 2000 he had moved on to his Sixth Quartet. These
three pieces comprise the repertoire collected here, and an entertaining
and satisfying disc it makes.
First of all, the Black Box recordings are excellent,
made at the Winterbrook Studios in London. Perspectives are accurate,
ensembles are crisp, sonorities are rich. The Duke Quartet play with
discipline and commitment. But what of the music, which to most listeners
will be an unknown quantity.
Volans possesses a sure technique, sufficient to allow
him to generate African traditions and conventions through the medium
of a Western quartet. In a detailed insert note he writes: 'By introducing
some strictly non-Western aspects of African music into the European
concert repertoire I hoped to gently set up an African colonisation
of Western music and thus preserve some unique qualities, albeit in
a new form.' Those last words are important, for these pieces (i.e.
the first two quartets) are not arrangements, but rather fresh compositions
which take inspiration from ethnic music.
Volans provides a detailed explanation of his sources
of inspiration, including the reworking of his existing ideas for the
quartet medium. In this he has been particularly successful, particularly
imaginative. There is a good balance of the static and the dynamic,
and the instrumental combinations and sonorities make for compelling
listening. Whether Volans achieves all the ambitious intentions he outlines
in the notes will probably only be known to seasoned listeners who have
heard or studies the music thoroughly over many hearings. But whatever
the case, there is no lack of urgency, no lack of inspiration. The sources
may be genuinely African, but the Western string quartet proves more
than capable of breathing vibrant life into the music.
The later Quartet No. 2 (2000) is more abstract, and
is unusual in requiring either two string quartets or one plus a pre-recorded
tape, the option featured here. Again Volans includes a quite detailed
introduction to the music, with ideas flying around in all directions.
The music is a little like that too, eschewing a programmatic approach.
He complains that at 26 minutes, the piece is not as long as he wanted
it to be. But more doesn't mean better, and from the listener's point
of view it works well enough as it is.