Live: Kevin Volans


Kevin Volans (piano); Jennifer Walshe (vocals); Crash Ensemble: Emily Thyne (violin), Lisa Grosman (viola), Kate Ellis (cello), Malachy Robinson (double bass), John Godfrey (piano), Deirdre O’Leary (clarinet), Andrew Crowley (trumpet), Owen Gunnell (percussion)
Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 9 April 2009

Since becoming an Irish citizen in 1994, Kevin Volans, who was born in South Africa, has had considerable impact on Irish musical life, enriching the concert scene with his music and mentoring and teaching some of Ireland’s most striking compositional voices. Fitting then, in celebration of his sixtieth birthday, for Crash Ensemble to present a concert with a first half of three of Volans’ works and a second half of three works by three Irish composers who have studied with him: Jonathan Nangle, Simon O’Connor and Jennifer Walshe.

All the pieces were concerned with objects – fragmentary melodies, an orchestration, a harmony or related harmonies, a fragment of speech or a certain timbre – and the music arose out of a careful inspection of the properties and qualities of these objects. The light changed, the light was refracted, but the objects were almost never obscured by darkness.

Volans’ Nine beginnings was performed on two first-rate electric pianos (in the absence of two acoustic pianos) by the composer himself and John Godfrey. A stillness was created through a constant interweaving, interpolating and juxtaposing of materials arising out of a melodic fragment.

Trumpet, vibe, cello, piano was composed by Volans especially for the occasion. Crash Ensemble negotiated its demanding score with grace: it was a pleasure to be reminded of what pianissimo actually sounds like. Here the initial orchestration was the object – muted trumpet, a halo of vibraphone resonance, Feldman-like piano arpeggios and gentle cello pizzicato.

Much like Nine beginnings, Volans’ two-movement ensemble piece, Into Darkness, exploited the implications of a melodic object. The interweavings happened at a faster rate, though, and the result was a sense of directional momentum.

Both my heart stopped a thousand beats, a viola and cello duo by Jonathan Nangle, and 60 Bars for K.V. for string quartet and clarinet by Simon O’Connor meditated on harmonic objects of profound elegance. Single sustained chords on strings were stated, re-stated, re-voiced, linearised and complemented by related harmonies. Here, the light changed the slowest. Jennifer Walshe joined Crash Ensemble on vocals for her piece i: same person/ii. not the same person. Each block-like section obsessively pushed a texture so that the piece played out like a psychodrama, each action appearing as if divined by a determined id.

The evening was an apposite tribute to Kevin Volans; in its very many breathtaking moments, it was a reminder, as a fellow audience member remarked, that, in our lives, we need daily beauty.

Published on 1 June 2009

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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