Volans: String Quartet No. 1 (White Man Sleeps); String Quartet No. 2 (Hunting: Gathering); String Quartet No. 6

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COMPOSERS: Volans
LABELS: Black Box
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (White Man Sleeps); String Quartet No. 2 (Hunting: Gathering); String Quartet No. 6
PERFORMER: Duke Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: BBM 1069
White Man Sleeps has become Kevin Volans’s best-known work – being taken up by the Kronos Quartet helps, of course – though I prefer the original version for two harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion. But in either form, it has unquenchable energy, and its asymmetrical repetitions avoid patronising the African, or African-style, material. Volans’s great strength is in getting completely under the skin of his various sources, and distilling them into something coherent and individual. Hunting: Gathering is more calculating in its mosaic-like use of smaller fragments of African (and some Western) music, and for me it’s less successful, paradoxically because it sounds more like a ‘regular’ string quartet in its scoring and gestures. After 1988 Volans abandoned overt reference to African music, and the millennial Sixth (actually for two quartets, but here double-tracked), consists mostly of slow chords alternating between the two groups. I’m put in mind of Bryars, or a cross between Feldman and incredibly slowed-down Reich, but the lack of incident doesn’t mean lack of tension – it’s like a tightly coiled spring, or some enormously powerful animal at rest. A completely gripping piece, and the Duke Quartet conveys its energetic stasis as compellingly as the kinetic energy in the earlier works. Martin Cotton

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