Kevin Volans

Dancers on a Plane

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South African composer Kevin Volans came to the attention of many listeners through the interpretations of his work, notably White Man Sleeps by the Kronos Quartet. This recording presents more string quartet music, here performed by the British Duke Quartet, an ensemble with similarly wide-ranging tastes. "Dancers on a Plane" takes inspiration from the Jasper Johns painting of the same name, seeking to juxtapose string and taped sounds in a like manner to Johns' "juxtaposition of abstract and concrete imagery." Thus, tapes of everyday South African life are interspersed between string writing not too different from that used in "White Man Sleeps," with an emphasis on forcefully rhythmic dance patterns. Too often, however, the two strains fail to mesh into any meaningful whole or, on the other hand, create much tension between them instead simply existing in separate spheres -- which perhaps is the point. In either case, it doesn't entirely make for listening that is quite as fulfilling as one would hope. In the two-movement piece based on the life and work of the Indian mathematician S. Ramanujan, it's difficult to hear any direct connection to the subject (no overt Indian melodic material, for instance), but the generally quiet and plaintive writing is quite effective and moving, remaining sadly songlike throughout, perhaps tinged with a melancholy appropriate to its subject, who died quite young. The final piece is a brief movement inspired by a Philip Guston painting of various household items falling from a disembodied mouth; Volans appears to be attempting to replicate this image, using short, thematically disconnected fragments, freely floating in space. It's an attractive little work, abstract yet whimsically comforting. On the whole, the compositions presented here are not as gripping as works of his like Hunting: Gathering, but are well worth hearing for anyone interested in getting a good grasp of this intriguing composer.