Light, Space, Colour: The Impact of Abstract Visual Stimuli on the Aesthetic of Kevin Volans

Adrian Smith

Smith, Adrian. 2011. Light, Space, Colour: The Impact of Abstract Visual Stimuli on the Aesthetic of Kevin Volans, in Irish Musical Studies: Volume 11, Gareth Cox, Julian Horton (eds.) (Four Courts Press: Forthcoming)


An abstract painter in his youth, the music of the South African born Irish composer Kevin Volans has always exhibited a concern for visual stimuli. After almost a decade studying in Cologne under both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel, his return to South Africa on recording field trips re-awakened his senses to both the musical and visual heritage of his homeland. While much of his music during the 1980s was best known for its incorporation of African music, his engagement with the organisational principles of African visual art forms initiated a preoccupation with visual models as a source of formal design. Since the early 1990s much of his music, in both its form and content, often mirrors the concerns and procedures of various schools of western abstract art. Cicada (1994), for two pianos, draws upon a range of visual models including the hatch paintings of Jasper Johns and the light installations of James Turrell while his String Quartet No. 6 (2000) has explored the spatial conceptions present in the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Like his mentor Morton Feldman, Volans has used such models in a search for material which is completely ‘abstract’, suggestive of nothing beyond itself. This essay will attempt to map the trajectory of Volans’s engagement with the visual arts, from the African project through to the more direct influences of recent years. The main section of this chapter will be devoted to an analysis of his composition Cicada (1994) which attempts to translate the formal implications of a specific visual artwork into music.