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Kevin Volans

Publisher: Chester Music

String Quartet No 1 "White Man Sleeps" (1986)
Work Notes
written for the Kronos Quartet; see also White Man Sleeps Dedicated to the Kronos Quartet
Chester Music Ltd
Small Ensemble (2-6 players)
Sub Category
String Quartet
Year Composed
22 Minutes
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Programme Note
Kevin Volans String Quartet No 1 "White Man Sleeps" (1986)
It was a request from Adrian Jack that prompted this piece. He asked me to rework White Man Sleeps (originally written for two harpsichords, viola da gamba and percussion) for the Kronos Quartet for a performance at the ICA. I resisted the idea at first, especially as the African tuning of the original piece would have to be dropped. It occurred to me however, that the western tuning (equal temperament) would mask the source material and make my intentions clearer. I began work.

After the first performance I changed the order of the movements, placing the last dance, which seemed to me to be the weakest, first. This the piece quietens down and becomes more intimate as it progresses.

Sources: In composing this piece I drew from the following sources: the first movement owes something to the style of Basotho concertina music; the second and fourth movements are drawn from traditional Nyungwe music played by Makina Chirenje and his Nyanga panpipe group at Nsava, Tete, Mozambique, recorded and transcribed by Andrew Tracey (to be found in an article entitled ‘The nyanga panpipe dance’ in African Music, Vol.5, No.1 (1971)); the third movement derives from the San bow music (recorded by Tony Traill of the University of Witwatersrand) and from Basotho lesiba music, transcribed by myself; in the fifth movement I added my own invented folklore. My approach to the original music was anything but purist – it is played in Western tuning, filtered, slowed down by a few “time-octaves”, cast into non-African metres (like the 13-beat pattern of the first dance) and redistributed between the players in several ways. I also used interlocking techniques where they were absent in the original models and vice versa.

The title ‘White Man Sleeps’ comes from a moment in nyanga panpipe music where the performers leave off playing their loud pipes for a few cycles and dance only to the sound of their ankle rattles, to let the white landowner sleep – for a minute or two.

Kevin Volans

  • Ensemble
    Duke Quartet
    Black Box:
  • Ensemble
    BBC Singers
    Simon Joly
  • Ensemble
    Kronos Quartet
  • Ensemble
    Kronos Quartet
  • Ensemble
    Smith Quartet
    Kevin Volans and Robert Hill, harpsichords / Margriet Tindemans, viola da gamba / Robyn Schulkowsky, percussion
  • Ensemble
    Kronos Quartet
  • Ensemble
    Kronos Quartet
  • Ensemble
    Smith Quartet
    Signum Classics:
With its use of music from a variety of African traditions, never employed anecdotally but always filtered through Volans' own musical personality, it remains wonderfully fresh and original.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,02/11/2009
White Man Sleeps, which shot Volans to fame… is the most famous in a series of works in which he endeavoured to combine aspects of African and Western music. The "African" works typically show a great rhythmic intricacy, with an exquisite surface finish that's born of a precision of gesture that makes them highly distinctive. The Smith Quartet, long-time advocates, gave [an] expert account.
Michael Dervan, The Irish Times,06/12/2004
This marvellous piece was inspired by South African music, and one can hear faint echoes of call-and-response singing and the wheezy sound of Basotho concertinas. It was no less fiercely "minimal" than Volans's recent music, but the substance had a human reality. You could feel coursing through the music the thrill of a different way of thinking and being.
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph,25/11/2004
The concert opened enjoyably with White Man Sleeps, a quartet by Kevin Volans that draws on African rhythmic and melodic ideas. It has a particularly beautiful penultimate movement, with the viola playing a simple melody against pizzicato accompaniment.
William Marshall, Huddersfield Daily Examiner,23/11/2004
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