Kevin Volans was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on 6 July 1949, and even though he has spent most of his life outside his native country, is the best known South African composer active today.
In 1972, he graduated from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with a Bachelor of Music degree, followed by post-graduate education at the University of Aberdeen. From 1973 to 1981 he lived in Cologne, where he studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Musikhochschule. During this period he served as Stockhausen's teaching assistant in 1975–76 (Taylor 2001).
During this period of time, along with his contemporaries Walter Zimmermann, Gerald Barry, and Clarence Barlow, he became associated with the Cologne School, one of several musical movements sometimes also called the "New Simplicity" (Fox 2007, 27–28). These New Simplicity movements would later influence post-minimalist composition.
After conducting several field recording trips in 1979, Volans began writing pieces based upon African compositional techniques. This characteristic made him one of the most distinctive composers on the European new music circuit at the time. Some of his works such as Matepe and the first version of White Man Sleeps utilize early music instruments including harpsichord (tuned in African tuning) and viola da gamba.
The first of his compositions to reach a wide audience was a new version of White Man Sleeps, made at the suggestion of the Kronos Quartet in 1985. This version reorders the movements of the original version, and uses conventional western tuning. The Kronos Quartet's album of that name (which however features only two of Volans's five movements) became a best-seller, and White Man Sleeps has been taken up by many choreographers, notably Siobhan Davies and James Kudelka. Volans followed it up with Hunting: Gathering, his second quartet, written for Kronos in 1987.
Volans was Composer-in Residence at Queen's University Belfast from 1986-89. Thereafter he has made his home in the Republic of Ireland and in 1994 became an Irish citizen. His notable students include Justinian Tamusuza.
The works of the late 1980s and early 1990s show a move away from the direct influence of African music towards a highly personal sort of minimalism. Part of this may have been the influence of the American composer Morton Feldman, who was a close friend; but the language of the compositions this era, including the orchestral work One Hundred Frames (1990), the striking two-piano work Cicada (1994), or the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1995) are identifiably his own. Central among them is an opera, The Man with Footsoles of Wind, premiered in London in 1993, and based on an idea by his friend, the English novelist Bruce Chatwin, with a libretto by Roger Clarke. The work of visual artists such as Philip Guston, Jasper Johns and James Turrell figure among Volans's influences in these years.
A close working relationship with the London-based Duke Quartet led Volans to write more for the string quartet medium, including the fifth quartet, Dancers on a Plane (1994) and the sixth quartet (2000). For much of the late 1990s he concentrated on dance collaborations with such choreographers as Jonathan Burrows and Siobhan Davies. Since 2000, however, he has devoted most of his energy to orchestral works; since his Cello Concerto of 1997 he has written a Concerto for Double Orchestra, a Trio Concerto which received its UK premiere as part of the Soundwaves Festival 2007, a Second Piano Concerto, subtitled "Atlantic Crossing", which was premiered by Marc-André Hamelin in November 2006, and a Third Piano Concerto, premiered by Barry Douglas at the 2011 Proms in London.
- Volans, Kevin. 1971. "The Klavierstücke: Stockhausen’s Microcosm". Unpublished BMus Essay: University of the Witwatersrand.
- Volans, Kevin. [n.d.1978][contradiction]. "Conversation with Walter Zimmermann". In Feedback Papers Reprint 1–16, 1971–1978, [ed. Johannes Fritsch]. Cologne: Feedback Studio, 338–41.
- Volans, Kevin. [n.d.1978][contradiction]. "Interview with John McGuire". Feedback Papers Reprint 1–16, 1971–1978. Cologne: Feedback Studio, 347-349.
- Volans, Kevin. [n.d.1978][contradiction]. "Monkey Music 2: Paraphrase". Feedback Papers Reprint 1–16, 1971–1978. Cologne: Feedback Studio, 354-355.
- Volans, Kevin. [n.d.1978][contradiction]. "Understanding Stockhausen". Feedback Papers Reprint 1–16, 1971–1978. Cologne: Feedback Studio, 407–409.
- Volans, Kevin and Johannes Fritsch. [n.d.1978][contradiction]. "Interview with Pauline Oliveros". Feedback Papers Reprint 1–16, 1971–1978. Cologne: Feedback Studio, 352–53.
- Volans, Kevin. 1985. Summer Gardeners: Conversations with Composers. Durban: Newer Music Edition.
- Volans, Kevin. 1986. "A New Note". Leadership [Cape Town], March, 79–82.
- Volans, Kevin. 1989. "Dancing in the Dark". New Observations, May, 67, 4–5.
- Volans, Kevin. 1994. "On Top Form: Minimalist John Pawson’s Redesign of a Grand Dublin Residence … ". Image, October, 32–34 and 38–39.
- Volans, Kevin. "A Dialogue Between Collaborators". Dance Theatre Journal 12(4), 14–15.
- Volans, Kevin. 2001/2. "White Man Sleeps: Composer’s Statement". NewMusicSA: Bulletin of the International Society for Contemporary Music - South African Section, First Issue, 5–7.
- Volans, Kevin. 2008. "Inaudible Music". In Jürgen Partenheimer. Discontinuity, Paradox & Precision. Birmingham: Ikon Gallery.
- Volans, Kevin. and Hilary Bracefield. 1987. "A Constant State of Surprise: Gerald Barry and The Intelligence Park". Contact 31, 9–11.
- Ballantine, Christopher. 2001–2002. "Christopher Ballantine reviews Cicada". NewMusicSA: Bulletin of the International Society for Contemporary Music - South African Section, First Issue, 7-8.
- Blake, Michael. 1992. "Volans, Kevin". In Contemporary Composers, eds. Brian Norton and Pamela Collins, 951-952.
- Blake, Michael. 1993. "Almeida opera: Kevin Volans and Julian Grant". Tempo 186, 52-53.
- Bräuninger, Jürgen. 1998. "Gumboots to the Rescue". South African Journal of Musicology: SAMUS 18, 1-16.
- Chatwin, Bruce. 1989. "Kevin Volans". In What Am I Doing Here? 63-69. London: Picador.
- Clarkson Fletcher, J., J. Dazeley, J. Taylor, and E. Wetherall n.d.1998. "Towards New Models for the Analysis of Post-serial and Post-tonal Music, with Particular Reference to Kevin Volans’ White Man Sleeps". In Proceedings of the 25th Annual Congress of the Musicological Society of Southern Africa, Grahamstown, August 1998, ed. W. Lüdemann, 7-18. [Stellenbosch: Musicological Society of Southern Africa.]
- Fox, Christopher. 2007. "Where the River Bends: The Cologne School in Retrospect". The Musical Times 148, no. 1901 (Winter): 27–42.
- Fox, James. 1988. "Staging Songlines: Interview". Village Voice 18(12), 138–9, 199 and 202.
- Gaisford, Sue. 1999. "How We Met: Elizabeth Chatwin & Kevin Volans". The Independent (London), 4 July.
- Gann, Kyle. 1988. "Fear of Symmetry: Boston Composers and Kronos Quartets". Village Voice, 23 February.
- Gann, Kyle. 1998. "Consumer Guide". Village Voice, 1 September.
- Gilmore, Bob. 2006. "Wild Air: The Music of Kevin Volans". The Journal of Music in Ireland 6(6), 22-29.
- Grözinger, Jürgen. 2006. "'Zur Freiheit Führen Viele Wege’: Der Componist Kevin Volans über Afrika und die Musikalische Avantgarde". Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 5, September/October, 16-17.
- Loppert, Max. 1993. "Volans: The Man Who Strides The Wind". Opera, 68, 1102–1104.
- Marcus, Bunita. 1989. "Preface". New Observations 67, 2.
- Olwage, Grant. 1999–2000. "Who Needs Rescuing? A Reply to 'Gumboots to the Rescue'". South African Journal of Musicology: SAMUS 19, 105-108.
- Potter, Keith. 1982. "Repetitive Music Again (and Again)". Classical Music 28 August 1982.
- Pooley, Thomas M. 2008. "Composition in Crisis: Case Studies in South African Art Music 1980-2006". Unpublished MA Dissertation: University of the Witwatersrand.
- Rörich, Mary. "Three Rhythmic Etudes. Dublin: Black Sheep Edition, 2002; Three Structural Etudes. Dublin: Black Sheep Edition, 2003" [score review]. South African Journal of Musicology: SAMUS 25,151-154.
- Scherzinger, Martin. 2004. "Art Music in a Cross-cultural Context: The Case of Africa". In The Cambridge History of Twentieth-century Music, eds. N. Cook and A. Pople, 584-613. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Scherzinger, Martin. 2004–2005. "Of Sleeping White Men: Analytic Silence in the Critical Reception of Kevin Volans". NewMusicSA: Bulletin of the International Society for Contemporary Music - South African Section, Third and Fourth Issue, 22-26.
- Scherzinger, Martin. 2008. "Who’s 'White Man Sleeps'? Aesthetics and Politics in the Early Work of Kevin Volans". In Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid, edited by Grant Olwage, 209-235. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
- Taylor, Timothy D. 1995. "When We Think about Music and Politics: The Case of Kevin Volans". Perspectives of New Music 33, 504–536.
- Taylor, Timothy D. 2001. "Volans, Kevin". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Taylor, Timothy D. n.d. "Volans, Kevin". Grove Music Online, edited by Dean Roote, http://www.grovemusic.com(subscription required)
- Walton, Christopher. 2002–2003. "Kevin Volans String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & 6". NewMusicSA: Bulletin of the International Society for Contemporary Music - South African Section, Second Issue, 22-24.
- Contemporary Music Centre, composer page
- Dictionary of African Composers
- 'Wild Air: the music of Kevin Volans' by Bob Gilmore (from the Journal of Music in Ireland)
- Field recordings made by Kevin Volans of music from Lesotho and South Africa