Composer Kevin Volans talks to Terry Grimley about an unusual art and music collaboration at Ikon Gallery.
There's a long tradition of art and music inspiring each other, but it's still quite a rarity for artists and composers to collaborate directly.
So there's a pioneering feeling about Ikon Gallery's exhibition of German artist Jürgen Partenheimer - his first in the UK, staged in collaboration with Kunstmuseum Bonn - which opens next month with a speciallycomposed soundtrack from Kevin Volans.
South African-born Volans, who has lived in Ireland since 1986 and became an Irish citizen 14 years ago, first made his name in the 1970s as part of the emerging "new simplicity" movement.
He is probably still best known for the series of pieces influenced by African music written for the New York-based Kronos Quartet - White Man Sleeps (1986), Hunting: Gathering (1987) and The Songlines (1988).
The Kronos CDs White Man Sleeps and Pieces of Africa broke all records for string quartet disc sales, the latter topping the US Classical and world music charts for six months, outselling everyone apart from Pavarotti.
The collaboration between Partenheimer and Volans came about through a happy accident. Having arrived at Heathrow assuming that he could get a connecting flight to Birmingham for a meeting at Ikon, Partenheimer chose to hire a car for the trip up rather than take the train.
He had already decided he would like to incorporate music into the exhibition, which spans a range of media including paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics, when on his return journey he happened to catch part of a Radio 3 programme featuring excerpts from Volans' compositions interspersed with an interview.
On arriving he called Ikon to say he'd found his composer, even though he hadn't caught Volans' name.
As well as teaming Partenheimer and Volans, the exhibition also marks a collaboration between Ikon and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who have recorded Volans' score, called The Partenheimer Project and will also be playing it live in the gallery and staging a composer's workshop at the CBSO Centre.
As well as Ikon, Partenheimer's art and Volans' music are also taking over the Edgbaston landmark Perrott's Folly, which is being opened to the public for the first time in 20 years. "As soon as I looked at the work I thought it made perfect sense," Volans told me when he was in Birmingham for the recent recording sessions.
"Jürgen is an abstract artist who works predominantly in two dimensions, but he also does quite a lot of sculpture and makes artists's books.
"This is relevant, that he works in different media, because I decided to write a piece for three contrasting ensembles playing simultaneously. There's a wind and brass ensemble, a string quartet, and piano and percussion."
The ensembles will be physically dispersed through the various galleries, because Volans says the one thing he wanted to avoid was writing a piece related to the exhibition as a whole which would have the effect of making all the visitors congregate in one place.
"It's three pieces of 90 minutes that I have overlapped, and the ensembles almost always play completely different material. It's synchronised with a clock, and each ensemble has a click-track.
"I wrote some really quiet stuff and some loud interludes for the same instruments, so I thought you would only be able to hear all of this if you're in the same room.
"It's like the experience of going round an exhibition, where there's work right in front of you and there's work you can see in the next room. I like the way that you can't hear all of the music at the same time, but for me it meant relinquishing control quite a lot."
The idea of separate ensembles playing different music at the same time immediately makes me think of Charles Ives, but Volans points out the difference that while Ives was working with sound images - often in the form of American hymns or popular songs - his music is more abstract.
Although he is probably better known for his work with dance - he has written scores for choreographers like Jonathan Burrows and Siobhan Davies - this isn't the first time that Volans has collaborated with a visual artist.
His collaboration with South African artist William Kentridge, Zeno at 4am, which features a bass soloist, chorus and string quartet alongside actors, shadow puppets and video projection, was commissioned by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, premiered in Brussels and has toured to New York, Paris and other places around the world.
Volans himself spent three-and-a-half formative years in Germany studying with the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, which prompts me to recall the giddying occasion during Sir Simon Rattle's Towards the Millennium festival when the CBSO and its audience decamped from Symphony Hall during the interval of one concert and moved to the ICC's largest hall for a performance of Stockhausen's vast Gruppen.
"We're living in a different time," says Volans ruefully. "In the 60s there was so much money for new music. Stockhausen created a different sound-world for every piece, but that's a luxury that doesn't exist anymore."
It emerges that Volans takes a somewhat bleak view of today's contemporary music scene, which he does not believe contains any composers substantial enough to be compared to such modernist pioneers as Stockhausen or Morton Feldman.
"I think there's a new generation of composers just starting out who may produce some great stuff," he concedes. "Gerald Barry is one of the most interesting composers.
"But I think everyone is under threat because we're composing too fast. Music in the last 15 years has turned into an industry, and the publicity machine has perverted the course of music and caused a major decline in quality.
"Accountants and money are driving everything, and nowadays people will clap anyone who is famous.
"Composers are trying to swim upstream in that kind of world. There's not enough time for people to mature and grow."
* Jürgen Partenheimer: Discontinuity, Paradox & Precision, featuring Kevin Volans' recorded score, is at Ikon Gallery, Brindley-place, and Perrott's Folly, Edgbaston, from April 2-May 25.
An open rehearsal for the live performance takes place at Ikon on April 19 (10am-1pm; admission free), with the live performance on April 20 at 12.30pm and 3.30pm (free, but reserve place in advance by calling 0121 248 0708).
BCMG Insight: Art and Music takes place at the CBSO Centre on May 3 (3pm-5pm). It includes a performance of The Partenheimer Project, plus a "Meet the composer and the artist" session with Kevin Volans and Jürgen Partenheimer in conversation about their unusual collaboration. To book contact BCMG on 0121 616 2616, email email@example.com or turn up on the day (places subject to availability).