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William Vollinger: Raspberry Man

Vollinger / Juventas Ensemble / Calhoon / Carey
Release Date: 08/30/2011 
Label:  Navona   Catalog #: 5857   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  William Vollinger
Performer:  Brian CalhoonJulia Scott Carey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juventas Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VOLLINGER Raspberry Man. Emmanuel Changed Juventas Ens; Willian Vollinger (nar) NAVONA NV5857 (12:22)

The roots of speech music go back at least to Alexander Dargomyzhsky in mid 19th-century Russia, the genre of the late 19th-century melodrama, and the use of Sprechstimme by composers such as Humperdinck and Schoenberg, but Harry Partch may fairly be said to have brought the form into full flower. Partch developed the genre to an amazing degree, even to Read more the point of creating a whole new battery of instruments, and an entirely new system of tuning to accompany his intoned speech. In his music, composer William Vollinger continues the tradition of Partch, but has built his own distinctive style involving only traditional instruments in standard tuning.

Vollinger succinctly sums up his musical aesthetic in the liner notes of the present CD: “There are two basic things I want to do when I compose: (1) explore new territory, and (2) say something good about the human condition, even when funny.” It is safe to say that he succeeds in both of these goals, not only in these two works, but in others that I’ve heard by him. Indeed, his music is original in the best sense of the word in that for every work I’ve heard by him, my reaction has always been, “No one else could have written that!” His music is defined by urbane wit, poignant texts (invariably of his own composition), a declaimed vocal style that falls somewhere in between measured speech and Sprechstimme (and occasional singing), all of which is accompanied by instrumental figures and textures that reinforce and underscore the texts in well-thought-out ways.

I first got to know his music back in the LP era, when I encountered his More than Conquerors on the Grenadilla label. This work is a touching depiction of the life of Corrie ten Boom, famous for her work in hiding and thus saving the lives of many Jews in Holland during World War II.

The first work on the present CD is Raspberry Man, a real-life story in music about a colorful character of the sort that New York seems to be famous for. This fellow, name unrevealed, achieved his reputation (and epithet) by standing outside Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in Manhattan, sticking out his tongue at passersby and giving them Bronx cheers. These are represented quite onomatomusically (if I may coin a term) by the instrumental ensemble. At the end of the work, the narrator is left wondering what ever became of the man. Was his dying breath, perhaps, expended in a Bronx cheer?

Emmanuel Changed is also a true story about a former student in Vollinger’s children’s choir. The young man changed over a summer from being a friendless, bullying 10-year-old hellion, to a decent young lad who eventually gained some friends. It is a touching piece, full of gentle humor. Vollinger imaginatively uses his sparse forces (an alto sax and piano) to musically underscore the transformation of this young boy.

Both of these works, along with the other music by Vollinger I’ve heard, spring out of his Christian faith, a faith that to Vollinger necessarily produces fruit—often expressed in terms of compassion toward one’s fellow man. His is music with a message—not always explicitly Christian, but always seeking to elevate the thoughts and actions of the listener to a higher plane. In this, he succeeds admirably on both musical and spiritual grounds.

The prospective purchaser should note that there are only about 12 minutes of music on this CD, the remainder of which is given over to files that can be accessed on one’s computer. These include an interesting video containing an interview with the composer, during the course of which he discusses his philosophy of composition, and his ideas about originality. There is also a live video performance of Raspberry Man, scores of both of the works on the CD, and (apparently) downloadable ring tones. I didn’t try those out (I gave up my ring tone of “The Great Gate of Kiev” that I had for a long time in favor of the kind of ding-a-ling ring that phones had when I was a kid), but everything else that I tried on the computer portion of the CD worked well.

Performances by the unnamed narrator and the Juventas Ensemble are first-rate. Not everyone I know is fond of speech music, but those who are will find much to admire in this finely produced disc. Accordingly, highly recommended.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Raspberry Man by William Vollinger
Performer:  Brian Calhoon (Percussion)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juventas Ensemble
Emmanuel Changed by William Vollinger
Performer:  Julia Scott Carey (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juventas Ensemble

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