A monthly musical offering by a composer member of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers.
Both your listening and comments are encouraged.
View a video of this work by going to these two links:
The city of New Orleans has suffered much. I didn’t appreciate that until visiting the city in January 2010. My friend and colleague John Reeks took me on a drive of the city, showing me the devastation after Katrina, and the rebuilding. I saw circles painted on houses with numbers indicating how many humans or animals were found alive or dead. I met a police officer who had both legs amputated after wading through the dirty flood water. And then to my shame, I could remember watching TV weather forecasts before Katrina and thinking how exciting it would be if it actually hit New Orleans. Whoa! Since then I’m learning to make my first response to be prayer when something like that appears on television. New Orleans has a reputation as a “sin city”. It’s been suggested that the city seal should be a crack pipe and a handgun. Not a nice thing to say. But when I walked on Bourbon Street etc. I kept hearing in my spirit “Friend of Sinners”. That of course is a nickname given to Jesus as a criticism by the self-righteous. I’m thankful Jesus still has that nickname, for my sake, for each of us. The devil seeks to kill, steal and destroy, but Jesus seeks to restore life. I felt a love for the people of New Orleans that I couldn’t explain, including watching for the first time in my life an NFL game on the TV in my hotel, and crying and praying for the Saints during their playoff. Me of all people! But hey, God answered my prayer. :-)
Then a few months later came the 2010 Gulf oil spill. John Reeks told me I could write a piece for bass clarinet and regular clarinet for his recital at Loyola University where he teaches. One suggestion he made was that it could be about a gulf pelican. A light went on. The pelican is the state symbol of Louisiana, but also a symbol of Christ. It’s said that it sometimes feeds its young with its own flesh. It has a beak bigger than its stomach, meaning it’s not just designed to feed itself, but feed others. I wanted it to be Christian, but not heavy handed, thus leading to a “Oh, that’s a religious piece” write-off. I wanted this piece to be able to enter the spirit of a listener, without the intellect shutting the door. (Although ultimately the intellect decides whether to open that door or not.) And like a lot of my music, I wanted this piece to be funny and serious at the same time. So for the first half of the piece, the pelican is a sassy sort of Bugs Bunny character who describes the enormously lengthy process of having the oil cleaned off of him before returning to his habitat.
But for the second half, the Pelican becomes more serious, more Christlike. I discovered that John was also doing on his recital a new transcription by Harold Seletsky, for clarinet and string quartet, of the Bach Chaconne for unaccompanied violin, I therefore decided to make that Chaconne an important musical element, even if it didn’t paticularly go with jambalaya, because I love and respect that piece so much. Now it was Cambridge University’s theology professor Jeremy Begbie’s lecture on Bach’s Chaconne at our CFAMC’s 2004 national conference (followed by his own performance of the Busoni transcription!) which made me really love and respect it. But to quote Greg Pascuzzi, “humility and confidence” are words that don’t describe my natural state. When I got to THE end part, where I intended to mave a substantial quote from the radiant major mode section of Bach’s work, I was able to match okay the words “Oh what a wonder is the pelican, it’s beak can hold more than it’s belly can” etc. with Bach’s original “melody”. But when I got to trying to “expand” the actual music, I really found it impossible. I couldn’t hear Bach’s harmonies in my head, just like I can’t fake Bach when I play in my church, like I do with hymns. Bach’s harmonic progressions aren’t measure for measure, but note for note, or even beyond. I felt REALLY depressed, like I was in a pit or something. “I can’t do this. Do I actually think I’m Bach or something? Who am I kidding?” Finally I was able to pray (sort of), and then the idea of a pedal tone popped in my mind, and that led me somehow to actually hear the harmonies the way I needed to. What was impossible that morning just seemed to flow in the afternoon. So afterwards, what I said privately to God (but now publicly to you) was: “Hey Lord, I REALLY know you did this, because I couldn’t do it myself, and I know it, and you know it, and thank you.”
And I finished the piece. The actor/singer playing the pelican is a well known and quite exceptional musical performer in the New Orleans area, Ricky Graham. There was only one problem, Ricky can’t read music (just like a lot of good musicians). So I had to design it so there was less dependence on reading, and more on rote, learning the music from my demo recording. And Ricky’s mother was quite sick and hospitalized that weekend, which meant he had less time to rehearse. And so, while all the notes weren’t right or even notes, Ricky brought the piece to life. Becaue the most important thing was that the audience got it, and they did. I might add that John Reeks also created the video for this piece. Now I had told John that the one week I couldn’t fly down to New Orleans was the weekend of Oct. 15-16, the weekend of our CFAMC conference, for which I felt a commitment to attend. But, you guessed it, that turned out to be the only time slot available for Ricky. So instead of flying to New Orleans, I drove to Indiana, and attended what I consider the best musical event of my life so far, and so many of you were a part of it.
But one day I’ll go to New Orleans again.
I was raised in a Lutheran church of which I am still a member, I had a lot of problems growing up. (It’s good to grow up!) While God was working both before and after 1974, in that year both my wife and I prayed to receive Jesus at a Kathryn Kuhlman miracle service, and something clearly changed in our hearts. My mind is still being renewed. For me the central teaching of the Bible is to not live in self but live in Christ. I thank God for CFAMC. Composing is a calling, but only God gives me an identity.
The music of William Vollinger has been performed by the Gregg Smith Singers and NY Vocal Arts Ensemble, whose performance of “Three Songs About the Resurrection” won first prize at the Geneva International Competition. “Violinist in the Mall” won the 2005 Friends and Enemies of New Music competition. His music has been performed and broadcast worldwide, published by Abingdon, API, Heritage, Kjos, Lawson-Gould, and Laurendale. Five works have been editor’s choices in the J.W. Pepper Catalogue. The New Orleans ensemble Musaica commissioned and premiered “Duck Girl” in January 2010. Navona Recordings will be releasing two new works for narrator in 2011.
If you are a member composer interested in submitting a composition for an upcoming monthly CFAMC listening page, please contact Bill Vollinger at
For other CFAMC Listening Pages, visit The CFAMC Listening Page Archives.