Alvin Singleton: Intuitions and Reminders

Frank J. Oteri: So, to a listener who hasn’t really studied music or isn’t looking at a score and is just hearing this music, what structural aspects would you say are discernible in your music?

Alvin Singleton: I write from my experience—the experience of living, travel, etc. I think the most discernable aspect of my music is the combination of colors, orchestration. There are some people who say that they think they hear a kind of jazz movement. I take it as a compliment, but I don’t know what that means, and it’s not something I strive to do.

FJO: A running theme I’ve noticed in a lot of your pieces is the use of silence or harmonic stasis. These are things that are frequently associated with minimalism or post-minimalism, but your music doesn’t quite fit into that category. I remember the first time I heard Shadows. At first I thought it was a minimalist piece, but then I realized it wasn’t one. I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on structurally, but it was very exciting. Where do these gestures come from?

AS: I don’t know. To me it’s very natural. It’s not something that I just arbitrarily do. I hear the sound. I hear the silence. And when I do I mark it in the score. Many performers have asked me, “What are we supposed to do here?” I say, “Count.”

FJO: What’s the typical gestation period for creating a piece of your music?

AS: When confronted with a short deadline, it seems to work. A composer friend once said to me that composers often take longer to write pieces than they ought to. Their natural way of creating could be a lot faster. This period of thinking it through needn’t be so long. But you should be able to go back and change things.

In this day and age, with the costs of rehearsal time and having only one premiere, it’s hopeless. When you define what you had in mind about being an artist and then you get caught up in commissioning and deadlines and short rehearsal time, you wonder. I mean, sometimes I wish I was a playwright. Then that way I would get a chance to try out things. To perfect things or to develop characters takes a little bit more time.

FJO: Obviously, opportunities for repeat performances are different for each piece. A chamber piece that a group commissions and takes on tour is very different from a piece an orchestra commissions and then plays once or only on a few concerts during a subscription week run. You always hope they’ll bring it back in another season, or that another orchestra takes it on, but that rarely happens.

AS: Well, I’ve been lucky in that sense. A couple of my orchestra pieces have been played more than once. My first orchestral commission was A Yellow Rose Petal. It was commissioned by the Houston Symphony and first done on their Stokowski series by William Harwood, who was associate conductor there and who died a few years later. But then Eschenbach brought it back. I remember there was an article—I think it was in the Houston Chronicle—that said this was so rare for any piece to be brought back from that series. And James Conlon took Shadows on tour. He played it where he was guesting: Pittsburgh, Boston, and then Aspen. I was thrilled with that.

FJO: And Yellow Rose Petal, of course, was also released on CD on the same recording that featured Shadows, both in performances by the Atlanta Symphony.

AS: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

FJO: This brings up the whole debate about whether a live performance or a recording is a more effective way to disseminate contemporary music. Certainly, you can’t develop characters as you said—a recording is a fixed performance—but you can reach many more people.

AS: But it’s performed first before it’s recorded. And today, often the recording is of a live performance. I think that studio recordings are almost a thing of the past. It’s so expensive. Shadows was a studio recording. It was done in the Atlanta Symphony concert hall, which is where they do all their recording, and it has really good sound.

FJO: Nowadays there are lots of folks saying that recordings are dead, too. You know, everybody’s downloading music off the Internet, and nobody wants to have physical objects. In your experience, is having recordings of pieces mostly a professional necessity—to engender subsequent performances of them or to help you get commissions for new pieces—or is it a medium to actually reach listeners?

AS: Not that many people go to concerts anymore. New listeners may go to a concert once or twice, but they want to be able to take something home. So I think this is a medium for that, not just to advertise and promote. But I was in the Apple store in SoHo for one of these one-on-one sessions that they have. And this young guy asked me what I do, and I said I’m a composer. So he said, “Are you on iTunes?” And I said, “I don’t know.” So he went and looked, and he said to his colleagues, “Hey, he’s on iTunes.” It was stuff from the Tzadik recording. Later I asked somebody I knew, “Is that a big deal?” And he said, “Oh yes, it’s a big deal.”

FJO: Well, one convenient thing about that is since you write single-movement pieces, it makes it a lot easier for this kind of transmission mechanism.

AS: Well, obviously, I hadn’t considered that before.

FJO: You’ve written a lot for orchestra, you’ve written quite a bit of chamber music and solo music. What are the ideal ensembles for you? If you had a commission to do whatever kind of thing you wanted, what pieces would you like to do most and why?

AS: That question has no real answer because it always depends upon how you feel at the moment. And also it depends upon what projects you have in mind, which often are based upon what you’ve just written before or somebody you’ve just heard. The ideal ensemble is the ensemble that I’m writing for at the moment.

FJO: So you don’t feel like you can get more of what you want when you write chamber music than when you write orchestral music?

AS: Not really. I don’t think so. Sure, there’s limited rehearsal time [with the orchestra]. You’d have limited rehearsal time even if they just had one note. But I enjoy writing for orchestra; I enjoy writing for large ensembles.

FJO: You’ve never written for wind band.

AS: I know. I would. You know, it’s a funny thing. When you’re up-and-coming, you dream of having commissions. And then when it happens, you lose a certain amount of freedom to do what you want to do at the moment, because you’re on your way to finishing another piece that’s been asked of you. So that’s probably why. But I’ve been eyeing the possibility of wind band, because wind players are terrific, and I like the sound very much.

FJO: So if someone were to ask you, you’d do it.

AS: In—what’s the expression—a New York minute.

FJO: How many commissions do you typically line up in front of you? What’s comfortable?

AS: I seem to write as they come. If I have one big piece in a year, that’s fine for me. Now I have three, but they’re not big pieces.

FJO: Would you be interested in writing an opera or a large-scale music theatre piece?

AS: I have one opera which I did in ’76. It was a bicentennial commission, done in Austria. Since then I haven’t done anything else in that genre. I also don’t really have songs for voice and piano. In fact, Jessye Norman asked me once. When I said no, she said, “You go right home and sit down and write songs.” I don’t know. I have so many poet friends. I’ve got so much poetry I love. I try to work only with living poets.

FJO: Interesting. Why is that? So that you can actually have the direct collaboration.

AS: Exactly. Or so I can come clean and say, “I don’t know what this means.”

FJO: One pretty remarkable collaboration between you and a poet is Sing to the Sun; it’s quite startling.

AS: This piece was a joy for me to do. The poetry was written already. It’s in a children’s book called Sing to the Sun by Ashley Bryan. Ashley is a wonder. He’s basically an illustrator of children’s books, and he is a storyteller as well. But this is the only instance that I know of where all the poetry is his and all the illustration is his. And this book was sent to me by a mutual friend, and I looked at him and I said, “Boy, this is terrific.” So I had a commission, a large consortium of about five groups, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to set five of these.” But I didn’t really set them. I created a musical landscape for him because I heard him read and I said, “Oh God, I don’t want him to have to count and figure out when to come in. I’ll let him do what he does and I’ll just create enough music that it works.”

Yeah, of course, no one else has done this piece except for Ashley. I wonder how that’s going to work. I think it will work because we have a good recording of it.

FJO: Have you ever thought about composing electronic music?

AS: Now this is something that’s never interested me. I remember when I was a student of Mel Powell’s, he insisted—well, insisted is too strong. He recommended that I study electronic music, because he said it would improve my ear. So for a year, I studied electronic music. And he was right. But it hasn’t been something that I’ve become interested in.

FJO: I know that you’ve said that there’s nothing original left to do.

AS: I believe everything has been done, just not by everyone. So the point of view is new and original. I think it’s liberating to feel you can do anything you want, not worrying about reinventing the wheel, if you’re honest.

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