Freedom and Control
Frank J. Oteri: How much liberty are you comfortable with an interpreter taking with a piece of your music that is completely notated?
Alvin Singleton: The instructions are there, and the questions are really minor in terms of interpretation. I don’t really have any problems in that sense because performing my music is not rocket science. It’s all there. The problem is, what does it mean? Because often the structures are with the silences. I remember having a performance in some place in the Midwest, and the conductor said, “When I saw this piece, I hated it. I hated it until I began to rehearse it, and then it came together for me.” It’s the same with many composers. You look at their scores and you can’t tell much, because music is about sound.
FJO: You do have some very improvisatory pieces like Vous Compra, which you created for Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis. What is that title about?
AS: Vous Compra is from the French “vous” and “compra” is from “comprare” in Italian, to buy. I created that title, again, because it’s interesting. In Italy, or here on Seventh Avenue, you see people from African countries selling rip-off items, like Gucci. Here they say, “You buy, I give you good price.” In Italy, since many of the Africans come from French-speaking countries, they say “Vous compra.” I learned from a friend of mine who lives in Italy that when people refer to things like, say, a Gucci bag again, they’ll say, “Is that real or vous compra?” And so here I’m creating this piece for two improvisers in this instance. You have to use real improvisers. A lot of people think that improvisers just make up stuff. You have to sit down and methodically go through the material, and then it is reflected in the improvisation. I gave them basic material, and they rehearsed this material and created versions of it.
FJO: But you’ve also created a work that includes improvisation for a full orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, as a part of the ACO’s Improvisation initiative a few years back [When Given a Choice], and those players do not necessarily come from an improvising background.
AS: Well, there’s no improvisation in the strings. I couldn’t figure out how to do that and to keep order. The improvisation is in the percussion and winds, brass as well, but not all at once. They have a box of notes that they are to play in some instances as fast as possible and as loud as possible. In other instances, it’s quiet and, you know, tempo moderato—although the rest of the orchestra’s tempo could be really fast, they’re to ignore that. And it really worked, but only because I controlled it. I think players aren’t comfortable when you tell them to just play anything. And this composer wouldn’t be comfortable with having them play [just] anything, either. I wanted to create a piece whose outcome was somewhat free, internally, but its structure would remain the same.
FJO: Now this isn’t a piece that other orchestras have taken up yet.
FJO: Because it would be very interesting to hear the difference in the sound with different groups.
AS: Well, I think it would be pretty much the same because it’s so tightly controlled.
FJO: Whereas Vous Compra would be totally different.
AS: It wouldn’t sound the same at all, but I don’t think anyone else could do it. But many people like it. Someone called me and said, “We’d like to program Vous Compra,” but when I explained it [laughs], they said, “We don’t have anybody who can do that.”
FJO: Have you done other compositions that are as open-ended as that?
AS: I have a piece called Be Natural; it’s a graphic score. It won the composition prize at Darmstadt, and it’s gotten a lot of performances. Kids love it, too. It’s an example of a piece that can be played by professional musicians and kids.
FJO: I think contemporary music has a bad rep for being too specialized, too difficult for most people to play.
AS: Well, it depends. I think with every composer there’s a different style, a different art of writing. Some of it is difficult or requires a learned performer, some not.
FJO: But back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even in the beginning of the 20th century, most of the most widely performed composers upon occasion would write small simple pieces that anyone could play. There are so few prominent composers today who would think of writing music like that.
AS: Well, you know, there probably are, but they’re probably people we haven’t heard of. I don’t know if being prominent means anything musically. Often it’s someone who promotes themselves well.
Over at my publisher, European American Music, they asked a group of composers to write piano pieces for people who had studied between two and three years. And we all did, but obviously some of the pieces were really beyond that. My piece [Changing Faces] fell within that. It’s hard to do. What’s difficult is remembering what it is to be that age. But I think it was Stravinsky who said, “One should never lose track of the child in himself.”