Frank J. Oteri: There are early pieces in your catalogue with titles like String Quartet No.1 and Wind Quintet. But, by and large, you don’t write pieces with genre names. You write pieces with titles that are very specific and often very visceral.
Alvin Singleton: I think titles are very important, but they shouldn’t explain a piece. They should identify a piece. It’s sort of like giving a name to a newborn. I try to think of something that’s provocative and at the same time poetic.
FJO: One that immediately comes to mind is 56 Blows. The title is a reference to the Rodney King beating, and I think that’s something that comes across in the music. But the score contains no program notes.
AS: I don’t do program music. This piece refers to the incident, but it’s less about Rodney King, and more about Senator Bill Bradley. Bradley went on the floor of the Senate, and he talked about this incident. He described it and dramatized it with a stopwatch. He said “Pow” 56 times in 81 seconds. That was so powerful, and the piece is based upon that.
FJO: Well, I have to admit I went a bit overboard trying to analyze the score. Before I looked at it I imagined I had heard 56 brass articulations at the beginning of the piece, and I thought, “Aha, those are the 56 blows,” which is sort of pun. Then I thought there must be 56 snare drum hits later in the piece which is a real metaphor for a violent beating. But when I started counting them in the score, none of the numbers added up.
AS: No. When I went to the premiere in Philadelphia, there was an outpouring of press, and they all assumed that there were 56 blows in the music. It obviously refers to the incident, but they aren’t there at all. This piece represents a symbol of that incident, a memory. Years from now people will go back and say, “What is this 56 blows?” Then they’ll have to look it up if they’re really interested. It’s like any tragedy in history. People forget, and there are symbols that remind you. And this is that kind of piece. But it doesn’t purport to dramatize what actually happened.
FJO: So what made you settle on the number of those snare drum taps or the brass articulations? Does this come purely from intuition?
AS: It’s intuitive. I’m an improviser at heart. And I hear this and I say, “Oh, that’s great, oh and it comes here again.” That’s the way it happens with me.
FJO: But there’s clearly a structure there. It’s as plain as day.
AS: Oh yeah, sure. There always is, because we as human beings can’t help that, and the moment you repeat something, there’s a structure. Or if you know the density increases, there’s an implied structure. I create materials, and then I’ll begin to put them in boxes. And then I start moving them around. In a sense, I double-cross the listener. Many people tell me that they never know what’s coming next in my pieces. I say, “So, it’s working.” Some composers will write a lick or a phrase, and it will beg the repeat of that phrase. I try to avoid much of that. And the way I do that is intuitively. Perhaps that’s where silences come in. Instead of an explosion, a silence comes, and then somebody says, “Oh, that’s odd.”
FJO: Of course virtually no one hearing 56 Blows in a concert hall for the first time would be able to intuit how many times you’re doing something, so it’s not something anyone could really hear, either way.
AS: But a lot of people looked for that. They really looked for that. I can’t remember the exact review, but one of them even said that the quiet string part at the end was perhaps a reminder not to repeat. After the violence comes a cessation of violence.
FJO: Isn’t that what it means?
AS: I suppose. I’m writing a piece. I’m doing art, and I’m trying to write the absolute best piece I can at that particular time. This piece is associated with that incident, but I’m not at all re-creating the incident with my music.
FJO: So what, in your view, are the social and societal responsibilities of composers? Are there any?
AS: No, not really. You write what you write in the time in which you live. I think you only have responsibility ultimately to yourself as an artist. What should I do? Should I write a piece to end poverty or something? I know it can’t. But I do take positions. After Fallen Crumbs is about world hunger. It can draw attention to the fact that you are aware of it, and that you’re trying to do something about it in your small way. If you write the best piece you possibly can, then people hear it and remember that piece and associate it with whatever you’re propagating at the time. Jasper Drag is about the dragging of the black man [James Byrd] behind a pickup truck in Texas. It’s an attractive title, and a couple of times people asked, “Well, what is this? Is this a dance?” And I’ll say, “Of sorts.” People forget things. Like the Holocaust, for instance. There’s so much written about that. It’s always something. And some people say, “Why do they keep bringing that up?” Because you have to. Because you’ll forget. People forget. And about slavery, too. They said, “Oh, that wasn’t me.” Hey, we’re in this together.
FJO: So what role, then, does music play in that?
AS: It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder when you go there, whether in your title or in the words in which you use, if you use words.