I’ve never quite known how to categorize the music of Alvin Singleton. And, after finally sitting down to chat with him about his music after years of knowing him and his compositions, I’m less sure of what to say than ever before. But therein lies my fascination.
My first exposure to Singleton’s music was on an Atlanta Symphony/Meet The Composer Orchestra Residencies Program CD issued back in the 1980s by Nonesuch and recently re-issued on First Edition Music. The piece on that disc that captivated me most was Shadows, a long single-movement quasi-dirge-like piece that had many hints of minimalism without actually being a minimalist piece. Was this part of the growing movement that would eventually be described as post-minimalism? I wasn’t quite sure.
A subsequent disc, on the John Zorn-run label, Tzadik, contained pieces that hardly fit under a minimalist umbrella, pre-, high-, or post-. This was music that was truly eclectic. As each subsequent recording has come out—there are now two additional all-Singleton CDs on Albany plus individual works on collections released by a variety of labels—I never know quite what to expect, but I’m always glued to the headphones. In live performance, Singleton’s music can be even more exciting. His semi-improvisatory orchestral work, When Given a Choice, was a highlight of the American Composers Orchestra’s Improvise festival, and 56 Blows is one of the most visceral sonic experiences I know.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know Alvin Singleton from seeing him at a ton of concerts, not just ones featuring his own music. Alvin is a voracious listener, and I’ve run into him at all kinds of events from orchestral to jazz performances, and even a Robert Ashley gig. As I became greater acquainted with him as well as his music, I gradually realized that Alvin’s voracious appetite for all kinds of music was a starting place for understanding his own musical creations. What I didn’t realize was how intuitive and organic the fluidity between musical genres and gestures has been in his compositional process. That epiphany only emerged after the conversation we had that follows here.