Separating and Categorizing is Problematic
Frank J. Oteri: You grew up in Brooklyn, but you spent many, many years outside of this country. Then you moved to Atlanta when they asked you to be composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony. That was 20 years ago, but you’ve lived there since then. How significant is where you are to what you’re writing?
Alvin Singleton: Well, you have your favorite work place, which is basically the place you’ve become accustomed to writing in. Growing up in Brooklyn, I had a little corner with an upright piano, and my mother and my sister would always complain about my playing the same thing over and over and over. I couldn’t tell them that’s what composers do because I wasn’t sure then. But then later I became sure that that’s what they do. Over and over and over. You know, it’s like the next-door neighbor saying, “Why can’t he get it right the first time?”
I think as you move, when you’re serious about your work, you can pretty much work anywhere. I think one of the best things I’ve ever done was to travel and to live other places. It enriches your life. This is where art comes from. You learn another language, you live another culture, and it reinforces your own. I learned more about what it is to be an American living abroad than I did in America. You can’t learn what it is to be an American in America because everybody’s American. The habits are the same. The language is the same. The idioms are the same. You might think, well, it’s different in the Midwest. Yeah, sure, but there’s something about us that’s culturally the same. And abroad, you stick out in a crowd.
FJO: So what made you stay in Atlanta after the residency?
AS: Oh, I met my wife, and that did it.
FJO: Is Atlanta an exciting place for a composer?
AS: When a place is home you can’t say. It’s like when you live in New York and someone says, “Do you like New York?” You say yes, but then it begs the question. Where else have you lived? Atlanta is a good place to live. I don’t know whether it’s exciting for composers, but I get work done. And I come here a lot.
FJO: There’s been a constant tirade of commentary that many of us have grown weary of claiming classical music is dying. Or classical music has limited appeal for people, or that it’s culturally specific and is not something that relates to a wide range of listeners. In a program note you wrote for one of your pieces, you claimed that you have tried to create work that speaks equally to the humanity of all of its listeners, which is a sentiment I found very inspiring. But it made me want to talk with you about the idiom you’ve chosen to work in as a composer, which for lack of a better term most people would call contemporary classical music.
AS: Well, I don’t really refer to it in that way. I always try to avoid the use of the word classical because it means different things to different people. People who are not associated with the music or the term are totally confused. So I often say extended forms, or things that are written down that other people have to read.
FJO: So what would you say to someone you might meet, say, on an airplane flying back to Atlanta who asks what you do?
AS: I say I write music. Of course, invariably people will use terms: “Do you write pop or jazz?” And I will give the instrumentation. I’ll say I do chamber music, or I do orchestra music. I try to avoid the use of the term classical because that means so little in our time, especially in this country and, more specifically, in New York City, because everyone is doing everything and much of it is very good.
FJO: But someone going into a record store, whatever remaining stores exist, or even going to an online music retailer to find your music would have to go to what’s called the classical section. That’s where it is.
AS: Sure, in Tower, it was in the classical music section.
FJO: I was very excited when a disc of your music came out on Tzadik because that’s a label that really exists beyond genre walls.
AS: Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t matter who or what the artist is, people just buy it because it’s Tzadik.
FJO: But still, if someone were to have to put a label on it, and many people continue to do so if for no other reason than to have some kind of shorthand or way to understand something, most of your music sounds like it is part of contemporary classical music.
AS: I don’t know. I can’t speak for all of the music that I write, but I write music commissioned for that setting. When I sit down to write a piece, I think of the instrument that I’m writing for at the moment. I don’t plan; I create spontaneously. In fact, I rarely do sketches. I sit down and I have material: it could be notes, it could be shapes. Then I improvise at the piano and everything grows from that. If it communicates, I’m happy. If it doesn’t, I’m not unhappy because I’ve just followed my own instincts. I don’t think you can create with somebody else in mind. You have to put down what you feel, what motivates you at the moment.
I always write that way; I don’t know how to do it any other way. It’s sort of like movements in pieces. I have only one piece that has movements. When someone asks, “Why is that?” I say, “I don’t know how to stop.” Because each time you stop, it’s like starting all over again. I do change moods; I change tempi, articulations, etc. But I never stop and call it movement number one or movement number two.
FJO: Some of my favorite pieces of yours seem to me to be spiraling out from one primary idea: the piece for four clarinets, Apple; or the piece for Martha Mooke, Mookestueck; and, to some extent, even your orchestral piece Shadows.
AS: Shadows takes a very long time to develop, and it builds a groove, if you will. It builds expectation.
FJO: I’m reminded of a comment you once made about what made you want to be a composer, which is definitely a reference to classical music. You’ve said that it was discovering the music of Gustav Mahler.
AS: Oh yeah, Mahler’s Second Symphony convinced me. It kind of beat me over the head and said, “You’re going to be a composer.” It was like going to the circus. There are so many things that pop out. This is such an extraordinary piece; it’s theater. I saw it and heard it for the first time with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. I was an usher at the old Philharmonic Hall, which is now Avery Fisher Hall.
FJO: You were still active as a jazz player at that point.
AS: Well, “active” is a bit much, but I did have an ensemble. I arranged for the ensemble. We played gigs in small places in Queens and Brooklyn.
FJO: And hearing Mahler basically made you take a completely different musical direction.
AS: Well, no. It’s not that you take a direction, it’s that you’re open to sound. To me, it’s the same kind of music. All of the years that I lived in Europe, people were always amazed that I did what we called “crossover,” because they’re trained in only one direction or one style. But here I come: I know jazz, I know pop, I know all of this. And I draw upon it in my music. It may not be obvious, but when you begin to separate and categorize, then it becomes problematic, at least for me.
FJO: But that experience of hearing Mahler did lead you to formally study composition, which is a very different aesthetic from playing jazz or popular music.
AS: I did undergraduate work at New York College of Music. This was a private music college on 85th Street and Lexington Avenue, which later became part of New York University. I studied composition and harmony there. It was a fantastic place. It was small, and you got a lot of attention. I should also say that I studied accounting as well.
FJO: So do you still do your own taxes?
AS: No, the tax code changes so much. It’s incredible; my accountant in Atlanta is always having to figure out what’s going on. But I did work for a CPA firm for almost five years before I took the plunge to be a composer. At that point, I realized I had to know a lot more than I did at the undergraduate level. So I took a whole year off and studied with Hall Overton in his studio downtown. I also took a 20th-century music course at Juilliard with Roger Sessions; it was Persichetti’s course, but Persichetti was on sabbatical. And I had a seminar with Charles Wuorinen. I was producing for three different people every week. At the end of that period, the period of a year, I thought I was ready to apply for graduate school. I was accepted at the University of Michigan, at Juilliard, and Yale. I went to Yale and studied with Mel Powell. This was his last year at Yale because he was going to Cal Arts to become dean. The next two years I worked with Yehudi Wyner. Then I went to Italy, and I studied with Petrassi.
FJO: Mel Powell, of course, had a very interesting jazz background. But then he turned in a completely different direction. It’s almost like, you know, you hear the Mel Powell jazz stuff and then you hear the later compositions and can’t believe it’s the same guy.
AS: But Mel Powell didn’t really categorize in that sense. When you discussed music with him, he didn’t talk about jazz. He talked about structure and he talked about harmony and he talked about the things that make music. Hall Overton and Gunther Schuller, too—I worked with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood—and this is what made these guys so very interesting. Yeah, it seems like Powell was two different people, but he wasn’t. His theory classes were very interesting.
FJO: But most of these composers were really working in a chromatic, modernist, atonal, and in some cases twelve-tone vocabulary, which is very different from your music.
AS: Of course, you listen to the music of the people you’re studying with, but it didn’t faze me so much because I knew the kind of music I wanted to write. And good teachers don’t tell you what to do. They don’t try to change you. They try to get you to clarify what you have in mind. Technique is a way of solving that problem. I thought Charles Wuorinen was a good, good teacher. One of the things that Charles did, which was new to me, was he’d always ask, “What are you doing next? Where are you going to go next?” The urgency of the next step in the process I always appreciated. Even when I went to Darmstadt and Stockhausen would have these long lectures, I was interested in what he was talking about in terms of structure, how he put things together. I can fill in the rest because I have my own ideas about sound. One of the things that’s not talked about enough with composers is taste. Nobody talks about taste. Everybody has his or her own taste and sound.