It’s not every day a major composer drops by my house. After I interrogated him for a couple of hours, Alvin let me buy him some Thai food on Atlantic Avenue. Picture by our waitress:
Ethan Iverson: You were born here in Brooklyn?
Alvin Singleton: Yes, Bed-Stuy. I was born at 716 Putnam Avenue, then we moved a block to 761 Putnam Avenue.
EI: What did your parents do?
AS: My Mother was a pre-school teacher, my father was a New York City bus driver. I also had a younger sister and brother.
EI: Was there a piano in the house?
AS: Yes, an upright given to us by somebody from our church. My mother forced me and my sister to take piano lessons. My sister stopped, but I continued.
Those were normal conventional piano lessons, but then I got interested in jazz because of the neighborhood. There were jazz musicians on my block: Ray Abrams and Lee Abrams.
EI: Lee Abrams is the drummer on Al Haig’s best trio record.
AS: They played with Duke Jordan, who I met as well. Since I met him, I learned “Jordu.” Another friend’s father had drums, and there was somebody else who had a bass, so we would go over and jam. We had a great time but we didn’t know any tunes. We just made up stuff.
EI: Did you ever gig as a jazz pianist?
AS: Not more than a few wedding receptions and things like that.
I loved Miles Davis and his pianists: Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans…but the best of all was Herbie Hancock. He was fantastic! I saw Miles and Herbie together at Philharmonic Hall (later called Avery Fisher Hall).
Thelonious Monk: his clusters and harmonies: how well they worked! I saw him many times at the Five Spot. During the performance, he would all of a sudden get up and move around like a dancer before getting back to the piano.
And I’ll never forget Ornette Coleman when he showed up at the Five Spot.
At home we had a railroad apartment. I’d wait until my parents were asleep, then go out the window and up the fire escape and over down through the hall and out to the Five Spot. In my pocket there would only be enough for one beer. I’d make that beer last the whole evening. Ornette and his group with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins would play so fast and so together.
I saw Charles Mingus there too. He’d stop the group all the time and kind of give them a lesson while the gig was going on.
EI: Your Argoru for bass clarinet inevitably made me think of Eric Dolphy. Did you meet or hear Dolphy in those years?
AS: No, sadly, I didn’t. I wrote that Argoru for the famous Dutch bass clarinetist Harry Sparnaay. I asked him one time, “Do you know Eric Dolphy?”
He replied, “If you play this instrument, you must know Eric Dolphy!”
EI: How did you get into classical music?
AS: In high school I played trumpet, only as an alternative to wood shop class. Then I went to New York Community college for classes in accounting, and at the same time, took music classes at New York College of Music. I thought accounting would be my future occupation, My parents wanted me to have that safe kind of job. At New York College of Music, eventually gobbled up by New York University, I took music classes in theory, composition, and piano. I was still planning to become an accountant. I was hired by an accounting firm in the checking department to work while I was going to school evenings. I decided later to study music full time and needed a part time job.
On November 22, 1963, I was at the big Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library doing an interview trying to get a job as a page for Lincoln Center. During the interview I was told that I got the job but that the president had just been shot, so, “Come back tomorrow.”
While I was working there, I met Philip Conlon, the brother of conductor James Conlon. Also I met Carman Moore who was working at the information desk. Philip, James, and Carman remain my friends today.
After the Library, my next part-time job was as an usher at Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. This was the time when Leonard Bernstein was performing a lot of Mahler with the New York Philharmonic. It was mind blowing to hear the Resurrection Symphony live. I decided then and there that “composing music is what I wanted to do.”
The Philharmonic performed four concerts weekly. I’d go to the rehearsals and listen carefully to what Bernstein would tell the orchestra, how he shaped interpretation of pieces. Many of the people working there as ushers were in theatre, and often wanted see shows elsewhere, so I would cover for them. I was at Philharmonic Hall all the time. Many well known classical pieces I heard live for the first time while working there.
I got through my undergraduate degree, and having decided already to become a composer, I then realized there were serious gaps in my musical background. I didn’t want to apply for graduate school just yet. Carman Moore was studying with Hall Overton, so I followed Carman’s advice and began studying with Hall as well. I also wanted to take Vincent Persichetti’s analysis course at Juilliard, however; he was on sabbatical and Roger Sessions was teaching instead. And then at Columbia I took a composition seminar with Charles Wuorinen, he was only a little older than me: I’m born in ’40 and Wuorinen was born in ’38.
EI: Let’s talk about those three big names who help you fill in the gaps. What was Hall Overton like?
AS: Hall Overton was amazing! He was a smoker, and he would sit at the piano and the ash would never drop. As a teacher, he was kind of old-fashioned, which means that he wouldn’t stop until he thought he had gotten the point across. He’d sit there and sit there and sit there and I’d get tired. He wouldn’t get tired!
He told me something that I still tell my students: “You should learn broadly and exhaustively, but compose intuitively. You have to really trust your subconscious.”
Hall said to me once, “Your music has jazz structures.”
EI: What does that mean?
AS: I didn’t know what it meant then, either! But he said to me, “You have to realize what that is, and do it more.”
EI: Did that happen? Did you follow his advice?
AS: Well, I think it all became intuitive with me, really. But most of my early listening experience was with jazz, so…
EI: I guess I do think there is something jazzy about your music, but I don’t know if I could tell you what it is.
AS: I have noticed that whenever I have a concert or a premiere, a lot of jazz musicians come. There’s something in my music that attracts them.
EI: Yeah! At your 75th concert in Brooklyn, there was Oliver Lake, Rufus Reid, Wadada Leo Smith and others in the audience. I’ve talked about you with Henry Threadgill, who is a fan.
AS: Well, these are my friends, too.
EI: In your lessons with Overton, did you look at other people’s music?
AS: No, we worked on my own music. He’d play through whatever I brought in at the piano. He’d approach the music as if he had written it himself. He’d find a trouble spot and say, “What are you doing here?”
EI: By the way, who did you learn counterpoint from?
AS: I learned it from Dr. William T. Pollock at New York College of Music, he always wore a bow tie. I also had piano lessons there with Ilse Wunsch, she was from Germany, Berlin, I believe. My composition instruction there was with Paul Creston, he never understood what I was doing musically.
EI: Ok, back to your fill-in year: What about Roger Sessions, was he an interesting teacher?
AS: No! He’d play through a whole opera at the piano, stopping once in a while to tell us what was happening on stage. We’d also have to bring in little composed pieces, but he wouldn’t pay that much attention to them. The class only became interesting when he would talk about his relationship with Arnold Schoenberg and their conversations together. Schoenberg at the time taught at UCLA, while Sessions was professor at UC Berkeley.
Wuorinen was a new and interesting experience for me because it was really “academia.” There were only three other people in the class: two of them had worked with him at Princeton and one at Columbia. Here was I, the oddball. He’d put each of us at the piano to play our pieces, and he’d question every note. Like, really, every note!
But he’d push you, always saying, “What are you going to do next?” I wasn’t used to that, so I’d go home and really work hard.
The other students were used to composing with a certain system, and they’d ask me, “Where’d you get that note from?”
I’d respond, “What do you mean? I heard it!”
EI: Did Wuorinen teach serialism?
AS: No he didn’t, although he wrote a famous book about it, Simple Composition. But no, he didn’t teach it in this class.
EI: Do you like his music?
AS: Some things I do. I like his technique, that wipes me out, man: the intensity and density that’s created in his orchestral works. But…well, I try not to like or dislike anything too much. I try to just understand it at first. We all have our own taste, and that’s how it is supposed to be.
EI: After your year with Overton, Sessions, and Wuorinen in New York, you went to Yale and worked with Mel Powell.
AS: This was like a fairy tale! For graduate school, I applied to Juilliard, University of Michigan, and, at the last minute, Yale. On the phone with Phillip Young, then Executive Officer at Yale School of Music— he invited me to New Haven to visit the School and see the Yale campus. While I was there, Phillip said, “You’re lucky: Mel Powell is here today, let me ask if he will see you.”
Mel Powell said, “Come on up.” I went into his office and he had the student composition score submissions on top of his piano, still unwrapped. He asked me, “Pick out your score.” I had written an orchestral piece just for submitting to grad schools. I found it, unwrapped it , and we went through it together.
I was accepted to all three schools. It was a hard decision, but in the end I really liked Mel Powell on that day when I first met him. A lot of other people said Yale was great for student composers. I had noticed at Juilliard that only the senior year composers got the most attention, but at Yale you could get attention and student performances right away.
Mel Powell took me for a student, but only for one year, because he left Yale the next year to go become the Dean at Cal Arts.
My first lesson with him was astounding. He said to me, “What can I do for you?”
EI: He wanted you to say what your problems are?
AS: Yes, exactly. He said, ”I can go through your music slowly, or you can save us some time and tell me what you need to work on.”
So I responded, “Can you give me another week?”
I came back with a list, and the solution was really just composing more.
EI: His own music was rigorously serialist.
AS: Yes, you would get that impression listening to his pieces at that time, most of which were miniatures or relatively small in scale. However, while we did analyze the music of Webern, somebody that Mel thought was really just perfect, serialism is not what Mel generally taught.
Mel had a harmony class that was just so amazing. He would compose a melody on the blackboard, then fill in all the harmony and rhythms. It would take him a long time to do. We’d watch it come together, he would point out a few structural things. Finally he turned on a recording of the Brahms Symphony he was recreating from memory on the blackboard. We all got it.
That was when I really got that theory comes from composition, not the other way around.
EI: Mel Powell was a great jazz pianist, like on those records with Benny Goodman.
AS: There was no reference to that at all. He’d also never own up to the electronic scores he wrote for cartoons and movies.
He was a funny and down-to-earth person, though. He’d come in and start the class by saying, “Oh no! My daughter wants to be a rock and roll singer!”
EI: There’s an important bigger piece of Powell’s that won a Pulitzer Prize, Duplicates for Two Pianos and Orchestra.
AS: Oh, that’s a really a wonderful piece. Yeah. Very complex!
After Mel Powell left, I worked with Yehudi Wyner.
EI: Another great pianist and composer.
AS: Yes, and a fabulous cook! We are currently very good friends.
I still had a lot to digest from my experience with Mel. I asked Yehudi if I could see him only every other week or so. He said sure, whatever I needed. Sometimes he would hear a piece for the first time only at a premiere. Then he would hand write me an analysis of my piece. I’d study what he had written, then we would get together and discuss my piece and his review of it. His insights were always very helpful. We would then eat the Chinese meal that he had prepared.
EI: At what point did you feel that your own voice was coming out as a composer?
AS: I never felt that. Even to this day, people say that “this sounds like the voice of Alvin Singleton” but I don’t know what that means.
EI: That makes me think of Billy Hart, who also tells me that he doesn’t have a style. But…
AS: Yeah, Billy has a style!
Some composers all know the same things, so I stick out because I know something a little different or because I have a different background. Some people tell me I use a lot of space, and I guess I understand that. My music doesn’t go continuously, I take breaths. That happens for me naturally.
EI: With many it can be more revealing to talk about others rather than themselves. In the Composer’s Voice profile you discuss Mahler, Lutoslawski, Ornette, and James Brown. Let me bounce the names of a few other American composers off of you.
Speaking of space: Morton Feldman.
AS: Oh yeah! A big influence on me. I just could not believe it when I heard his music.
Yehudi Wyner took me to one of Elliott Carter birthday concerts in New York. At the door was Morton Feldman. Yehudi introduced me and I said, “Oh, Mr. Feldman, you are a hero of mine!”
He put his arm around me and said, “I like you! Tell me more about yourself!”
He was a big jokester in person.
He writes piece that are so long and move like tortoises, but every note is right!
EI: John Cage.
AS: I could never really do anything with John Cage, although recently I heard his Piano Concerto at Roulette. I have no idea how it was put together but it sounded really good.
I tried to read about his ideas but I can’t really follow them.
EI: You mentioned Elliott Carter.
AS: Elliott Carter I really liked for his organization and his left-field harmonies. I never got the idea that it was really twelve-tone music, but it was chromatic and his rhythm was strange (to me, anyway). It kept me interested, it really did. And if you listen to his string quartets in sequence, you hear how he kept developing.
EI: Milton Babbitt.
AS: I tried to understand what he was doing, but I don’t know how much I got. He was a baseball expert, also he knew Broadway and all the standards.
EI: He could play ‘em good, too!
AS: Oh yeah!
EI: Gunther Schuller?
AS: I worked with Gunther. In fact, my Woodwind Quintet, I started with Hall and finished with Gunther at Tanglewood. Gunther had to conduct the performance of the work. It was rhythmically too complex to be played without a conductor.
I was interested in Gunther’s Third Stream until I realized that you can’t just put things together. There’s got to be an original something there, too.
EI: You sent me a tape of your jazz-meets-classical Mestizo II, which I thought was more successful than most of Gunther’s Third Stream pieces. I was laughing while listening. It’s kind of a defamation of Third Stream, really.
[listen: Mestizo II excerpt]
How did that piece come about?
AS: The Yale Symphony Orchestra, an undergraduate orchestra,, asked me for a piece in celebration of 75 years of the Yale School of Music. I wanted a big sound. The piece opens with a big chord that is sustained by the strings through out the entire piece, Each player of the rest of the Orchestra is given the interval of an octave and asked to play all the pitches within as loudly and as fast as possible. Improvise! The piece is one big crescendo to the end, with more and more events added. It gets so loud that the instruments that can’t be heard, like bassoon and harp, these players are instructed to move to the percussion section to pick up something and “bang.”
EI: It seems like the rhythm section plays a jazz part, though.
AS: Right, that is also important. In fact, to make this all work, I needed some kind of swing nucleus. So I asked a jazz bassist and a drummer, (both are scored in the piece) to play a walking jazz line, starting slowly and speeding up gradually independent of the orchestra. The ear hears them as a magic carpet picking up the orchestral sound and carrying it with the walking jazz line: sounds like it is really happening.
EI: Yeah, it is really playful and organic. I don’t like it when Gunther writes out walking bass and a 12/8 ride cymbal with accompanying dense twelve-tone writing in the strings. It’s trying too hard to get an effect that shouldn’t be that difficult. You get the same effect the smooth and easy way in Mestizo II.
Or at least, I suspect it was relatively easy. How was the process with the orchestra, did they get it?
AS: Yeah, they got it. The musicians loved doing it! But the conductor complained, “What are you trying to do, blow my brass out before the rest of the concert?” They were doing three generations of Yale composers: following Mestizo II on the program was Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.
EI: Ives: that’s a good name to ask you about.
AS: At first I thought it was a little crazy, then I thought it made so much sense. I said, “This is truly an American composer.” The songs are good, as are the piano sonatas, but those orchestra pieces with July 4th brass bands meeting the strings are really great.
EI: Let’s go on to talking more about your own output. I’m very impressed with your long relationship with Carman Moore. The liner notes he has written to all your records is a fantastic resource for those wishing to learn more about your music.
AS: I am so grateful to Carman, because I wouldn’t know what to write for a program note or liner note myself. He volunteered one day, and ever since I’ve come back to ask for more. Carman tells me, “I believe in you,” which is really nice.
And he really understands what I’m doing in my music.
EI: Do you start composing at the piano?
AS: I used to. Before I worked at the piano exclusively. Now I usually work at the computer and go over to the piano to check things out. The recent piece Prayer was done mostly at the piano, though. It can be kind of a slow process, finding just the right notes for every chord. My joke is that the next-door neighbors are asking each other, “Why can’t he get it right?”
EI: As far as I know, none of your music is twelve-tone.
AS: The only thing that is close is that Woodwind Quintet, which began that way. But I couldn’t stand it, so I didn’t stay there. I’d hold certain notes so long in duration that they would self-resolve. The first movement is really quite good, or at least people have told me that. But yeah, that was the closest I got to serialism.
[listen: first movement of Woodwind Quintet]
EI: There are, however, are certain amount of scores with mostly verbal instructions.
AS: I call them improvisational pieces, because the players do need to improvise. Mestizo II is one.
In Our Own House is another. Karen Walwyn was recording a CD of piano music by black composers. I wasn’t interested in writing a solo piano piece at that time, but her husband, trumpeter Rodney Mack, was good friends with Branford and Jason Marsalis, and that sounded interesting! It became a piece with two duos: written and improvised. The parts were even recorded separately. Recently I got a performance of In Our Own House in Chicago.
Ursula Oppens and Anthony Davis did my four-hand Inside Out. Everything is written out to a point. It’s sort of like a train pulling into a station. When that point is reached the players improvise on the material from the start of the piece. I ask them to memorize and internalize certain motifs to work with. There are also different tempos for each pianist.
Ursula worried, saying she wasn’t an improviser compared to Anthony. And I’d hoped that Anthony Davis was going to follow my instructions more than play like he usually did, but of course he played his way. They both played well together. A later recording with pianists Laura Gordy and Brent Runnel offered another point of view to my score.
EI: On Vous Compra, the duo with Wadada Leo Smith, it sounds like Anthony Davis is playing his normal way as well.
AS: Yes. In that piece I began with a certain amount of material for the duo, but Wadada said, “This is too much.” In the end there was just a few chords for the piano, a scale for the trumpet, and then a written-out slow section. I was blown away by how they improvised with the material.
EI: There was a very good performance of Be Natural at your 75th birthday concert where the graphic score was projected while the string trio played. Afterward I asked about jazz musicians playing this kind of score and you told me that it was actually better when jazz players weren’t involved!
AS: Yes. There are more kinds of improvisation than jazz improvisation! The instructions are specific, and it is the player’s responsibility to follow them carefully.
A more recent performance of Be Natural was for a Darmstadt retrospective (because it won a prize at Darmstadt). We didn’t project the score and the New York Times gave it a fantastic review.
EI: This is starting to sound like most of your music concerns improvisation, but that’s not the case. Most of it is conventional classical music notation.
A few pieces traffic in repetition, but they are not minimalist.
AS: No, minimalism happened after me. My harmonies don’t have anything to do with Philip Glass or Steve Reich. People try to tell me that Shadows is minimalist, and I counter, “Is the rhythm section in a latin music ensemble minimalist?”
EI: In one of those old composition books, maybe Walter Piston’s, there’s something about how repetition is the basic building block of all music.
AS: It’s the reference. You’ve got to hear something more than once. There’s always something there that repeats. In my compositions, things may not be repeated verbatim, but they are repeating.
EI: Often two or more distinctly different ideas interact with each other, almost like characters in a play. Do you map out the big structure of a piece in advance?
AS: No, I try to keep it as intuitive as possible. Sometimes I get to a certain point and realize it is time to go back and look at what happened earlier in the piece in order to discover what to do next.
I don’t call any of my pieces “Sonata” or “Symphony,” not just because I don’t want a map, but because the references are too strong. I heard once, “Never put the word ‘Rain’ in your title. If you put ‘Rain’ in the title somebody is sure to come to you after the concert and say, ‘That didn’t sound like rain!’”
All of my titles identify my pieces, but don’t explain them.
EI: You want some mystery there. For example, you have many solo pieces called Argoru, which is a word from Ghana meaning “to play” but there’s no other composer who has written an “argoru.”
AS: Yes, exactly.
My second string quartet is called Secret Desire to Be Black. It was for the Kronos Quartet, and I remember when I told David Harrington the title he just said, “Great.” But this title ended up driving a lot of other people nuts! On a panel I was asked, “What does that title mean?” and I responded, “It’s a secret.”
EI: I got to hear the Momenta Quartet play Secret Desire to be Black at the 75th concert. It was so great! I really hope they record it. (It’s a shame Kronos never recorded it.) I also hope Momenta also record your brilliant first quartet Somehow We Can since the version on the Tzadik CD leaves room for another interpretation.
AS: Oh yeah, that recording has some interpretation inaccuracies.
EI: What recordings of your music do you think are particularly good?
AS: Well, Shadows for sure, also because the recorded quality is so excellent. I’ve also had wonderful luck with that work in performance. James DePriest changed a whole program in Baltimore to include it. James Conlon did it in Boston. It was such a great sound in Symphony Hall: I heard things in there I never heard before! It was so clear! Conlon also toured the work.
I have a little joke with myself. When I hear something I really like, I say to myself, “Nah, you didn’t write that. Don’t try to fool yourself!”
At the least I always try to remain fresh in whatever I do, especially when listening. The timing of events can be unexpected.
The recent recording of PraiseMaker with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony was good. That was their last record for Telarc, I was lucky to get in on that. Now Atlanta Symphony makes their own recordings, which makes it harder of course.
There’s a lot of space in PraiseMaker.
EI: You give us a chance to digest what we are hearing.
Some of your earlier scores are not so spacious: It seems to me that Again from 1979 is a particularly good piece and particularly good performance, and closer to the density of Lutoslawski or Ligeti than most of your later music.
AS: Yes! That’s a radio recording from the London Sinfonietta. A great performance of a very hard piece! I was happy it finally came out on the Tzadik CD.
EI: Extension of a Dream is also charismatic on record. I was worried that a 20-minute piece for two classical percussionists wouldn’t hold my attention, but it’s really an interesting listen. You even have some hi-hat in there!
AS: Those are two really excellent players as well, Peggy Benkeser and Michael Cebulski.
EI: It’s nice on the CD, they play mostly un-pitched percussion on the title track and then they each tackle a solo marimba or vibraphone Argoru.
The first piece of yours that I heard remains a personal favorite: I saw Ursula Oppens play BluesKonzert live, and also enjoy the recording. The score is dedicated to Julius Hemphill, who you must have known.
AS: Julius was a fun kind of person, very smart, with a slow way of speaking. He was an item with Ursula Oppens, that’s how I actually met him, through her. She was moved that BluesKonzert was dedicated to his memory. She didn’t know I did that until she got the music. Ursula told me she started to cry when she saw that.
You are asking about influences and inspirations: I can tell you that the long trill in BluesKonzert was inspired by a trill in Chopin’s F minor Concerto.
EI: Aha. That makes sense.
Ready for a surprise? I thought I’d bring out an old book, David Baker’s The Black Composer Speaks.
AS: Oh, look at that! It’s been years since I’ve seen a copy.
EI: I thought we might just glance at the table of contents and see if these names jog any memories.
AS: Of course!
Noel Da Costa: great composer and violinist. He and Charles Wuorinen were colleagues at Rutgers.
I never met Ulysses Kay but I thought he was a fantastic composer. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University recently acquired his papers and has been doing events featuring his music.
Hale Smith was brilliant. He could do big band jazz arrangements or write for the symphony orchestra. Too bad he never really got a chance. His music was
not part of many concerts. We all knew him and respected him very much.
George Walker; I never really had a relationship with him.
EI: Great composer, though.
AS: Oh yeah, George Walker really is.
Let’s see: Olly Wilson. Very good composer, very complex structures, but with an infusion of black culture: spirituals or some kind of blues chords. Olly was a bass player also.
Howard Swanson was an important composer. I never met him, I know his music only from recordings. I was still too young.
George Russell was a wonderful jazz pianist/composer. His arrangements would were interesting, changing tempos and harmonies at an instant. His Lydian Concept interested me very much in my own work as an improviser.
Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson was a really great composer. Like Hale Smith he could also do anything, arrange for jazz or Motown and conduct. Simply a great musician.
Talib Rasul Hakim was another Hall Overton student, although at that time he was Steve Chambers. He was the brother of jazz drummer Joe Chambers.
T.J. Anderson just had his 88th birthday. He is a hero of mine. He now lives in Atlanta: He was in North Carolina for many years, but since his daughters and grandchildren are in Atlanta he moved down here. He is still actively composing. Hanging with him is always enjoyable and a learning experience,
EI: Is there a kind of fraternity feeling with fellow black composers?
AS: Years ago there used to be an organization, the Society of Black Composers. I really enjoyed that, with Carman Moore, Hubert Laws, Dorothy Rudd More, and others. There wasn’t a distinction made between jazz and classical composers. At the concerts there would be both jazz and classical. That was the only time I really felt that kind of fraternity. On one of the concerts, Hubert Laws played the flute part in my Woodwind Quintet.
I have a friend in Boston who’s a conductor. She’s black and she tells me she always gets a lot of work in February because of Black History Month.
I told her, “Really? I never get nothin’ in February!”
She replied, “That’s because they don’t know you are black!”
I thought that was really funny. I guess when you read my background it is not immediately obvious.
EI: To close out, let’s talk about three of your most recent pieces. These aren’t commercially released on record yet but I hope they will be soon. Different River is an orchestral work for Atlanta that has various strong thematic characters. When there are big blaring major triads next to more conventionally advanced modernist harmony it is rather shocking.
[listen: Different River excerpt]
AS: Well, the piece itself is the river. And as river flows, the scenery changes. But it’s still the same river.
EI: A metaphor for American music, perhaps!
Where the Good Sounds Live is a rocking and rolling effusion for concert band. I love American band pieces, and yours is one of the best.
[listen: Where the Good Sounds Live excerpt]
How did a piece for band come about?
AS: Jack Stamp, a big name in the band world, contacted me to ask if I had ever written a band piece. And if I had not, would I be interested in composing one. Naturally, I was excited…. YES was my reply. He organized a consortium commission of twenty University and College Bands. Where the Goods Sounds Live was then conceived.
Jack, who was at the time Director of Bands at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, invited me there for rehearsals and a performance of the piece. What a thrill that was.
EI: Your latest work is Prayer.
[listen: Prayer excerpt]
AS: Prayer really surprised me, that I would write this kind of piece. It was James Conlon’s last year as Music Director of the Cincinnati May Festival. He held that position for 37 years. Conlon called and asked me to write something for the Festival’s Cathedral Basilica concert for a small chorus, organ and tenor soloist. He wanted me to be careful and respectful in choosing the text: my text was found in the Unitarian Prayer Book. I suggested adding additional instruments to the piece. However, maestro Conlon was worried about lack of space in the Basilica. The place for the performers was indeed tight, and the organ was at a higher level. So we ended up with adding cello, trumpet, and harp. That was an unusual combination, but I just heard it and it worked.
(By the way, PraiseMaker was also a Conlon commission to celebrate the 125th anniversary of The Festival in May 1998.)
EI: Prayer is a luminous and moving work. Unusually for you, there are quotations of spirituals.
AS: There are three spirituals in Prayer.
EI: Did you grow up with spirituals?
AS: Well, in the black culture, sure there are spirituals. Both my parents are from South Carolina…Although, growing up in New York, the only relationship I had with South Carolina was during the summer, when my sister and I would go visit my grandparents’ farm. Because it was so hot down there, my grandmother wouldn’t allow us to wear shoes outside, and made us wash our feet before coming back in the house. On Sunday we would go to church all day. There would be spirituals all day.
But even at home in Brooklyn, my dad would sing spirituals at home on Sunday before going to church. When getting ready, he’d be dressing and singing.
During service in the black church, somebody just stands up and starts a spiritual, then everyone else joins in unison. Barack Obama did that recently when he suddenly sang “Amazing Grace” at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston South Carolina.
I used this same idea in Prayer. The chorus and soloist end singing in unison the spiritual: “Where Shall I Be When The Firs’ Trumpet Soun.'”
EI: Thank you so much for your time, Alvin, and I’m looking forward to your next commission!`