Alvin Singleton’s After Choice

Notes by Kyle Gann, Taylor Hawver and Frances Bortle Hawver Professor of Music, Bard College

Born in Brooklyn, Alvin Singleton studied at New York College of Music (which later merged with New York University) and Yale, and was afterward a Fulbright scholar with Goffredo Petrassi at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Singleton remained in Europe, mostly Germany, for 14 years, returning to the United States in 1985 to become composer in residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and it is from this important three-year post that his stature in the orchestral world began to expand. He later served in a similar capacity with the Detroit Symphony, and, starting in 2004, as composer in residence and artistic adviser for the American Composers Orchestra, an important showcase for new music. He has also taught at the Yale University School of Music.

Singleton’s musical style is compelling and distinctive and not easily pigeonholed. He tends toward a sense of tonality with dissonant elements, and while no one would identify him as a minimalist, there are minimalist elements of repetition and slowly accumulating gradual process in orchestra scores such as Shadows (1987). But the repetitions are often hidden, almost subliminal, and Singleton’s music is more often framed in the world of New Romanticism, of which his aesthetic constitutes a particularly subtle and moody example. Clear examples of jazz influence are rare in his work, but he has written pieces on African American subjects, such as TRUTH (2005), a vocal piece on a text about Sojourner Truth. His Sweet Chariot for chamber ensemble (2012) brings in phrases from that spiritual with a sparseness that alerts you to listen for them.

Not a particularly representative work, After Choice (the title is a reference to a 2004 piece, When Given a Choice, from which he quotes) is Singleton’s tribute to a fellow important African American composer, Leroy Jenkins (1932–2007). Jenkins was a consummate improvising violinist in the free jazz world and an alumnus of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. Singleton has appropriated “licks” from Jenkins’s nimble playing style and juxtaposed them among the strings with pizzicato against bowed lines, in quite tricky rhythmic assemblages of unison septuplets and quintuplets. No more than two lines are heard at once, often doubled in octaves, and the recurring pitch sets aptly convey the contours of Jenkins’s frenetic fiddling. With so many complex unison rhythms the work is difficult to bring off, and when a second violin solo cadenza appears just before the end (against the first violins), it’s as though Jenkins’s spirit makes a momentary appearance.