Interview with Alvin Singleton, Now Exclusively with Schott

November 1, 2006

Schott Music is proud to announce that the entire catalog of American composer Alvin Singleton is now available exclusively through Schott worldwide. Upon the occasion of this important agreement, our Keith Philpott interviewed Mr. Singleton about his career and music.


Keith Philpott: Growing up in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, much of your early activity in music was in jazz. How has jazz affected your compositional evolution, and how does it factor into your current compositional methods?

Alvin Singleton: My work has been largely informed by jazz music and its development. Growing up my heroes were jazz musicians; I thought a musical score was some sort of blueprint or map designed by a composer or arranger to be developed by the musician during a performance. As a teenager, I was impressed by how improvisation influenced the inner workings of a song and added to its spontaneity and excitement. This idea along with the influence of jazz’s emphasis on rhythm and use of fresh instrumental colors—from brass mutings and vocal practices to mallet instruments and percussion in general—are today very much apart of my compositional mindset.

KP: What drew you to Europe after your studies at NYU and Yale?

AS: I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study with Gofreddo Petrassi at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Italy. This was for one year, after which, I moved to Austria, Graz and Vienna and worked as a freelance artist for the next thirteen years. In the meantime, my career as a composer developed in a very positive way. I was awarded the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis by the City of Darmstadt, Germany, twice the Musikprotokoll Kompositionpreis by the Austrian Radio and received commissions and performances from Festivals and performing ensembles throughout Europe, as well as back home in the States.

KP: What brought you back to the States fourteen years later?

AS: I received a telegram early one morning in Vienna, shortly before Christmas of 1984, from John Duffy of Meet The Composer. He said that Robert Shaw was interested in me for the Composer-in-Residence position with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and that I should contact him as soon as possible. I immediately telephoned Atlanta and was given a number where he could be reached in France. Shortly thereafter, Robert Shaw and I met in the cafe of his Paris hotel, had a half hour conversation and my life changed. I moved to Atlanta at the end of August 1985 and am still there.

KP: Upon relocating to Atlanta, you composed a major work in Shadows. What was your inspiration for writing Shadows?

AS: As part of my residency I was required to write a major work for orchestra. Over time I got to know Maestro Shaw and the Orchestra well enough to know the kind of work to compose for them. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is a terrific ensemble who could play just about anything. A commission, a scheduled performance of the work, and a recording is all the inspiration a composer needs, and, then, of course, Shadows was premiered by Shaw and the ASO in 1987 and later recorded.

KP: You are one of a very short list of composers to have a work commissioned for the Olympics—in your case the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Did you find writing for one of the largest sporting events in the world to pose any particular challenges?

AS: What, are you kidding? A Cultural Olympiad commission to write an orchestral piece in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Olympics—it was downright intimidating. However when the excitement cooled down, I approached the writing of the work as I would any other new project. Of course, knowing the importance of the occasion did not make it easy to get started. I decided early on that I would need an original text to be narrated as part of the new work. My collaborator was the poet Rita Dove—she served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to1995. In fact, we had worked together before on an earlier project. Umoja-Each One of Us Counts was the title we decided upon for the new work. Umoja is the Swahlii word for unity. Rita’s poem celebrated the power of inclusion. My score called for narrator and orchestra and relied heavily upon percussion to create excitement. Near the end of Umoja, the narrator begins and I quote the spiritual When the Saints Go Marching In as a way of ending the work. The premiere took place during the Olympic Arts Festival, with Andrew Young as the narrator and Seirgiu Commissiona conducting the World Youth Orchestra. Rita and I were very pleased with the performance.

KP: One of your most recent works is TRUTH, a choral ballet based on the life of Sojourner Truth. How did that come about?

AS: The idea of creating a work with music, choreography and words based upon the life of Sojourner Truth originated with Philip Brunelle, artistic director of VocalEssence, who commissioned me for the work. TRUTH depicts key moments in the life of Isabella Baumfree the slave and her transformation and name change to Sojourner Truth the abolitionist. My librettist was Carman Moore, and Uri Sands was the choreographer. There were nine dancers from Sands’ TU Dance ensemble.

KP: What will we hear next from Alvin Singleton?

AS: That depends on what’s on your ipod! I’m working on a chamber work for Imani Winds to be premiered during the 2007–08 season. I also have a new CD of my chamber music coming out on Albany Records in early 2007 called "Sing to the Sun." This is the fourth all-Singleton CD, I’m proud to say.


Also coming up is the November 14 performance of Alvin Singleton’s Eine Idee ist ein Stück Stoff (An Idea is a Piece of Cloth) by the Dekalb Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fyodor Cherniavsky.

For further information on Alvin Singleton, please visit

For further information on the Dekalb Symphony Orchestra, please click here.

The reissue of the original recording of Shadows mentioned above can be found at