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Sing to the sun 

A conversation with Alvin Singleton, Atlanta's foremost composer

Alvin Singleton has lived in Atlanta for 18 years, ever since he was invited to leave Europe in 1985 to become composer-in- residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Following the ASO residency, Brooklyn-born Singleton has continued to make Atlanta his home, and has established himself as the city's most internationally prominent composer.

Singleton's music has been commissioned and performed by major symphony orchestras, chamber groups and festivals throughout North America and Europe. He has composed extensively for the musicians of Atlanta-based new music ensemble Thamyris ever since it was founded. His frequently lean, abstract style can be described as often demanding but able to engage the listener in anticipation of what might, or might not, happen next.

This coming Tuesday, a special all-Singleton program at Spivey Hall will celebrate his music. Creative Loafing talked with Alvin Singleton about the forthcoming concert and his work as a composer in Atlanta.

Creative Loafing: You've been living in Atlanta for almost two decades. This week, a concert celebrating your music will be presented at Spivey Hall. I understand the impetus for this came from someone fairly new to the city?

Alvin Singleton: Chris Arrell. He is currently chair of composition and theory at Clayton State College and University. He was a student at University of Texas in Austin, school of music, when I did a short residency there. Little did I know, he got it in the back of his mind when he had an opportunity he would like to perform [a concert my music]. All of a sudden, I got rumors. "Did you meet the new composer at Clayton College? He wants to present an evening of your music." And here we are today. He's been able to get the school behind it, Spivey Hall behind it, the children's choir and Thamyris.

Aside from orchestral music written for the Atlanta Symphony, how does this music, all written after you arrived in Atlanta, serve as a snapshot of your work here and relate to your overall personal journey as a composer?

I think that all creative artists work on one piece his or her entire life. And while thinking they're writing a new piece, it's just a different understanding of what they've been writing all along, and that understanding is based upon a certain maturity. You can [look back] and see seeds of ideas you're using today, but then you did not understand how to develop them, because you didn't have the experience or the maturity to do so. [This program] certainly reflects a certain kind of maturity that has come as a result of my coming from Europe and living in Atlanta, growing up in Atlanta I should say, and my work with Thamyris, because I've worked with them a very long time.

Some of the works on this program are products of your close connections with African-American poets like Rita Dove, Mari Evans ...

And Ashley Bryan, the narrator, poet and visual artist who's 80 years old this year. For many years, he was the chairman of the art department at Dartmouth, and he retired off the coast of Maine. We had a mutual friend who said to me one day, "Do you know who Ashley Bryan is?" I said, "No." She said, "He is one of America's well-kept secrets, he's a national treasure." So she had him send me his book called Sing to the Sun. It was a group of his own poetry and illustrations. It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

So you set five of the poems for narrator, children's chorus, oboe, clarinet, viola piano and percussion. And Bryan will narrate the work?

He has a sister who lives here in Atlanta, and he spends Thanksgiving [here] every year. So when this concert was being programmed, I suggested that we do Sing to the Sun because he has [performed it] with the Children's Chorus of Spivey Hall before in Atlanta as part of the National Black Arts Festival. It was commissioned by a consortium, so instantly we had [a number of] performances. Ashley's done every one of them.

Some of your compositions, even those without words, point to incidents, often tragic, in American history and culture, and to which you frequently give striking titles. One that is provocatively titled is having its first Atlanta performance in this concert, your "Jasper Drag."

"Jasper Drag" is for violin, clarinet and piano. It's written to commemorate the incident that happened in Jasper, Texas, where a black man, James Byrd Jr., was dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three white men. It isn't meant to tell a story or evoke images, but to be a marker on our collective memory. Titles are how I identify my pieces. What it has to do with my music, there's no telling. [My compositions] are never, never programmatic.

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