Wednesday, November 2, 2016 Interview with Alvin Singleton

Alvin Singleton and Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson: 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

Alvin Singleton,, writes:

Hope you enjoy the interview!


Ethan Iverson

October 7, 2016 


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.”
He’s right!
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!”

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