Alvin Singleton: Extension of a Dream

Percussion Music of Alvin Singleton



Alvin Singleton






of a






Argoru VII


Between Sisters


Argoru VI












Among composers of so-called serious music over the last 50 years few have realized the term “serious” as uniquely and powerfully as has Alvin Singleton. With many contemporary composers the seriousness of their work has either been concerned with serial or post-serial architectonics, or with the clever realization of conceptual notions. For others their expressions of seriousness lay mainly in well-meant “dedicated to” subject matter at the expense of working through the power of pure music.

Throughout his career Alvin Singleton has answered the call of allowing his music to address crucial matters of his time. But this has always been accomplished through eloquent crafting of his musical materials. Much has been made of Singleton's evocative titles, titles such as 56 Blows (Quis Custodiet Custodes?) for his Philadelphia Orchestra commission occasioned by the police beating of the black man Rodney King, or his piece for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra calling attention to world hunger, After Fallen Crumbs. And then there are Jasper Drag memorializing the 1998 racially motivated murder in Jasper, Texas and his work heard on this recording and dedicated to the South African anti-apartheid martyr, Steve Biko, Extension of a Dream. This is all to say that with or without these arresting titles the listener would be in for coherent and absorbing musical experiences. Listeners unfamiliar with this composer's apt and elegant way with the art of music are routinely surprised and impressed at how comfortably within the tradition of fine serious works simply entitled “Symphony 1,” “Duo for Piano,” or “Sonata for Percussion” his oeuvre lies.


Alvin Singleton was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 28, 1940, the son of warm, witty, devoutly Christian parents. His father, Alvin Singleton, Sr., was a New York City bus driver and his mother, Annie Laurie, a school teacher, housewife and devoted mother. Abandoning an early chosen career as a CPA after falling in love with Mahler's Second Symphony, Singleton studied composition at both New York University and Yale before going off as a Fulbright Scholar to work with Goffredo Petrassi at the Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Singleton remained in Europe for nearly a decade and a half, where he won the City of Darmstadt's coveted Kranichsteiner Musikpreis in 1974 and twice (1979 and 1981) the Austrian Radio's Musikprotokoll composition prizes. Singleton returned to the U.S. to serve as composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as part of the MEET THE COMPOSER/Orchestra Residencies Program(1985-88), resident composer at Spelman College in Atlanta (1988-91), and UNYSIS composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1996-97). In addition, he served as Visiting Professor of Composition at the Yale University School of Music. Since returning from Europe, his career has been marked with major successes in both symphony and chamber music, featuring performances by the symphony orchestras of Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Detroit, Oregon, Baltimore, Louisville, Florida, and Syracuse as well as the American Composers Orchestra, l'Orchestre de Paris, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Chamber ensembles include the Kronos Quartet, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the London Sinfonietta, and the Asko Ensemble of Amsterdam.


EXTENSION OF A DREAM (1977/revised 1987) This work for two percussionists memorializes the brutal beating death of South African freedom fighter Steve Biko by South African police. First created in 1977, the year of Biko's death, the work was premiered at the 1978 Styrian Autumn Festival in Austria. In 1987 Singleton expanded it in a commission for the Bremer Tanztheater. Whereas it might well have featured endless thunder in less expressive hands, EXTENSION is made up of endless contrasts from featherlike touches in the suspenseful opening to the single and embellished sledge hammer death blows leading to the closing section. In between - exclusively scored for non-melodic percussion - the sound of scorpion-like menace, the exuberance of African dance, many shades of suspense and mourning, and the implied slipping away of human vital functions become real, albeit expressed in Singleton's well-wrought phrasings and elegant rhythmic structures.


ARGORU VII (1994) is scored for solo vibraphone and is the seventh in a series of solo Argoru pieces for various musical instruments. The term “argoru” is a word from the Ghanaian Twi language meaning “to play.” Argoru VII works with the Singletonian practice of extreme contrasts. Up-rushing grace note scales are followed by soft, memory-evocative long tones. The contrasts of the quick and the long passages become miniature call-and-response dramas. Pedal tremolandi suggest a certain mystery. Singleton's fondness for drama, economy of means, unpredictability, and contrast are on display in this little elegant sounding piece for vibraphone. This work was commissioned by the Music Teacher's National Association and the Georgia Music Teacher's Association for a November 4, 1994 premiere by Peggy Benkeser.


BETWEEN SISTERS (1990) is a musical setting of “The House Slave,” a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, and is scored for alto flute, piano, soprano, and vibraphone. Singleton here captures the just-awakening house slave woman's total powerlessness in the face of her field slave sister's and indeed all field slaves' hopelessly brutalized circumstances. Silence, sometimes as if listening for something and at other times seeming to dramatize a lack of answers, is a major player in the sonic palette of this polytonally blue work. Gone are the flute's typically florid lyricism and the piano's dexterity and power; and gone are the vibraphone's customary sexiness and quicksilver runs. Instead both soprano vocalist and the instruments moan and peep out their pitches and unresolvable harmonic consequences until suddenly at one heart-wrenching penultimate passage the singer shouts forth the desperate words “`oh, pray,' she cries,” “`oh, pray.'” Then quiet again as the vibraphone turns to the fragile steady beating of muffled quarter notes (called “dead strokes”) over held notes in the other instruments as the soprano sings “and as the fields unfold to whiteness, and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,” as if the clock that never stops beats hopelessly on for the slave. All then closes softly in its powerful powerlessness. Between Sisters was commissioned by Thamyris and dedicated to former Spelman College President Johnnetta B. Cole.




The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass


and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—-


children are bundled into aprons, cornbread


and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.


I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn


while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick


and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave funk.


I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,


the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—


sometimes my sister's voice, unmistaken, among them.


“Oh! Pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days


I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,


and as the fields unfold to whiteness,


and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,


I weep. It is not yet daylight.


from the collection of The Yellow House on the Corner ©1980 by Rita Dove


Reprinted by permission of the poet


ARGORU VI (1988) is scored for solo marimba and was commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for John Kasica and premiered as part of the Chamber Music St. Louis - On Stage Series on March 28, 1988. This short piece provides a musical platform for sheer virtuosic display. With the meter set on “Presto” the Singleton wit shows through in that there are so many wide gaps of silence separating the notes in the early pages that it is not until the middle of the piece where the notes come bunched hot - and - heavy that the listener realizes that this is a very fast and driving piece, presto indeed.


INSIDE-OUT (1983-84), dedicated to composer T.J. Anderson, was originally composed for Anthony Davis and Ursula Oppens and premiered at an all-Singleton concert at Carnegie Recital Hall, March 13, 1985. Scored for piano four-hands, it is based upon two groups of short tone sequences reflecting each other symmetrically. Each pianist is required to memorize one of these groups. The first two sequences consist of four and five tone interval-motives, the last of an octave and a chord cluster. The work exploits two Singleton stylistic signatures - extreme contrasts of amplitude, range, and rhythm on the one hand and structured improvisation on the other. His unique use of these compositional aspects turns what might seem the limited promise of one piano played by two players into a cornucopia of possibilities. Beginning with quiet C-sharp octaves of various lengths, the piece works in contrasting super low whacks on B and bit by careful bit becomes an exuberant statement featuring flying staccato phrases and improvised clouds of pre-set pitch sequences. Finally it returns home to written out high-power reminiscences of its opening long tone and double forte bass marcato notes.


-Carman Moore




Brent Runnels, piano, guest artist


Pianist Brent Runnels has performed in the United States, Europe, Australia and Russia as an orchestral and recital soloist, chamber musician, and jazz pianist. He is the top-award winner of the New Orleans International Piano Competition and the Jacksonville Classical Piano Competition. He is the founder and pianist of the Inman Piano Trio and the founder and Artistic Director of the Orlando Jazz Festival. Brent Runnels trained with Constance Keene and John Browning at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a Doctor of Musical Arts. Dr. Runnels has taught on the music faculties of Rollins College, Concordia College, the Manhattan School of Music and Georgia State University. He is a member of the international roster of Steinway Artists.


Laura Gordy, piano


Laura Gordy, a Thamyris founding member, has been active as a performer, teacher, and arts administrator in the Southeastern United States for the last 16 years. A native of Macon, Georgia, she now resides in Atlanta, where she is on the music faculties of Emory University and the Georgia Academy of Music. Dr. Gordy received degrees in piano performance from the University of Cincinnati, Rice University and the University of Alabama. She also studied in Germany with pianist, Aloys Kontarsky. She has performed throughout the U.S. and in Latin America and Europe, and has premiered over 50 new works in the last dozen years.




An Atlanta-based new music ensemble which takes its name from Greek mythology, Thamyris is dedicated to commissioning, presenting, performing, and recording a wide variety of contemporary chamber music. Since its founding in 1987 by Laura Gordy and Peggy Benkeser, Thamyris has been recognized for creative programming four times by ASCAP/Chamber Music America, and has commissioned and premiered over 50 new works. Currently in residence at Emory University, Thamyris has also received awards and grants from Chamber Music America's “A Musical Celebration of the Millenium”, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Composers Forum. Just as the Greek mortal Thamyris defied the Muses in a contest of musical skill, the ensemble named in his honor challenges the notion of what chamber music should be in its passionate and visionary concerts.


Cheryl Boyd-Waddell, soprano


Cheryl Boyd-Waddell has extensive credits in recital, oratorio, chamber music, and musical theater and has been featured at major music festivals in British Columbia, South America, Mexico, California, New York and the Southeastern United States. A member of Thamyris since 1988, she premiered well over 30 new works. She earned a doctorate and master's degree in voice performance from the Eastman School of Music and a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. Dr. Boyd-Waddell was director of vocal activities at Clayton College and State University in Morrow, Georgia. She died April 27, 2002.


Paul Brittan, alto flute


Paul Brittan has been a champion of new music since his high school days when he had the unexpected pleasure of performing with John Cage and Merce Cunningham at the age of 16. A native of Boston, he graduated with distinction from the Eastman School of Music before joining the United States Marine Band in Washington, DC. He has played in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 1972 and has taught at Georgia State University since 1978. He is a founding member of ensemble Thamyris.


Peggy Benkeser, percussion


Peggy Benkeser is a leading proponent of New Music. As Artistic Director, founding member and percussionist of ensemble Thamyris, she has commissioned, presented, performed and recorded new music throughout the United States and Germany to critical acclaim.


Michael Cebulski, percussion


Michael Cebulski is principal percussionist for the Atlanta Opera Orchestra, the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. He has also performed on several recordings of the Atlanta Symphony and Alabama Symphony Orchestras. This Georgia born musician has been a member of ensemble Thamyris for the last ten seasons. He is a member of the music faculties of Emory University and Perimeter College in Atlanta.




Producer: Fyodor CherniavskyRecording Engineers: Tommy Joe Anderson & Fred HortonDigital Editor: Fred HortonRecorded: (1) Roswell United Methodist Church (Roswell, GA)(2), (4), (5) ACA Digital Recording Studio (Atlanta, GA)(3) Spivey Hall (Morrow, GA)


Alvin Singleton's music is published by European American Music Corporation and Musica MistaGraphic Design: BatesMiyamoto DesignPhotography: Doris Mezler








Percussion Music of Alvin Singleton


performed by the musicians of the ensemble, THAMYRIS


1 Extension of a Dream [20:37]


Peggy Benkeser and Michael Cebulski, Percussion


2 Argoru VII [5:25]


Peggy Benkeser, Vibraphone


3 Between Sisters [8:37]


Cheryl Boyd-Waddell, Soprano • Paul Brittan, Alto Flute


Peggy Benkeser, Vibraphone • Laura Gordy, Piano


4 Argoru VI [5:49]


Michael Cebulski, Marimba


5 Inside-Out [18:04]


Laura Gordy and Brent Runnels, Piano




Total Time: 58.34