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Weekly Playlist: Alvin Singleton

The music of Alvin Singleton, in the words of Kyle Gann, "glows with warmth, hovers in the air, paces itself with a glacial but palpably intuitive momentum." Coming of musical age in New York in the 1960s, Singleton emerged as a singular compositional voice, befriending fellow composer Carman Moore and attending New York University and Yale. After living and working in Europe for much of the 1970s, Singleton returned to New York where he continued to compose for orchestras, chamber ensembles, choral ensembles, and solo musicians. As Gann observes, Singleton's music often plays with speed, texture, and atmosphere, contrasting angular, frenetic voices with graceful, ethereal sections that often explore the extended range of musical instruments. 

This kind of interplay is exemplified by Singleton's 1970 work for solo cello Argoru II, which forms part of Singleton's Argoru series of compositions for solo instruments. "Argoru", in the Twi language spoken in Ghana, means "to play". As Carman Moore writes,

"In Argoru II the composer constructs a world of "strange characters" for whom he seems to have created an original language which they use to scream out, cajole, shout, mumble, and chuckle. Single powerful shots alternate with long phrase ultra-soft scramblings. This is the theatre of sound."

Another standout work in the Argoru series is Argoru V/a, for bass clarinet, composed in 1978 for Harry Sparnaay and later revised in 2011. In an interview with the jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson, Iverson hears a resonance between this work and the soloing style of Eric Dolphy—one of the few Jazz greats that Singleton missed meeting at the Five Spot in the 1960s.

The breadth of Singleton's compositional imagination can be heard in his 1978 work for solo harpischord, Le Tombeau du Petit Prince. Dedicated to the eponymous protagonist of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's novella, this work was motivated by Singleton's desire to compose his music that "speaks equally to the humanity of all its listeners." 

We'll end this composer playlist with Singleton's 2011 work for solo piano, In My Own Skin, whose title, to Carman Moore, "lets us know clearly where the composer is comfortable." But "Within that skin," as Moore notes, "are two competing sonic worlds." One graceful, glacial, almost chorale-like; the other "wild and quicksilver, both in tempo and rhythmic variety."

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