Atlanta-based composer Alvin Singleton is one of nine artists elected to be the newest members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Election to the Academy is considered one of the highest honors given in the arts in the United States. In addition to Singleton, the list of new inductees, released by the organization late last week, includes composer David Lang; writers Ha Jin (formerly a professor of creative writing at Emory University), Wendell Berry, Denis Johnson and Tobias Wolfe; photographer Robert Adams; painter Bill Jensen; and multimedia artist Ann Hamilton.
Singleton and the other newly elected members will be formally inducted in May at the Academy’s Beaux Arts building in Manhattan.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Singleton attended New York University and Yale. As a Fulbright Scholar, he went to Italy to study at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Singleton lived and worked in Europe for 14 years, then returned to the United States to become composer in residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, from 1985 to 1988, at the behest of then music director Robert Shaw. Singleton subsequently decided to remain in Atlanta and make the city his creative home. He spoke with ArtsATL on Sunday.
ArtsATL: How did you first learn about being elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters?
Alvin Singleton: It was a complete surprise to me. I’d never even thought about being a member, and all of a sudden one day I got a letter announcing that I had been elected to this august body. I right away showed it to [my wife] Lisa. She went to their website and looked it up and said, “You know you’re in the company of a lot of great people.” As I thought about it days later, it sunk in that this was a very nice honor, and voted on by my peers.
ArtsATL: So you were nominated by peers without your knowledge?
Singleton: Exactly. The way I understand it, somebody who is a member will nominate you and all of the members in your discipline vote on your nomination. I’m not sure, but I think that’s the way it works. I haven’t spoken with anybody about it. I was told that I shouldn’t mention it until it becomes official in a press release. So I haven’t been talking about it at all. Again, this was a complete surprise to me and I’m truly honored.
ArtsATL: Now that you have been elected, what’s the next step in the process?
Singleton: They have the induction ceremony in mid-May. That’s when all the members converge at the Academy in New York at a luncheon, they give out annual awards and introduce and induct all the new people.
ArtsATL: There are nine new members to be inducted this year. How many of them do you know, personally? I recall you know David Lang.
Singleton: I don’t know anyone else, I just know David. I do know many people who are already members.
ArtsATL: One would guess that being elected by your peers must offer up a unique kind of feeling.
Singleton: Someone told me it is like in England when you’re knighted. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I don’t want to have people having to call me “Sir.” The organization does not induct new members until somebody resigns or dies. You’re elected a member for life. They only have 250 members across all the disciplines — including writers and painters and composers — 250 is the most they have at one time.
ArtsATL: So a space had to actually open up for you.
ArtsATL: Can you catch us up on what you’ve composed in the last few years or projects in which you’re involved?
Singleton: I’ve composed two works for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, “Miaka Kumi,” a fanfare for orchestra, and “Different River,” a large-scale orchestra work. Then there’s “Sweet Chariot,” a chamber work for the Astral Artists of Philadelphia. I’m currently composing a work for concert band, commissioned by a consortium of more that 20 college and university bands, and I’ve just completed work on my fifth all–Alvin Singleton CD. It’s coming out on Albany Records label in the next couple of months.