for chamber ensembletwo flutes (doubling piccolo and alto flute), bassoon, soprano saxophone (doubling tenor saxophone), and cello (2012)
|Commission||Commissioned by Astral Artists with generous funding provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project. Sweet Chariot is dedicated to the memory of Julian Rodescu.|
|Premiere||February 16, 2013; Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, PA; Astral Artists|
Alvin Singleton’s SWEET CHARIOT is scored for 2 flutes (each doubling both piccolo and alto flute), bassoon, soprano saxophone (doubling tenor saxophone) and cello. Of special interest about this instrumentation is the doubling of the saxophone and the tripling of the flutes, which in effect turns this quintet into a “tentet,” and required almost choreographic skills of the composer to make sure the player had time to drop one instrument and assume another in time to play the next note. Taken overall, the music in this piece seems to be about rising, perhaps suggestive of the journey from swinging low to being carried home.
The work opens with a series of solo instruments, their lyrical lines piling up contrapuntally into what may sound like a choir in full voice gone a bit mad. Being Singleton, this is immediately followed by a stark contrast—a puckish staccato phrase, itself followed by some long tones blasted out. Bit by bit the composer lays out his building blocks constructed from his personally-created 9-note modal scale. Heard frequently throughout is a four-note “theme” derived from the melodic curve of the words “sweet chariot.” Anyone expecting SWEET CHARIOT to have a typical old-fashioned theme-and-variations set up might be disappointed. Seeking to hear the spiritual whole-cloth won’t work here. But the composer writes of this:
Human experience shows that there are images familiar to us that they do not have to be completely defined. How much of a face does one need to sketch out (absent nose, eyes, mouth) before it is recognizable as a face? When choosing a “Negro Spiritual” upon which to base my composition, I chose one that is universally recognizable, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Therefore I needed not to use it in its entirety. In fact, it is sketchily quoted a few times here and there throughout the composition.
SWEET CHARIOT seems to be, much like Singleton’s recent orchestral work DIFFERENT RIVER, created from a series of disparate events, often divided from one another by silences or long-held tones. Some of them seem lyrically mournful, some fanfare-esque, some dancey (at one point almost salsa-like), some joyful, some loud, some soft, high and low…but always highly-contrasted and unpredictable. Also unpredicted in this polytonal mélange of notes is the fact that the whole 16-minute piece ends—carrying us home?—on a resounding F major.
— Carman Moore