Back in black

New Thamyris CDs highlight Alvin Singleton and other black composers

Throughout its 15-year history, Thamyris has been at the forefront of Atlanta's new-music scene, though its national and international recognition far exceeds its local audience. Like many groups, Thamyris has become a victim of funding battles, administrative burnout and internal change. While members remain active individually, live concerts presented under its banner have been reduced to a trickle of late. A major tragedy has been the loss of soprano Cheryl Boyd-Waddell, one of the group's founders, to cancer earlier this year.

However, the release of two new Thamyris CDs within months of each other — Extension of a Dream: Percussion Music of Alvin Singleton (Albany/Troy) and A City Called Heaven: Chamber Music of African-American Composers (ACA Digital) — could be a springboard for bringing the group out of its holding pattern.

Tieing these two CDs together is one piece, featured on both releases in identical recordings: "Between Sisters," by Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton, with text by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove. It is Boyd-Waddell's final recording — and the only track on both albums to include her. In a haunting manner, her presence links the two CDs themselves together as "sisters." Still, they are far from being twins in character.

Thamyris became involved with the National Black Arts Festival in 1990, and has performed there in subsequent years. That formed the basis for production of a CD of the group's repertoire from the 1998 festival, recorded that year but not released until now. A City Called Heaven features music from a half-dozen African-American composers: Alvin Singleton, as well as Olly Wilson, Wendell Logan, Tania Leon, T.J. Anderson and Anthony Davis. The title composition, an energetic, three-movement work inspired by an African-American spiritual, comes from Olly Wilson.

Most of the music is similarly lively and dense in texture. Casual listeners might think Wilson's piece and Wendell Logan's "Moments" are a bit too similar. But within such a closely targeted slice of African-American music, there are easily distinguished differences as well — from Havana-born Tania Leon's "A La Par," which is underlaid with Afro-Cuban rhythms, to Anthony Davis' "Waysang II (Shadow Dance)," with its repetitive, overlapping, shifting phrases.

Though it features the same group and shares one track, the all-Singleton Extension of a Dream CD is remarkably different. Unlike the density of City, the spare, lean textures that are a signature of Singleton's individual style dominate.

"Alvin deconstructs his musical ideas down to their most essential shapes," says Thamyris percussionist Peggy Benkeser. She suggests that giving attention to the silences between the sounds is significant to understanding Singleton's musical style.

Sometimes his titles and dedications make specific homage to events, often tragic, in the African diaspora. The title cut, for example, memorializes the beating of Steve Biko by South African police in 1977. But while aural allusions can be made — the use of police whistle, percussive death-blows — Singleton's instrumental works are not programmatic, and best heard as pure music.

Both of the "Argoru" selections on this album are part of a larger series of virtuosic works for solo performer, meant primarily to display the performer's abilities. (Argoru simply means "to play" in the Twi language of Ghana.) "Inside-Out" is one of Singleton's works composed as "structured improvisation," in this instance intended for performers who are musically flexible but not engrained in a tradition of improvisation.

"Between Sisters" is the one example of storytelling on the disc. Its atmosphere, evocative of pre-dawn, is a mostly recitative-like setting of Rita Dove's poem. The music sets an appropriate stage but does not overwhelm the poetry. Nevertheless, the listener ought to read the poetry first, printed in the liner notes.

Performances by Thamyris, including the greatly extended personnel appearing on the City CD, are excellent and well-recorded. What is to be seen is whether that is enough to help jump-start the group's local live audience.