An American composer based in London, Arlene Sierra’s large and diverse catalogue includes chamber, orchestral and vocal music, as well as opera, music for dance, and music for film. In 2001, she was the first woman to win the Takemitsu Prize for her first orchestral work Aquilo. Following on from several prestigious commissions, many of Sierra's mature works have their origins in military strategy and game theory. Other interests include writing dramatic works for the stage, as well as connecting with physical movement through her series of scores to films by Maya Deren.
Another important inspiration for Sierra is her fascination with the behaviours and mechanisms of biological life forms from tiny insects to humanity itself. It is the processes of nature, rather than a simple reflection or meditation that form the basis for Sierra’s compositional approach. Her 2009 work, Game of Attrition, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, takes its structure from processes described by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Another such example is Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013), a piano trio commissioned by the Bremen Philharmonic Society, which was inspired by a peculiar detour in the annual mass migration of monarch butterflies, the cause of which is theorised to be a long since eroded mountain that once stood in their path. This trio was the starting point for her biggest statement yet, recently premiered Nature Symphony (2017) commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Radio 3.[i] A selection of other works that employ natural sounds and processes include Urban Birds (2014) for three pianos with percussion and sampled birdsong, as well as Birds and Insects, Books 1 and 2 (2007, 2015) for piano solo, selections from which will be performed as part of Illuminate’s inaugural season in Cardiff on 11 March.
Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 1 (2003-2007), included on her 2011 chamber music release by Bridge Records, has been a touchstone for many other works exploring the natural world, as well as maintaining a connection to the piano, her primary instrument from childhood.[ii] Far from her place of birth, settling in London was another importance impetus that prompted Sierra to set a number of Pablo Neruda’s (1904-1973) Odes to Common Things, which reflect on nature and memory.
“The poetry got me thinking about using birdsong, and other associations from nature that I’d experienced as a child. London has its inspirations too: for example, I love the huge scarab beetle sculpture in the British Museum, and when I read about the living insect’s ability to navigate using magnetic fields, that immediately prompted a musical idea for a piece.” The result was the first of a series of piano works that became Birds and Insects, Book 1. [iii]
In a 2013 conversation with pianist Xenia Pestova, Sierra discusses her use of birdsong as a natural outgrowth from her love of sampling when she made her first electro-acoustic compositions as an undergraduate at Oberlin College-Conservatory.
“Birdsongs and insect calls give an immediate sense of place, and of space, so were a welcome resource when thinking about creating atmospheres connected with nature. They also tend to be short, fitting nicely into the kind of motivic construction a lot of my works are driven by.”[iv]
Sierra’s first explorations into composition were actually through electronic music.
‘It was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation. And for someone who studied piano and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things.’[v]
Her PRS New Music Biennial Commission Urban Birds (2014) in which three piano soloists play music in response to pre-recorded birdsong was an important piece written between Birds and Insects Book 1 and Book 2. It allowed a chance to return to electronics and sampling, as well as to focus on more percussion and percussive effects in her piano writing.
Our Illuminate pianist, Késia Decoté, will perform two selections from Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 2: Hermit Thrush and Thermometer Cricket at 2.00pm on 11 March at Cardiff University Concert Hall.
Sierra’s music is published by Cecilian Music and further information may be found on her website, arlenesierra.com. She holds degrees from Oberlin College-Conservatory (BA, Bmus), Yale School of Music (MMus) and the University of Michigan (DMA). Dr. Sierra is currently Reader in Composition and Deputy Head of School at Cardiff University School of Music.
[i] ‘Premieres: November’s new music’, Wright, Katy,
[ii] ‘Color and Rhythmic Dexterity: Interview with Arlene Sierra’, Nomos Alpha, Published 15 April 2013, http://nomosalphamagazine.com/admin/2013/04/15/color-and-rhythmic-dexterity-interview-with-arlene-sierra/
[iii] ‘Unflinching Depictions of Nature: A Conversation with Arlene Sierra’,
Natural Light, Published 7 September 2015, http://www.naturemusicpoetry.com/news-and-blog/unflinching-depictions-of-nature
[iv] ‘Conversation with Arlene Sierra’, Pestova, Xenia, I Care if You Listen June/July 2013
[v] 'The Evolution of Process' Gardner, Alexandra, New Music Box, Published: May 1, 2013, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/arlene-sierra-the-evolution-of-process/
Dr Helen Thomas