Moler, performed by the Boston Symphony, Andris Nelsons, conductor,  October 5, 6, 7, 2017

Toothsome Delights: Sierra, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov with the Boston Symphony


Encounter the word “bruxism” and you might think it has something to do with Bruxelles or Brexit or things that go bump in the night. Find out it’s the medical term for the involuntary grinding of one’s teeth, and you would be hard-pressed to imagine it as the inspiration for a spirited, polyrhythmic toe-tapper like Arlene Sierra’s Moler (“to grind” in Spanish).

A rapid syncopation, first in the percussion, opens the piece and pulses throughout at varying rates. The energy waxes and wanes in intensity sometimes precipitously as rhythmic and orchestral motifs “grind” against each other, the contrast intensified by sharp attacks in one section being answered with a soft, dreamy legato phrases in another, by high sounds juxtaposed to low, smooth timbres to rough and by the raw disparity between pitched and unpitched sounds. Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony in a colorful, dancing performance and Sierra herself came onstage to accept the well-deserved applause. Who knew that chronic tooth-grinding could be so infectious?

- Kevin Wells,

Arlene Sierra’s “Moler” was the program’s first piece and only piece by a woman in the BSO season. (More next season, please!) … Instead of passionately pulling the heartstrings, it offered an intriguing labyrinth of contrasting tonal colors and rhythms. Watching it unfold onstage was as fascinating and demanding as observing an open hive of bees at work, their every move dictated according to an arcane code.

- Zoë Madonna, Boston Globe

Rich Russian romanticism from Nelsons and BSO, with a toothy premiere

The concert opened with a bold and churning piece by Arlene Sierra.

Moler, a short curtain raiser written for and premiered by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in 2012, is a musical depiction of the grinding of teeth…

Grinding is indeed the operative word, for the music never calms down in its nine-minute length. Brasses snarl, prickly rhythms bounce all about the texture, and strings and winds trade agitated phrases. …melodic figures stutter and freeze on bristly dissonances in a stark canvas of sound. Nelsons led this ear-catching piece with firmly controlled conducting that still allowed its raucous energy to flow.

- Aaron Keebaugh, Boston Classical Review


Leering ominously over the ensemble, Nelsons led the group into a dental-gnashing dreamscape, full of fraught ideas, dream-like but not at all restful. Nevertheless, the nervous number exhibited a sophisticated layering of ideas across all instrumental sections.

- Rachael Fuller, Boston Musical Intelligencer

Xenia Pestova performs Birds and Insects, New Zealand Tour, Summer 2017

For any musician, performing a piece of music dedicated to and written specifically for them must be an experience like no other – and though Xenia Pestova wasn’t giving a “world premiere” here, it was at least a New Zealand “first” for American-born composer Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, in this instance three of the ten individual pieces that make up the entire work. The first of these three pieces, Painted Bunting, was dedicated by the composer to Pestova, something of a compliment in more ways than one, the bird itself (albeit the male!) having been described as the most beautiful in North America, accounting for its nickname “nonpareil” (without equal)!

The pianist, not unexpectedly, greatly relished the motifs, textures and energies of the eponymous bird’s music – characterful, attention-seeking treble scintillations set the silences tingling, in the midst of which disturbance was set a somewhat mournful mid-range call. Gradually the lower voice energised and became more insistent and mirror-like in relation to the scintillations, creating definite and formidable synergy, there – a stunning display of avian personality.

Sierra’s other two portraits, Cicada Sketch, and Titmouse, were no less evocative in effect, the first featuring solitary ambient calls over dark landscapes, impulses that resisted any underlying agitated irruptions, suggesting spacious, dogged persistence. As for the Titmouse portrait, it seemed like a sound-sketch of a supremely-determined obsessive, Pestova’s playing remarkably split-second in its dovetailings of detail.
- Peter Mechen, Middle C Classical Music Reviews, Wellington, New Zealand


Bridge Records CD Lounge Lizards, Quattro Mani piano duo, May 2017:

Quattro Mani is a duo-piano team originating in 1989; since 2013, Steven Beck and Susan Grace have promoted rare and contemporary duo-keyboard literature. Arlene Sierra’s 1997 of Risk and Memory employs an element of aleatory (unpredictable) music - each pianist must finish the other pianist’s phrases. The work requires a degree of competition between the musicians, who present musical sequences and then interrupt, review and alter them. The more variety the players introduce, the richer the piece’s fabric.
KZSU Stanford University

... a wide-ranging survey of new American music, but also includes a fascinating recollection of Charles Ives’ largely experimental Three Quarter-tone Pieces of 1925. Quattro Mani consists of Steven Beck and Susan Grace, who deliver thoughtful and exuberant performances of John Musto’s Passacaglia (2000/2011) and Arlene Sierra’s of Risk and Memory (1997).
- Performing Arts Monterey Bay

I love everything about this release. The performances are top-notch, the theme is focused, yet within that focus is an amazing variety of compositions and styles.
 This recording is with the new Quattro Mani duo piano team (Steven Beck replaced retiring Alice Rybak in 2013). Though the Susan Grace/Steven Beck chemistry is slightly different than that of Grace/Rybak, there's no diminution in quality. The Quattro Mani perform with a single vision, and all the virtuosity and energy the program demands. "Lounge Lizards" features piano 4-hands works by (mostly) contemporary American composers. It's a program that delights, challenges, and ultimately entertains the listener.
"Of Risk and Memory" by Arlene Sierra is a more introspective work, with the two pianists seemingly playing against each other. For me, the tension this conflict generates between the players made this work one of the most engaging on the album.
- Ralph Graves, WTJU Richmond

Bridge Records CD
of Chamber Opera Cuatro Corridos, February 2017:

Cuatro Corridos ("Four Ballads", 2012-3) is a very different proposition, though its tragic bearing is coupled with a high seriousness of purpose in exposing a terrible wrong. The four scenes of this viscerally gripping chamber opera, scored for just four performers to Jorge Volpi's no-holds-barred libretto, are by four different composers – split equally between Mexico and the US, male and female ... Dalia is the matriarchal pedlar caught in the panic of imminent arrest by British-resident Arlene Sierra's subtle score combining raw vocal terror with an at times euphonious accompaniment, the furious pace of which emulates the criminal's racing heartbeat.
- Guy Rickards, Musical Opinion

, by Arlene Sierra, is the most starkly dramatic scene... inner torment, guilt and pain are searingly reflected in Sierra’s music.
- Henry Fogel, Fanfare

Ritual in Transfigured Time, Goldfield Ensemble, OVADA Gallery, Oxford, September 2016:

What begins as a fly-on-the-wall video showing the day-to-day events of an anonymous female protagonist ends as thrashing choreography, the music following every development of the film, almost as though it had been composed as a soundtrack. The result was an example of how much more powerful sound and visuals can be in their own right, when united in intent.
- Ellen Peirson-Hagger, The Cusp

Petite Grue, Riot Ensemble, School of Music, Cardiff, March 2016:

Fans of Dutilleux will recognise the instrumentation of Les Citations, originally conceived to honour Peter Pears, and named for its quotations from Britten’s Peter Grimes and from Jehan Alain, in turn quoting Renaissance composer Janequin. The remaining programme was devoted to companion pieces to Les Citations, of which Arlene Sierra’s elegant micro-quartet Petite Grue was a tribute to the composer, first played in his presence.
- Rian Evans, The Guardian

Long Before Afterward - New Choreography to Arlene Sierra's music, Vencl Dance, Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, February 2016: 

" of the best things about Long Before Afterward is composer Arlene Sierra’s fabulous music. Her creative, energetic, expressionist work takes unexpected twists and turns that clearly inspired both Vencl and her dancers. As an extra bonus, before those dancers even took the stage, the audience was treated to a terrific 12-minute Sierra piece, “Avian Mirrors,” superbly performed by violinist Jesse Mills and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. It nicely set the stage for the music and dance performance that followed."
- Deborah Heineman, Berkshire Fine Arts

BBC Proms performance, Butterflies Remember a Mountain, September 2015:

Otherwise it was Arlene Sierra’s intriguingly entitled Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013) – taken from a scientific headline about migrating Monarch butterflies still diverting their route over Lake Superior because millennia ago their way was blocked by a mountain. Sierra said she liked the haiku-like brevity of the headline and proceeded to compose – at Elschenbroich’s request – a short three-movement work, where the movements follow the title exactly: Butterflies; Remember; A Mountain.
From the whispering and whirring of the opening, over Ravel-like piano splashes (Sierra acknowledged the influence of this composer) before the violin takes flight, to the more minimalist repetitions of the finale, via the more thoughtful and nostalgic second movement – low cello pitched against high violin – this is a most involving work. This Prom epitomised the scope of the Proms in upholding the musical traditions of the past alongside the presentation of the new.
-  Nick Breckenfield, Classical Source

The three movements reflect this; the skittering Butterflies brings images of the insects themselves, Remember elegiac and clearly redolent of remembrance and A Mountain has all the majesty of an imposing vista. Here the Benedetti Elschenbroich Grynyuk Trio were not in the romantic, soundworld of Brahms but they told a story that was ephemeral, wistful and emotional by turns. They did this so well that they gave Butterflies Remember a Mountain a profundity that belied its 11 minute length.
- Jim Pritchard, Seen and Heard International


Bridge Records CD Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2, October 2014:

New Releases: ensemble/orchestral

...The orchestral disc that’s recently left me reeling most, though, is the second volume of Arlene Sierra‘s music, out now on Bridge. It features four works that offer an interesting counterpoint to her chamber music, with its ongoing interest in birds and insects. Although Sierra doesn’t abandon those concerns in an orchestral context, these large-scale canvasses feel in many ways utterly removed. She makes, I’m delighted to say, absolutely no attempt whatsoever to make these works easy on the listener—indeed, a couple of them, the piano concerto Art of War (my review of the world première of which is here) and title work Game of Attrition, seemingly begin in medias res, plunging without any preparation or warning straight into the heart of their respective arguments. This isn’t by any means the only way Sierra establishes formidable levels of excitement in these works; she’s prepared to unleash the most unstoppable onslaughts, often with a cutting ferocity that immediately makes one think of Varèse. Put simply, her tuttis hurt. All the more so because all four of these pieces have very strong melodic identities, and rhythmically display a tendency (as much of Sierra’s work does) to fall into dance-like patterns. Alongside such playfulness as this (the clearest point of similarity to her chamber music), rousing the orchestra to such massive levels of muscular immensity is heart-stoppingly effective; in her hands, the orchestra becomes utterly intimidating, acting both as beacons to truth—making the machinations of Art of War (a work not so much about war as the coercion and manipulation necessary for it) brutally, painfully plain—while also revelling in the simple joy of music-making, captured in the colossal sonic pile-ups of Moler and Aquilo, the former of which is surely one of the best concert-openers of recent years. In a word—and it’s nice to be able to use this word literally for once: breathtaking.
- Simon Cummings, 5 Against 4

New Music Biennial, Southbank Centre: Urban Birds, July 2014:

Arlene Sierra’s work Urban Birds for three pianos, sampled birdsong and percussion was intriguing – she’s a name to watch.
- Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine

 New Music Biennial, INTER/actions Festival: Urban Birds, July 2014:

Sierra’s was a showcase piece designed to exhibit the dynamic pianism of the virtuoso soloists (Pestova, Hammond and Supové in trio, with José-Miguel Fernández at the mixing desk). From crashing chords and driving rhythms to delicate tweets and a somewhat menacing, repeated cuckoo call, the ambience was both humorous and reflective of our relationship with nature... Sierra’s work was engaging, and formed an intriguing conclusion to a festival that amply demonstrated how alive, imaginative and downright entertaining electroacoustic music can be.
- Stephanie Power, Tempo Magazine

Cheltenham Festival performances: Butterflies Remember a Mountain, July 2014:

★★★★ An Evening with Nicola Benedetti
...Between these two artfully paired pieces came the world premiere of Arlene Sierra’s latest piano trio, Butterflies Remember a Mountain. This consists of three delectable miniatures, inspired by the haiku-like title of an article the composer had read in a scientific journal. It was about the discovery of a hard-wired memory which leads migrating butterflies to make a strange diversion round the North American Great Lakes, where apparently an impassable mountain once stood. Sierra’s response was the creation of a small wonder of her won: minutely crafted fluttering phrases, precisely and joyously imagined, and performed with meticulous commitment and obvious pleasure.
- Hillary Finch, The Times

UK première of Arlene Sierra‘s piano trio Butterflies Remember a Mountain. Commissioned by the Bremen Philharmonic Society, the work is another betraying Sierra’s fascination with the behaviours & mechanisms of biological lifeforms, from tiny creatures (Colmena; Birds and Insects) to humanity itself (Cicada Shell; Art of War). Obviously, it’s the former in focus here, inspired by a magazine article recounting a hypothesis that the flight path of monarch butterflies is determined by a latent memory of a long-since eroded mountain. The 12-minute work is a tripytch, each movement assigned a portion of the haiku-esque title—Butterflies; Remember; A Mountain—of which the outer movements are principally concerned with delicate ephemerality. The music is simple, gentle, operating in the first movement (which alludes to elements from Ravel’s Trio) with a quasi-modal tonality where minor & major coexist & overlap, manifesting in the form of flurries & crescendoing isolated pitches. This is ramped up in the third movement, with spritely arpeggioes & trills, & a more emphatic sense of circularity, the kind of disordered repetition that features regularly in Sierra’s work. Its trajectory is one of constant growth, trills becoming tremolandi (plus octave-unison melodic writing, serendipitously echoing the Brahms)—until it abruptly halts, pared back into a pianissimo conclusion. Brief but telling stuff, yet the central movement is altogether more so by at least an order of magnitude. Drawing on one of her own songs (‘Diving Girl’, from the Streets and Rivers cycle), Sierra establishes a dark, introspective environment that’s almost uncomfortably personal. While the piano offers tremulous flurried comments, violin & cello—practically reforged into a double-strength single entity—unravel convoluted strands of melody, intensely emotional, aching with wistfulness & the multitude of indescribable, unbidden feelings (re)kindled in all acts of remembrance. Dissipated in soft pizzicati that feel, if anything, even more intimate, it’s gone in mere minutes, but the depths Sierra taps into in this movement leave a profound impression that will last for days.
- Five Against Four

Arlene Sierra’s Butterflies Remember a Mountain, receiving its UK premiere, was inspired remarkably by a scientific study on the migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly. It appears that the butterfly flies in a giant circuit over the Great Lakes in order to circumvent a mountain that used to exist there in primeval times. The first movement deals with the fluttering of the butterfly, the second with memory while the third embraces the might of the mountain and recalls an earlier large piano piece Ms Sierra wrote. A work of this type requires exceptional precision and a disciplined approach on the part of performers with no scope for self-expression – so very different from the Brahms quartet – but the Trio gained the approbation of both the composer and the audience who responded enthusiastically to the refreshing and unusual timbres in this piece.
- Seen and Heard International

Cheltenham Festival: Avian Mirrors, July 2014:

Arlene Sierra, whose Butterflies Remember a Mountain was premiered at Cheltenham last Thursday, draws her inspiration from the natural world in the three movement Avian Mirrors. In the first movement Greeting bird calls are answered in quick succession while Reflection takes simple melodic figures and inverts them. The work concludes with the aptly titled Display with its flamboyant virtuosity.
- Seen and Heard International

Arlene Sierra's violin-and-cello Avian Mirrors, a set of three flamboyant dialogues was the most modest and pithy.
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian

Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin & cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship.
- Five Against Four

Bridge Records CD Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2, Feb-July 2014:

★★★★ Piano Concerto: Art of War; Game of Attrition; Aquilo; Moler review – game-theory, teeth-grinding and natural selection
Watkins/BBC NOW/Van Steen (Bridge)

Bridge began its survey of Arlene Sierra's music two years ago with a disc of ensemble works. The second instalment is devoted to orchestral music, and the four pieces included span more than a decade of the US-born, British-based composer's development, from Aquilo, begun in 1999, to Moler, which was finished in 2012. Together they show a remarkably sure-footed progress; though the handling of the orchestra and the plotting of the musical scheme is more quirky and individual in the later pieces than it sometimes is in Aquilo, which is startlingly fresh and assured for a first orchestral work. In the piano concerto Art of War, Sierra's fascination with tactics and game theory emerges again, in a two-movement work in which the piano's hyperactivity eventually overcomes the weight of the orchestra. The starting point for Moler was apparently teeth-grinding, and for Game of Attrition the idea of applying the rules of Darwinian natural selection to the orchestra. But neither piece needs knowledge of that background to make its points, as the ideas are vivid in their own right.
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian

★★★★★ Sierra: Moler; Piano Concerto: Art of War; Game of Attrition; Aquilo
Huw Watkins (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen
Bridge BRIDGE 9414

This second volume of music by American-born, London-based Arlene Sierra substitutes orchestral works for the chamber music focus of the first, courtesy of long-time champions Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. ...Game of Attrition (2009) is an evocative, otherworldly duel between instrumental groupings playing in the same register. The two-movement piano concerto Art of War (2010) is as pugilistic as its title implies, Huw Watkins tightening and uncoiling the solo line against lowering orchestral forces in a tense battle of wills. Aquilo (2001) takes its title from an ancient name for the Northeast wind. It’s a work of small, initially tentative accretions incrementally coalescing into a swirling, howling maelstrom, and a magnificent encapsulation of Sierra’s painterly facility for creating memorable images. Excellent performances and sound.
–Michael Quinn, Classical Ear

New York Times ArtsBeat Classical Playlist Selection:
ARLENE SIERRA: ‘Game of Attrition’
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen, conductor; Huw Watkins, pianist
(Bridge Records)
The works of the American composer Arlene Sierra reflect her wide range of interests, including Asian studies, poetry, and tactics and game theory. This disc includes four of her vividly scored, colorful works: “Aquilo” (2001), “Piano Concerto: Art of War” (2010), “Game of Attrition” (2009) — in which different members of the orchestra “compete” with each other — and “Moler” (2012), a wry allusion to the teeth grinding of composers on deadline.

- Vivien Schweitzer

★★★★ Game of Attrition, Bridge

Arlene Sierra is a Miami-born composer currently based in the UK. Her compositions grab you by the short hairs and make you listen-up. Her compositions are turbulent but tuneful—echoes of Mahler... along with the hurly-burly of Stravinsky. Her stuff is full of grandeur without being overbearing or overly melodramatic, loaded with rhythmic oomph, and it’s spiced with judicious, creative dissonances.
- Mark Keresman, Icon Magazine

Arlene Sierra
: Game Of Attrition (Arlene Sierra Vol.2)
The album opens with the shortest yet densest structure - Moler (2012). Meaning 'to grind', the title is based on a song from the grunge band Alice In Chains. Thus the composer in this composition pays homage to the city of Seattle and the local rock scene.
An appropriately sharp and tense atmosphere exudes, and yet at just the right moment listeners are given formal breath via balladic interjections using piano and bass clarinet. The work exhibits a truly knowledgeable and creative approach, one which never fails.
- Jan Hocek, His Voice Music Magazine (Czech Republic)

Arlene Sierra Game of Attrition
 Vol. 2. Huw Watkins, piano. BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Jac van Steen, dirección. BRIDGE 9414.
Bridge offers us, in this second monograph dedicated to the sought-after American composer Arlene Sierra, four world premieres in which are combined a truly propulsive rhythmic power (Art of War) with a strange, seductive atmosphere (Moler, Game of Attrition). With fashionable contemporary pianist Huw Watkins and Jac van Steen at the reins of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, they embroider a program that puts the limelight on this indispensable composer.
- Sémele LQM (Spain)

Arlene Sierra, Volume Two, “Game of Attrition,” is her latest release and combines very recent works like the CD-leading “Moler,” from 2012, with works dating back to 2001. “Moler” is an orchestral urban concoction that shows the maturation of Sierra’s orchestral style. Going “back” in time, the next piece is her piano concerto, “Art of War.” Responding to germinating thoughts she’d been having about diverse subjects, like the United States reaction to the attacks of September 11, the Iraqi invasion, and crystallized by rereading Sun Tzu’s work, she began to see musical connections. This makes for interesting listening, Western thought through an Eastern sensibility. “Game of Attrition” was given a premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 2009. Included in the kick-off of NYPhil’s Contact! new music series, it has a jungle wall of sound, where the different instruments are denizens, who are competing, as they play music in concert and contest with one another. The final piece, “Aquilo,” hearkens back to ancient terminology–in this case “Aquilo” means “northeast wind.” There is sparseness to the music that makes it seem protean and new, questing for something that may not yet have evolved. The music could almost be imagined as the peregrinations of the northeast wind, as it touches events, people, places, animals, locations, and buildings, on its journey from hither to yon. There’s almost an apian sense to it, flying with a purpose, as a honeybee might head directly back to the hive with full pollen sacks, only to find the hive has perhaps come to mischief. There’s a sense that something is happening, though exactly “what” is in the ear of the “bee-holder.” Happy spring!
- Sherri Rase, Q on Stage

Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra's compositional conflict

This release features four orchestral works by Arlene Sierra. Listening to the entire album, one gets an overall sense of Sierra's style. A small, simple musical idea -- a repeated note motif, a grouping of instruments -- is set in conflict against a similar version of itself. And that back and forth conflict forms the building blocks from which larger and more elaborate structures form.
"Moler" is a jittery, sort orchestral work. The title refers to grinding teeth, and although the music won't set your teeth on edge, it does have that relentless, restless motion and undercurrent of anxiety that teeth-grinding suggests.
PDQ Bach wrote a concerto for piano vs. orchestra - and that seems to be the relationship of forces in Sierra's piano concerto, "The Art of War." As the work's subtitle suggests her point of inspiration is Sun Tzu's classic military treatis.
In the first movement, the piano attacks the orchestra and become overwhelmed by its superior numbers. The repeated note motifs Sierra uses suggest a stabbing motion. One can almost hear the conflict move back and forth through the orchestra.
The second movement casts the piano as an insurgent, darting in and out of view, making quick jabs before retreating. It's an exciting work that requires great virtuosity from both soloist and ensemble.Pianist Huw Watkins and the BBC national Orchestra of Wales directed by Jac van Steen are more than equal to the task.
According to Sierra, the extra-musical genesis of her work "The Game of Attrition" is different species competing for limited natural resources -- in this case represented by different instrumental groups playing in the same registers. As with the piano concerto, there's a sense of conflict in the work, but it makes for compelling listening, even without knowing the background. There are no hackneyed orchestrations here. Every moment the listener is presented with fresh instrumental combinations.
The motifs in "Aquilo" seem to form a chain, with one leading into the other in an interlocking fashion. This work seems less about conflict (though it's still there) and more about an imbalance that continually tips the music forward as it rushes to its conclusion.
"Game of Attrition" is an album of urgent, high-energy music. But for me it was a rewarding listen -- and a refreshing one.
- Ralph Graves, Off Topic'd

Arlene Sierra Explores Darwin, Warfare and Chinese Philosophy
WQXR - Q2 Music Album of the Week, February 24, 2014

The second full-length "composer portrait" of London-based American composer Arlene Sierra includes pieces for orchestra that were written over the past 12 years. Delivered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the music of "Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2," draws inspiration from various sources including nature’s elements, Sun Tzu, game theory, and Charles Darwin. The music is pointillistic and builds tension throughout... Overall, this music catches your attention from the beginning. Sierra’s music is atonal, but with her heavy use of repetition and accessible (sometimes groovy) rhythms, her music may feel familiar to you even at first listen.
- Molly Yeh, WQXR - Q2 Music

"Butterflies Remember a Mountain" for Piano Trio

Nicola Benedetti, violin, Leonard Elschenbroich, cello, and Alexei Grynyuk, piano
Bremen, Frankfurt and Reutlingen, November

The 'crack' group at the 3rd Philharmonic Chamber concert in the chamber hall of Die Glocke was a piano trio with the already established musicians Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello) and Alexei Grynyuk (piano).
One experienced better harmony in the premiere of the Piano Trio "Butterflies Remember A Mountain" by American composer Arlene Sierra, a work commissioned by the Bremen Philharmonic Society. This beautiful work ranges between impressionistic harmonies in fourths and fifths and noise-like sounds, from points and lines rather than thematic formations, concentrated and economically presented in each of the movements. Well-deserved applause for the composer, who was present at the performance.
- Hartmut Lück, Weser-Kurier, Bremen

The youngsters who formed a trio five years ago are the violinist Nicola Benedetti, who plays a wonderfully sonorous Stradivari (1717), cellist Leonard Elschenbroich who plays an equally wonderful instrument (Matteo Goffriller, 1693), and Russian pianist Alexei Grynyuk.
A subtle work: "Butterflies Remember A Mountain" by Arlene Elizabeth Sierra. It refers to a phenomenon of butterflies flying a long detour on migration because their ancestors have taken a route, in spite of changes in the environment. Sierra makes a haiku-style three verses out of it; so three movements - light, dazzling moves, in the tenderest tone of butterflies, reminding one of a melancholy softness; and a fickle detour over a mountain with virtuoso string flickerings and massive chords from the piano.
- Gabriele Seybold, Frankfurter Neue Presse

The young piano trio, with Italo-Scottish Nicola Benedetti on violin, Leonard Elschenbroich of Frankfurt on cello and the Ukrainian Alexei Grynyuk on the piano, guested at the chamber music series in the town hall. What they presented was to some extent a dark current of thought, interrupted by a swarm of colorful butterflies. The dark current of thought, these were the late piano trios of Schumann (Opus 110) and early Rachmaninov (Opus 9). The swarm of colorful butterflies fluttering through the piece "Butterflies Remember a Mountain" was by Miami-born, London-based composer Arlene Sierra.
Whirring harmonics
Arlene Sierra was inspired, for her brand-new piece (it was the third performance), by a species of butterfly that flies on its migration from Canada to Mexico around a mountain long since removed, that lives on in the genetic memory of the insects. With delicately swirling harmonics and tremolos, the musicians dived into this insectoid soundsphere. Here charm, light, weightless, shimmering, circular motifs, condense and increase until the exhausted butterflies cloud around the imaginary peak. A poignant scene.
- Armin Knauer, Reutlinger General-Anzeiger

A reunion with Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk, this time with Leonard Elschenbroich.
How nice to see these artists in the chamber music hall of the City Hall, more intimately and more intense than in the Lizst Hall . Now as a trio, which still has no name, they left us with a profound interaction and a compelling attention to presentation. The young cellist Leonard Elschenbroich complemented the duo Benedetti / Grynyuk excellently, he made the announcements and also proved to be a musically like-minded third man.
Sure technique, clear articulation and contrasted and nuanced sound design allowed an enjoyable exploration and savoring of the phrases.
Highly topical as the "commissioned work for piano trio" the announced piece by U.S. composer Arlene Sierra (born 1970), entitled "Butterflies Remember a Mountain" received its third performance recently in Reutlingen.
It is inspired by a puzzling butterfly migration in our own time through North America, around Lake Superior, the piece describes a detour because - maybe, eons ago - there was a mountain. That insects would also give rise to advanced string-tone painting was to be expected.
But Arlene Sierra follows her own rules: The three movements are concise and transparent structures. Thus, the three musicians created a dense atmosphere in which the fluttering and whirring, above all the wordless secret space was to unfold. A fascinating piece, brilliantly interpreted - and given loud applause.
- Susanna Eckstein, Südwest Presse


Arlene Sierra Portrait Concert, Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival, July 2013:

Sierra’s style is definitely more modernist than maverick—to use two more terms that, while burdened with troubles of their own, are at least amorphously meaningful—but her accent is a little more subtle and elusive. The music is dense, dissonant, precipitously fluid, but there’s a groundedness to the extravagance, pitch and even tonal centers anchoring the busy crosstalk. American-born but now resident in the U.K., Sierra can easily be heard as mediating between the punctuated equilibrium of the American canon and the smoother assimilations of its European counterpart. In conversation with Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp—such chats, interspersed between performances, functioned as the evening’s program notes—Sierra noted the contrast between the American schools of composition, marked by aesthetic sharp turns and reboots, and the European penchant for promoting new styles as continuances of long tradition. Within the tradition, Sierra might be plausibly categorized as a New Romantic, at least in a late-’70s and early-’80s way: modernist sounds wrapped around a core of heightened expression. (It was one of Sierra’s teachers, after all, Jacob Druckman, who exemplified that original “New Romantic” style.)

And it’s in her experimental penchant that such a Romantic sense really comes to the fore. What Sierra loves to experiment with is formal concepts. All of the pieces on this portrait concert took their cue from external frameworks, and the frameworks—nature and the visual arts—would have been familiar sources to the Romantics of yore. Two Etudes After Mantegna, a pair of cello solos written back in 1998 but only now getting a U.S. performance, was a kitchen sink of postmodern virtuosity: “Visage” (played by Madeline Fayette) whipped a lot of dramatic bowing and high-on-the-fingerboard passagework through a moody, minor-tinged chromaticism moored by open-string left-hand pizzicato, C, G, and D rumbling around an old-fashioned circle of fifths; “Painter’s Process” (played by Sang Yhee) was literally noisier—heavy bow pressure, col legno, deliberate rasp. The first is a classic gambit, inspiration via artwork (in this case, Madonna and Sleeping Child by Andrea Mantegna); the second tries to image its creation, starting with a scraped white-noise white canvas, sketching in outlines, brushing in underlayers. You can hear how Sierra’s experiments are a layer removed from the more commonly called “experimental” tradition—she is not so much concerned with inventing a process whole-cloth as finding a musical analogue to a non-musical process. But you can also hear the push into something unexpected.

- Matthew Guerrieri, New Music Box


Two Neruda Odes
, Patricia Rozario and the Fidelio Trio, Cardiff, February 2013:

Rozario conveyed the vivid immediacy of Arlene Sierra's Two Neruda Odes for voice, cello and piano, and in particular to the second Ode to the Table which translates Pablo Neruda’s sweeping arc from ostensibly mundane functionality to a joyously celebratory close.
- Rian Evans, The Guardian

Selections from "Birds and Insects, Book 1"
, Sally Wigan, Purcell Room, London, January 2013:

The haunted atmospheres of selections from Book I of Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects (2004-7) were excellently captured, with the lonely repetitions of ‘Cicada Sketch’ being particularly effective.

Bridge Records CD Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, November 2012:

Skillful and Imaginative: Music by Arlene Sierra impresses Patric Standford
Arlene Sierra was born in Miami and after studies at Yale and Ann Arbor, and a growing catalogue of critical successes, she came by way of a Berlin residency to England where she now divides her time between home in London and a lectureship in composition at Cardiff University School of Music. Pieces on this CD are the product of a decade from 2001 and reflect Sierra's interest in both architecture and war games. Her background is one of dance and fine arts, and the rhythmically vigorous elements of her music are therefore not so surprising. It is this constant vitality that maintains interest throughout many of the pieces. Her interest in closely associating much of this music with war games, drawing upon ancient Chinese essays on military strategy, reflects itself not only in many of the titles of her pieces, but also in their structure and the relationships made between instruments in the ensembles.

The earliest among this selection of work is Ballistae (2001), a single movement for thirteen players that portrays the preparation and initiation of the medieval weapon of its title, as directed by the first century BC Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius in his remarkable treatise.

The need for an aggressive musical character is apparent from the source, and this tends to present itself in other pieces too. The two movements of Cicada Shell (2006), another chamber ensemble piece, inhabit a similar soundscape, inspired by one of the 'Thirty-Six Strategies' in an ancient collection of battle tactics -- the one suggesting that 'false appearances mislead enemies', that illusion is key to avoiding defeat. The title is derived from the name of that specific strategy, and combines interestingly with the natural call of the male cicada. The first movement, Marziale, is a series of diminuendi and the second uses the same material, reversing the process to crescendi. The piece belongs to a series of works exploring similar military ground, including a piano concerto Art of War completed in 2010, and Surrounded Ground (2008), which is a sextet for piano, clarinet and string quartet included on this CD. The interactions of the instruments arise from interpretations of text from another ancient treatise, this from Sun Tzu's The Art of War: 'where the entrance is narrow, the exit circuitous, allowing the enemy to attack his few to our many'. The structure and character of each of the three movements derive from quotations, the third movement, Egress, reflecting the calm and swiftness of an army surrounding its enemy on three sides to leave one 'to show them a way to life'.

Away from warring, Sierra turns to insects. Colmena (2008) is about a beehive (the title is Spanish) and portrays the complex social industry of the hive and the final hibernation that brings about 'a kind of buzzing repose'.

Wildlife also features in the seven movements of Birds and Insects -- Book 1, a group of piano pieces written between 2003 and 2007, from which the Titmouse displays an agile wit in both animal and composer.

This well-balanced and vibrant CD, which also includes Two Neruda Odes for soprano, piano and cello (for which there is sadly no translation), forms an impressive and valuable first volume introduction to this composer's energetic, skillful and imaginative work.
- Music and Vision

Moler (UK premiere), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Grant Llewellyn, November 2012:

Moler, here receiving its UK premiere, was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra who gave the first performance last month. Moler means "teeth-grinding"... in fact there was quite a perky rhythmic pulse, which kept the vulgarly flutter-tonguing brass strictly under control.
- Seen and Heard International

Meditation on Violence for chamber ensemble, Lontano, Odaline de la Martinez, October 2012:

A huge amount of new music that is composed and performed in the US never makes it to the UK. The London festival of American music was started to provide a showcase for some of those works; it is now established as a modest, biennial event, with conductor Odaline de la Martinez as artistic director and Lontano, the ensemble she founded, as resident band.
All five works in this year's opening concert, conducted by De la Martinez with her usual unshowy flair, were new to the UK. Three of them were world premieres, and only one of the composers represented could be regarded as a familiar name. Arlene Sierra teaches at Cardiff University and regularly performs in the UK; her Meditation on Violence was composed as a new soundtrack for a 1948 film about a kung-fu master. The music doesn't attempt to synchronise precisely with the balletic screen images, but instead supports and reinforces them with layers of slowly shifting ostinatos that are always understated.
Sierra's score, for two strings, two woodwinds and piano, was the most memorable work on show.
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian

Bridge Records CD Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, Nov-Dec 2011:

Best Albums of 2011 (Part 1): Arlene Sierra - Arlene Sierra Vol. 1
Just when you start wondering whether contemporary instrumental music doesn't have anything new left to explore, along comes this, the first compilation of Arlene Sierra's music • The earliest included work (Ballistae) is a decade old, but the rest of the pieces date from within the last five years • Sierra's music is fresh & unpredictable, & the works connected with creatures—the chamber piece Cicada Shell & Birds and Insects for solo piano—make a particularly strong impression • A vocal work, Two Neruda Odes, indicates a lyrical streak to her work, but this appears to be of only secondary interest; Sierra is most in her element exploring rather hectic, scurrying textures • Superb performances throughout; the "Vol. 1" in the CD title is nicely optimistic—one hopes it's not too long before there's a Vol. 2 •
- Five Against Four

Arlene Sierra is an American-born composer who has taught composition at Cambridge University and is currently Senior Lecturer in composition at the Cardiff University School of Music.

[Ballistae] is a remarkable achievement. From beginning to end the energy barely lets up, a constant, battering stream of sound which nonetheless maintains crystal-clear textures and an unwavering sense of forward motion before arriving at the point when the projectile finally hits its target …

[Two Neruda Odes] is stunning. The vocal line is challenging... but superbly expressive and wide-ranging, and above all, truly vocal. It is also magnificently integrated into the accompanying instrumental texture.

Colmena is the shortest work on the disc. The title means “Beehive” in Spanish, and the work “explores accumulation and change from micro to macro levels”. Composed following study of the nature of beehives, it is a superb scherzo for chamber ensemble, the music hugely colourful and brilliantly conceived for the forces.

It is brilliantly written... compellingly dramatic and exciting. The recording is very vivid and close, at one with the repertoire, and the performances are astonishingly virtuosic. It is billed as Volume 1, and I will certainly be looking out for Volume 2…

Musicweb International

American composer Arlene Sierra is presently based in the U.K., where she is a senior lecturer in musical composition at Cardiff University. Sierra has studied with some of the leading composers of our time, including Magnus Lindberg, and her music has already received many accolades.

There can be no doubt that Sierra has an uncanny ability to realize and build her musical ideas toward shattering conclusions, oftentimes literally so. But be forewarned: this is definitely not music for the fainthearted. …Sierra is fascinated with the martial arts and writes music that is as intense as it is complex.

How does Sierra realize musical warfare? By pitting instruments and groups of instruments against each other; by organizing thematic content in small, repetitive cells that move in organized, militaristic fashion; by favoring bright textures that slowly grow in complexity; and by gradually turning up the volume. The cumulative effect is highly potent...

But there is also a mellower side to Sierra’s music, which will likely also appeal to pacifists. That is featured in the remaining two works on this recording, Birds and Insects and the Two Neruda Odes. The former is a series of five mysterious works for piano, in which one hears hints of Ravel, Messiaen, Webern, and Berio.

Sierra’s setting of Neruda’s allegorical poetry—which pays homage to two common objects, the plate and the table—is truly masterly, as is the way in which she manages to build tension towards the end of the second ode.

The recording features uniformly excellent playing by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Daedalus Quartet, soprano Susan Narucki, clarinetist Charles Neidich, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and pianists Vassily Primakov and Stephen Gosling. Jayce Ogren, who conducts the three works for larger ensembles, deserves special praise for his mastery of these complex scores. The quality of the recorded sound is outstanding.

Fanfare Magazine

News Feature on Sierra CD Release and work at Cardiff University School of Music in the South Wales Echo

Bridge Records CD Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, July 2011:

The compositions of American expat Arlene Sierra are boldly individualistic, rhythmically challenging and the subject of a recent release from Bridge Records. Sierra – whose recent commissions include works for the New York Philharmonic, the Carducci Quartet and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – worked primarily with electronic media at the outset of her composing career, and the pieces presented here still bear some remnant of that aesthetic. Unexpected changes in tempo, abrupt stops and unusual instrumental texturing give the pieces the smooth, polished beauty of some exotic music from the future. And yet, there is an emotional centre to this work that cannot be denied. Take for example the sense of peril expressed in the opening movement of Surrounded Ground, a piece that takes its inspiration from such disparate cultural artifacts as Aaron Copland’s Sextet of 1933-37 and the ancient military strategy guide, The Art of War. Juxtaposed with the tense, staggered phrases of this exposition, the first movement of Birds and Insects, Book 1 seems restrained, although the arpeggio preamble intimates a world so profoundly mysterious that a listener may enter it and never want to return. Strange and beautiful.

Scene Magazine, Ontario

A Stunning Menagerie from Arlene Sierra
At times, composer Arlene Sierra’s catalog reads more like an inventory of the Museum of Natural History with titles like Insects in Amber, Cricket-Viol, Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects, Book 1. Even her inclusion in the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural Contact! series in December of 2009, Game of Attrition, was based on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Likewise, Sierra’s works are full of feline cunningness, birdlike chirps, beastly savage turns and serpentine seduction.

Unsurprisingly, then, the first in a series of Sierra’s collected works recorded for Bridge records reflects her animal collectiveness, starting with Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects, Book I, the former reflecting the deep-seated Stravinsky influence that reverberates through much of Sierra’s catalog (and captured in an aptly-timed recording by the International Contemporary Ensemble, who perform Stravinsky this week as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival).

Indeed, ICE factors heavily into this hot album, reappearing on Colmena and Ballistae. Colmena, Spanish for “beehive” (and this week’s free download) swarms and buzzes, particularly in the wind instruments, adding layer upon layer to the fluttering activity of violins, flute and piano. Ballistae, reflecting Sierra’s other apparent love for all things battle-related, represents the sonic equivalent of this medieval weapon—a sort of crossbow-catapult hybrid. Elsewhere, pianist Vassily Primakov takes on a nuanced account of Birds and Insects and the Daedalus Quartet go further into the breach with a kinetic and vibrant Surrounded Ground. Rounding out the collection is soprano Susan Narucki performing the hushed and haunting Two Neruda Odes. All works on display have the effect of a promising butterfly collection we hope will continue in future volumes.

WQXR: Q2's Album of the Week

...the US-born Arlene Sierra currently teaches composition at Cardiff University, while her own teachers have ranged from Michael Daugherty and Jacob Druckman to Magnus Lindberg and Judith Weir. But her work has its own character, in which historical and contemporary influences are fused into a highly flexible and distinctive style as well as incorporating a wide range of extra-musical ideas, including game theory, Darwinian evolution and military strategy. The opening section of the ensemble piece, Cicada Shell, is powered along by Stravinskyan motor rhythms, and there's an acerbic tang of the same composer in the sextet, Surrounded Ground. However, the foreground of the music is packed with crisp, vivid detail that's not at all hand-me-down. Sierra likes bold, highly coloured gestures; the piano cycle, Birds and Insects, is full of explosive chordal moments to punctuate the Messiaen-like flourishes, while two eloquent settings of Pablo Neruda are underpinned with busy, eventful cello-and-piano figuration.

Rating: ★★★★

The Guardian

Composer Arlene Sierra is the closest thing to a “musical entomologist” that we will probably find in the world of contemporary music. The first word that comes to my mind when listening to her music is “spin,” and the accompanying visual is that of a spider weaving an intricate web with speed and dexterity, into which a myriad of other tiny creatures unsuspectingly wind themselves up. Indeed the titles of her pieces tend to gravitate towards the names of bugs and birds, and possess a whirling quality constructed of heavily layered snippets of musical material deftly orchestrated in such a way that the listener can enjoy the form and structure of the music from both a “bird’s eye view,” and also have a satisfying dig into the tiny details.

Music of Arlene Sierra, Volume 1 is the first CD in a planned series by Bridge Recordings devoted to the music of this British-based American composer. All of the works on this first installment are given sparkling performances with particularly standout moments in the larger compositions, played by the International Contemporary Ensemble.

The buzzing, simmering Colmena is appropriately titled, in that the word is Spanish for beehive. It is like an aural excursion inside that structure, listening to the delicate balance of roles played by the labor of thousands of creatures. Birds and Insects, Book 1 is a series of works for solo piano that can be performed separately, or mixed and matched at the whim of the performer. Running the gamut from fierce through frenetic to delicate and lyrical, I wonder if some of the music from these pieces—substantial in and of themselves—served as stepping stones for the larger works on this recording, or the other way around? Sierra also transfers her affection for “small things” to everyday objects with her attractive settings of Two Neruda Odes, choosing Oda al plato (Ode to the plate) and Oda a la mesa (Ode to the table) for soprano, cello, and piano.

Three of the works on this disc are taken from Sierra’s military-themed Art of War series. The ferocious Ballistae for 13 players is a musical thrill ride inspired by the writings of Roman architect and engineer Vitrivius, outlining the construction of a machine of warfare. In the three-movement Surrounded Ground, the interactions between instruments are determined in part by Sun Tzu’s writings on military strategy. In the first movement, “Preamble,” all of the instruments are marching in one way or another, as if they were re-orchestrated from a score for multiple snare drums. “Feigned Retreat” stretches out the lines into a slower progression of events, fortified by strings around which the clarinet line slithers. The last movement, “Egress,” brings the rhythmic material back in a far more syncopated, frenzied fashion as the music dances about in search of a quick escape. The first movement of the two-movement Cicada Shell possesses the “marching,” skittering rhythms particular to Sierra’s compositional style, forming gradual diminuendos that shape the movement into a series of hairpins. The arresting, ultra-high opening of the second movement begins with piccolo that slowly nudges other instruments into the sound field, creating the opposite effect of the first movement with phrases forming long crescendi. Here the characteristic quick outbursts and skips that tend to accentuate the vertical aspects of the score (at least to my ears) are elongated into flowing linear sweeps that rotate the music into an expansive horizontal field.

Regardless of which listening approach you decide to take with these works—the view of the forest or of the trees—or in which order you decide to take them, the music reveals complexity and insight that will make you want to press play again and open your ears even wider for the next listen.

New Music Box

In “Music of Arlene Sierra, Volume I,” one finds that, organic as a walk in a forest, Sierra’s music is a force of Nature. Her work features names like “Cicada Shell (1 and 2)” and some Stravinsky “Rite of Spring”-like phrases that call to mind the frenetic gait of these miraculous creatures. The “Birds and Insects Book I” selections evoke visions of the struggles... where no matter who prevails, situations end how they must. “Two Neruda Odes” are vocal works that have an ethereal feel, transcending the earthly denizens of her previous compositions. The music flows through the lyric, embracing the language, yet the music does not rest. Sierra composes with a great sense of the voices she’s writing, whether human or instrumental. She creates a musical landscape that has garnered her awards like the Charles Ives Fellowship, and she was the first woman to ever win the prestigious Takemitsu Prize in 2001. Her work is popular for its wisdom and wit, and this debut CD will assure her the larger audience she deserves.

European Premiere of Insects in Amber, Cheltenham Music Festival, July 2011:

The Carduccis contribution to the Cheltenham Festival was the European premiere of Insects in Amber by the American composer Arlene Sierra, currently head of composition at Cardiff University where the Carducci are quartet-in-residence. Her childhood in Florida had alerted her to the sounds of the natural world and she is clearly inspired by Messiaen and his response to the sounds of nature. Her approach to nature is unsentimental and her music is informed by transcriptions of insect calls and scientific research into insect behaviour.

The first movement, Gryllus Integer, is based on the calls of the Western Stutter-Trilling Cricket. Here the male members of the quartet, Matthew Denton (violin) and Eion Schmidt-Martin endeavoured to entice Michelle Fleming (violin) and Emma Denton (cello) with their mating calls. It was difficult to measure which of the two was more successful: the flamboyant Matthew or the more reticent Eion. The Double Viols movement evoked a past age and produced some nice sonorities; while the final piece, Fig Wasps, was notable for its hopping rhythms produced by the percussive action of glass rods against the strings. This was an interesting and unusual work, which will cause me to listen more intently in future to the bees and other insects that buzz around my garden.

Seen and Heard International

Bridge Records CD Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, May/June 2011:

ICE appears on an intriguing new album of pieces by the American-born, UK-based composer Arlene Sierra, for whom Bridge Records has just begun a multi-volume series. This piece for 14 players from 2008, Colmena, is a buzzing blur of a thing. The effect seems just right, given that the piece's title means "beehive" in Spanish. It also possesses a remarkable brilliance of color, rhythmic dexterity and playfulness, all qualities fully brought out by [Claire] Chase and her colleagues.

NPR Classical

A significant young composer, based in Britain, who has astutely been adopted by Bridge Records in America, to their credit and, I hope, their profit. This is all music of distinct originality and personality, played and recorded to highest standards. The ensemble music is complex but always clear, and one feels that every note is placed with intention. A strong recommendation, a disc which I will return to enjoy again...

Musical Pointers

Dedicated entirely to works by Arlene Sierra, this disc simultaneously gives an overview of the state of her art while whetting the appetite for more.

The world of winged creatures provides the impetus for the first two works.

The two equal parts of Cicada Shell— ...“Marziale’s” three main sections start out with brute force that is at one with the overarching subject matter, only to be gradually calmed as the intensity dissipates: liquid, dry or pizzicato in turn. “Misterioso expressivo” marvellously lives up to its billing, featuring thoughtful highs and brooding lows (especially well anchored by Joshua Rubin’s skill on the bass clarinet). The thematic germ (with a remarkable tinge of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring just prior to the incredible bombast) works well in all of its forms and the childlike violin (David Bowlin is crystal clear and secure in all ranges) provides much-needed relief and contrast to the weightier ideas.

[In] Birds and Insects—Book 1 Pianist Vassily Primakov employs his vast array of touches effectively, giving each of the five movements a distinctive colour. The moody feel of “Sarus Crane” finds its polar opposite with the antics of “Titmouse.” The extended, closing “Scarab,” with its stop-and-go construction ... is emotionally rich and superbly balanced.

Surrounded Ground might well be subtitled L’histoire de la tactique given its historical source: The Art of War by Sun Tzu. The dissonantly triumphant “Preamble” (where only the clarinet’s inability to match the pointed attacks of his colleagues causes any concern) convincingly set the stage for the coming manoeuvres.

[In] "Feigned Retreat”… a beautifully crafted viola line (Jessica Thompson) helps to refocus the ear. Once the “battle” begins, it’s not hard to imagine the violins’ bows as weapons, trying valiantly to survive the barrage of rapid-fire blasts from their musical combatants. The purposely jagged, dance of near-death (“Egress”) provides the requisite opening, leading to defeat with honour. If only real conflicts could be settled just as harmoniously!

The two settings of Odes from Pablo Neruda are engagingly sculpted. Soprano Susan Narucki’s consummate skill of moving into and out of all registers makes her the ideal interpreter. Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan’s tawny, eloquent tone is the perfect foil even as pianist Stephen Gosling provides stellar work as the “glue.”

Colmena (beehive) is a delightfully active, largely inventive sound painting. Conductor Jayce Ogren keeps his talented charges (special mention to James Austin Smith for his delectable contributions on oboe and English horn) artfully a-buzz.

New York City Opera VOX showcase of opera-in-progress Faustine, May 2011:

...Artistic Director George Steel was on hand to assure us that, while the works of some Vox participants (John Zorn and Stephen Schwartz among them), have indeed been produced by the company, VOX is no mere scouting endeavor.

Still, if one were to handicap what Steel might next select for a full production from these readings, a good bet would be “Faustine,” a retelling of the Faust story with a female protagonist by Arlene Sierra. Paired with librettist Lucy Thurber -- a recent opera convert but already a sure hand at crafting memorable and singable lines – it was the most musically adventurous, tightly constructed and dramatically sound of the works-in-progress on offer.

Sierra’s musical language encompasses both acerbic dissonance where the plot requires it and, elsewhere, supple melodies of considerable sweep. Particularly riveting were her duets for the devil -- here unctuously played and vividly sung by countertenor Jason Abrams -- and the leading role, sung with earthy resonance by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer. ...the Vox reading suggested that Thurber and Sierra are well on the way toward crafting a memorable new opera.

Musical America

Bridge Records to launch series dedicated to music by Arlene Sierra
April 05, 2011

Bridge Records is to launch a series of recordings of music by the Miami-born composer Arlene Sierra. Sierra has been attracting praise from critics and audiences alike in recent years and the Bridge series marks her debut on disc. She was one of the first composers to be commissioned by Alan Gilbert for his opening season as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009.

In 2007 she received a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which described her music as “by turns, urgent, poetic, evocative, and witty. She has a keen appreciation of instrumental sonorities and the inherent drama of successive musical atmospheres. Intriguing, passionate, mysterious, her recent work, Cicada Shell, confidently announces the arrival of a significant composer.”

Composed in 2006, Cicada Shell is one of six works included on the new disc and is performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Jayce Ogren. The same forces also feature on performances of 2001’s Ballistae and Colmena from 2008. The other works are Book 1 of Birds and Insects, played by pianist Vassily Primakov; Surrounded Ground, performed by Charles Niedich (clarinet), Stephen Gosling (piano), and the Daedalus Quartet; and
Two Neruda Odes in a performance by soprano Susan Narucki, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and Stephen Gosling.
Funding for her debut CD was provided by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the Ditson Fund at Columbia University, New York.

The Classical Review

LotUS Ensemble US Premiere of of Risk and Memory, October 2010:

Thursday evening was a good night for new music, as a new chamber ensemble formed by Baltimore-based composer David Smooke gave its maiden voyage performance at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania to an enthusiastic and supportive audience. Steven Buck and Shirley Yoo proceeded to throw themselves into the U.S. premiere of Arlene Sierra’s Of Risk and Memory for two pianos with gusto – it’s a great work and will hopefully find more performances on this side of the pond.

Sequenza 21

BBC NOW / Watkins / Kaljuste Premiere of Piano Concerto Art of War, September 2010:

This year's focus has been on the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, 75 this week; ... But an instant corrective was delivered by Arlene Sierra’s vibrant Piano Concerto, subtitled “Art of War”, which showed how static harmony and obsessive rhythm can serve as pivot for a mobile and eventful design. Huw Watkins launched into the solo part with energy and confidence, looking and sounding for all the world like the young Prokofiev. Pärt was unashamedly rebuked.

Pärt wasn't the only composer featured at the concert; also included was the world première of a new work by Arlene Sierra, the first time i've heard her music • The subject matter of Sierra's new Piano Concerto, 'Art of War' is not without connection to the root of Pärt's inspiration • What sets the ancient Chinese text The Art of War apart from other works of that ilk is a preparedness to include spirituality within its considerations •

For a time in the first movement, 'Captive Nation', the piano hops around, at first seemingly playfully, but soon taking on a more determined, even provocative character • The percussion seem especially keen on what the piano is doing, while the rest of the orchestra seems more concerned with its own agenda • Sierra writes of the piano becoming "subsumed", but what's interesting is that this is not achieved (as one might assume, thinking militarily) through mere brute force on the part of the orchestra, but by a rather different kind of weight, one that perhaps connects with the Taoist enlightenment referred to above • There are certainly times when the piano's material seems 'indoctrinated' by that of the orchestra around it, so perhaps this is a vanquishment more rooted in ideology & behaviour than anything else; all the same, it's hardly a pushover, the piano putting up a doggedly feisty resistance to the increasingly vociferous outside forces brought to bear on it • It's also interesting that much of this takes place above an essentially dance-like compound metre, giving the conflict a curious but nicely effective lilting quality • The tables are turned in the second movement, 'Strategic Seige', the piano (in Sierra's words) "changed from instigator to saboteur"; she goes on to describe how "[the piano's] gestures chip away at a wall of sound created by the orchestra..." • The movement is more obtuse in its unfolding, although ultimately more weighty & a great deal more intense • The compound metre again makes its presence felt (perhaps there's a comment here on the frivolous, game-like nature of all wars), although what's above it is this time palpably destructive & audibly uncomfortable; indeed, as the orchestra's fabric is pulled to pieces, there's a potent sense of panic, the instruments, section by section, erupting while the piano by turns twirls & hammers beneath • That's when it's not taking a step back from the action; at the orchestra's most frantic moments, there's a real sense of the piano watching the destruction from a distance • It's a splendidly vivid work, & once again the BBC NOW are on top form, never letting the convoluted textures sound stodgy • As a first encounter with Sierra's music, it's very impressive •

Five Against Four

Counting-Out Rhyme, March 2010:

Pianist Dominic Saunders and cellist Sophie Harris [played] Arlene Sierra's rewardingly knotty Counting-Out Rhyme ... the most distinctive and expressive of the evening.

The Guardian

Collage New Music’s Boston Premiere of Cicada Shell, February 2010:

Arlene Sierra’s Cicada Shell opened the concert with the unique experience of a two-movement piece. A number of contemporary composers have approached a two-movements-of-equal-length model while incorporating some idea of dichotomy between the two movements. In Sierra’s piece, we find a mirror-image of sorts in the form, where the first movement is organized into a series of decrescendos while the second is organized into crescendos. The most effective aspects of the piece dealt not with the formal scheme, but with more microscopic elements. The first movement focused the listener in on a series of fairly simple, and very recognizable motives passing around the ensemble above a strong rhythmic drive. While new ideas were introduced, old ones appeared more sparsely, eventually fading away or transforming into newly developed material. The second movement possessed a slightly less present tactus in its eerie and constantly shifting backdrop, with extremely effective use of the piccolo in a small ensemble, courtesy of flutist Christopher Krueger. ... the work’s engaging narrative came across clearly, and was performed exquisitely.

Boston Musical Intelligencer

In Arlene Sierra’s 2006 septet Cicada Shell (Collage’s standard six here joined by Boston Symphony hornist Jason Snider) the balance tipped toward construction. Sierra paired a dense and intricate technique with a clear large-scale plan: a gradual paring down, then piling on, of often violent activity.

The Boston Globe

Hearing Things, November 2009:

[Soprano Claire Booth] showed her feisty, dramatic side in Arlene Sierra's Hearing Things. This pair of songs, setting an old poem by Carl Sandburg and a newer one by Catherine Carter, did indeed make one hear things, with [pianist] Matthews-Owen required to dampen notes with the left hand and then pluck strings intriguingly... these lived up to the title.

The Guardian

World premiere of New York Philharmonic Commission Game of Attrition, December 2009:

Ms. Sierra has long been fascinated by game theory and Darwinian evolution, and this piece is an attempt to evoke the process of attrition, as in natural selection. Throughout the bustling work, instruments engage and tussle with one another as if struggling to prevail and move up the musical/evolutionary ladder. Yet, as the title suggests, Ms. Sierra makes a game of it. Little cells of tightly confined pitches knock about with others, grow into larger gestures and then cut loose into skittish flights.

The New York Times

The new age of classical music in New York couldn’t be more aptly heralded than with Arlene Sierra’s Game of Attrition. ... At turns spry, savage, sly and seductive, Game of Attrition is a Stravinskian play among brass and strings, piano and percussion ... so enrapturing.

Time Out New York

Sierra’s piece is described by its title; an exercise in conflict and entropy that she described as using “organic, small musical cells, transitions,” written for chamber orchestra. It has a bright opening, followed quickly by a slow, repeated note. From that point, it becomes a work where instruments chatter with and against each other, one group developing a coherent phrase before falling back against the pressures of another. There are bursts of chords, sharp rhythmic attacks and ostinati layered over a subtle, consistent medium tempo pulse. A lyrical cello melody rises from the ensemble and leads to a contrasting contemplative section, before it too falls apart against the interjections of other instruments. As the texture slowly thins out, there are bursts of individual voices fighting against the tide – harp, piano, flutter-tongued flute, long tones in the brass – before the piece comes to a brief, final sense of coherence and then ends with a single attack. It’s a contemporary answer to Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, and consistently interesting. The ear is involved and the organic developments and transitions move the music along to points that are both unexpected and natural, and as music propagates itself through time, the concept of attrition is a natural.

Seen and Heard International

New York Times review of Arlene Sierra’s Miller Theatre Composer Portrait concert, March 2009:

Music Review | Arlene Sierra: Odes, Bees and Battles in Textured Sounds


The American composer Arlene Sierra has been inspired by an unusually wide range of sources, including bees, poetry and Chinese and Roman military tactics. The excellent International Contemporary Ensemble performed five of her recent works on Friday, conducted by Jayce Ogren as part of the Composer Portraits series at the Miller Theater.

Ms. Sierra has studied with composers like Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick at Yale and Oliver Knussen and Magnus Lindberg in Britain. The New York Philharmonic will perform one of her works in December.

Ms. Sierra uses a colorful palette in compositions like “Neruda Settings,” for 10 players and soprano, based on odes by Pablo Neruda. In one, “Ode to the Lizard,” darting, coloristic fragments from a flute, a celeste, a harp and a violin are woven around the text. The music ebbed and flowed in intensity, reaching a peak at “To/a fly/you are the dart/of an annihilating dragon.”

The other three poems in Ms. Sierra’s set are “Ode to the Artichoke,” “Ode to the Plate” and “Ode to the Table.” Susan Narucki sang them (in Spanish) with expressive conviction.

In an onstage discussion with the WNYC radio host David Garland, Ms. Sierra said studying East Asian history at Oberlin College had provided fodder for compositions like “Cicada Shell” for septet. Militaristic and rhythmically driven in “Marziale” (the first section) and more subdued in the ensuing “Misterioso, espressivo,” the work was inspired by ancient Chinese battle tactics.

Military themes also figure prominently in “Surrounded Ground,” whose three movements — “Preamble,” “Feigned Retreat” and “Egress” — were composed as a companion to Aaron Copland’s 1933 Sextet. The marchlike rhythms of the first section are followed by a vivacious dialogue between instruments and an almost jazzy finale.

The program also included the world premiere of “Colmena” (Spanish for beehive), whose multilayered textures and colorful effects mimic those of its namesake insect.

The concert concluded with the kaleidoscopic “Ballistae.” Inspired by the ballista, an ancient artillery machine, the work is built on percussion riffs; uneasy, fluttering fragments; and repeated motifs, ending with a bang.

Miller Theatre Composer Portrait Program book, introduction by Paul Griffiths, March 2009:

The music moves through layerings of irregular repetition that combine to produce decisive forward motion, engaging or conflicting with a regular meter. Individual ideas are often simple—two pairs of chords with a firm rhythmic stamp, or perhaps a single rising interval, again rhythmically asserted, or even just a quick reiteration of one note— but the interlocking of these things on three, four, or five levels is intricate. Also, set against the offbeat striations, or else supporting them, there may be material that is less determinedly pulsed: sustained chords or slower, suppler melodic phrases. Often, of course, these will be drawn out of something in the more energetic layers, and will return. Often, too, there will be more than one process of increase or decrease, or of integration or disintegration, happening at once.

Neruda’s short lines and quick moves also make it possible for Sierra to write in the chain forms she favors, the music’s strong basic impulses maintaining continuity through cuts and swerves from one character to another. At the same time, the poetry fits the brilliant, energetic, flecked instrumental textures typical of Sierra’s music, while the flexible vocal writing, responsive to rhythm and imagery, is demanding all through in the interests of capturing the ecstatic luminosity of Neruda’s vision.

Surrounded Ground, February 2009:

Arlene Sierra's sextet Surrounded Ground was a 2008 commission by the exemplary Chroma. Sierra reflects her disquiet at the militarism of her native US by using instruments to mirror a strategy from Sun Tzu's military treatise The Art of War. In the fast-firing Egress, the last of the three movements, the conviction reaches an intense peak.

The Guardian

Reviews of Aquilo, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac Van Steen, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, January 2008:

Sierra’s ‘Aquilo’ represents the genesis of one of these [Vitruvian] winds, evoking too the process by which it is later joined by three more winds and then an additional four, before emerging alone again and finally breaking down, returning to the elements of its original creation. invites music of great fluidity and momentum as well as the layering of one musical line on top of another, and Sierra doesn’t turn down the invitation. This is high-energy music, turbulent and vivacious; but Sierra is attentive to variations of pace and volume, relatively serene passages juxtaposed with more tumultuous writing, quieter moments with climaxes. It got a performance of precision and clarity of texture, which brought out the piece’s pleasing sense of structural completeness.

Seen and Heard International

(The)... exacting approach to the elemental nature of sound was complemented by Arlene Sierra's Aquilo, in which the rushing energy of wind, fire and water was vividly captured.

The Guardian

A Conflict of Opposites, December 2007

Arlene Sierra's A Conflict of Opposites had a persuasive first movement, with the conflicting modes implied in the title expressively juxtaposed. The progress of the second, a dance, was more laboured, though it ended perfectly convincingly. [An] unexpected gem of a concert.

The Guardian

Review of Scarab from Birds and Insects, Spitalfields Festival, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, June 2006:

Philip Headlam’s Continuum Ensemble whisked us from Ancient Egypt to 13th-century China. ...we weren’t short of goodies.[as] Sierra expanded her thoughts, the better the scarab sounded... Douglas Finch’s keyboard grit was always an asset.

The Times

Muso Magazine (U.S. edition, Spring 2005)

Arlene Sierra writes for the column "Postcard from..." describing her experiences as an American composer living and working in the U.K.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (January 21, 2005 issue) published an interview with Arlene Sierra in their column "Who Got That Job?", written by Martyn Bull and featuring a photograph by Sam Friedrich. The interview covered her experiences leading up to an appointment as Lecturer in Composition at Cardiff University and aspects of the new post.

Anita Cheng Dance, Every Body Dance Alphabet
(and Unravelling from Four Choreographic Studies)
Merce Cunningham Studio, New York City

“The notion of an alphabet of bodily gestures has fascinated dancemakers in different ways... I assume that all the nine succinct little works Anita Cheng showed at the Cunningham Studio in January were based on her 26-poses "alphabet."

[The poses] vary interestingly, though, depending on what "letters" Cheng focuses on... Cheng's choreography for Unravel, to original music by Arlene Sierra, emphasizes Erika Bloom's lusher presence.”

The Village Voice

“The Cunningham Studio was an appropriate venue (January 9-11) for Anita Cheng to present her evening of miniatures: nine dances ranging from 2'30" to 11'00" long, with the timings listed alongside titles in the program. Besides structuring her dances around duration, Cheng's work shows Cunningham's influence in movement style and abstract content as well.

...Erika Bloom in Unravel showed a softer, almost dramatic facet of Cheng's creative thinking. In a brown dress, Bloom stirred her limbs; her back rippled sensuously; her focus implied an unspecific but definite intention. “

Gus Solomons, Jr,

Hand mit Ringen, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 25th Birthday Commission
Sarah Leonard, soprano and the Psappha Ensemble, St. Paul's Hall, Huddersfield, U.K.

"outstanding... a vivid danse macabre"

The Times

In its 25th year, the Contemporary Music Festival has done some commissioning of its own. Six young composers produced 10-minute pieces for Sarah Leonard and core members of the brilliant Psappha Ensemble. Of these, the focused aggression of Hand mit Ringen by Arlene Sierra made the biggest impression.

The Daily Telegraph

Oda al plato (Diadem) from Neruda Settings
Aldeburgh Festival, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, U.K.

...session in the Jubilee Hall (18 June), where pieces resulting from the previous summer's composition course were played and sung, very well, by students from the Britten/Pears orchestra, energetically directed by Nag-Bushan Odekar. Such events are often pious duties; this produced a distinct tingle of admiration and enjoyment. All seven items had value: together with technical accomplishment they had something to say. Personally, I relished... Arlene Sierra's Neruda setting, ardent in lyricism both liquid and fiery.

The Spectator