Listen: Instrumental, chamber and solo works
Avian Mirrors (2013)
For violin and cello
Avian Mirrors explores the title concept in three ways: Movement one, Greeting, is a dialog in which calls are answered in quick succession. The game of answering leads to seeming mistakes and resulting variations. Movement two, Reflection, takes simple melodic figures and presents them with their inversion - an aural approximation of an avian image reflected in water. Finally movement three, Display, has the two performers displaying their most flamboyant virtuosity in amiable competition.
Avian Mirrors was commissioned by and with the generous support of Elizabeth Jacobs for Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester and the Peasmarsh Chamber Music Festival.
Listen to excerpts from each movement performed by Anthony Marwood, violin and Fernando Arias, cello (US premiere, Yellow Barn Festival, Vermont):
Insects in Amber (2010)
For string quartet
Insects in Amber is part of a series of works exploring sounds and ideas from the natural world, especially Darwinian mechanisms of competition and organization. Other works in the series include the piano album Birds and Insects, Book I (2007), the ensemble piece Colmena (2008), and the chamber orchestral work Game of Attrition (2009).
Insects in Amber employs transcribed insect calls and dramatic dialogues between instruments of the quartet. These were inspired by scientific studies of insect behavior and interactions, specifically the competition between subsets of overtly aggressive and more peaceful but strategic males of the same species.
The work is in three titled movements:
1. Gryllus Integer
Based on the calls of the named species (also known as the Western Stutter-Trilling Cricket), the first violin and viola are imagined as cricket 'singers' who try to entice the other two instruments of the quartet to respond to their calls.
2. Double Viols
The atmosphere of both ancient life and ancient music is evoked by the non-vibrato sonority of viols. The sonority intensifies and evolves until cricket calls from the first movement arise from the texture.
The competitive behavior and buzzing sonority of the figwasp is explored in this movement, where instruments of the quartet interact as combative pairs. Glass rods are used a percussive element on the strings in a fast, restless and virtuosic finale.
Insects in Amber was commissioned for the Carducci Quartet with support from the Cheltenham International Festival.
Excerpts performed by the Carducci Quartet
Surrounded Ground (2008)
The title Surrounded Ground is from the ancient Chinese treatise by Sun Tzu, The Art of War. In this seminal book of military strategy, surrounded ground is described as "where the entrance is narrow, the exit circuitous, allowing the enemy to attack his few to our many." This and other excerpts from the text are used to determine the musical interactions of instruments throughout the three-movement sextet.
I. Preamble: The ensemble is divided into several opposing forces, often a disparate minority against a homogenous majority whose drive to prevail is overwhelming at first but later begins to disintegrate. The mass seems to lose its will to dominate for a time, but no resolution is offered as the threat of further conflict remains.
II. Feigned Retreat: The two violins are pitted against the remaining instruments, and their virtuosic interaction with the ensemble hints at the Sun Tzu quotation, “Do not follow a feigned retreat. Do not attack crack troops.”
III. Egress: The precision, aggression and great speed demanded from the ensemble in this movement was suggested by Sun Tzu’s advice that, “A surrounded army must be given a way out” and the commentary “Surround them on three sides, leaving one side open, to show them a way to life.” Different pairs of instruments struggle through a frenetic, syncopated texture, melodically asserting a way forward until finally, after a last statement from the first violin, the ensemble makes a sudden, surreptitious escape.
Surrounded Ground was commissioned by the Chroma Ensemble of London.
Listen to excerpts of Movements 2 and 3 from Bridge Records: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, performed by Charles Neidich, clarinet, Stephen Gosling, piano and the Daedalus Quartet:
Birds and Insects, Book I (2007)
Birds and Insects (Book I) is an album of piano pieces composed between 2003 and 2007. The earliest work of the set is a showpiece entitled Scarab, and four smaller works have followed.
Each piece features distinct characteristics to fit its title: spelling the name in pitches, employing a transcription of an animal's song from nature, recalling its physical movement in various ways, or developing ideas drawn from an animal’s cultural symbolism.
Scarab was commissioned by the German pianist Thorsten Kuhn who has performed it in Weimar, Hamburg, Vienna and New York. Cicada Sketch was written at the request of LCM examinations director Andrew McBirnie as a test piece and was premiered in Vienna in 2004. Cornish Bantam was written for Daniel Becker and received its premiere in Cardiff in 2005. Titmouse was commissioned by Clive Williamson for the 2005 Guildford International Festival and published in Cadenza Music’s “One Minute Wonders” series, and was included as a test piece for the Seventh British Contemporary Piano Competition in 2006. Book 1 was completed with Sarus Crane, which forms the basis of a tribute piece for Henri Dutilleux to celebrate his honorary fellowship from Cardiff University in 2008.
Listen to excerpts of Sarus Crane, Titmouse and Scarab from Bridge Records: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, performed by Vassily Primakov, piano:
Art of Lightness (2006)
For solo flute
The Art of Lightness was commissioned by Lisa Nelsen in 2006 and first performed by Rowland Sutherland at the Warehouse, London, as part of the Lontano Festival of American Music, 6 October 2010.
This work is based on concepts from Wong Kiew Kit’s The Art of Shaolin King Fu, where the discipline of martial arts is presented as a means to enlightenment and peaceful transcendence. Certain kung fu action sequences are based on the qualities of animals, real or mythical, and practised over and over until they flow together, culminating in the seamless, organic movement that is instinctive to the kung fu master. Some masters are said to achieve such a level of expertise that they can transcend the force of gravity, a special form of kung fu known as the Art of Lightness (Qinggong)
In this piece the solo flute presents a strict sequence of ‘aural actions’ derived from these ideas; first a meditative preparation, followed by melodic fragments based on the dragon, the snake, the tiger, the leopard, and the crane. All the fragments contain cyphers, melodic and rhythmic cells that correspond to an animal’s qualities (ie: speed, elegance, fierceness, etc.). The sequence is repeated in cycles that constitute a larger form that could be imagined as a session of kung fu training. In each cycle a different animal motif is elaborated, made more distinct and refined while the other motifs are shortened or fragmented in response. In the last cycle the melodic fragments are presented in their original forms once again and finally combined so that the flowing unity of actions achieves ever lighter, more virtuosic and exuberant heights.
Listen to an excerpt performed by Rowland Sutherland:
Cicada Shell (2006)
For 7 players
Cicada Shell belongs to a series of pieces exploring principles of military strategy. The Thirty-Six Strategies, an ancient collection of Chinese battle tactics, provided impetus for this work. "Strategy 21: Slough off the cicada’s shell," advises that false appearances mislead enemies. Transformation and illusion are key to avoiding capture and defeat.
The work is in two movements of equal length: the first is a series of diminuendi derived from a ritornello theme, while the second is a series of crescendi based on the same materials. Both movements feature a number of cyphers based on the title of the work as well as a central motif transcribed from the call of cicadas in nature.
Cicada Shell was commissioned by the New Music Players, with support from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust.
Listen to excerpts from Bridge Records: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, performed by ICE, Jayce Ogren, conductor:
Truel I and Truel (complete) (2002-4)
For piano trio or clarinet trio
This work is based on a mathematical probability puzzle described in the book "Fermat's Last Theorem" by Simon Singh.
A truel is a duel involving three people. The rules are that each has a turn at shooting at one opponent and the truel continues until only one participant is left alive.
In one particular truel there are three people: Mr Black, Mr Gray and Mr White. Mr Black hits his target one time in three, Mr Gray hits the target two times in every three shots and Mr White never misses. To make it fairer Mr Black shoots first, then Mr Gray, followed by Mr White, and so on, until only one man remains alive.
The question is what should Mr Black do?
Black's best option is a non-violent one: to shoot into the air.
If he shoots at Gray and kills him then he is a dead man. If he shoots at White and kills him then he only has a 1/3 chance of survival. By shooting into the air he ensures that Gray and White shoot it out and then he has the first shot against the survivor. In other words, by initially killing one of his opponents he would only make his chances worse because then the remaining opponent would shoot at him instead of at the third man.
Thus, the worst shot has the best chances because he is the least dangerous.
Listen to an excerpt performed by the Avian Ensemble:
Counting-Out Rhyme (2002)
For cello and piano
Counting-Out Rhyme was commissioned by the Pur oder Plus Festival, Hamburg, Germany and first performed at the Freie Akademie der Künste in Hamburg in 2002. The work was composed in response to the poem of the same name by Edna St Vincent Millay, and employs cyphers of words as well as rhythmic and formal devices adapted from the poem.
Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.
Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
Bark of popple.
Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
Wood of hornbeam.
Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
Twig of willow.
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950
Listen to an excerpt performed by members of Lontano:
Four Choreographic Studies (2001)
For 10 players
I. Slingshot, II. Unravelling, III. Tango, IV. Risk
Four Choreographic Studies were written for the Tanglewood/Jacob’s Pillow Composer–Choreographer workshop in July 2001, involving Tanglewood Music Center Fellows and dancers from Jacob’s Pillow, under the direction of Louis Andriessen and Beppie Blankert. The movements were written in collaboration with four choreographers, and each is based on a different formal or movement–oriented idea, meant to be executed in under three minutes. Using different groupings within a chamber ensemble of ten, each movement was composed in one to two days, choreographed over the same period, and presented at the end of the two week workshop period at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s Inside/Out Theater. The set was subsequently performed at the Tanglewood Music Festival’s Seiji Ozawa Hall on July 28th, 2001.
Listen to excerpts from movements 1, 2, and 4 performed by Tanglewood Music Center Fellows:
of Risk and Memory (1997)
For two pianos, four hands
of Risk and Memory explores the concepts of its title in a number of ways. Elements of risk are inherent in the technical virtuosity of the work, both for the individual pianists and in their requirements as a duo ensemble. There is risk in the musical assertion and denial of individuality– as the pianists must finish each other’s phrases, match one another exactly and at times compete for dominance in the process of the work. Risk is illustrated in the visual aspects of performance as well, because the main materials of the piece require one pianist to play at the extremes of the keyboard while the other is confined to the center, switching position in turn. As the music continues, the listener/viewer becomes aware that certain phrases create visual cues, adding to the already formidable requirement of precision on the part of the performers. It is within memory that the structure of this work becomes apparent. Musical objects are presented sequentially, interrupted and then brought back in an overlapping reverse order, only to be shattered with mechanical persistence in the second main section of the work. In this section, the objects are subjected to a process that seems to destroy them, but later brings about their aural transformation. After this transformation has taken place, the original objects return and are followed again in their new forms, leaving listeners to discern between the music and its transformation in memory.
Listen to an excerpt from a performance by Daniel Becker and Huw Watkins and broadcast by the BBC :