Nature Symphony was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Radio 3, and is Sierra’s first large-scale orchestral work since the piano concerto Art of War, written for Huw Watkins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 2010. That work was a milestone in a series of pieces based on ideas from game theory and military strategy, including Surrounded Ground (2008), Cicada Shell (2007), and Truel (2005). Nature Symphony is the largest statement so far in a parallel series of works that explore concepts from the natural world. As with the pieces Urban Birds (2014), Colmena (2008), and Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013), it is the mechanics and processes of nature, rather than a simple reflection or meditation, that form the basis for Sierra’s compositional approach.
Listen to excerpts from each movement, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, Ludovic Morlot, conductor:
1. Mountain of Butterflies
2. The Black Place (after O’Keeffe)
3. Bee Rebellion
The first movement of Nature Symphony, Mountain of Butterflies, takes building blocks from the piano trio Butterflies Remember a Mountain and expands them exponentially, to give a sense to multiplicity and minute detailing. The trio explored the idea of migration, bypassing obstacles and sense of continuing timeless cycles, and Mountain of Butterflies is the destination - like the eponymous site in Mexico where monarch butterflies complete their migration and form a literal mountain of beautiful, ancient insects. Memory plays its part as well, as some elements from the earlier work are remembered from Ravel’s piano trio, and others are remembered from buzzing, insect world of Sierra’s ensemble work Colmena.
The second movement of Nature Symphony, entitled The Black Place (after O’Keeffe) borrows its title from the work of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, whose paintings of a stretch of black hills in New Mexico have a similarly austere but slow-burning aspect. O’Keeffe made multiple studies of this far-flung empty landscape in the 1940’s. Previously a remote outpost, the site is now at great risk of fracking by U.S. corporations. The movement uses layered melodic figures from Sierra’s song setting Hearing Things (2008), to the passionately environmentalist poem by Catherine Carter (excerpted here), “I have begun to hear things... Thinking of the hole in the hill lidded and simmering, taut as an angry boil, I quail.”
The final movement Bee Rebellion takes up ideas of the natural world that resonate with composer’s preoccupation with strategy and the theory of games – as well as the life of bees. Subject to chemical and hormonal changes, a previously orderly society of bees can collapse into rebellion. Bee Rebellion explores a buzzing, quasi-mechanical orchestral texture that is subjected to outbursts, both cyclical and unpredictable, resulting in an accumulation that brings no resolution. As with game theory scenarios, the same conditions create a different result the second time, employing more remote parallels and frenetic circular processes, until a sudden flip of a switch ends the game, and the life of the hive where it takes place.
Nature Symphony was first performed by the BBC Philharmonic, Ludovic Morlot, conductor, at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on November 25th, 2017.
Programme note ©2017 Shawn G. Miller
To order scores and/or hire materials for Nature Symphony, please click here
Ludovic Morlot led a debut of Arlene Sierra’s Nature Symphony, which nods to everything from bees to the dark landscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe
Born in the US but based in Britain, Arlene Sierra is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for her feisty, energy-packed ensemble pieces. But her catalogue also includes a number of orchestral pieces, several of which have been taken up by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. That made Morlot a natural choice to conduct the first performance of Sierra’s Nature Symphony, which was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic.
The title suggests something programmatic, and the symphony’s three movements all have evocative titles, but there is nothing in them that’s obviously descriptive. The mechanics of natural processes fascinate Sierra and find their way into her music, so it is the idea of endless cycles of migration, year after year, that creates the steadily accumulating loops of the opening Mountain of Butterflies, while the sense of something ominous and threatening in the melodic fragments and ticking ostinatos of the slow central Black Place was inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s dark paintings of New Mexico.
The finale, Bee Rebellion, is based on the phenomenon of hive collapse that is sometimes seen in bee colonies, when the insect society can suddenly break down into anarchy; it’s music of unpredictable cycles and accumulations, with taunting wind solos, all cut short by a brassy, percussion-driven ending that offers no escape. Lasting just over 20 minutes, the symphony does what Sierra sets out to do with impressive economy and a succession of striking orchestral ideas.
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian
The three movements of Sierra’s Symphony have subtitles. The first is Mountain of Butterflies. According to the programme notes this refers to the “site in Mexico where monarch butterflies complete their migration and form a literal mountain of beautiful ancient insects”. In it the composer builds on an earlier piece, her piano trio entitled Butterflies Remember a Mountain. From the opening notes a remarkable sound-world is created with a large orchestra often being handled very delicately. Moments with piano and harp glistening over a large body of shimmering strings were particularly striking.
The second movement is entitled The Black Place (after O’Keefe) referencing the work by American painter Georgia O’Keefe of black hills in New Mexico. This atmospheric and often hypnotic movement made me think of some Bartók’s "night music". Bee Rebellion refers to the behaviour of bees in a hive and to game theory. Listeners aware of this might expect something dauntingly intellectual, but instead we had a build-up of melodic fragments with the focus shifting from one group of instruments to another – and some bee-like buzzing.
I am somewhat sceptical of the evocation or representation of the human or natural world in music but for me the Nature Symphony was memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra, ever–changing rhythms, ear-catching snatches of melody, contrasts of mood and a feeling that it all came together as a satisfying whole as a symphony should.
- Peter Connors, Backtrack.com
Review: Arlene Sierra's Nature Symphony
Two years ago I interviewed Arlene Sierra for this blog, ahead of a BBC Proms concert featuring her Butterflies Remember a Mountain. It is inspired by the annual mass migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico: each delicate insect making its infinitesimal contribution to the shimmering swarm; an unchanging annual cycle millions of years old; the sheer unimaginability of the scale of the endeavour, and a mysterious kink in the migration route are the source material for an intricate piece for piano trio.
Premiered on Saturday, Sierra’s Nature Symphony is another example of her fascination with the natural world and the first of its three movements draws directly from the earlier work. Set in a fast 5/4 time the rhythmic drive of the earlier trio is maintained, while continually reusing and developing its material, and using the larger forces of the orchestra to introduce minute detailing into the texture. This gives a sense of a stream (of migrating butterflies) moving inexorably forward, but in such a swarm that the whole presents an image in stasis, until suddenly they are at their destination, the Butterfly Mountain that gives the movement its name.
There is a satisfying symmetry in the overall shape of Nature Symphony: the third movement, Bee Rebellion, matches the first in rhythmic energy, and is in a similar tempo, but in 3/4 time seems busier. The pulse is destabilised by an insistent but irregular undertow of plucked double basses, while the violins and winds share a dialogue comprising short phrases that develop imperceptibly through the movement. Likening the life of the hive with elements of game theory - another favourite influence - Sierra creates a sense of frenetic but ultimately fruitless activity, and the movement ends with a sudden percussive crescendo and silence, a reminder of the colony collapse that bees are increasingly prone to, perhaps.
In the middle is a movement, titled The Black Place (after O'Keeffe), that is contrastingly song-like, with a long, slow melody shaped by fragments passed between horn, cor anglais and piccolo, and on through the orchestra, accompanied by long, held notes in the low strings. The rhythmic element is again there, but as a quiet, irregular pulse of plucked strings, harp and marimba, later taken up by piano, timpani and low brass. Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of the austere landscapes of New Mexico, the sharing out of these rhythmic, melodic and harmonic ingredients leads to a musical landscape whose tints, rather than colours, are constantly shifting.
This middle movement is a reminder of the composer’s concern at the fragility of nature: O'Keeffe's 'Black Place' - the Bisti Badlands - is under threat from fracking. The movement borrows melodic figures from Sierra's own 2008 setting of Hearing Things
, a passionately environmentalist poem by Catherine Carter. In a recent interview Arlene Sierra told Rhinegold’s Katy Wright
‘I don’t see how anyone living today can fail to realise the urgency of what is going on with the natural world and what we human beings are doing to change things. I have a little boy now, who’s five, and I’m so conscious of how different the environment is from when I was a child. It’s a personal sense of urgency.’
- Laurence Rose, Natural Light
Other works by Sierra take on fascinatingly diverse subject matter such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and military strategy, evolutionary biology, entomology, game theory, architecture and the built environment, siege engines and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. These works have been performed internationally and she has been the recipient of many awards such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives Fellowship and the Takemitsu Prize in 2001. So while she might be a new name to many, or some, in the audience her Nature Symphony certainly arrives with a level of expectation, and it doesn’t disappoint.
The main subject matter of this new piece is obviously nature and within Sierra’a music the characteristics of this derive inwardly from compositional, instrumental and artistic ideas, and the characteristics of the orchestra itself, rather than through the composer herself trying to outwardly impose impressions of the natural world upon the orchestra. Her approach is to concentrate on actions that happen within nature and the nuts and bolts of its systems and processes then draw these out of each instrument to construct suggestive, quite meticulous statements of sound. Each movement of the Nature Symphony is slightly programmatic being based around specific sites where natural phenomena occur, on natural objects or things and also drawing influence from paintings. Prior themes reoccur through her interest within the piece in insects and strategy. She also borrows in movements one and two from previous works, her Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013) and Hearing Things (2008) respectively.
The first movement ‘Mountain of Butterflies’ makes reference to a location in Mexico where Monarch butterflies end their migration en masse and become a butterfly mountain. It relies heavily on the full range of percussion instruments, from gongs, timpani, glockenspiel and xylophone down to different egg shakers. Ideas of mass and density are played off against those of lightness, delicacy and immateriality. This explorative scope perhaps mimics the scale of the natural world. It’s an assured, enthralling opening movement and the orchestra under Morlot’s alert direction show they have the necessary refinement to convey the intricacies, textures and balance of Sierra’s sound world.
In the perturbing second movement ‘The Black Place (after O’Keeffe)’ pizzicato strings and a muted, repetitive harp figure come to the fore lending a feeling of stasis and standstill while also signifying the organic matter that exists in the isolated, stark environment of the high desert. The music holds a near sinister and simmering darkness as it evocates Georgia O’Keeffe’s arid, dusty and empty paintings of New Mexico landscapes. And it is a kind of night music that Sierra delivers here. The title refers not only to the state of the geographical, physical landscape but to the mental condition too, while also perhaps making reference to O’Keeffe’s gradually failing sight. Much like those paintings, highly colourful yet pervaded by a foreboding blackness, it’s an ambiguous section of music that seems to come into and disappear out of focus, being both vivid and tense together.
This tension continues into the third movement ‘Bee Rebellion’ where Sierra explores ideas around the order and conditions imposed by nature and what happens when this goes wrong. This is either based on the end of the natural life-cycle of the hive when worker bees destroy what they have built (due to exposure to wax of a different chemical composition than normal that makes them aggressive and reproductively competitive), or it could refer to what is now known as Colony Collapse Disorder where worker bees simply abandon the hive. Suitably the music in this movement drones, hums and buzzes. Through sharp dynamic contrasts it fashions or engineers the unbalanced activity of the hive.
Nature Symphony is full of arresting, captivating and very mesmeric music. Sierra's sensibility towards movement and rhythm is abundantly present in the work. Rich and detailed in textures the music moves around mechanisms and somewhat clandestine systems that stay rhythmically and melodically close together yet expand through distinct changes in timbre and resonance. Sierra takes a bow on stage afterwards to warm, appreciative applause and it is a privilege to be among the first audience to hear the work.
- Simon Halworth, The Manchester Review
To order scores and/or hire materials for Nature Symphony, please click here