Nature Symphony (2017)
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:
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