A New Music Biennial commissioned work for Three Pianos with Percussion and Sampled Birdsong

Now available to download from NMC Records

Arlene Sierra is a composer of critically-acclaimed orchestral and chamber music whose compositional beginnings were in the electroacoustic field. Urban Birds is a return to Sierra's electroacoustic roots, and brings together three international soloists who specialise in new music for piano plus electronics. Urban Birds combines harmony, rhythmic drive, and sounds from nature in a tapestry of environmental sound and virtuosic performance. The work engages musically with one of the central preoccupations of our time: Our relationship with the natural world.

The piece employs recordings of birds that range in the UK and specifically Wales: the Blackcap, the Skylark and the Cuckoo. The recordings are part of the musical texture, with samples functioning as integral musical elements in the evolving structure of the work. The three pianists play material that imitates and answers the birdsong, and they have specific roles as well: One soloist doubles on percussion, one plays the strings inside the piano, and there is an intricate part for the Yamaha Disklavier Piano played by a soloist who is a specialist on that instrument. (**A new version allows performance on acoustic pianos with laptop and sound system, in case a Disklavier is unavailable)

Urban Birds is in three movements, performed attacca:
1. Sylviid Babblers
This movement features the extended songs of the Blackcap with answers from related species known collectively as Sylviid Babblers, as well as from the pianos and a single crotale.
2. Skylark Loops
A looped fragment of the Skylark's song is transcribed, manipulated, and repeated with percussive contributions from stopped piano strings and woodblock.
3. Cuculus-cornuta
Cuckoo calls dominate this movement, punctuated by the guiro, until rogue elements are introduced in the form of an extended passage for pre-programmed Disklavier and the call of a very different bird: the South American Horned Screamer.

Technical assistance in the creation of Urban Birds was provided by José Miguel Fernandez, with technical assistance for later realisations by Richard McReynolds and Reiss Smith.
The piece has featured piano virtuosi Clare Hammond, Eliza McCarthy, Sarah Nicolls, Xenia Pestova and Kathleen Supove in touring performances throughout 2014, a US premiere at the New Music Gathering in 201, and a revival tour as part of the 2022 New Music Biennial in Coventry and London. 

Download an excerpt from the score

Listen to excerpts of birdsong that form part of the soundscape of Urban Birds:


Press for Urban Birds:

On its 10th anniversary, the biennial featured 10 new pieces and 10 revivals, from Paul Purgas’s pulsing tape piece to Arlene Sierra’s touching work for three pianos and birdsong
And in Drapers’ Hall, the pianists Xenia Pestova Bennett, Sarah Nicolls and Eliza McCarthy returned to Arlene Sierra’s Urban Birds from 2014. Sierra overlays samples of the songs of three familiar British birds – the blackcap, skylark and cuckoo – with the sounds of the three pianos, percussion and disklavier, so that the birds become part of the musical fabric in an utterly unpretentious and in the end rather touching way.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
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

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

BBC Radio Wales Arts Show (2014)
Sierra joined the Radio Wales Arts Show to talk about the composition and world premiere of her New Music Biennial commission "Urban Birds"
Listen here:

Urban Birds by Arlene Sierra wins £20,000 commission,
12 May 2013 - BBC News

A new composition using birdsong from Wales has won £20,000 in funding for a major showcase coinciding with the Commonwealth Games.
Cardiff University composer Dr Arlene Sierra has secured the backing from the PRS for Music Foundation.
Her piece Urban Birds will be performed as part of the New Music Biennial which will be held in London and Glasgow next year.
The performances will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
"The work will engage musically with one of the central preoccupations of our time: our relationship with the natural world. Urban Birds is a piece that juxtaposes natural and electronic sources in an extended pianistic sound world showcasing three formidable soloists," explained the American composer, who is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University's School of Music.
"The work will engage musically with one of the central preoccupations of our time: our relationship with the natural world."
The digital recordings of birdsong will be backed by performances from three of the world's best experimental pianists, Sarah Nicolls of London, Kathleen Supove from New York, and Xenia Pestova, who lives in Bangor, Gwynedd.
The work has been commissioned by the INTER/actions Festival of Interactive Electronic Music, which is part of Bangor University's School of Music in Gwynedd.
The concept has been cheered on by Welsh wildlife expert Iolo Williams, who said: "It's such a great concept, that I can't believe no-one's done it before.
Please visit the dedicated page on the PRS Foundation website for more information.

PRS Foundation Press Release, 2013

Urban Birds has won major funding support as part of the PRS Foundation's New Music Biennial. The INTER/actions Festival of Interactive Electronic Music was awarded £20,000 to commission and produce the new work.

PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music Biennial, part of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Cultural Programme, presented a series of 20 brand new music commissions to audiences across the UK. All of these commissions were also presented at two weekend showcases in London (4 – 6 July 2014) and Glasgow (1 - 2 August 2014). New Music Biennial was a PRS for Music Foundation initiative, presented in partnership with Creative Scotland, Arts Council England and the British Council, and in collaboration with BBC Radio 3, NMC Recordings, Southbank Centre and Glasgow UNESCO City of Music. Additional support was given by John S. Cohen Foundation, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Incorporated Society of Musicians, The Bliss Trust, The Finzi Trust and Hope Scott Trust.

Arlene Sierra wrote, "I am delighted to be selected for the New Music Biennial to compose Urban Birds, a piece that juxtaposes natural and electronic sources in an extended pianistic sound world showcasing three formidable soloists."