A Portrait CD of Orchestral Works

Released in 2014 to international critical acclaim, Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2 is the second in a series devoted to Sierra's music with the esteemed label Bridge Records. Brilliant performances are offered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with piano soloist Huw Watkins and conductor Jac Van Steen.

Bridge Records: This recording presents first performances of four recent scores by Arlene Sierra, the American composer, now living in London. Arlene Sierra’s music packs volcanic rhythmic power into compositions that are at once atmospheric, yet possessed of inexorable forward drive. The subject matter of Sierra’s compositions is far flung, and includes East Asian studies, evolutionary biology, entomology, game theory, siege engines, and architecture, to name but a few. In recent years Sierra has been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony, and both of these compositions are heard here. Sierra teaches composition at Cardiff University, Wales and the The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, led by their Principal Guest Conductor, Jac Van Steen, have played Sierra’s orchestral music more frequently than any other orchestra. Their superb performances capture the visceral quality and detail of Sierra’s virtuosic scores.


(listen to excerpts below)

Moler (2012) for Orchestra

Art of War (2010) - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Movement 1. Captive Nation

Movement 2. Strategic Siege

Game of Attrition (2009) for Chamber Orchestra

Aquilo (2001) for Orchestra

To view a PDF of the CD booklet, click here


★★★★ 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

...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

★★★★ 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