Urban Birds (2014)


for Three Pianos with percussion and sampled birdsong

Arlene Sierra is a composer of critically-acclaimed orchestral and chamber music whose compositional beginnings were in the electroacoustic field. 
The New Music Biennial commission Urban Birds is a return to Sierra's electroacoustic roots, while bringing 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. 

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.

Duration is approximately 14 minutes

Technical assistance in the creation of Urban Birds was provided by José Miguel FernandezThe piece will feature piano virtuosi Clare Hammond, Eliza McCarthy, Sarah NicollsXenia Pestova and Kathleen Supove in touring performances throughout 2014. 

Click here to see a PDF of the first page of the score.

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

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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, presents a series of 20 brand new music commissions to audiences across the UK. All of these commissions will also be presented at two weekend showcases in London (4 – 6 July 2014) and Glasgow (1 - 2 August 2014). New Music Biennial is 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 has been 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 writes, "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."



Advance Press for Urban Birds:

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.

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

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