Debut CD: Arlene Sierra, Volume 1
- Cicada Shell (2006) International Contemporary Ensemble, Jayce Ogren, conductor
- Birds and Insects, Book 1 (2007) Vassily Primakov, piano
- Surrounded Ground (2008) Charles Neidich, clarinet, Stephen Gosling, piano, Daedalus Quartet
- Two Neruda Odes (2004) Susan Narucki, soprano, Raman Ramakrishnan, cello, Stephen Gosling, piano
- Colmena (2008), International Contemporary Ensemble, Jayce Ogren, conductor
- Ballistae (2001) International Contemporary Ensemble, Jayce Ogren, conductor
ReviewsA Stunning Menagerie from Arlene Sierra
At times, composer Arlene Sierra’s catalog reads more like an inventory of the Museum of Natural History with titles like Insects in Amber, Cricket-Viol, Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects, Book 1. Even her inclusion in the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural Contact! series in December of 2009, Game of Attrition, was based on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Likewise, Sierra’s works are full of feline cunningness, birdlike chirps, beastly savage turns and serpentine seduction.
Unsurprisingly, then, the first in a series of Sierra’s collected works recorded for Bridge records reflects her animal collectiveness, starting with Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects, Book I, the former reflecting the deep-seated Stravinsky influence that reverberates through much of Sierra’s catalog (and captured in an aptly-timed recording by the International Contemporary Ensemble, who perform Stravinsky this week as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival).
Indeed, ICE factors heavily into this hot album, reappearing on Colmena and Ballistae. Colmena, Spanish for “beehive” (and this week’s free download) swarms and buzzes, particularly in the wind instruments, adding layer upon layer to the fluttering activity of violins, flute and piano. Ballistae, reflecting Sierra’s other apparent love for all things battle-related, represents the sonic equivalent of this medieval weapon—a sort of crossbow-catapult hybrid. Elsewhere, pianist Vassily Primakov takes on a nuanced account of Birds and Insects and the Daedalus Quartet go further into the breach with a kinetic and vibrant Surrounded Ground. Rounding out the collection is soprano Susan Narucki performing the hushed and haunting Two Neruda Odes. All works on display have the effect of a promising butterfly collection we hope will continue in future volumes.
WQXR: Q2 Album of the Week
Arlene Sierra currently teaches composition at Cardiff University, while her own teachers have ranged from Michael Daugherty and Jacob Druckman to Magnus Lindberg and Judith Weir. But her work has its own character, in which historical and contemporary influences are fused into a highly flexible and distinctive style as well as incorporating a wide range of extra-musical ideas, including game theory, Darwinian evolution and military strategy. The opening section of the ensemble piece, Cicada Shell, is powered along by Stravinskyan motor rhythms, and there's an acerbic tang of the same composer in the sextet, Surrounded Ground. However, the foreground of the music is packed with crisp, vivid detail that's not at all hand-me-down. Sierra likes bold, highly coloured gestures; the piano cycle, Birds and Insects, is full of explosive chordal moments to punctuate the Messiaen-like flourishes, while two eloquent settings of Pablo Neruda are underpinned with busy, eventful cello-and-piano figuration.
ICE appears on an intriguing new album of pieces by the American-born, UK-based composer Arlene Sierra, for whom Bridge Records has just begun a multi-volume series. This piece for 14 players from 2008, Colmena, is a buzzing blur of a thing. The effect seems just right, given that the piece's title means "beehive" in Spanish. It also possesses a remarkable brilliance of color, rhythmic dexterity and playfulness, all qualities fully brought out by [Claire] Chase and her colleagues.
Composer Arlene Sierra is the closest thing to a “musical entomologist” that we will probably find in the world of contemporary music. The first word that comes to my mind when listening to her music is “spin,” and the accompanying visual is that of a spider weaving an intricate web with speed and dexterity, into which a myriad of other tiny creatures unsuspectingly wind themselves up. Indeed the titles of her pieces tend to gravitate towards the names of bugs and birds, and possess a whirling quality constructed of heavily layered snippets of musical material deftly orchestrated in such a way that the listener can enjoy the form and structure of the music from both a “bird’s eye view,” and also have a satisfying dig into the tiny details... Regardless of which listening approach you decide to take with these works—the view of the forest or of the trees... the music reveals complexity and insight that will make you want to press play again and open your ears even wider for the next listen.
New Music Box
A significant young composer, based in Britain, who has astutely been adopted by Bridge Records in America, to their credit and, I hope, their profit. This is all music of distinct originality and personality, played and recorded to highest standards. The ensemble music is complex but always clear, and one feels that every note is placed with intention. A strong recommendation, a disc which I will return to enjoy again.
The compositions of American expat Arlene Sierra are boldly individualistic, rhythmically challenging and the subject of a recent release from Bridge Records. Sierra – whose recent commissions include works for the New York Philharmonic, the Carducci Quartet and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – worked primarily with electronic media at the outset of her composing career, and the pieces presented here still bear some remnant of that aesthetic. Unexpected changes in tempo, abrupt stops and unusual instrumental texturing give the pieces the smooth, polished beauty of some exotic music from the future. And yet, there is an emotional centre to this work that cannot be denied. Take for example the sense of peril expressed in the opening movement of Surrounded Ground, a piece that takes its inspiration from such disparate cultural artifacts as Aaron Copland’s Sextet of 1933-37 and the ancient military strategy guide, The Art of War. Juxtaposed with the tense, staggered phrases of this exposition, the first movement of Birds and Insects, Book 1 seems restrained, although the arpeggio preamble intimates a world so profoundly mysterious that a listener may enter it and never want to return. Strange and beautiful.
Scene Magazine, Ontario
Best Albums of 2011 (Part 1): Arlene Sierra - Arlene Sierra Vol. 1
Just when you start wondering whether contemporary instrumental music doesn't have anything new left to explore, along comes this, the first compilation of Arlene Sierra's music • The earliest included work (Ballistae) is a decade old, but the rest of the pieces date from within the last five years • Sierra's music is fresh & unpredictable, & the works connected with creatures—the chamber piece Cicada Shell & Birds and Insects for solo piano—make a particularly strong impression • A vocal work, Two Neruda Odes, indicates a lyrical streak to her work, but this appears to be of only secondary interest; Sierra is most in her element exploring rather hectic, scurrying textures • Superb performances throughout; the "Vol. 1" in the CD title is nicely optimistic—one hopes it's not too long before there's a Vol. 2
Five Against Four
Arlene Sierra is an American-born composer who has taught composition at Cambridge University and is currently Senior Lecturer in composition at the Cardiff University School of Music.
[Ballistae] is a remarkable achievement. From beginning to end the energy barely lets up, a constant, battering stream of sound which nonetheless maintains crystal-clear textures and an unwavering sense of forward motion before arriving at the point when the projectile finally hits its target …
[Two Neruda Odes] is stunning. The vocal line is challenging... but superbly expressive and wide-ranging, and above all, truly vocal. It is also magnificently integrated into the accompanying instrumental texture.
Colmena is the shortest work on the disc. The title means “Beehive” in Spanish, and the work “explores accumulation and change from micro to macro levels”. Composed following study of the nature of beehives, it is a superb scherzo for chamber ensemble, the music hugely colourful and brilliantly conceived for the forces.
It is brilliantly written... compellingly dramatic and exciting. The recording is very vivid and close, at one with the repertoire, and the performances are astonishingly virtuosic. It is billed as Volume 1, and I will certainly be looking out for Volume 2…
Skillful and Imaginative: Music by Arlene Sierra impresses Patric Standford
Arlene Sierra was born in Miami and after studies at Yale and Ann Arbor, and a growing catalogue of critical successes, she came by way of a Berlin residency to England where she now divides her time between home in London and a lectureship in composition at Cardiff University School of Music. Pieces on this CD are the product of a decade from 2001 and reflect Sierra's interest in both architecture and war games. Her background is one of dance and fine arts, and the rhythmically vigorous elements of her music are therefore not so surprising. It is this constant vitality that maintains interest throughout many of the pieces. Her interest in closely associating much of this music with war games, drawing upon ancient Chinese essays on military strategy, reflects itself not only in many of the titles of her pieces, but also in their structure and the relationships made between instruments in the ensembles.
The earliest among this selection of work is Ballistae (2001), a single movement for thirteen players that portrays the preparation and initiation of the medieval weapon of its title, as directed by the first century BC Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius in his remarkable treatise.
The need for an aggressive musical character is apparent from the source, and this tends to present itself in other pieces too. The two movements of Cicada Shell (2006), another chamber ensemble piece, inhabit a similar soundscape, inspired by one of the 'Thirty-Six Strategies' in an ancient collection of battle tactics -- the one suggesting that 'false appearances mislead enemies', that illusion is key to avoiding defeat. The title is derived from the name of that specific strategy, and combines interestingly with the natural call of the male cicada. The first movement, Marziale, is a series of diminuendi and the second uses the same material, reversing the process to crescendi. The piece belongs to a series of works exploring similar military ground, including a piano concerto Art of War completed in 2010, and Surrounded Ground (2008), which is a sextet for piano, clarinet and string quartet included on this CD. The interactions of the instruments arise from interpretations of text from another ancient treatise, this from Sun Tzu's The Art of War: 'where the entrance is narrow, the exit circuitous, allowing the enemy to attack his few to our many'. The structure and character of each of the three movements derive from quotations, the third movement, Egress, reflecting the calm and swiftness of an army surrounding its enemy on three sides to leave one 'to show them a way to life'.
Away from warring, Sierra turns to insects. Colmena (2008) is about a beehive (the title is Spanish) and portrays the complex social industry of the hive and the final hibernation that brings about 'a kind of buzzing repose'.
Wildlife also features in the seven movements of Birds and Insects -- Book 1, a group of piano pieces written between 2003 and 2007, from which the Titmouse displays an agile wit in both animal and composer.
This well-balanced and vibrant CD, which also includes Two Neruda Odes for soprano, piano and cello (for which there is sadly no translation), forms an impressive and valuable first volume introduction to this composer's energetic, skillful and imaginative work.
Music and Vision
American composer Arlene Sierra is presently based in the U.K., where she is a senior lecturer in musical composition at Cardiff University. Sierra has studied with some of the leading composers of our time, including Magnus Lindberg, and her music has already received many accolades.
There can be no doubt that Sierra has an uncanny ability to realize and build her musical ideas toward shattering conclusions, oftentimes literally so. But be forewarned: this is definitely not music for the fainthearted. …Sierra is fascinated with the martial arts and writes music that is as intense as it is complex.
How does Sierra realize musical warfare? By pitting instruments and groups of instruments against each other; by organizing thematic content in small, repetitive cells that move in organized, militaristic fashion; by favoring bright textures that slowly grow in complexity; and by gradually turning up the volume. The cumulative effect is highly potent...
But there is also a mellower side to Sierra’s music, which will likely also appeal to pacifists. That is featured in the remaining two works on this recording, Birds and Insects and the Two Neruda Odes. The former is a series of five mysterious works for piano, in which one hears hints of Ravel, Messiaen, Webern, and Berio.
Sierra’s setting of Neruda’s allegorical poetry—which pays homage to two common objects, the plate and the table—is truly masterly, as is the way in which she manages to build tension towards the end of the second ode.
The recording features uniformly excellent playing by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Daedalus Quartet, soprano Susan Narucki, clarinetist Charles Neidich, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and pianists Vassily Primakov and Stephen Gosling. Jayce Ogren, who conducts the three works for larger ensembles, deserves special praise for his mastery of these complex scores. The quality of the recorded sound is outstanding.
News Feature on Sierra CD Release and work at Cardiff University School of Music in the South Wales Echo
In “Music of Arlene Sierra, Volume I,” one finds that, organic as a walk in a forest, Sierra’s music is a force of Nature. Her work features names like “Cicada Shell (1 and 2)” and some Stravinsky “Rite of Spring”-like phrases that call to mind the frenetic gait of these miraculous creatures. The “Birds and Insects Book I” selections evoke visions of the struggles... where no matter who prevails, situations end how they must. “Two Neruda Odes” are vocal works that have an ethereal feel, transcending the earthly denizens of her previous compositions. The music flows through the lyric, embracing the language, yet the music does not rest. Sierra composes with a great sense of the voices she’s writing, whether human or instrumental. She creates a musical landscape that has garnered her awards like the Charles Ives Fellowship, and she was the first woman to ever win the prestigious Takemitsu Prize in 2001. Her work is popular for its wisdom and wit, and this debut CD will assure her the larger audience she deserves.
Dedicated entirely to works by Arlene Sierra, this disc simultaneously gives an overview of the state of her art while whetting the appetite for more.
The world of winged creatures provides the impetus for the first two works. The two equal parts of Cicada Shell— ...“Marziale’s” three main sections start out with brute force that is at one with the overarching subject matter, only to be gradually calmed as the intensity dissipates: liquid, dry or pizzicato in turn. “Misterioso expressivo” marvellously lives up to its billing, featuring thoughtful highs and brooding lows (especially well anchored by Joshua Rubin’s skill on the bass clarinet). The thematic germ (with a remarkable tinge of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring just prior to the incredible bombast) works well in all of its forms and the childlike violin (David Bowlin is crystal clear and secure in all ranges) provides much-needed relief and contrast to the weightier ideas.
[In] Birds and Insects—Book 1 Pianist Vassily Primakov employs his vast array of touches effectively, giving each of the five movements a distinctive colour. The moody feel of “Sarus Crane” finds its polar opposite with the antics of “Titmouse.” The extended, closing “Scarab,” with its stop-and-go construction ... is emotionally rich and superbly balanced.
Surrounded Ground might well be subtitled L’histoire de la tactique given its historical source: The Art of War by Sun Tzu. The dissonantly triumphant “Preamble” (where only the clarinet’s inability to match the pointed attacks of his colleagues causes any concern) convincingly set the stage for the coming manoeuvres.
[In] "Feigned Retreat”… a beautifully crafted viola line (Jessica Thompson) helps to refocus the ear. Once the “battle” begins, it’s not hard to imagine the violins’ bows as weapons, trying valiantly to survive the barrage of rapid-fire blasts from their musical combatants. The purposely jagged, dance of near-death (“Egress”) provides the requisite opening, leading to defeat with honour. If only real conflicts could be settled just as harmoniously!
The two settings of Odes from Pablo Neruda are engagingly sculpted. Soprano Susan Narucki’s consummate skill of moving into and out of all registers makes her the ideal interpreter. Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan’s tawny, eloquent tone is the perfect foil even as pianist Stephen Gosling provides stellar work as the “glue.”
Colmena (beehive) is a delightfully active, largely inventive sound painting. Conductor Jayce Ogren keeps his talented charges (special mention to James Austin Smith for his delectable contributions on oboe and English horn) artfully a-buzz.
Bridge Records to launch series dedicated to music by Arlene Sierra
Bridge Records is to launch a series of recordings of music by the Miami-born composer Arlene Sierra. Sierra has been attracting praise from critics and audiences alike in recent years and the Bridge series marks her debut on disc. She was one of the first composers to be commissioned by Alan Gilbert for his opening season as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009.
In 2007 she received a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which described her music as “by turns, urgent, poetic, evocative, and witty. She has a keen appreciation of instrumental sonorities and the inherent drama of successive musical atmospheres. Intriguing, passionate, mysterious, her recent work, Cicada Shell, confidently announces the arrival of a significant composer.”
Composed in 2006, Cicada Shell is one of six works included on the new disc and is performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Jayce Ogren. The same forces also feature on performances of 2001’s Ballistae and Colmena from 2008. The other works are Book 1 of Birds and Insects, played by pianist Vassily Primakov; Surrounded Ground, performed by Charles Niedich (clarinet), Stephen Gosling (piano), and the Daedalus Quartet; and
Two Neruda Odes in a performance by soprano Susan Narucki, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and Stephen Gosling.
Funding for her debut CD was provided by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the Ditson Fund at Columbia University, New York.
The Classical Review