"...a disc that merits and rewards repeated listening." Classical Ear, February 2019

"...a wonderful chamber music issue that enthrals from first bar to last." Gramophone, January 2019

"...a thrilling display of alacrity and acrobatics." 
Records International, December 2018

Bridge Records has just released the latest disc in Arlene Sierra's portrait series, and it is already receiving rave reviews in the international press.

Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3: Butterflies Remember a Mountain is now available through all major outlets, featuring performances by the Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio – the trio of Nicola Benedetti, Leonard Elschenbroich, and Alexei Gruynyuk – as well as the Horszowski Trio, and piano duo Quattro Mani.

Order now from Bridge Records 

Click here to view the earlier discs in the series, Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, and Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2

Click here to see Sierra's other music at Bridge Records

Listen to clips on Soundcloud:


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:

1. Mountain of Butterflies


2. The Black Place (after O’Keeffe)


3. Bee Rebellion


Score excerpt

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

To order scores and/or hire materials for Nature Symphony, please click here




Reviews

BBC Philharmonic / Morlot review – striking orchestral ideas in new Sierra symphony • Arlene Sierra takes us back to nature in striking new symphony

Ludovic Morlot led a debut of Arlene Sierra’s Nature Symphony, which nods to everything from bees to the dark landscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe

Born in the US but based in Britain, Arlene Sierra is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for her feisty, energy-packed ensemble pieces. But her catalogue also includes a number of orchestral pieces, several of which have been taken up by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. That made Morlot a natural choice to conduct the first performance of Sierra’s Nature Symphony, which was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic.

The title suggests something programmatic, and the symphony’s three movements all have evocative titles, but there is nothing in them that’s obviously descriptive. The mechanics of natural processes fascinate Sierra and find their way into her music, so it is the idea of endless cycles of migration, year after year, that creates the steadily accumulating loops of the opening Mountain of Butterflies, while the sense of something ominous and threatening in the melodic fragments and ticking ostinatos of the slow central Black Place was inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s dark paintings of New Mexico.

The finale, Bee Rebellion, is based on the phenomenon of hive collapse that is sometimes seen in bee colonies, when the insect society can suddenly break down into anarchy; it’s music of unpredictable cycles and accumulations, with taunting wind solos, all cut short by a brassy, percussion-driven ending that offers no escape. Lasting just over 20 minutes, the symphony does what Sierra sets out to do with impressive economy and a succession of striking orchestral ideas.

- Andrew Clements, The Guardian

Butterflies, landscapes and bees in Arlene Sierra's new Nature Symphony

★★★★

Arlene Sierra’s music is performed more in her native USA than in the UK where she now lives. Let's hope this is about to change because the first performance of her Nature Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Ludovic Morlot gave us an intriguing and enjoyable work.

The three movements of Sierra’s Symphony have subtitles. The first is Mountain of Butterflies. According to the programme notes this refers to the “site in Mexico where monarch butterflies complete their migration and form a literal mountain of beautiful ancient insects”. In it the composer builds on an earlier piece, her piano trio entitled Butterflies Remember a Mountain. From the opening notes a remarkable sound-world is created with a large orchestra often being handled very delicately. Moments with piano and harp glistening over a large body of shimmering strings were particularly striking.

The second movement is entitled The Black Place (after O’Keefe) referencing the work by American painter Georgia O’Keefe of black hills in New Mexico. This atmospheric and often hypnotic movement made me think of some Bartók’s "night music". Bee Rebellion refers to the behaviour of bees in a hive and to game theory. Listeners aware of this might expect something dauntingly intellectual, but instead we had a build-up of melodic fragments with the focus shifting from one group of instruments to another – and some bee-like buzzing.

I am somewhat sceptical of the evocation or representation of the human or natural world in music but for me the Nature Symphony was memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra, ever–changing rhythms, ear-catching snatches of melody, contrasts of mood and a feeling that it all came together as a satisfying whole as a symphony should.

- Peter Connors, Bachtrack.com

Review: Arlene Sierra's Nature Symphony

Two years ago I interviewed Arlene Sierra for this blog, ahead of a BBC Proms concert featuring her Butterflies Remember a Mountain. It is inspired by the annual mass migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico: each delicate insect making its infinitesimal contribution to the shimmering swarm; an unchanging annual cycle millions of years old; the sheer unimaginability of the scale of the endeavour, and a mysterious kink in the migration route are the source material for an intricate piece for piano trio.

Premiered on Saturday, Sierra’s Nature Symphony is another example of her fascination with the natural world and the first of its three movements draws directly from the earlier work. Set in a fast 5/4 time the rhythmic drive of the earlier trio is maintained, while continually reusing and developing its material, and using the larger forces of the orchestra to introduce minute detailing into the texture. This gives a sense of a stream (of migrating butterflies) moving inexorably forward, but in such a swarm that the whole presents an image in stasis, until suddenly they are at their destination, the Butterfly Mountain that gives the movement its name.

There is a satisfying symmetry in the overall shape of Nature Symphony: the third movement, Bee Rebellion, matches the first in rhythmic energy, and is in a similar tempo, but in 3/4 time seems busier. The pulse is destabilised by an insistent but irregular undertow of plucked double basses, while the violins and winds share a dialogue comprising short phrases that develop imperceptibly through the movement.​ Likening the life of the hive with elements of game theory - another favourite influence - Sierra creates a sense of frenetic but ultimately fruitless activity, and the movement ends with a sudden percussive crescendo and silence, a reminder of the colony collapse that bees are increasingly prone to, perhaps.

In the middle is a movement, titled The Black Place (after O'Keeffe), that is contrastingly song-like, with a long, slow melody shaped by fragments passed between horn, cor anglais and piccolo, and on through the orchestra, accompanied by long, held notes in the low strings. The rhythmic element is again there, but as a quiet, irregular pulse of plucked strings, harp and marimba, later taken up by piano, timpani and low brass. Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of the austere landscapes of New Mexico, the sharing out of these rhythmic, melodic and harmonic ingredients leads to a musical landscape whose tints, rather than colours, are constantly shifting.

This middle movement is a reminder of the composer’s concern at the fragility of nature: O'Keeffe's 'Black Place' - the Bisti Badlands - is under threat from fracking. The movement borrows melodic figures from Sierra's own 2008 setting of Hearing Things, a passionately environmentalist poem by Catherine Carter. In a recent interview Arlene Sierra told Rhinegold’s Katy Wright ‘I don’t see how anyone living today can fail to realise the urgency of what is going on with the natural world and what we human beings are doing to change things. I have a little boy now, who’s five, and I’m so conscious of how different the environment is from when I was a child. It’s a personal sense of urgency.’


- Laurence Rose, Natural Light


Other works by Sierra take on fascinatingly diverse subject matter such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and military strategy, evolutionary biology, entomology, game theory, architecture and the built environment, siege engines and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. These works have been performed internationally and she has been the recipient of many awards such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives Fellowship and the Takemitsu Prize in 2001. So while she might be a new name to many, or some, in the audience her Nature Symphony certainly arrives with a level of expectation, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The main subject matter of this new piece is obviously nature and within Sierra’a music the characteristics of this derive inwardly from compositional, instrumental and artistic ideas, and the characteristics of the orchestra itself, rather than through the composer herself trying to outwardly impose impressions of the natural world upon the orchestra. Her approach is to concentrate on actions that happen within nature and the nuts and bolts of its systems and processes then draw these out of each instrument to construct suggestive, quite meticulous statements of sound. Each movement of the Nature Symphony is slightly programmatic being based around specific sites where natural phenomena occur, on natural objects or things and also drawing influence from paintings. Prior themes reoccur through her interest within the piece in insects and strategy. She also borrows in movements one and two from previous works, her Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013) and Hearing Things (2008) respectively.

The first movement ‘Mountain of Butterflies’ makes reference to a location in Mexico where Monarch butterflies end their migration en masse and become a butterfly mountain. It relies heavily on the full range of percussion instruments, from gongs, timpani, glockenspiel and xylophone down to different egg shakers. Ideas of mass and density are played off against those of lightness, delicacy and immateriality. This explorative scope perhaps mimics the scale of the natural world. It’s an assured, enthralling opening movement and the orchestra under Morlot’s alert direction show they have the necessary refinement to convey the intricacies, textures and balance of Sierra’s sound world.

In the perturbing second movement ‘The Black Place (after O’Keeffe)’ pizzicato strings and a muted, repetitive harp figure come to the fore lending a feeling of stasis and standstill while also signifying the organic matter that exists in the isolated, stark environment of the high desert. The music holds a near sinister and simmering darkness as it evocates Georgia O’Keeffe’s arid, dusty and empty paintings of New Mexico landscapes. And it is a kind of night music that Sierra delivers here. The title refers not only to the state of the geographical, physical landscape but to the mental condition too, while also perhaps making reference to O’Keeffe’s gradually failing sight. Much like those paintings, highly colourful yet pervaded by a foreboding blackness, it’s an ambiguous section of music that seems to come into and disappear out of focus, being both vivid and tense together.

This tension continues into the third movement ‘Bee Rebellion’ where Sierra explores ideas around the order and conditions imposed by nature and what happens when this goes wrong. This is either based on the end of the natural life-cycle of the hive when worker bees destroy what they have built (due to exposure to wax of a different chemical composition than normal that makes them aggressive and reproductively competitive), or it could refer to what is now known as Colony Collapse Disorder where worker bees simply abandon the hive. Suitably the music in this movement drones, hums and buzzes. Through sharp dynamic contrasts it fashions or engineers the unbalanced activity of the hive.

Nature Symphony is full of arresting, captivating and very mesmeric music. Sierra's sensibility towards movement and rhythm is abundantly present in the work. Rich and detailed in textures the music moves around mechanisms and somewhat clandestine systems that stay rhythmically and melodically close together yet expand through distinct changes in timbre and resonance. Sierra takes a bow on stage afterwards to warm, appreciative applause and it is a privilege to be among the first audience to hear the work.

- Simon Halworth, The Manchester Review

To order scores and/or hire materials for Nature Symphony, please click here

Maya Deren (1917-1961) wore many hats in her brief lifetime: avant-garde filmmaker, documentarian, author, and dancer, to name a few. Her influence, especially in independent film, has not only endured but increased in the decades following her death. Her reputation rests on only seven completed short films and five unfinished films. But in the  21st century Deren is still discussed as a fresh voice and a "past master who still matters," as described in the magazine Utne Reader.


Continuing from her successful rescoring of the film Meditation on Violence, Arlene Sierra has created three works in a planned series of new scores for prestigious chamber ensembles, set to Maya Deren's expressive and surreal films from the 1940's and 50's. Further scores are planned for the Deren films At Land and Meshes of the Afternoon.

Studies in Choreography (1945-51 / 2019)

 

 



Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946 / 2016)




Ritual in Transfigured Time, Maya Deren's groundbreaking film from 1946, is a collection of flowing scenes, combining dreamline tableaux of knitting, going to a party, conversing, that eventually turn into bold choreography. The journey of the protagonist is from widow to bride, via a series of fleeting encounters with past and future selves. The virtuosity and expressiveness of five ensemble musicians is meant to compliment the powerful atmosphere of Deren’s vision. The score was commissioned by the Goldfield Ensemble, Kate Romano, Director, with funding from the Britten-Pears Foundation, the Ambache Charitable Trust, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust.

Download an excerpt from the score 

U. K. Tour

  • 27 May 2016: Milton Court theatre, London
  • 9 July 2016: Cheltenham Festival, Parabola theatre
  • 30 September 2016: Oxford Contemporary Music, OVADA gallery
  • 26 October 2016; Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York
  • 15 November 2016: Cardiff University Concert Hall
  • 17 February 2017: Stapleford Granary, Cambridge

"What begins as a fly-on-the-wall video showing the day-to-day events of an anonymous female protagonist ends as thrashing choreography, the music following every development of the film, almost as though it had been composed as a soundtrack. The result was an example of how much more powerful sound and visuals can be in their own right, when united in intent. "
- Ellen Peirson-Hagger, The Cusp 





Meditation on Violence (1948 / 2012)



Deren’s film Meditation on Violence is one of the earliest non-commercial films on the subject of martial arts. Her camera follows the movement of Shao-Lin kung fu Master Chao-Li Chi, whose performance obscures the distinction between violence and beauty. The film was originally set with a very spare score of flute and drums which has limited interaction with the movement, focusing instead on kung fu as a traditional art steeped in folklore.
In writing this score for chamber ensemble, the power of the movement is highlighted in a way that underlines all its meditative and violent qualities without reference to an exotic, distant past. Kung fu and martial arts have become thoroughly modern in the decades since Meditation on Violence was made. The score explores a dialog with this process, and interacts with the many levels of movement captured by the film. By allowing an ensemble to perform in synchronization with the evolving movement of Chao-Li Chi, the music becomes a dramatic compliment to the film, exploring not only its meditative and violent aspects, but also its tremendous virtuosity.

Meditation on Violence was commissioned by Lontano, Odaline de la Martinez, Artistic Director, with funding from the Performing Right Society Foundation ‘Women Make Music’ Fund.

The first performance was given by Lontano, Odaline de la Martinez, conductor, at The Warehouse, London on October 22, 2012, with subsequent performances at Bowdoin, Maine and Cardiff, Wales.

Listen to an excerpt from the U.S. premiere of Meditation on Violence, performed by fellows of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Derek Bermel, conductor:


{audio}Meditation on Violence (2012)|Meditation on Violence clip.mp3{/audio}

Download an excerpt from the score 


"...Meditation on Violence was composed as a new soundtrack for a 1948 film about a kung-fu master. The music doesn't attempt to synchronise precisely with the balletic screen images, but instead supports and reinforces them with layers of slowly shifting ostinatos that are always understated. Sierra's score, for two strings, two woodwinds and piano, was the most memorable work on show."
- Andrew Clements, The Guardian




Photography by Greg Trezise and Elizabeth Thornton 


A Selection of Performances and Interviews


Butterflies Remember a Mountain
(2013) - performance by Nicola Benedetti, Leonard Elschenbroich, and Alexei Grynyuk



Ritual in Transfigured Time
 (2016) - interview and performance excerpts by the Goldfield Ensemble



Ritual in Transfigured Time
 (2016) -performance by the Goldfield Ensemble to the film by Maya Deren
Avian Mirrors (2013) -  performance by Jesse Mills and Raman Ramakrishnan



Cricket-Viol
(2010) performed by Wendy Richman, Viola and Voice

Arlene Sierra - Cricket-Viol [2010] | International Contemporary Ensemble from Digitice on Vimeo.



Urban Birds (2014) - interview and performance excerpts by Sarah Nicolls, Xenia Pestova and Kathleen Supové 

 



NewMusicBox Magazine (2013) - Arlene Sierra: The Evolution of Process


Meditation on Violence (2012) - performance by Bowdoin Festival Fellows to the film by Maya Deren

Game of Attrition (2009) - interview and performance excerpts by the New York Philharmonic

 

Nomination for 'Moler', Latin Grammy award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition
Recording the 'Game of Attrition 'CD, with Conductor Jac Van Steen and Bridge Records director and producer David Starobin
'Urban Birds' at London's South Bank Centre, Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sierra's Moler with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Arlene Sierra at a performance of 'Moler' with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons cond.
NY premiere of 'Avian Mirrors' at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, February 2016
Vencl Dance at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, February 2016
Vencl Dance at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, February 2016
Vencl Dance at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, February 2016
French premiere of 'Butterflies Remember a Mountain' at the Louvre
The Sitkovetsky Trio at the Louvre, before their performance of 'Butterflies Remember a Mountain'
'Meditation on Violence' at the Gamper Festival of New Music, Bowdoin, Maine
Interview - BBC Proms performance of 'Butterflies Remember a Mountain'
The BBC Proms performance of 'Butterflies Remember a Mountain', Cadogan Hall
Preview performance of 'Ritual in Transfigured Time', Milton Court Theatre, London
Preview performance of 'Ritual in Transfigured Time', Milton Court Theatre, London
At the world premiere of 'Butterflies Remember a Mountain' in Bremen, with the Benedetti- Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio
SAM 3581
Rehearsing 'Game of Attrition' with Magnus Lindberg and the New York Philharmonic
Recording 'of Risk and Memory' with the piano duo Quattro Mani
Takemitsu Prize finals, Tokyo Opera City, with Oliver Knussen
New York Philharmonic inaugural 'Contact!' post-concert panel, with Magnus Lindberg
After the world premiere of 'Moler' in Seattle, with Ludovic Morlot
Chamber opera 'Cuatro Corridos' with Susan Narucki, Alec Karis, Pablo Gomez and Steven Schick
Anita Cheng Dance choreography to 'Truel' by Arlene Sierra
Rehearsing 'Aquilo' with Jac Van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
UK premiere of 'Insects in Amber' with the Carducci Quartet, Cheltenham
Composition guest lecture at Ewha Woman's University, Seoul
International Contemporary Ensemble recording for Bridge Records Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1
Arlene Sierra Composer Portrait Concert at Miller Theatre, New York, NY
Rehearsing 'Art of War' with Tonu Kaljuste and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Poster from Arlene Sierra Composer Portrait Concert at the Yellow Barn Festival, VT