C:T talks to composer Arlene Sierra whose forthcoming commissions include a new piece for the New York Philharmonic and a piano concerto for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Colmena by Arlene Sierra
Ballistae by Arlene Sierra
Truel by Arlene Sierra
Tell us something about your background.
I was born in Miami to a family of displaced New Yorkers - my parents were lovers of classical music, opera, dance and modern art (my mother is a painter) so we went to concerts and galleries regularly, in both Miami and NYC, when I was a kid. Finally we got back to New York full time when I was a teenager, so I've been going home to the city ever since. As a doctoral student I lived in Berlin for two years and I've lived in London since 1999. After a year of teaching at Cambridge, I was appointed Lecturer in Music Composition at Cardiff University in 2004.
How did you start composing?
I had piano lessons from age 5 and loved playing standard classical repertoire (Bach through to Ravel and Gershwin), but didn't hear music by living composers until I got to Oberlin College. I chose Oberlin because it had a liberal arts curriculum and a conservatory of music, but I wasn't sure how to make it all fit together at that stage. I'd been playing around with synthesizers in high school so was drawn to the conservatory's electronic music program - this got me started making pieces with tape and samplers, synths, algorithmic composition software, and eventually incorporating classical instruments. Once I started working with performing musicians who could interpret and convey my ideas, I knew I'd found what I wanted to do. I went to Yale for an M.Mus in Composition, but the whole enterprise of writing music to score was still pretty new to me then - I had to pick it up pretty quickly to survive grad school! Being around a lot of young professional composers helped to get me up to speed, and it was tremendously inspiring when Ligeti and Berio visited Yale in my first year. Working with Betsy Jolas and Dominique Troncin at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau was also a formative experience.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
Drama, momentum, transition, color - often determined by mechanisms of conflict, competition, and strategy. Plotting the way instruments and players relate to each other is a big part of how I compose. A lifelong interest in dance influences the sense of movement in my work, and compositional beginnings in electronics inform some of the layering and shifts in density. I'm after something compelling and physical in music, something that develops according to its own inner logic.
Being married to a colleague and contemporary (English composer Ken Hesketh) has driven my work as well. Having arrived at a shared passion from completely different backgrounds and experiences has made for an interesting (and interminable!) dialogue.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
As a composer there's always more to learn, to expand one's thinking. I've been reading about natural selection and evolutionary processes interpreted through game theory, concepts that readily suggest compositional material and musical relationships for my pieces. For the work Colmena (2008), the nature of beehives got me thinking of musical ramifications because bee societies depend on a delicate balance of outgoing and less enterprising individuals. Incorporating subtle, hidden changes in individual parts could bring about the transformation of the whole ensemble - this determined many of the dynamic shifts in Colmena. The idea of a mass of insects hibernating, as beehives do each year, inspired the music of the last section of the piece in particular - I liked the idea of a kind of buzzing repose.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
Having grown up with visual art, I appreciate how artists make series of works that share a conceptual as well as aesthetic connection over a period of time. This also seems to work for my compositions: A new series of pieces based on evolution and game theory includes two completed works so far, while my recent Art of War series (from the military strategy of Sun Tzu) includes more than half a dozen pieces written since 2000. Component works in a series can range from solo to orchestral forces, but they tend to share certain formal, motivic and pitch materials from piece to piece.
What is your musical philosophy?
Write what you want to hear (corollary: don't bother second-guessing what anyone else wants to hear!)
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
I most admire composers who have done their own thing and stuck with it regardless of the polemics of their day: Ives, Crumb, Carter, Birtwistle, Messiaen, Dutilleux, Berio and Varese are just a few examples. There's a certain bloody-mindedness (to use a handy British phrase!) necessary for making true, lasting work - I admire art in any form that has that.
What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?
Ballistae (2000) for chamber ensemble was probably the first of my battle pieces, based on the process of building a ballista (a kind of catapult with a mechanism like a crossbow.) These machines had strings that were tuned to determined the right force for hurling rocks, so I had a good laugh thinking of my ensemble as a machine tuning up to hurl the piano across the hall (this also seemed to motivate the players...)
The three-way duel of my trio Truel (2004) requires the piano to make a lot of seeming mistakes. Its role as the worst shot in a competition for accuracy actually helps it to win in the end (in contrast to my childhood experiences in piano competitions...)
Which work are you most proud of and why?
Game of Attrition, a New York Philharmonic commission for chamber orchestra, is being premiered in December 2009. I guess I'm proud (well, maybe more relieved) that I was able to stop in the middle of writing a piano concerto to write this chamber orchestra piece to deadline, and then take up the concerto again right afterwards. Scheduling didn't give me much choice in the matter, but it was exciting to change gears in the nick of time like that. The piano concerto Art of War will be premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Huw Watkins piano, Baldur Brönnimann conducting, at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in September 2010.
What does the future hold for you?
A lot of firsts -- world premieres of my first piece for chamber orchestra and first piano concerto, and I'm soon to write a first string quartet and a first opera. A first portrait CD, with the International Chamber Ensemble, soprano Susan Narucki, and Jayce Ogren conducting, will be released by Bridge Records in 2010.
Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced