Arlene Sierra, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Music was at the center for me from the very start, my parents were ardent fans of Classical music, had it playing at home and in the car all the time, and took me to an amazing variety of concerts. Getting from piano lessons begun at age 5 to a life in composition was a lot more complicated – I didn’t have any exposure to contemporary music until I got to Oberlin College-Conservatory, where I did my undergrad. Having trained as a pianist, performing seemed the obvious route until I found out that composers weren’t all dead! I started as a History major hoping to continue second-study piano at the Conservatory. Instead I wound up earning double degrees, a B.A. in East Asian Studies (a multi-disciplinary program of East Asian language, history and philosophy) and a B.Mus in Electronic Music. My first compositions were for tape, synthesizers, and a little later, acoustic instruments alongside. 

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I can’t imagine what my path to composition would have been without Oberlin’s open and exciting, but still somehow protected, learning environment. Michael Daugherty was the youngest composer teaching there, at that time writing his first pieces for the London Sinfonietta which had a colorful, madcap energy. I knocked on his office door and asked how I could make the change from studying Electronic Music as an undergrad to studying Composition in grad school, and his advice was to go to the Aspen Music Festival School as a composition student. I came back from that festival some months later with a couple of new scores written and asked Michael what next, and his answer was, “Apply to Yale!” I was amazed he thought it was even a possibility, but it was the next life-changing step: The start of my life as a composer of concert music, rather than for electronics. 

Martin Bresnick and Jacob Druckman at Yale helped me to identify the basic elements of my personal style and technique. Betsy Jolas was a visiting prof there (and a teacher I worked with later at Fontainebleau) who showed me that women could really do this despite the depressing ratios, and make work that holds its own at the highest level. After time in France and later Berlin, coming to Britain and working with Judith Weir, Oliver Knussen, and Magnus Lindberg – these were vital and formative connections that helped to get my career started.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Leaving home at the beginning of my career (moving from the U.S. to Berlin, and eventually settling in the U.K.) felt artistically necessary but very risky – so much of the music world still revolves around nationalism, so to be away from home and working in a new country posed real challenges. But it was important to the formation of my compositional voice to have the perspective of distance. My early career seemed to underline the truth of Virginia Woolf’s famous quotation, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Throughout my training and early professional encounters I was one of few women or more often the only one, for every course, program, competition. Working as an expatriate was an extension of the feeling that being an outsider was just something to get used to. I’m glad to see this is changing for women now, but it strengthened my determination, my resourcefulness, to make this composer life work out, sometimes by sheer dint of will.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Knowing the circumstances of the premiere, the venue, program, and of course who the performers will be, can help to shape initial ideas for a piece. Often this helps me to connect a new work with elements from the continuing series that make up my catalogue.  

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

It’s inspiring to work for performers whose work you’re familiar with, especially once you’ve gotten a sense of their unique abilities and predilections with repertoire. There are important differences working with new music specialists in contrast to standard repertoire players and orchestras. Each has its strengths and I’m grateful to have had a good balance between them over the years.

Of which works are you most proud?

The works I’ve written under the most challenging circumstances. There are layers of association with a piece, some are purely musical while others are connected to what was going on at the time of writing, or the circumstances of different commissions. The toughest might have been when I was asked to write Game of Attrition (2009) for the New York Philharmonic, when I was about halfway through writing my piano concerto Art of War (2010) for Huw Watkins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The deadline was sooner for the later commission, so I had to put the concerto on hold and just get on with it. The two pieces have a lot of connections and I like to think of them as close siblings. They even wound up on the same CD (Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2) a few years later. 

Since those years I’ve written a lot of music while desperately sleep deprived, or with my baby/toddler playing under my desk, or in between mountains of university departmental admin… it just gets more challenging the more real life manifests itself! But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Personal, flexible, rhythmic, chromatic, textured, colorful, evolving.

How do you work?

More slowly than I’d like to, but usually just in time for deadlines.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Too many! Like most serious musicians, I’m a musical omnivore and I try to learn all that I can about the music I’m exposed to.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The first performance of my first orchestral piece Aquilo at the Takemitsu Composition Prize finals. The Tokyo Philharmonic performed it at the acoustically and visually stunning Takemitsu Memorial Hall, at Tokyo City Opera.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To still enjoy the day to day of it, even with all the ups and downs.

What do you consider to be the most important idea or concept to impart to aspiring musicians?

Have patience and seek out good advice. Stay focused on what you want to write and hear.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still enjoying the day to day of it.

What is your present state of mind? 

Overwhelmed, but getting used to it. 

ASVol3CoverBridge Records will release the third volume in their series of portrait recordings of music by Arlene Sierra on 9th November 2018. Featuring Arlene’s second piano trio, Butterflies Remember a Mountain, commissioned for the Benedetti-ElschenbroichGrynyuk Trio, this disc includes a further four works that illustrate her visceral and wide-ranging approach to chamber music: Avian Mirrors, Truel, Counting-Out Rhyme, and of Risk and Memory.

The complete portrait series includes Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1 (BRIDGE 9343), Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2 (BRIDGE 9414), and Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3: Butterflies Remember a Mountain (BRIDGE 9506).  More information

An American composer based in London, Arlene Sierra writes music that takes its impetus from rich sources including military strategy, game theory, Darwinian evolution, and the natural world. Her music has been lauded for its “highly flexible and distinctive style” (The Guardian), and its “remarkable brilliance of color, rhythmic dexterity and playfulness” (NPR Classical). Declared “a name to watch” by BBC Music Magazine, Arlene Sierra is the subject of a critically-acclaimed series of portrait discs with Bridge Records. She has received fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the MacDowell Colony and the Tanglewood Music Festival, and has had portrait concerts at the Crush Room, Royal Opera House, London, the Yellow Barn Music Festival, Vermont and Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, New York. A Takemitsu Prize-winner and Latin GRAMMY nominee, Sierra has received commissions from BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, Albany Symphony, Bremen Philharmonic Society, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Cheltenham, Huddersfield and Tanglewood Music Festivals, and many ensembles and soloists. Performers of her work include the Tokyo Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Alabama Symphony, New York City Opera VOX, London Sinfonietta, International Contemporary Ensemble, Carducci Quartet, Österreichisches Ensemble für neue Musik, Lontano, Psappha, and the Benedetti- ElschenbroichGrynyuk Trio at the BBC Proms. 

Born in Miami to a family of New Yorkers, Arlene Sierra holds degrees from Oberlin College-Conservatory (BA, BMus), Yale School of Music (MMus) and the University of Michigan (DMA). Her principal teachers were Martin Bresnick, Michael Daugherty and Jacob Druckman; she worked with Betsy Jolas, Louis Andriessen, Magnus Lindberg, Colin Matthews and Judith Weir at various summer festivals. Dr Sierra is currently Reader in Composition and Deputy Head of School at Cardiff University School of Music. 

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